I remember what it felt like to not see anyone like myself in books or on film or TV. When you’re really young, you tend to fall in love with characters. If you start seeing the same type of character everywhere and realize that they don’t look like you, or they don’t speak like you, you start wanting to change who you are. That’s something that I did when I was a young kid. I’m excited to be a part of this positive change. — Kelly Marie Tran
Sometimes, a rose isn’t just a rose. In this day and age, it’s not too unusual to see massive waves of outrage and rancor rippling through the media landscape in response to beloved franchises and pastimes being “politicized”. Of course, art has always been political. While the all-female 2016 Ghostbusters reboot was criticized by fans for “politicizing” the franchise, the original Ghostbusters was itself no stranger to politics, with an expressly pro-limited government plot where regulators were the villains and private entrepreneurs saved the day. Perhaps newer films are more ham-fisted in their messaging, or people are sick and tired of politics to a degree they haven’t been in the past. It’s not like the Ghostbusters remake was an unimpeachable paragon of cinema after all.
That might be an acceptable argument if it weren’t for everything surrounding the outrage, namely, the extremely virulent harassment campaign against its actors, chock full of sexist, racist, and transphobic rhetoric. Alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos allegedly spearheaded a campaign that targeted actress Leslie Jones with hundreds of racist and abusive messages on Twitter, forcing her off the platform. Before the movie even came out, the trailer was being dubbed the most disliked movie trailer in YouTube history, far exceeding the hatred experienced by other awful reboot trailers. It was at this point that Yiannopoulos began criticizing the film with an article on Breitbart, framing it as a desperate attempt by virtue-signaling feminists to push a social justice agenda. After watching the movie, he had some choice comments about this apparent “film acting as standard bearer for the social justice left”, labelling members of the cast as “repellant and fat”, “a clownish, lip-syncing drag queen”, and “teenage boys with tits”.
This is not the only time something like this has happened. Like Ghostbusters, Star Wars has always had blatant political themes. George Lucas has named the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon’s reelection as the inspiration for the original trilogy, while the plot of the prequels revolved around the usurpation of Democracy by hyper-capitalist interests and emergency powers with parallels to the Bush administration to boot. However, it has been mostly the newest trilogy that has been accused of “politicizing” Star Wars and shoehorning characters for the sake of diversity.
Central to this discussion is the introduction of Kelly Marie Tran’s character Rose Tico to The Last Jedi, the second installment of the new trilogy. The daughter of refugees from the Vietnam War, Tran was the first Asian-American to star as a major character in the history of the franchise. Around the time she decided to try out for the character, coming to the audition wearing a sweater vest and her lucky Ravenclaw tie, she had spent ten years struggling to become an actress with little success. She was working a full time job and going to two or three auditions a day, managing to land minor roles in television and internet comedy shows alongside working with her own improv group. Working 18 hour days and struggling to pay off her college loans, Tran thought she would never be able to accomplish her dreams or achieve mainstream success. After months of auditioning, Rian Johnson, enamored with Tran’s interpretation of the character, decided that Tran was the best out of hundreds of candidates for the part.
The harassment started right after her casting was announced, and only became more intense and virulent after the movie came out. The constant attacks on her gender and race lasted for months until she finally deleted her Instagram account and left social media. She later reported going down a spiral of self-hate and required therapy to recover from the ordeal. She was not the first actor in the new Star Wars trilogy to experience this. Before the first film in the trilogy even aired, there was an effort to boycott it led by white supremacists in reaction to it apparently being “anti-white propaganda”. This was in reaction to a black actor playing a Stormtrooper. Literally one actor of color, in space, playing an alien space man from another galaxy.
I want to reiterate that this has nothing to do with the quality of the film. The prequels were so bad that video review legend Mike Stoklasa was basically able to invent a new genre of video essay as he spent roughly four hours lampooning the series to the tune of millions of views. As far as I can tell, nobody involved in those films got anything close to the bullying and harassment endured by the cast of the new trilogy. These campaigns of harassment are explicitly political in nature, an organized attempt by right-wing agitators to hijack the pop culture conversation as a platform for their political goals. One study even found evidence suggesting the possible involvement of Russian social media bots designed to sow discord, amplify conflict, and promote polarization.
The benefits of politicizing discussions related to media and culture are self-evident. Inserting a political agenda into a fandom means tying it to the identity of that fandom. People who otherwise wouldn’t care about politics become highly motivated to promote the agenda in a specious effort to defend the values of their fandom from an imagined outside attack. It may even get to the point that the provocateurs are seen as more central members of the fandom than older members who no longer fit within the new ideological framework. This often means that people with marginalized identities are displaced and forced to abandon what may have been the only community they felt safe and accepted in.
There are two sides to this. On the one hand, it can be discouraging to see communities based on enthusiasm break apart due to bigotry and hate. On the other hand, we can learn a lot about which tactics work based on how people react to them. People don’t generally go out of their way to respond to something unless it really affects them. Terrible movies like the 2015 Fantastic Four remake become forgotten almost as soon as they come out. I can’t remember a single detail about it even though I remember clearly who I was with and where I was when I saw it. One movie I hated so much a friend and I left the theater in the middle of it. Neither of us even bothered leaving a review. These movies don’t make an impact; they’re just bad.
The fact that these movies bothered people so much means they made an impact. This is something that holds up historically. Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged actress Nichelle Nichols to continue playing Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek because of the impact a black main character on national television had on the public perception of the Civil Rights movement and the self esteem of black children. Francois Clemmons made immense sacrifices in his personal life, wrestled with his mixed feelings about portraying a police officer as a black man, and delayed his opera career to play Officer Clemens on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He played the character for 25 years, becoming the first recurring black character on children’s television. Representing members of marginalized groups in media means humanizing them for the public at large and providing role models for members of that group to identify with. In some instances, a character in a TV show or movie may be the only exposure many folks have to the existence of a certain identity, as is all too often the case for trans people.
For this reason, I don’t think that hatred should necessarily always be seen as discouraging. As a matter of principle, anything that reaches enough people will inevitable garner some degree of ire. For example, hearing from my friend and other people online, it seems like most people really enjoyed the 2019 Rocko’s Modern Life reboot, while critics generally consider it to be a tasteful reboot. Most of the criticism surrounding the episode seems to stem from its introduction of a “forced” trans character. I have not seen the episode personally, but based on the reviews I’ve seen and watched, the character acts as a logical callback to previous episodes and fits really well into the themes of the original show. The character is pivotal to the plot but not in a way that overwhelms the other elements, and their trans identity makes up a minor subplot rather than being the focus of the episode.
For some people, the mere acknowledgement that people with diverse identities exist is tantamount to “foisting” their lifestyle on people and corrupting their children with left-wing values. However, when white actors play people of color, that’s not political and people need to stop complaining about it. Populating the battlefield of World War One with prototype weapons that would have been extremely rare in real life is something that I would consider detrimental to understanding the real life experience of trench warfare, but it’s fine because it’s just a fun game. That being said, when the game portrays black people as participants in the war (they definitely were), it’s “blackwashing” and somehow disrespectful to the people who died fighting in the war.
Just imagine for a moment living in a world where people consider your entire identity to be so polarizing in discussion, that the idea of you existing, of you breathing in front of their face, is political to the extent that people who are like you shouldn’t be allowed in pop culture. — Quinton Kyle Hoover
The easiest way to reconcile these odd double standards is to shed the idea that these criticisms are in any way acting in good faith in order to improve a piece of media or save our gentle hearts from propaganda. Ironically, much of the time that people complain about something being “politicized”, they are in fact the ones who are using that piece of media as a vehicle for their political agenda. What more can we expect from a group of people who took a metaphor for gender transition and appropriated it as a symbol of anti-feminism?
Representation is an existential threat to white supremacy and its ilk. When people get the chance to really know each other, it quickly becomes apparent how much more we have in common than what sets us apart. If someone you like and respect is trans, it becomes much more difficult to support policies that would cause them harm. A black family that visits your living room every Friday (at 7pm Central) gets to tell you their story and over time you learn about their struggles and how they interact with the world. An asian woman playing a cool science fiction character in a major film opens up new horizons for young girls who may have felt like they weren’t meant to be an actress, an engineer, or even accepted in their own society. I believe that inclusion is an asset, the benefits of which are self evident and universal. Enfranchisement is like a flame. One may see others come alight and think their own flame is dying because of it, but this is simply not true. Like a candle in the sunlight, the dimness is only relative. Your light is not disappearing; if anything it has grown stronger. What you’re witnessing is the absence of darkness.