Kelly Marie Tran, star of Disney’s latest, Raya and the Last Dragon, has been gracing my social feeds again much to my delight. She’s been slaying red carpets and impromptu promo shoots, crushing interviews—even speaking out on the harassment she endured following The Last Jedi. The groundswell of support this time around seems to indicate those days of racist man-boy hatred are long gone. Thing is, I’ve been watching the outpouring of affection towards Kelly Marie Tran with more caution than optimism. Because we’ve been here before, and I ain’t buying it.
I won’t recount the details of what happened to her in the wake of Last Jedi because A.) It still pisses me off and B.) In light of increased violence against Asian-Americans, the slurs used are frankly triggering.
It’s what happened after that leaves me bitter. After it came to light that Kelly Marie Tran had deleted her Instagram posts— where she often paid tribute to the sets, props, and the real MVPs behind Star Wars for no other reason than that she was a fan. (I know this because I followed her back when I had Instagram.) Well after screenshots surfaced of reply guys taking aim at her character, her gender and appearance. Her heritage.
Afterwards, there was a “coming together” moment for the fans, a rallying cry that we ought to do better—need to do better when similar sagas happened to John Boyega and Daisy Ridley. Mark Hamill posted a shared selfie. Director Rian Johnson and fellow co-stars echoed praise of Kelly Marie Tran and condemned the vitriol. It culminated in rolling Rose Tico appreciation posts, fan art and fan videos (what we call fan-cams now) that garnered the kind of support Rose Tico herself might appreciate.
But this larger show of support was performative and exactly that. All for show.
Maybe two weeks passed when the bad takes started surging again. Or perhaps the bad takes never stopped, they were just drowned out by the good ones. I saw backwards shit like:
“She didn’t deserve the harassment, nobody does, but I really didn’t like her character”
“I don’t condone what went down, but c’mon her character was pointless”
“I am not aligning myself with the racists, but she was worse than Jar Jar Binks”
Have you ever seen a more unnecessary conjunction? “She didn’t deserve the harassment.” “I don’t condone what went down.” That’s it. That’s all you needed to say. Because saying it was acknowledging that trolls used well-meaning criticism as justification for their blatant racism. Even now, people are still in denial that racism can look something other than cross burnings and klan robes. Racism in the 21st century is no longer invented; it’s augmented. Maybe denial is the point.
This was harassment in the form of relentless racial slurs disguised as criticism, shielded by the banner of free speech. Because when people don’t like something, they are entitled to their hatred regardless of the hate speech that might arise. When this speech resulted in consequences, it wasn’t a cause for self-reflection. Because Kelly Marie Tran’s exodus from the internet and eventual sidelining in The Rise of Skywalker was the intended result.
I truly thought the fandom realized the greater responsibility it had as a collective body. Because it’s not a group of people walking out of the theater and discussing the film. It’s thousands of groups congregating in convention centers and various social circles. Millions of people with access to internet and social media, to an actor’s social media and so forth.
We crossed a line a long time ago when @’ing an actor became an acceptable mode of discourse. Maybe I’m nostalgic, but I believe you can voice your opinion on something without sending anybody death threats. The ignorant call this censorship. I call it plain decency. For those two weeks, it felt as if we were finally approaching a new horizon like the Millennium Falcon jumping to the next promising waypoint. And then it was back to our regularly scheduled programming.
“She didn’t deserve what happened, BUT”
“I’m not racist, BUT”
“I’m not an asshole, BUT”
Frankly, we don’t deserve Kelly Marie Tran.
Needless to say, I’m sketchy on this renewed support coming off her lead voicework in Raya and the Last Dragon. (This in no way detracts from actual Kelly Marie Stans. If you loved her in Last Jedi like I did, then you coo 🤙) People say they love her now, but I suspect it’s only because she’s in the kind of story that people traditionally associate with her ethnicity. Audiences easily lap up swords, martial arts, and dragon myths with Asian culture, so the celebration of Kelly Marie Tran this time around feels doubly condescending.
You don’t love that she’s the lead in Raya and the Last Dragon, you just love that she’s not in your Star Wars anymore. Because you won.
The insane part about the hatred thrown her way: it came from dudes donning kimonos or brandishing katanas in their profile pics, the kind of self-stylized bros who pin themselves with a false badge of Asian-ness just because they watch anime. I swear to you, being a fan of Attack On Titan or having been deep into Naruto that one time doesn’t make you Asian; it just means you watch anime. But in their minds, if anyone’s going to call out Disney’s “SJW agenda,” it’s them. Because they’re not racist, they’re cultured. (The next insane part is this assertion that Disney a.k.a. a multi-billion-dollar company that controls nearly 40% of the media market is doing things strictly to cater to woke Twitter mobs. Idk where y’all come up with this shit 🤦♂️)
I’m Filipino. I’ve watched people proudly wear symbols of Filipino culture only when it suited them. Oftentimes it only suited them during a Manny Pacquiao fight. You have no idea how mind-blowing it is to see white dudes wearing the Filipino flag like a Miss Universe sash. I don’t even have the Filipino flag flying at my place. But when Duterte’s drug war or typhoon warnings make the headlines, then it’s “nobody wants to hear how fucked up it is where you’re from.”
I didn’t come from the Philippines. I was born in Hawaii, which makes me Asian-American – a fact that often escapes people because being in America is routinely a matter of territory. What’s mine and what’s yours, who belongs where and ESPECIALLY who doesn’t.
Being brown is firsthand education in how you’re commodified and condemned in the same sentence. People don’t care that I’m Filipino unless they come into contact with an aspect of my culture that they enjoy, so my experience can only be framed through the lens of that which matters to them. Using Manny Pacquiao as an example: if someone were to ask me what barrio my parents were from and I told them Ilocos Norte, the following question would be, “Is that the one where Pacquiao was born?”
However, if I talk openly about how I was raised to take my shoes off indoors or that I learned how to cook rice before learning how to tie my shoes, suddenly I’M the one who’s being obnoxious about my race. Yet I constantly have to hear unsolicited info about how so-and-so is one-sixteenth Czechoslovakian on their mother’s side.
This is partly the reason I moved back to the islands after college. “What are you?” was a common question I had to answer, over “what’s up?” or “how are you doing?” etc. I didn’t fit into people’s perceptions of what they defined as traditionally Asian. I’m brown, so this registers as Mexican to the ignorant, but I also have “Asian eyes” (another thing remarked directly to my face, except they didn’t use the word “Asian”) so they didn’t know where to place me. Being on the mainland made me realize how often people needed to categorize others instead of regarding one another like fellow human beings. I was consistently reminded that I’m Asian. Here at home, I get to be Adrian.
To see this renewed appreciation for Kelly Marie Tran is to be consciously aware of the racism not far off. It’s always there, both passive and outright. Some people will never see Kelly Marie Tran beyond her being Vietnamese (if they know there’s more than one Asian country besides China) just as some have never seen me past being Filipino.
So those who doubled down on the hatred saying Rose Tico is canonically worse than Jar Jar Binks is the perfect encapsulation of the fandom and where it will never rise above. Because the actor who played Jar Jar Binks, Ahmed Best, also spoke of the racism and harassment that nearly drove him to suicide. This, too, should’ve been a cause for reflection but that moment also came and went.
We didn’t go anywhere after Last Jedi. It’s actually gotten worse.
I’m stoked about Marvel’s upcoming Shang-Chi, but I’m well aware that the ensuing praise will only be because it’s how audiences are attuned to seeing Asian heroes in their native countries, adept at martial arts; dabbling in mysticism, speaking in an accent or another tongue altogether. It’s the reason why Crazy Rich Asians was so celebrated. But if Henry Golding, Simu Liu, or Steven Yeun were in the running for the next James Bond, there’d be more blood on the streets.
We’re led to believe that Mickey Rooney playing Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Max von Sydow playing Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon didn’t know any better at the time, but that Kelly Marie Tran should’ve known what she was getting into with Star Wars. I’m tired. So so so so tired of the hypocrisy and the double standards and the bullshit.
I’ll just say this loud and proud, because some of you were loud and clearly proud in using Asian slurs: If you called Rose Tico pointless but are now looking at Raya and the Last Dragon saying, “Good for her! Those are the movies she should be in!” You’re an unconscionably big piece of shit.
Rose Tico’s line, “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love” is essentially the virtue that stops Luke Skywalker from killing his own father in Return of the Jedi, but I know y’all just want your white male protagonists front and center, so it’s no wonder key thematic threads fly right over you. I’ve learned the hard way that some virtues will never be attained.
Back in December 2017, I didn’t think Kelly Marie Tran’s role would stir any kind of controversy. Ming-Na Wen, Lucy Liu, Grace Park, and Maggie Q all blazed a trail through geeky action sci-fi fanfare. Kelly Marie Tran seemed like a natural and harmless successor, one who could be an Asian-American star free from the stereotypes that came before.
I refuse to believe there’s only one kind of Asian female lead especially when Scarlett Johansson, Charlize Theron, and Margot Robbie can traverse the cinematic terrain often in the same year. I refuse to believe that Hollywood or the internet doesn’t have room – let alone empathy – for the Kelly Marie Trans of the world.
I suppose that’s it. Kelly Marie Tran is simply too good for this world. The rest of us should go to hell.