Up and coming actress Kelly Marie Tran landed a leading role in 2017’s blockbuster Star Wars: The Last Jedi. For the last decade, Tran had been struggling to land a role in a major Hollywood film. In Hollywood it seemed she had all the odds stacked against her. What made it harder to play a major character in a blockbuster movie, aside from being a woman, was her Asian heritage. Less than 6% of Asian actresses have had a speaking role in big budget Hollywood films to date.
Tran landed her role in the last Star Wars movie against all the odds that stacked against her. Unfortunately, racist comments criticising her role emerged online in the weeks after the premiere of the movie. Predominantly male commentators on various Internet platforms posted taunting tweets and misogynistic messages about her body and her Asian heritage. A Star Wars fansite had to shut down because of the violating edits that were being made by some members of the website.
American male commentators on the Internet, according to statistics, are primarily responsible for the backlash against Tran. The predominantly male audience of action-packed movies, like Star Wars, expect women to be hypersexualised and scarcely clothed according to online questionnaires. Another criticism is about the portrayal of Asian women in Hollywood films. The male audience expects Asian women to be submissive and seductive, instead of independent and strong. Some commentators on the Internet would forgive the casting choice of Tran if she was ‘at least hot’. Tran’s character in Star Wars breaks both of these stereotypes, and that caused the resulting backlash.
Asian Americans make up 4.8 % of the population of the US and experience the greatest increase in population of any racial demographic. However, Asians make up just 3.9 % of the speaking roles in top-grossing films and only a fraction of which were Asian women. Studies have shown that women receive more harassment and abuse when they deviate from traditional gender roles than when they stay in their own lane. Asian females mostly have been stereotyped as either straight-A nerds or submissive sex dolls, but never as a respectable equal to a white person. A social movement, created by Asian American women, called ‘Sad Asian Girls’ felt it was time to tell about their own personal experiences by creating printed statements that start with ‘Asian Women Do Not’. All statements were submissions that the creators collected online to raise awareness of these stereotypes.
Even though Tran had to endure multiple waves of racial abuse online, many others spoke up in her defence. It is sad to say that racist comments like these demonstrate why Hollywood may be hesitant to cast more diverse characters like Tran’s. Tran is the first Asian woman to be cast in a leading role in the Star Wars franchise and break the glass ceiling of Hollywood blockbuster movies for non-Caucasian actors. This is a breakthrough for all underrepresented characters of colour in TV and film.