PoC Representation: Lessons from ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ to ‘Jane the Virgin’

*E-Board Member of the Week post


Cast of Hamilton

A lot of my favorite artistic works from this past year prominently featured people of color (PoC). I don’t think this is necessarily an indicator of progress in Hollywood, though (see: #OscarsSoWhite), but rather a result of me being more able to choose which forms of media I expose myself to – because, you know, the Internet. These works include TV shows like Jane the Virgin, which circles the lives of three Latinas, and Master of None, whose main character is Indian American, as well as the musical Hamilton, which features an almost entirely PoC cast, despite being about long dead white people, and even that blockbuster action flick, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In these shows and movies, PoC are not just side characters in the orbit of some main white lead, but rather they are the suns themselves, stars having their story told first and foremost.

Alan Yang and the cast of Master of None accepting the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Comedy Series

Does my love for these works stem from the PoC within them? I don’t know. Maybe. I have certainly loved my fair share of completely or nearly completely white shows and movies, and long ago I learned to empathize with those people on screen who look nothing like me (an Asian American woman), but I also have to say: none of the other Star Wars films have captured my attention quite like Episode VII, with a trio at its center that contrasts so thoroughly from Luke, Han, and Leia; it consists instead of Rey, a woman with the “hero’s journey” usually reserved for men, Finn, a Black ex-Stormtrooper with a rich backstory, and Poe, a Latino pilot who’s just damn good at his job.

Hamilton, also, especially gains resonance from the diverse casting. It is a hip-hop influenced musical about the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, and almost everyone, from Hamilton himself to Marquis de Lafayette, is played by a PoC (with the clever exception of King George III). Now – I have to admit, I have only ever listened to the cast recording, and only know of the diverse casting from online articles, clips, and photos of the show. The music stands well on its own. Still, there is something about knowing that Eliza, Hamilton’s wife and a central character in the musical, is played by Phillipa Soo, a Chinese American woman, that resonates. It excites me to know that this woman is playing a part in a history that I have never quite felt a part of. Not only that, but it feels authentic. Hamilton shits on everyone who has ever said that a cast has to be all-white because that’s what’s “historically accurate” and that’s what’s “relatable”, and instead gives us a Latino Alexander Hamilton and a Black Aaron Burr and a multiracial Thomas Jefferson, and it blows us all away. In watching them perform, there is no question in my mind that they are all the perfect embodiments of these white historical figures. Apparently, others agree: last time I checked, the show is sold out until late August. Evidently, this musical has been a success despite (or, perhaps more accurately, because of) its PoC cast. As Hamilton’s writer, composer, and star Lin-Manuel Miranda said, “This is a story about America then, told by America now.”

To hell with historical accuracy – but at the same time, where is the accuracy? Like Shonda Rhimes has said, featuring PoC in shows and movies is not even about diversity. It’s about normalizing. It’s about depicting the truth: PoC exist. We exist, we have always been around, and we have our own unique stories. Despite this, 83% of lead film actors are white, even though white people actually only make up a little more than 60% of America’s population. The race disparity for writers and creators is even larger.
Normalizing is what Jane the Virgin and Masters of None do well. They prominently and proudly tell the story of the segments of America that exist but are not often heard. Some of these stories I can relate to, and some I can’t – for example, the struggle of undocumented immigrants occasionally featured in Jane the Virgin is something I have never had to face. Still, I watch the bilingual Villanueva household from Jane the Virgin and find myself thinking, “Yeah, same.” The way they switch between Spanish and English in the same conversation is exactly how language is used in my family. In Master of None, the main character, Dev, talks to his friend about his stilted phone calls with his grandmother due to the language barrier between them. I have similar phone calls with my grandma: she raised me until I was 10, and then she moved back to China, so phone calls are difficult because of my poor Chinese skills. We can’t discuss much more than whether or not I’ve eaten dinner yet or if, yes nainai, I want to visit soon. I feel guilty about this. But hearing Dev talk about it feels cathartic: the knowledge of carrying a shared pain.

Jane the Virgin

Of course, the purpose of TV and film and other forms of storytelling is not necessarily to reflect people’s lives back at them. A show about my life would be incredibly boring and mundane, and my interest in Jane the Virgin is definitely not lessened by the fact that I have never been [SPOILER ALERT] accidentally artificially inseminated (i.e., the premise of the show). There is real merit in hearing the stories of people different from yourself – it’s not like I haven’t gained anything from those Very White TV shows and movies I have watched and enjoyed, just as it’s not as if white people don’t gain anything from Very PoC TV shows and movies. Still, as the author of one of my favorite Very White books, F. Scott Fitzgerald, said, part of the beauty of literature is that “You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
What we have reached so far in terms of race parity in media representation is nowhere near enough, but I do believe it clearly shows there is nothing to lose and yet everything to gain from being more representative. I grew up not seeing a single family, a single character that reflected my image of myself – and here, at long last, is that reflection.

giphy (1)
Master of None

Erica Liao

Art Director, What the F Magazine

B.A. Political Science, Minor in German and Law, Justice & Social Change

University of Michigan 2017, LSA Honors Program



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