Is Star Wars the Force Awakens Problematic?

SPOILERS!

Of course it is! Everything is! Even Hozier and Shakira are problematic (not really, but I digress).

Now that the film has passed the global billion dollar mark and is on its way to be one of the most defining films of this decade, if not this century, many of us are now taking a breath from the magnificence of the film and engaging with it critically. The question, as with all things, especially cultural texts like film, is wether or not the new Star Wars film is problematic.

The film has been praised, and rightly so, for the protagonist Rey, who is smart, a brilliant pilot, can fight and defend herself, can escape from the First Order Base on her own (using the Force, of course), and doesn’t need anyone, especially not a man, to hold her hand while running away from Tie Fighters. But it is here that many draw a pause, because the man wanting to hold her hand is a Black man, the rebel/traitor Storm Trooper Finn.

While Rey may be a feminist cinematic dream, and let me be clear, she is a mainstream White Feminist Dream than a more inclusive Feminist one, she does not exist independently from the other characters in the film, including Finn. Many have argued that it is Finn who is the problematic aspect of the film, almost a consequence of White Feminism, as he still embodies tropes and historical racist traits that Black Men experience in cinema, especially in his relationship to Rey, which is integral to the film, if not the driver of the plot (aside from us having to go find a lost [white] Jedi, Luke Skywalker.)

Is Finn problematic? He is, as is Rey, and Han Solo, and the whole damn thing, but I don’t think the point of the question is to ask whether something is problematic or not, but instead ask to what degree does Finn reproduce systems of oppression in Cinema and our understanding of race (and gender) in Star Wars? I argue that the film walks a fine line but invites enough nuance for Finn to not be as problematic as people are making him out to be. Finn can be read many ways, and they are valid readings (some misguided), but what I attempt to do here is try to understand how Finn (re)produces, challenges, and is subversive when it comes to race and gender.

  1. Finn is just comic relief: Yes and no. Finn is funny and does provide humor to the film throughout, however, Finn is much more complicated. For starters, he is the only storm trooper we ever know of rebelling against the Dark Side, in this case the First Order. He is also extremely intelligent, is driven by his own motivations rather than those of others (he essentially tells Han and Rey fuck the Galaxy and just wants to live his life). Finn’s comic relief is not his defining trait, and the load is shared by Han, Chewie, Poe, and in some cases, Rey.
  2. Finn’s name: Some have argued that Finn, via his name, lacks agency, given that Finn is named by Poe (a body that is read as white despite Oscar Isaac being Latinx). However, there is s rather subversive moment when Poe “names” Finn. He asks for his permission, “is that alright?” Poe asks, rather quickly and so rushed one might miss it the first time we watch the film (I did!). Poe does not just name Finn, he asks his permission as to what he may call him, and Finn accepts. This actually goes against cinematic tradition if White bodies naming or imposing names on Black bodies. This scene may have been more powerful if Finn rejected the name and chose one for himself, but quietly subversive nonetheless.
  3. Finn Liberates himself from the First Order: This is probably the most subversive aspect to the film. In the history of the Star Wars films (not the expanded Universe) we have never seen a Storm Trooper (clone or otherwise) disobey an order. The fact that Finn does this, by first refusing to shoot the villagers and then freeing Poe (which in it of itself is subversive as it is a Black Man saving a White Man out of his own self interest) and rejecting the First Order’s mission/ideology, he is actually again rejecting a tradition of cinema of Black Bodies being docile and lacking agency and unable to free themselves from the bond of military and oppressive regimes.
  4. Camera Angles between Finn and Rey: Here the film does reproduce the white gaze. Having watched the film three times now, I noticed that in every shot where Finn and Rey are side by side (from what I can recall), Rey is always in the center of frame while Finn is always to the side and behind Rey. There is a large amount of research and literature that focuses on the White Gaze in film and the frame. Finn may have a lot of screen time and we get to explore his story in depth, but when he’s in frame with Rey, she takes center stage.
  5. Finn is a Sanitation Worker: Some have argued that Finn actually reproduces the Black Servant trope in cinema as it is revealed that he worked sanitation (a lazy comic relief moment I’m actually disappointed about). But I don’t buy the argument that this fully reproduces a stereotype. For one, Finn is not defined by his being a sanitation worker, and despite it, is able to come up with a plan that successfully leads to the lowering of the shield to destroy the Star Killer base. Without Finn, the Dark Side wins.
  6. Finn is a main character: Despite what some may say is Finn being the sidekick to the quest, or a secondary character, diminish the amount of screen time Finn actually has (being such an essential part of the first act) and how much he matters to the story. Finn defies the First Order. He saves Poe. He helps Rey defeat the Tie Fighters (without him, Rey does not survive, and vice versa). He helps General Leia with the attack on Star Killer Base. He come up with the plan to lower the shields. He fights Kylo Ren. The protagonist is Rey, but Finn is no sidekick. Is he a supporting character, yes, but he can kick some serious ass.
  7. Rey Saves Finn: Yes and no. Rey saves Finn early on from those round slimy aliens (called Rak-something?) due to her quick thinking. This is an iteration of the White Woman (or White Body) saving the Black Man (or Black Body). But of more intense debate has been the final act, where Finn and Rey confront (a very much weakened) Kylo Ren. Many have argued that here comes the White Savior “saving” the Black Body. However, I don’t think we can read the scene as simply Rey saving Finn. Rey is knocked out early on by Kylo during this scene, and Finn takes the stand against Kylo. In essence, he is defending Rey (or is he?) is equally problematic(?) This is the obvious tension, as it seems race and gender meet and it isn’t clear if one is saving the other. Going on, Finn is defeated by Kylo, one may even get the impression that he is killed, but what differentiates this scene from traditional cinema is that Finn is well defeated by Kylo when Rey jumps into the fray after waking up. The saving moment isn’t actually there (per say) as Kylo quickly changes focus from Finn to Luke’s Lightsaber, and it is only at this moment when Rey and Kylo engage in a final battle. So does she save Finn? Hard to say, only because the scene isn’t so clear cut, but perhaps this is a good thing. The lack of a definitive answer may serve us better to engage in discourse than to simply say “Rey, a white woman, saves Finn, a Black Man”.
  8. The Ending: Finn is asleep, recovering from the battle with Kylo. Rey, in the meantime, says her goodbye and speaks to a now voiceless motionless Finn and goes to find Luke Skywalker. This may undo all the good the film does of building up Finn as a complex character, as now he is unable to accompany Rey to find Luke, and though he didn’t want to for most of the film, this moment essentially makes Finn a mechanism for which Rey gets what she wants, and Finn, he barely escapes with his life. This is the biggest issue I had with the film. Why couldn’t we have Finn wake up, and instead of just being left behind he chooses what he wants to do with himself. Go find Luke? Go to the outer rim? Join the resistance and start dating Poe? Who knows, but he didn’t need to be in a coma, making us wait 2 years to see when he wakes up and what he’ll be doing.

The film isn’t perfect when it comes to Finn, obviously, but it is a gross exaggeration to think of Finn as a secondary, token character (or as someone put it, a ‘hyper token’). Finn, as a Black Man featured in one of the most popular films of all time, now part of one of the largest cinematic universes in history, does a pretty good job of escaping (for the most part) the racist tradition of American cinema, aside from his coma at the end, which almost undoes all the good of Finn. But there is another tension that is hard to untangle.

Finn and Rey might resemble the more mainstream of critical movement when it comes to gender and race. When we think of liberation, even within marginalized communities, paradigms of power tend to pin up as the poster person for liberations as an equally problematic figure. The poster person for Gender Equality is usually a White Woman, which helps in the erasure of woman of color. The poster person for Racial Equality is usually a Black man, which helps in the erasure of woman of color and other men who aren’t black or fit within the racist ideal of Black Masculinity. When we think of diversity problems of gender, we include more white women, and when we think of race issues, we think Black Men. Star Wars in essence the mainstream version of progress, White woman, check! Black man, check! We have reached post gender and post race! Cheers! Star Wars does reproduce this problem, that thinking diversity specifically includes only particular bodies and forgets Women of Color and Queer People of Color that deviate from White Feminism or Male-Centric Anti-Racism. That is not to say that Rey and Finn aren’t badasses, but that when Star Wars Episode IIX and IX come rolling around, we can (and need to) do better.

Hope you had fun reading this long tirade! Sorry, but just had so much to say!

 

May the force be with you.

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