This post was guest-edited for The Bias by Michi Trota.My boyfriend bought me two action figures for Christmas.
I’m not a crier. In fact, it’s been absolute policy since I was in second grade and teased on the playground that I don’t cry in front of people.
I sobbed for 15 minutes straight.
Star Wars has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. Back in the days of Compuserve, I played Star Wars trivia in chat rooms and cursed the slow dial-up connection when I was the first one to type my answer – only to have it show up well after another response. When I thought prom was going to be the same day as the opening of Episode I (the first new Star Wars film in 16 years, and the first I’d be able to see in the theater), I planned to skip prom and head to the movies instead. When I graduated from high school, I’d read every Star Wars novel in publication save two.
My friends decided I was Princess Leia, the character I most resembled (I’ve always understood the concept of a self-rescuing princess). Leia was who I was. But my hero was Luke, the ordinary teenager who saved the galaxy.
I have a confession to make: When I first saw promo stills of Rose Tico, I was disappointed. Rose wasn’t the hero I wanted. She seemed too normal, too ordinary. I wanted someone who conformed to my Hollywood-dominated ideals of beauty and strength, someone glamorous, someone who looked the part of a movie star.
I was so, so wrong. Rose might not have been the hero I thought I wanted, but she’s the hero we need.
I moved to Michigan when I was five, going from Singapore, a densely-packed city-state with a melting pot of Chinese, British, Thai, Indian, Japanese, and Malaysian influences, to a Midwestern suburb where we joked that people who moved 40 minutes away were escapees.
Where I was born, I am the majority – the country is 80% ethnically Chinese – and we draw distinctions between Chinese people from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. (Culturally, the groups are quite different.) Where I grew up, I was the only Asian in my elementary school until my brother started class.
I had exactly one doll that looked like me: a Rice Paddy Baby. Naming issues aside, she was beautiful, an elaborate Cabbage Patch Kids cousin direct from Hong Kong with an embroidered red satin jacket and pants. She even came with a British passport (Hong Kong was still under British rule at the time). One of my favorite toys, she was a gift from a family friend or relative who lived in Asia.
The only toy I had that looked like me came directly from Asia.
In school, bullies used to tell me that my face looked like it got run over by a semi; when we shone bright lights on everyone’s faces and traced their shadows in class, mine was the flattest.
I hated Mulan’s character design when I was younger. Why had Disney made its only Asian princess ugly? I wanted to love the film, but I hated Mulan’s round face.
I look at Mulan now and she’s clearly beautiful.
I’ve already mentioned how I don’t cry in front of people. I never fit in my blue collar suburb and learned early that crying only gives bullies more ammunition. So I stopped.
Someone posted a photo of the Rose Tico action figure on Twitter and I couldn’t explain why I was sobbing in front of my computer.
That reaction was even stronger when my boyfriend gifted me both Rose and Paige.
I didn’t realize how much it meant to have an Asian-American heroine – two in one film! – until we had one. For those of us who never see ourselves onscreen, Rose and Paige Tico were a revelation. If you’d asked me before The Last Jedi whether I personally felt the lack of characters who looked like me in that universe, I would have said no – I identified with Luke and Leia, so even though objectively I want more Asian-American characters in media for the sake of both Americans of other ethnicities and younger generations of Asians, on a personal level I didn’t think I needed them.
Yet when it finally happened, I realized just how much I did.
I’m writing this essay in the middle of a trip to Egypt, where everyone you encounter wants to know where the obvious travelers are from. Half of them are confused when I say the US, because they didn’t think Americans came with black hair and upturned eyes – the movies and TV shows we export almost entirely feature white people. As a group, Asian-Americans are sorely underrepresented: Only 1.4% of the lead characters in studio films released in 2014 were Asian even though we’re 5.6% of the US population. According to Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, the majority of media does not feature any named or speaking Asian characters. Not a single one.
This has consequences inside the US as well: Waiting for a lunch order in Milwaukee, a man once asked me where I was from. “Chicago,” I replied. His response: “Oh, Shanghai? That’s great!”
Even at home, we are the perpetual foreigner.
Centering Rose and Paige meant that Asian-Americans were finally – finally! – being allowed to lead a major blockbuster film. They immediately seem like one of the gang – characters you’re supposed to identify with regardless of ethnicity – rather than outsiders. In a political and cultural climate where even Asian-Americans who have lived here for five generations are perceived as “foreigners,” where we’re still complimented about how well we speak English even if it’s our native tongue, and where Midwestern-raised actors are only offered roles with heavy foreign accents, it feels important that the Tico sisters were played by Vietnamese-Americans speaking with “standard” American accents. Faces like mine finally – finally! – spoke like I do.
With Paige, Asian-American women could be dedicated fighters, pushing against gravity to accomplish missions, destroying the Fulminatrix and saving the Resistance fleet.
With Rose, Asian-American women could be star-struck fangirls who stopped being awed when we realized that our heroes weren’t heroic; we could make mistakes, befriend stableboys, and save our friends from needlessly throwing their lives away.
With the Tico sisters, Asian-American women could be something other than Dragon Lady or submissive stereotypes, could both sacrifice and fight, could be part of the great Star Wars tradition of ordinary people doing the extraordinary and saving the galaxy as a result.
Rose, like Luke before her, needed to be ordinary. But unlike Luke, she had no magical powers, no hidden family lineage – she was a poor girl from a mining colony who escaped, learned to hope, and knew how important it is to love people. She believes because she knows what oppression feels like; she has compassion because she knows what callousness looks like.
Paige and Rose Tico – and by extension all of us – were allowed to be heroes.
This post was generously sponsored by Leigh Honeywell. You can find Leigh on twitter at @hypatiadotca.