Over Winter vacation, like many other people worldwide, my family and I flocked to the theater to watch the long-awaited, newly released “Star Wars” movie. Though I have never been a “Star Wars” fan per se, I was pleasantly surprised when John Boyega removed his stormtrooper helmet to reveal his dark skin; when Lupita Nyong’o’s voice flowed from Maz Kanata’s mouth; and when Daisy Ridley’s Rey, sporting baggy pants and no visible makeup, did not need a love interest to command the respect of her peers.
Diversity in the media has been an ongoing struggle in this country since Hollywood rose to power in the early 20th century. While some progress has been made, as demonstrated by the less homogenous cast of the newest “Star Wars” film, the issue is far from resolved. According to a study by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, over 73 percent of lead actors in 2014’s most popular films were white despite the fact that people of color now make up about 40 percent of the United States population. Equally disproportionate, 79 percent of lead roles in films were male – and of the women who did earn leads, only half were portrayed as strong protagonists.
As an Asian-American female born in San Diego and raised in Massachusetts, I have experienced firsthand the psychological effects of being forgotten in my own country. For as long as I can remember, I have excitedly set out for the theater only to sit for two hours, mesmerized by the narratives of other people never similar to me or my family.
The fact that the number of famous Asian-American actors can be counted on one hand attests to the clear issue that plagues Western media. Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan and Daniel Dae Kim are some of the only Asian-American actors ever to work their way into a world that has shut out people of color since its creation.
When I was young, I tried not to let it bother me that every actress I have ever admired, from Jennifer Lawrence to Emma Watson, Anne Hathaway to Angelina Jolie, has, without fail, fit this country’s definition of beauty as fair skin and lighter eyes. But after 16 years of being denied representation in the theaters of my home, the disheartening experience of invisibility, of growing up with no one who resembles me to idolize, has taken its toll. Hollywood, by omitting people of color from its casts, continues to send the message to children and adults alike that white is normal, that white is ideal, that white is America. Hollywood has declared again and again that the rest of us do not belong.
More than simply influencing our fears or interests, the media plays a crucial role in how we understand race, gender, sexuality, class and all other aspects of our identity. With every ticket sold or season renewed, movies and television shows are not just telling fictional stories to us; they are selling ideas about who we are and who we should strive to become. When we see white people always in the spotlight while people of color are portrayed as maids, gang members, stuttering nerds, incompetent athletes, terrorists or perpetual foreigners, stereotypes are imbued with meaning and drilled into our heads as truth. For my entire life, it has been not only frustrating but also hurtful when Asian-American actors who do secure minor roles are shown tripping over their feet and hovering over their calculators like math is the only air they breathe.
While Andover students cannot control the castings of our favorite movies, we can continue to encourage discussions of race on campus and be mindful of the struggle that is nowhere near complete. One movie with one black stormtrooper does not mean that change has arrived, that the problem has been solved. Only when our country can finally accept the salience of our nation’s diversity – when Hollywood can trust that tickets will sell even if a cast includes people of more than one color – can we sit back, relax and enjoy our popcorn.