It’s 2015. I’ve just come back from a midnight screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’m pouring with giddy fannishness over glowing commendations for Daisy Ridley’s protagonist, Rey. The reviews are an echo chamber of phrases like, ‘feisty,’ ‘fresh,’ ‘powerful,’ ‘capable,’ ‘empowering.’ A few even compared Rey to her predecessor, remarking that she is ‘every bit’ the heroine Princess Leia was.
This is true, she was that and more, and I’d be a liar if I said I, too, was not besotted with Rey in The Force Awakens. I saw the film four times in one week. To be a woman who loves Star Wars and finally be rewarded with a female lead who is unequivocally the lead (especially since the first trailers for the film seemed to spotlight John Boyega’s character Finn) was invigorating. I was intoxicated by the novelty the franchise’s return and what the future might hold for its new leads to see the truth, even as feelings of confusion and discontent crept into the periphery of my nostalgia-driven adoration. Truth is, maybe I didn’t want to see it. Maybe I just wanted to geek out and have fun at the movies. But by the time The Last Jedi premiered in late 2017, I could no longer, as a woman of colour, forgo the disappointing truth of Rey’s role as Star Wars’ ‘new’ lead.
White men of course still hold the lion’s share of lead roles, but these days a white woman leading an action film is not revolutionary. It isn’t even novel. The image of the white, feisty, capable action woman has been prominent for decades, from Princess Leia in the original Star Wars to Ripley (Alien), The Bride (Kill Bill), Katniss (The Hunger Games), and more. Yet every review I read implied otherwise. Mainstream and fandom discourse were bursting with praise for a white woman lead in a franchise whose prior trilogies also had white female leads. ‘[We] find Rey, the most fully formed and powerful female Star Wars character yet,’ wrote Vanity Fair Hollywood, and ‘Ridley, as Rey, takes on the hero’s journey with such aplomb that it’s hard not to imagine a generation of girls and boys alike pretending to be her at recess,’ wrote WIRED. Comparatively little was found for Finn and Oscar Isaac’s Poe, whose black and Latino leads were actual franchise firsts.
Rey may not have represented a revolution for white women in action films, but she embodied the popularisation of an insidious trend: The white female lead bolstered by an ensemble of colour.
Too often, what is sold as a positive change for the marginalised is actually the privileged class coming up with creative methods to keep themselves centred.
An earlier, more recognisable version of this is the trope of the Sassy Best Friend. A white character’s best friend is a person of colour, usually a black person, who receives little characterisation outside their friendship with the white character, and was usually present so white creatives could duck criticisms relating to diversity. Growing up on a steady diet of 90s and 2000s media, token characters of colour were not uncommon, nor was this something I was afraid to call out. Being a white passing person of colour, my criticisms are often met with confusion and dismissal. But looking as I do, I have always understood that the representation of people of colour must go deeper than aesthetic tokenism. White women in these films may look like me, but their lives, their movements through the world and relationship with social and power structures are foreign; I and others like me are then left to see ourselves in the underdeveloped characters of colour.
So it has been cathartic to see stories focusing on women, LGBTQI folk and people of colour rise over the last decades. Social media has democratised industry feedback, leading to criticisms of inclusivity being unable to ignore. But too often, what is sold as a positive change for the marginalised is actually the privileged class coming up with creative methods to keep themselves centred. As visibility for people of colour in mainstream culture increased, so has the portrayal of their white feminist lead.
White feminism refers to feminism that lacks intersectionality, and centralises the struggles of white middle-class, able-bodied, cis, straight women, while ignoring how race, ethnicity, class and sexuality impact inequality. As Rachel Elizabeth Cargle writes, white feminism is not really feminism, but an insidious form of white supremacy using gender inequality as a shield.
The new Star Wars trilogy, while praised for the absence of a white man among its leading trio, still managed to focus its narrative on the relationship between its leading white lady and the white male antagonist. Meanwhile, the trilogy’s most present woman of colour was completely sidelined after backlash from conservative fans. Vietnamese–American Kelly Marie Tran’s character Rose Tico was a staple in The Last Jedi and a significant milestone as the franchise’s first major woman character of colour. But after a torrent of racial harassment, Tran left social media, and upon the release of the trilogy’s final instalment, her part was whittled down to less than a minute of screen time.
Meanwhile, Finn and Poe spend most of the new trilogy serving under the command of Leia, or assisting Rey. Even in The Last Jedi when Leia becomes incapacitated, her command is replaced by General Holdo (Laura Dern), who belittles Poe when he disagrees with her. Putting women in masculine military-type leadership roles is positioned by the filmmakers as a #GirlPower display of badassery, but seeing Holdo emphasise her authority through condescension to a person of colour made me audibly groan.
Rey is not innocent of this condescension either. Positioned as the Rebellion’s Jedi hope, her ensemble of characters of colour are constantly positioned as less competent and powerful than her, people to do the groundwork while she does the far more important job of being a Jedi. Her superiority in skill is often the underlying joke in her interactions with Finn and Poe as she orders them around and they, often in awe, follow.
By simply replacing the white male hero with a white woman, with offsiders of colour, Star Wars appeases calls for diversity, but maintains a white patriarchal power structure.
This isn’t to say Poe and Finn are poorly developed characters, or that the interactions between the three leads are negative. The trio find belonging in their cause and one another, but positive interaction does not negate racialised power dynamics. By simply replacing the white male hero with a white woman, with offsiders of colour, the franchise appeases calls for diversity, but maintains a white patriarchal power structure. Its no coincidence all major directors and writers who have worked on the Star Wars films are white straight cis men with an (at best) unconscious directive to maintain the status quo. Able-bodied, straight whiteness is still centred, with cis white women achieving the status of cis white men framed as empowering, and people of colour are tools to make it more palatable and sellable to a socially savvy audience.
On the small screen, perhaps the most egregious recent example is NBC’s The Good Place. A critically acclaimed gem, I’d also be a liar here if I said I had not enjoyed this series, nor cried at its recent finale. The series’ philosophical comedic meditations on what the ideal afterlife might look like made for some of the most thoughtful sitcom television ever. But as vital as art is in affirming society’s identity, so is criticism to ensure none are left behind.
In the season two finale, series protagonist Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and her friends Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Jason (Manny Jacinto) and Tahani (Jameela Jamil) are tested by the omniscient judge of the afterlife to determine whether they have morally grown enough to enter the Good Place. The episode sees Eleanor passing the test, but her friends of colour fail. The only white character is deemed the most redeemable, despite the series labouring her ‘dirtbag’ personality. The series draws a direct line between Eleanor’s whiteness and her ‘goodness’; she is the character whose empowerment and development is prioritised while her diverse friends are merely there to facilitate. Furthermore, many of the narratively powerful positions are held by characters who are white men; afterlife architect, Michael (Ted Danson) and head demon, Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson) quip, ‘I took the form of a middle aged white man for a reason. I can only fail up.’ Nevertheless, the series maintains a hierarchy that, even when being satirised, maintains the moral status of whiteness however possible. Responsibility for the series’ insidious portrayal of race is owed to its white male creator, Mike Schur, as much as praise for its unique premise.
As vital as art is in affirming society’s identity, so is criticism to ensure none are left behind.
Of all the genres where diversity is struggled for, none is more baffling than sci-fi/fantasy. It’s almost comedic I can consume worlds where dragons, time travel, space wars, magic schools, and astounding technology are possible, but occupants of these worlds manage to be predominantly white men and women. Apart from showcasing a breathtaking lack of imagination, it’s somewhat disheartening to realise that creators are content to imagine such worlds without people like you. Doctor Who, for example, has been my favourite show for a long time. From watching reruns of Classic Who episodes with my dad, and throwing myself into ‘New Who’ and its spin-offs as a teen, it’s a TV universe I love. But one I’ve rarely seen myself reflected in. Not least due to the series’ never ending succession of white straight middle-aged showrunners, including its current one, Chris Chibnall.
In 2017, the BBC announced Jodie Whittaker would play the next regeneration of the alien time and space traveller. For the previous 50-plus years, the Doctor had been portrayed by white men, despite the show’s inference the Doctor’s regenerative ability was not limited to a single gender or race. Whittaker’s appointment was met with enthusiasm, the series applauded for finally varying its casting after years of dragging its feet. But for a character whose companions had overwhelmingly been white women, the prospect of a white woman Doctor felt like the least radical option, especially when decked out with not one, but two companions of colour, Ryan (Tosin Cole), and the show’s first Pakistani companion ever, Yaz (Mandip Gill).
Doctor Who is now a vision of inclusivity. But it’s really another story weaponising white womanhood to maintain a degree of palatable white supremacy in a diversifying market.
The Doctor’s whiteness remains synonymous with her status as the show’s hero. In the most recent season, the Doctor sells out her oldest enemy, the Master (played by British–Indian actor Sacha Dhawan) to the Nazis, gloating that his less-than-Caucasian appearance gives her the upper hand. This move is not framed within the show as wrong, or unethical, or even questionable, but as a moment of victory for her that we’re meant to share.
Even in episodes where she ends up in the American South in the 1950s, or in the Partition of India, the Doctor’s whiteness is barely acknowledged beyond benching her companions of colour so she can go about saving the universe unabated by issues of race. Chibnall seemingly ensures our female Doctor’s empowerment routinely comes at the cost of sidelining, asserting her privilege over, and (in the Master’s case) weaponising racism to her advantage against characters of colour. Whatever potential a female Doctor, and her companions of colour, may have held is overshadowed by the show’s lack of empathy regarding race in a harmfully half-cooked pursuit of pseudo-feminism.
The empowerment of white women should not be a tool for the maintenance of white supremacy in our diversifying cultural narratives.
Of course, this is not to say that white woman leads and ensemble characters of colour are problematic by default. So, what does the good version of this trope look like?
Recently I had the pleasure of seeing Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. Directed, written by, and starring a majority main cast of women of colour, Margot Robbie’s Harley is undoubtedly the film’s lead, but the script goes to great lengths to ensure each of the women of colour in Harley’s ensemble plays a vital role, not only in emancipating Harley from the Joker, but emancipating themselves and one another from slimy misogynistic clutches of Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and the white patriarchy in general.
Harley Quinn’s popularity and whiteness is utilised as a way of introducing these characters to us, as a catalyst for them coming together to help one another on equally necessary terms. She’s not portrayed as the most powerful, or most good relative to the rest of these women. For Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), Harley is merely a blip on their radar until they are forced into one another’s orbit. They have their own problems to deal with and they do. Harley is the fireworks, and the finale, maybe a pain in their asses, but she never asserts herself as their leader. Her whiteness is never made synonymous with authority, and her companions are never condescended to; a sense of intersectionality and allyship indebted to Chinese–American director, Cathy Yan and Taiwanese–British writer, Christina Hodson. The film is by no means perfect, but it showcases how being more inclusive behind the camera leads to more respectful inclusivity in front of it. A character as a token or symbol of progress is a poor substitute for the real thing.
White women are and have been marginalised throughout history and cinema, but the empowerment of white women should not be a tool for the maintenance of white supremacy in our diversifying cultural narratives. If the empowerment of white women comes at the expense of the dignity of marginalised communities, it’s not worth the price of admission.