In the weeks since the world was introduced to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the full power of its diverse casting has been revealed. It has engaged millions who might have ignored the film after the prequels disappeared into the Sarlacc pit of critical disdain. It’s brought a shine to the eyes of children who’d never seen their reflections in a story so grand and sweeping. And it’s led already-addicted fans to talk and think differently about the franchise they love.
Much has been written about the decision to cast Nigerian-British actor John Boyega as escaped Stormtrooper FN-2187, whose race and even species are ambiguous in the film’s shooting script, and the fact that two of the film’s other leading heroes are played by a young woman and an actor of Guatemalan descent. It’s been noted that these choices reflect today’s diverse American population, expand the $30 billion franchise’s potential global audience — Star Wars has accrued nearly 150 million fans around the world, making its fandom the 9th most populous nation on Earth — and make the film a truer reflection of the present and future.
But of course, change has not been welcomed by all. Among those who see the whiteness and maleness of heroes as a divine right, these casting choices triggered some of the more virulent social media reactions of recent memory, a great disturbance rippling out to the farthest reaches of pop culture.
This battle between factions — those accepting “darkness” in their onscreen heroes (and with it, openness, change and progress), and those stubbornly clinging to “lightness” (and thus psychic closure, defiant self-delusion and often plain-and-simple racism), played out multiple times throughout 2015, as other “nontraditional” casting choices sparked similar backlash from the uglier crevices of the Internet.
Michael B. Jordan as Fantastic Four hothead Johnny Storm? Human Torch is now black for some PC reason. Stick to the source material and stop the nonsense!
Mehcad Brooks as Jimmy Olsen in the Supergirl series? Blackwashed again. Getting mighty fed up with this. Will not be watching.
And, in what must have seemed like the ultimate final straw for casting purists, Noma Dumezweni as an adult Hermione Granger in the sold-out Harry Potter stage sequel? Seriously f—— unhappy with this! Why do we keep changing characters’ race?
Hardly any of these reactions challenged the skills or appeal of the actors in question, or whether they could play the roles effectively. Some fans simply couldn’t accept that the color of an actor’s skin conflicted with the character they had in their minds, underscoring that even in the genres of speculative fiction and fantasy — stories unrestricted by space, time and the limits of physics! — differences in race and ethnicity remain a twilight zone too forbidding for many otherwise imaginative individuals to traverse.
They have no problem believing a man can fly. They recoil, however, when that man is black.
Of course, Caucasian audience-goers aren’t the only ones accustomed to melanin-deficient heroes. Anyone who came of age on a diet of Western culture’s greatest hits is susceptible to the idea that when it comes to adventure stories, people of color belong on the sidelines (or down in the underworld).
From our earliest storybook read-alouds, every princess was a “fair maiden,” every hero a “white knight,” and if there was ever a villainous vizier, diabolical demon or traitorous templar, he was invariably described as swarthy, dark or black.
Disney’s animated tales often doubled down on the White Makes Right meme, with one royal named Snow White and another named Cinderella, who, invisible when darkened by the dirt and soot of her labors, cleans up as a glorious blond woman drawing every eye.
And then there were the comic books, which over my lifetime evolved from kiddie fare to adult geek obsession to mainstream blockbuster fodder. Who doesn’t know the story of Superman, that musclebound alien from another planet who somehow managed to end up looking like a plausible cousin to Don Draper?
Those of us who loved comics accepted that the caped crusaders of our four-color pulp fantasies — no matter how mutant or alien or non-humanoid their backstories — had to be rendered in shades of pale, because that’s what the pages in our sweaty little palms told us to do.
There is no sadder example of this suspension of disbelief than a recent New York Times op-ed by Malaysian radio host Umapagan Ampikaipakan titled “That Oxymoron, the Asian Comic Superhero.” In it, Ampikaipakan questioned the wisdom of the “current push to draw diversity into comics.
Growing up in Malaysia, Ampikaipakan and his childhood friends were “brown and yellow,” he writes, “but we didn’t mind that our role models were all white.” In fact, rendering them otherwise might have been destructive, potentially “undercutting the genre’s universal appeal.”
That appeal was rooted in notions of the American dream — that is to say, the Anglo-American dream, red for courage, blue for truth, and white, well, because to Ampikaipakan and to all of us raised in a postcolonial cultural context, white is often the default shade associated with people who are heroic and good and just.
Despite the increasing volume of calls to diversify pop culture, Ampikaipakan’s view remains the dominant one in media and entertainment. Whiteness remains universal, all-encompassing, “normal.” To make a protagonist any other race or ethnicity requires an accounting for one’s actions.
Take a look at what happened when Sony remade the classic musical Annie, based on the classic comic strip Little Orphan Annie, with African-American actors Quvenzhané Wallis and Jamie Foxx in lead roles. The endeavor was bombarded with complaints and questions about why a “black Annie” was necessary. “I wanna live in a colorless world but I will not stand for a black Annie. #EnoughSaid,” tweeted one skeptic.
But here’s the thing: reimagining classic characters as non-white may not always be as much of a stretch as the purists would have you believe. Take a closer look at some of the most popular comics franchises out here, and if you cock your head ever so slightly, you’ll start to wonder if white really is the only color that matches these stories.
For starters, set aside the way Joe Shuster and hundreds of comics artists since have rendered Superman, and take another look at the hero’s backstory: a dark-haired refugee from a distant, exotic place, where people have weird, hyphenated names like Jor-El and Lor-Van. Once he arrives in America, he is transracially (trans-specially?) adopted by parents in the Heartland, and raised to “fit in” with everyone else, but also to preserve and appreciate his hidden heritage.
He moves to the big city, where he hides behind dorky glasses and displays a humble, passive persona to his coworkers. But in his spare time, he embraces his true self, gathers with others like himself and lets it all hang out.
To sum up? That dude Asian.
A similar case can be made for Spider-Man, a dark-haired, glasses-wearing nerd named Peter Parker who gets bitten by a radioactive spider on a science field trip. Consider that Parker has always been depicted as being from Queens, home to the largest Korean-American community on the East Coast, and you could imagine his secret identity as “Peter Park” instead.
(Marvel may have had the same thought: In 2014, the company introduced a Korean-American member of the Spider-fam: Cindy Moon, better known as Silk, who got her powers from the very same spider that transformed Peter Park. Er, Parker.)
And then there’s The Hulk, the alter ego of a nuclear physicist who in an instant goes from celebrated scientist to accused traitor, hunted by the government, charged with allowing a top-secret weapon of mass destruction to escape U.S. military hands.
When I think of The Hulk’s origin story, I can’t help but recall the cases of Wen Ho Lee, Xiaoxing Xi, and other Asian-American scientists who, in recent history, saw their careers transformed in a flash when they were accused of spying for China and hounded by federal prosecutors, charges that were in several cases later dropped (and linked to racial profiling).
The point of these thought experiments is that, contrary to what defenders of wall-to-wall whiteness in pop culture will have you believe, it’s not impossible to imagine heroes of color — or to reimagine existing heroes as another color. And in fact, when we do so, it can move storytelling forward, into unexpected, undiscovered, unexplored territories.
And isn’t that what these genres are all about?
A new hope
Of course, with the unknown comes fear and anxiety. For a lot of “traditionalist” sci-fi and fantasy fans, the big worry seems to be that heroes who look like, well, everybody else will somehow become inaccessible and unrelatable. (Of course, those of us who grew up non-white can testify that it’s possible to empathize with someone you don’t look like.)
And it’s absolutely true: rethinking the default whiteness of heroic stories will fundamentally change them. Done properly, however, this can bring fresh energy, new texture and unexpected resonance to stories that have become hidebound, and free them from genre conventions that have become stifling.
For example, the revelation that FN-2187 is black opens up all sorts of intriguing potential backstory for the First Order’s Stormtrooper army. Most of the imagery associated with the First Order is inspired by Nazi Germany: The salutes, the uniforms, enormous rallies under giant red and black banners, the embrace of genocidal “Final Solutions,” the term “stormtrooper” itself.
That’s nothing new. In popular culture, the Nazi aesthetic has long served as the signpost of ultimate evil, so much so that the Internet is littered with essays decrying this cinematic reductio ad Hitlerum cliche.
But unlike prior generations of Imperial soldiers, the First Order’s stormtroopers aren’t clones. FN-2187 and his fellow legionnaires are forced conscripts, abducted as young children from their home planets. The fact that the First Order’s overseers are depicted as white humans, while the only Stormtrooper whose face we’ve seen is an abducted and enslaved black man, provides an opening. It raises a whole host of unsettling and fascinating new questions about what the First Order wants, and how it works, that future episodes will have a chance to answer.
All of this adds specificity and gravity to the arousal of FN-2187’s conscience, and his eventual emergence as Finn, our hero. Yet his quest for freedom and thirst for redemption remain unquestionably universal. They span not just galaxies, but time itself. And of course, we shouldn’t discount Boyega’s performance: It’s brilliantly deft, fresh and fun to watch — arguably the film’s most nuanced and human turn.
That’s what diverse characters, performers, and creators can bring to the page, the stage and the screen. Having a wider and deeper pool of options makes it more likely that you’ll discover breakthrough talent like Star Wars‘s Boyega, who’s not only a fabulous actor, but also wields the power to transform any story he touches in fresh, exhilarating ways.
There’s also evidence that diverse storytellers can perform a sort of Jedi Mind Trick on us, the audience, helping over time to flush out the toxic abscesses of racial fear, hate and scorn that continue to plague America.
Take a recent study of 2,000 people who watched the web comedy series Halal in the Family, a sitcom parody featuring The Daily Show‘s Aasif Mandvi as the patriarch of a Muslim-American family. The study, which was commissioned by the creators of the show and conducted by researchers from Seton Hall, the University of Washington, and New York University, found that after watching the show, viewers had more favorable associations toward Muslim Americans, and less unconscious bias against them.
That’s not the only research showing that diversity in pop culture has real-world impact. MIT professor Edward Schiappa found that after watching shows with queer protagonists — Will & Grace, Six Feet Under and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy — subjects were more likely to disagree with anti-gay statements and to see queer individuals more positively.
There’s a good chance that your actual social network doesn’t include people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Surprisingly, even in an era of global digital connectivity, 91 percent of the average white American’s friends are white. But on-screen protagonists can serve as something like friend proxies, providing what researchers call “parasocial relationships” that help to (literally) color one’s perspective on reality.
When we see characters who we perceive as “different” getting to do all the things human beings do in real life — kick butt in their careers, goof around with their kids — or go beyond, reaching for the stars and bending the universe to their will, it changes how we look at “different” people in the real world.
“At this point, it’s a pretty unequivocal finding that TV can affect how people feel and think about others,” Schiappa told Code Switch last year. “When you’re exposed to a wide variety of people in a certain minority group,” he said, “your ideas about that group get more complicated.”
The bottom line is that enriching pop culture with heroes of all colors, cultures, genders and identities doesn’t just make stories better — it may have the power to ultimately makes us better as well.
“A black Stormtrooper, or a female Jedi, or even a suburban Muslim dad at first confound us, and then become unremarkable,” says Mik Moore, one of the creators of Halal in the Family. “They provide evidence of what’s possible.”
A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, it might have made sense to imagine that heroes had to look a certain way. That era is gone forever. There has been an awakening — and it’s time for the Force to come to balance.
Jeff Yang is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal Online and a regular contributor to CNN, NPR and Quartz, but is best known as Hudson Yang’s (Fresh Off the Boat) father.