The Last Jedi: The Problem with Rose

[WARNING: Many spoilers to follow. Save yourself.]

[Edit: My website is still getting crazy traffic from this post, and I assume a lot of it comes from what has been happening to KMT. As I made clear in my essay, KMT is amazing. She represents so much to Asian girls and women like me, and none of my criticism of TLJ was leveled at her, but rather at how the writers treated her character. I won’t tolerate KMT bashing or trolling on this blog, so if that’s what you’re looking for, you may kindly exit.]

As a Chinese-American girl who’s been watching Star Wars since before she could speak English, I’ve been waiting my entire life to see someone like Rose Tico in the Star Wars universe. I got some kicks in last year with Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus, but Rose is a girl. Rose looks like me.

So her shoddy treatment by The Last Jedi stung all the more.

To be clear, I loved this movie. I cheered, laughed, and cried. The visuals are gorgeous; every performance is flawless. But we have to talk about Rose.

There’s a lot to like about her. Kelly Marie Tran is both a fantastic actor and a spunky, adorable beam of light who plays Rose with the same enthusiasm and open-heartedness that characterize Daisy Ridley and John Boyega’s performances. The opening scenes with Rose’s sister Paige made me tear up (I too have a younger sister.) Rose’s grief only makes her braver and more determined; she stops Finn from deserting and she inspires him to go on that ill-fated mission to Canto Bight. In all fairness, Rose had far more nuance and complexity than I expected she would get.

The problem isn’t that Rose was a poorly conceived character. It’s that after those poignant opening scenes, The Last Jedi gives her nearly nothing to do.

Plenty of other pieces have already criticized the unnecessary distraction of the Canto Bight storyline. You could feel the energy sap out of the theater every time the action cut away from Rey arguing with Luke or Poe being Poe. The city isn’t the strikingly cool galactic gambling center we were led to expect; it’s just a Vegas substitute where some actors are wearing masks. The phrase “master code-breaker” sounds so juvenile I’m shocked it made it into the script. The betrayal doesn’t land because we don’t know much about DJ in the first place, we don’t care, and he and Finn/Rose don’t go way back like Lando/Han did. (Really, it was kind of dumb for Finn and Rose to trust him as much as they did.) The constant references to the military industrial complex (Canto Bight’s elite are rich on the weapons industry, but they sell to both good guys and bad) were initially fascinating, but promptly dropped and never mentioned again.

Otherwise, all the Canto Bight arc does is give Poe a reason to stir up some drama on the main rebel ship and make us think for much of the movie that Holdo is a baddie.

But my biggest frustration is that Rose is the most irrelevant part of an already irrelevant arc.

See, Rose does almost nothing of importance after she’s introduced. She just kind of tags along. She’s an engineer who’s handy with a taser, but uses neither of those skill sets on Canto Bight or the First Order ship. She wrings her hands uselessly after she’s thrown in jail. She follows nervously behind Finn on the First Order ship. We’re proud of her when she gives up her necklace to DJ as payment, but she gets it back twenty minutes later. Sure, she utters some nice soundbites about growing up on a mining world decimated by the First Order, and she reminds us what the human impact of of a galactic dictatorship really is. But otherwise, you could have completely cut Rose out of the second half  of the movie and it wouldn’t have made a difference.

Perhaps the most frustrating Rose scene was during the battle on Crait, when she rams into Finn’s ship to stop him from sacrificing himself to destroy a the “Battering Ram Cannon” (or whatever it was called.) Finn didn’t know that Luke or Rey were coming. Finn thought, justifiably so, that he had to die to buy the Resistance valuable minutes.

And Rose is just like nah.

(“What the hell, Rose,” muttered someone in the audience.)

“Why did you do that?” Finn demands.

“You don’t fight to destroy what you hate. You fight to save what you love,” Rose says, or something to that effect. Then she kisses him. Then she promptly passes out.

First, uh, saving what he loved was precisely what what Finn was trying to do. It’s not like Finn just hates battering ram cannons.

Second, Rose’s most defining motivation this entire time has been the death of her sister. She’s willing to sacrifice her necklace, her life, anything for the cause she believes in. So this about-face maneuver, while maybe philosophically interesting, is odd given that nothing has happened to her during the Canto Bight arc to make her change her mind. It’s like this movie passed the Mako Mori test by cheating. It’s character development from nowhere.

Rose could have made so many different choices–choices of importance–that would have demonstrated real growth. But instead, her character feels like a handout. Rose, like many of the offhand references to the military industrial complex and environmentalism, felt like a well-intentioned gesture towards diversity and social awareness that fell flat because there was no follow-through. Rose reads like a diversity set piece. I’m scared she’s a token.

Rose deserved so much better. But I’ll be back to watch Episode IX, because I expect–and hope–that she and Kelly Marie Tran will be given more to do.

P.S. Rose’s budding romance with Finn irks me. I’m not opposed to their getting together in general, but their kiss felt strange and seriously out of left-field. We’ve seen Rose and Finn develop a good friendship, but we haven’t seen any previous signs of romantic attraction between them. There’s no chemistry. And a small part of me is still raging at the fact that Finn and Poe didn’t kiss.

P.P.S. The racial dynamics of the scene where Phasma calls Finn “scum” were amazing. The tall, blonde white woman fighting for the Nazi army calls the black man a slur. He sends her spiraling into a fiery explosion of death with a smirk on his face. “Rebel scum” is right.

P.P.P.S. The Last Jedi is weirdly environmentalist. There’s a nice pro-vegetarianism scene with Chewie and the porgs. There’s a not-so-subtle criticism of the horse-racing industry when the Fathiers get freed. I’m not sure what the message is with the crystal critters, but they’re pretty.

P.P.P.P.S. I want a stuffed porg for Christmas.

World Fantasy Con 2018: Recap

Update: I appreciate the positive messages, but I’m turning comments off now for reasons you can guess. If you were going to leave something rude, go find something better to do with your time.

This will be a blog post in two parts.

First, I want to elaborate on some of the points I made during my panel on cultural appropriation. I’ve already tweeted about below, if you’d like to read the original thread. But a couple points are worth expanding.

First, I kept hearing the myth that diverse works don’t sell. Let’s put aside the subtle (well, overt) racism inherent in that argument for a moment and just look at cold hard numbers. Diverse stories are popular! The audience is out there! People from privileged backgrounds want to see stories from viewpoints and histories that aren’t their own. People from marginalized backgrounds want to see themselves represented! Many of the biggest hits of 2017 were by creators of color–see Get Out, see The Hate U Give, see Crazy Rich Asians and its sequels/film in development. Refusing to work with creators of color isn’t just bigoted, it’s bad for business.

Second, permission to fail is privilege. (An audience member very eloquently made this point, and I’m sorry that I don’t know your name.) Books by white authors sell very badly very often. Publishing is fickle. No one can predict how a book will sell. But when white authors flop, no one says “Oh, well, guess this proves we should cancel the trilogy about Macaroni Marshmallow Vanillaland.” On the other hand, many writers of color I know feel the immense weight of expectations on their shoulders. If they don’t sell, then their narrative–their background, their right to tell stories–gets written off as unviable.

Third, industry gatekeepers–publishing houses, agents, editors, workshop directors–can and should do more to reach out to writers of color. Make it clear that you’re seeking diverse stories, and then back it up with book deals. Hire interns from marginalized backgrounds. Pay them, or let them work remotely–because unpaid internships are an economic privilege inaccessible to many young POC trying to break into the field. Hire editors of color so that diverse stories don’t get whitewashed into oblivion. Hire artists of color to design covers. Invite more writers of color to teach at workshops so that younger, POC writers can have role models. I could go on.

We’re good at what we do. We’re out there, and we’re hungry. Give us a chance.

I don’t want to discount the fantastic work that’s being done on this front. I know that my own publisher–Harper Voyager–has made a concentrated effort to publish diverse stories, and the 2017/2018 lineup shows: Nicky Drayden, Maggie Shen King, and S.A. Chakraborty make their debuts this year, and The Poppy War will be out next May. I’m very proud of the work they’re doing. We still need more of it.

I don’t think any of these arguments are outlandish or particularly controversial. They’re inconvenient truths to people who don’t want to acknowledge them. But the response I received on Twitter was for the large part overwhelmingly positive.

Which makes Part II of this post very weird. 

The majority of criticism I’ve gotten comes not from white people in publishing, but from Asian activists. It’s hard to sift out their particular argument from the vitriol, but I’ll try to summarize it here:

I am an Asian woman dating a white man. This makes me an unfit advocate for Asian-Americans for a myriad reasons–because my “racial preference” displays internalized self-hatred, because my “refusal to date Asian men” proves that I only advocate for “toxic” Asian females, because I “talk Asian but sleep white,” and because I’ve submitted myself to a “colonialist” relationship with a “weaboo” with an “Asian fetish.”

I’m not going to link to the threads themselves here. I don’t have much respect for people who post anonymously, or people who sift through my personal history to make irrational and ad hominem attacks. You can surely hunt it down yourself if you’re curious.

But I will respond to the argument, because I think that this ideology is so terribly hurtful and dangerous.

I understand where it’s coming from. Trust me. I am aware of how my relationship with my white partner is situated in a long history of a) the emasculation and demonization of Asian men, and b) oppressive relationships between white men and Asian women. I understand the instinct to believe that an Asian woman who dates a white man must hate her own race. I get that.

But see, you don’t get to tell me who I should date. You don’t get to make assumptions about my “racial preferences” when you don’t know me, you don’t know my boyfriend, and you don’t know a thing about our relationship. That’s misogynistic. That strips me of my agency because it purports to make my personal decisions for me.

I don’t have to prove my activism is genuine by dating someone from my own race. That’s…well, that’s just honestly pretty stupid.

You certainly don’t get to tell me that I have “no standing” among Asians if I “sleep white.” I advocate with my words. I don’t advocate with my vagina.

My boyfriend and I aren’t naive about the ways that race affects our relationship. We know we come from different locations, that he doesn’t understand many of my experiences. Of course there are slip-ups! Of course there are awkward run-ins with family! But we’re talking through them. We’re learning. We’re moving forward together, because we love and respect each other, and that’s all that should matter. I can very much assure you that he is not a domineering Pinkerton, and I am no submissive China doll.

I love the Asian men in my life–my father, my brother, my closest friends–and I will advocate for them. I also love my boyfriend because he’s kind, cute, thoughtful, and makes me laugh. Love is love is love is love. Don’t make this a forced choice between them, because that’s a foolish binary. Don’t create divisions where none need exist. You’re better than that.

First Panel! World Fantasy Con (November 2-5)

Announcement: I’m going to be on my first panel at World Fantasy Con in San Antonio this November! Look for me at “Kitsune & Dragon: Thoughtful Approaches to Alternate Eastern Asias,” along with Fonda Lee (whose work I ADORE, especially Zeroboxer.)

Here’s the full panel description from the WFC programming team:

China and Japan each have extensive histories and pantheons that have always been somewhat neglected by the West. From Lafcadio Hearn’s first efforts at bringing Japanese folklore to American audiences through to Lian Hearn’s current series of tales there is much to find in Japanese culture. China had years of M. P. Shiel and pulp era “Yellow Peril” stories that prevented foreigners from really learning what fabulous stories were possible. From Ernest Bramah’s Kai Lung through Hughart’s Master Li novels — have we barely scratched the surface of what fantastic Chinas there could be?*

At first glance: It’s telling, I think, that the only examples given of “fantastic Chinas” are by…well, not Chinese or Chinese-American authors. (I mean, are we not even going to mention Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings?)

I’ll never argue that Chinese stories should remain exclusively in the domain of artists with Chinese heritage. But looking for good representations of fantasy China through a Western gaze has meant a long string of disappointment. See: White Savior Wet Dream “The Forbidden Kingdom”, that Matt Damon embarrassment “The Great Wall”, and…well, Marvel’s “Iron Fist.” I’m increasingly frustrated by Western authors who use China and its history as plot ornaments, but put absolutely no effort into researching the complex social, cultural, and gender dynamics that accompany flashy set pieces like kung fu and Taoist imagery.

So if anything, I’m excited to geek out about the authors with Chinese heritage who are putting out incredible versions of a fantastic China. (Is here the right place to drop the hashtag #ownvoices ?) Ken Liu’s The Dandelion Dynasty series, Jin Yong’s wuxia novels, and just about everything by Cindy Pon come to mind. I should also mention Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male, which just came out last week–I haven’t gotten the chance to pick it up, but it looks absolutely incredible.

And then there’s The Poppy War, but that won’t be on shelves for another couple of months. 🙂

Tl;dr–my motherland has such a beautiful, expansive cultural history, and I’m very glad I’ll get the chance to discuss the beautiful stories spun by my fellow authors. I’m also going to rant more than a little bit about romanticized, exoticized, and simplified visions of China in Western literature–but you can hear that out of my mouth in November.

*I’m a bit disappointed this description doesn’t say anything about the Koreas, Mongolia, or Vietnam, which have their own complex cultural histories but have been represented in deeply problematic ways in Western fiction.

 

hello, world

Hi! Welcome to the personal website of SFF writer Rebecca F. Kuang.

In the upcoming months I’ll use this space to update everyone on book news–cover art and release date coming soon, I hope. I’ll also likely blog about writing, books, movies, and historical tidbits (probably about thesis research) that I find interesting.

In the meantime, here are some photos of me dabbing in front of national landmarks during a recent research trip to Taiwan and Nanjing.

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Thanks for visiting, and I’m so, so excited to share my book with you.