Why Do People Hate Rose Tico?
By Nathan Liu
Apparently, I'm a masochist who hates himself because the other day I went online and decided to go digging through the whole Star Wars: The Last Jedi controversy again. I wanted to unpack what it was about the character of Rose Tico that made people so angry. There has been an unbelievable amount of hatred directed towards her, and her portrayer, Kelly Marie Tran, and I genuinely do not understand why. What about this fictional woman is so repugnant, so loathsome, that people, even people who claim to not be sexist and racist, felt the urge to scream about it online and direct hateful messages toward an actress doing her job? Why is she viewed as the worst Star Wars character ever? Need I remind you that this is a franchise that has Jar Jar Binks, the Ewoks, and Watto in it? I don't even want to bash those characters too hard since they have tragic backstories. Ahmed Best, the man behind Jar Jar, almost committed suicide because of all the hate he got, not just from Star Wars fans, but also from African Americans who claimed he was playing a minstrel character. So again I have to ask, why? After reading far too many angry blog posts and watching a truly nauseating amount of YouTube videos, I came away with three key complaints concerning Rose's character, none of which really hold water.
The first group is comprised of the hateful, bigoted complaints you'd expect. They're the ones who hate the fact that Star Wars dared to include a female character that wasn't a white, British supermodel. These complaints really aren't worth digging into. People who hate someone just because they're female, non-white, and on the shorter and heavier side can't be reasoned with. And who's to say that these trolls even mean what they're screaming about? The Internet has created a culture where attention is all that people value, and where they'll do absolutely anything to get it. How many times have you heard stories about someone tracking down the source of a horrible post, only to find it made by a sullen teenager who was bored and wanted to get noticed? A good chunk of the hatred geared towards Rose's character is just bigoted drivel that isn't even worth paying attention to.
The second group of complaints can be boiled down to the phrase "she's annoying." This genuinely shocked me. When I think of annoying characters, I think of characters whose quirks and actions take me out of the movie. Maybe they have a distracting voice, catchphrase, or tick, like Ruby Rod in The Fifth Element, or Joe Pesci in the Lethal Weapon films. Maybe they keep derailing the narrative by constantly getting into trouble, and needing to be saved by the hero, like Willie Scott in Temple of Doom, or Bella Swan in Twilight. Maybe they're genuinely loathsome people, like Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter, or Prince Joffrey in Game of Thrones. They do something or act in a certain way that disrupts the narrative, and none of that applies to the character of Rose Tico. She doesn't have an annoying voice or catchphrase. She's not useless or inactive. She's not designed to be an evil person. She doesn't hurt other people. She doesn't belittle, abuse, or humiliate them. Yes, she tells off Finn, but that lecture makes sense within the context of the story. Her sister had literally just died fighting for the ideals that she thought Finn stood for. Of course, she'd be angry if the person her sister looked up to and sacrificed herself for turned out to be a coward. She's the one who motivates Finn to act when he thinks about giving up, and she winds up saving a lot of people, including him and the horse-kangaroo monsters on Canto Bight.
This actually brings me to a point that I've been wanting to make for a while: that most audiences, even female audiences, seem uncomfortable with the idea of a woman acting as a moral guide, or teacher, to a male character. Because let's be clear, that's what Rose is. She's a moral guide to Finn, helping him achieve his arc of becoming less selfish. In screenwriting terms, she's an "anchor character," a person in a story who does not change their beliefs, and who, through their interactions with the protagonist, helps them become a better hero, usually by highlighting a flaw they have. A classic example of this type of character is Hannibal Lecter in The Silence Of The Lambs. He doesn't change at all over the course of the story, but his interactions with Clarice Starling allow her to become a more effective detective by forcing her to confront her own fears and her own sense of inadequacy. Rose doesn't change over the course of the film. She starts off a committed Resistance fighter and ends a committed Resistance fighter. It's her consistency, and selflessness that convinces Finn to stop thinking of only his needs, and stay to help. In other words, she did exactly what her character was supposed to do, but audiences don't seem to like that.
In his video essay "How The Last Jedi Defies Expectations," the Pop Culture Detective points out how women in fiction who act as guides or teachers to men are often labeled as annoying or preachy, and the sad thing is that's true. Most mentor/anchor characters in fiction— Mr. Miyagi, Uncle Ben, Yoda— are men. Women very rarely get to fill that role, and when they do get to act as teachers, it's almost always exclusively to other women. Just look at Awkwafina's character in Crazy Rich Asians. She doesn't change, and she helps improve the heroine, both in terms of her personality and her wardrobe. She basically performs the same function as Rose, but to a woman, and audiences like her. Which leads me to ask, why? Awkwafina does a lot more of the things that people typically describe as annoying than Rose— she has a weird manner of speaking, lectures the main character, and disrupts the illusion of the film by giving a far more over-the-top performance than her co-stars. So why do people like her and not Rose? Why has she been labeled a standout, and Rose annoying?
The third and final series of complaints center around the last scene in which Rose appears. In this scene, Rose stops Finn from going on a suicide mission, says that the only way to win a war is to focus on saving what you love, and not killing what you hate, kisses him, and then passes out. The reaction to this has been all over the place. There are people who are angry because Rose kissing Finn ruins their fantasy of seeing him and Ray get together. There are people who are angry because a woman stopped a man from having a big hero moment. There are people who claim that this scene proves that nothing she did in the film mattered, or had consequences. Then, of course, there are the hyperbolic statements (which I'm not even sure if people genuinely believe) like the assertion that because she didn't ask Finn for consent before she kissed him, it qualifies as sexual assault, but I'm not going to address those because honestly, I still want to have hair by the time I'm thirty. First of all, just because a movie doesn't give you what you expect doesn't mean it's bad. By that rationale, The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, or any film with a twist ending is terrible, because they didn't give you the answers you were anticipating. On top of that, who's to say that Finn and Ray won't get together by the end of the next movie? JJ Abrams may have a very different view of where he wants the story to go than Rian Johnson. Plus, who cares if they don't wind up together? They aren't real!
Second of all, the film explicitly states through dialogue and visuals that Finn's kamikaze attack would have been pointless. We see his ship coming apart as he's flying towards the canon. Numerous characters tell him that all he'd do is die. So by stepping in, Rose was just stopping him from doing something really stupid, and really pointless. On top of this, there's something to be said for the fact that this scene undermines a trope in fiction that we've gotten all too familiar with: the heroic sacrifice. So often in film and literature, men killing themselves as a way to save others is framed as a positive, a means for those men to prove their convictions, bravery, and even their own manhood. It happens so often that we never pause to consider its real implications. What this trope suggests is that dying in a showy, ostentatious manner is better than living to fight another day. What it fails to recognize is that when those soldiers die, their armies lose numbers, their families lose loved ones, and blowing yourself up to stop one attack isn't the same thing as winning a war. In my opinion, The Last Jedi does a good job of pointing out the flaws inherent in this trope. Again, just because a film doesn't give you what you want doesn't make it bad.
Finally, the claim that Rose's intervention is proof that none of what she did in the story mattered, or had consequences, doesn't hold water if you really think about it. Rose's storyline doesn't have much effect on the plot, but it has value, seeing as it gives audiences a non-stereotypical female Asian lead. It also gives one of the series' heroes, Finn, an arc. Rose helps him grow into a braver, more committed person. Her actions at the end solidify that arc, since she stops him from doing something selfish, i.e. blow himself up to prove how much of a hero he is. Her stepping in to stop Finn is consistent with both her characterization and her function in the narrative. So people claiming that she's completely pointless, and serves no story purpose, clearly haven't paid attention.
After reading this long, long essay about me defending a fictional character, you might be wondering, why? Why do I care so much? As I myself say, it isn't real. And you're right. Star Wars isn't real, but Kelly Marie Tran is real, as is the abuse she suffered, and people who didn’t like her character committed that abuse. There were people who were just outright racist and sexist, but there were plenty of other people, including some film critics like Chris Stuckman, Jeremy Jahns, and Doug Walker, who couched their attacks on her in statements about how bad a character Rose was. Then, people who were racist used this supposedly legitimate criticism to attack a woman of color, guilty of nothing but doing her job.
As I've hopefully proven to you all, Rose's character really isn't as bad as people seem to think. She doesn't have an annoying voice. She's active and confident. She isn't a racial stereotype. She's funny, shows a wide range of emotions— she's introduced in a scene where she's crying over her dead sister, for goodness sake. Most importantly, she helps one of the main characters grow. None of these are bad things. I truly believe that a large part of the reason why so many of these white male fans and supposed critics didn't like her was the fact that she was a woman of color who acted as a mentor, and challenged male bravado. They didn't like the fact that she called Finn (and by extension them) out on their bullshit and so claimed that she was annoying and preachy. And when they did that, it gave legitimacy to the most toxic elements of the fan base, which in turn hurt an actual person. So before you go and claim that Rose is the worst character in Star Wars history, just realize that in so doing, you are, whether you want to admit it or not, aiding racism. You are aiding sexism. You are legitimizing the views of the worst people in the world. The kind of people who drive others off of social media and in some cases, to suicide. You need to ask yourself why this character bothers you so much? Is it really what you're saying, or is it something else? Just think about it.
Nathan Liu is a screenwriter, playwright, and true blue pizza addict. Spending most of his early life in Germany, and being part Chinese on his father's side, Nathan was exposed to many different cultures growing up, all of which inspired him to become a storyteller. His experience in film and theater includes penning scripts for Pixeldust Studios, and writing the play "Christmas By The Pond," which was awarded "Best One Act" at the Broke People Play Festival. He's the type of guy who can talk about cinema, Superman, and Asian American identity for hours. Follow him on Twitter @TheNathanLiu, and read his blog, Liusviews.wordpress.com if you'd like to know his thoughts on those topics.