Before I went to see the new Star Wars, I was hearing from lots of people about how great the movie is because it features not only a Black male lead (Finn, played by actor John Boyega) but also a young, strong, female lead. I was excited to hear that, and excited to see how it would play out on the big screen. And sure enough, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a strong female lead character who doesn’t need a man’s help and can fend for herself against even the most evil of men. She is a hero.
This is something to celebrate in the age of Hardly Any Strong Female Lead Characters in Hollywood. And yet, as a woman of color, I can’t help but feel exasperated that this strong lead female character is, once again, white.
It is hard to express just how utterly alienating it is to never see a character on screen that looks like you—to never be able to fully relate to the character, to her thoughts and actions, to her story.
This isn’t to say that race is the only way to identify with a character—of course not. But race undoubtedly shapes our experiences and our identity, and there’s just no way to fully identify with someone who does not reflect your reality.
The absence of these images creates a deep feeling within you that your experience does not exist, that it does not matter, that you don’t matter.
I had the same feeling when I watched Joy—a horrible movie, by the way.
I find that I so desperately crave to see a face that is not white that I’m willing to watch literally anything, good or bad, with a non-white lead. Usually this lead is male, but even that offers some respite from the onslaught of whiteness. I remember watching Jackie Chan’s first major crossover movie, Rumble in the Bronx, in the theater and feeling an enormous, swelling sense of pride in my chest—something I rarely feel.
In Hollywood, “diversity” in female characters usually means “quirky/gloomy white girl.” I am so sick of quirky/gloomy white girl. I couldn’t even get past the first few minutes of much-raved-about Netflix series Jessica Jones for this reason.
Even when there is a strong female lead of color, such as Michonne (Danai Gurira) in The Walking Dead, she is totally deferential to the white male lead (Rick, played by Andrew Lincoln). It is as if she exists just to serve him (and don’t get me started on the completely emasculated Black male characters in that series). In fact, I am so accustomed to characters of color not being important to a plot that I have been incredulous that Glenn (Steven Yeun) is—spoiler alert!—still alive.
White women struggle to get great roles, and non-white males struggle even more to get positive roles. Imagine the situation for women of color.