Here are my brief thoughts on the cast announcement for the new Star Wars trilogy.
This video got me thinking about my own personal ability to relate to characters in films, books, et cetera.
Full disclosure, I’m a (primarily) white man. Obvious thought then is “Well gee, I’m highly represented and privileged – am I just blinded by my situation? Have I simply never had a problem relating to characters because overwhelmingly those characters have matched my racial background?”
But then I think about some of the characters I’ve related to most in my youth. Sticking with Star Wars, like many others I’ve always had a soft spot for Han, but my absolute favorite characters in the entire trilogy? Had to be Leia and Lando.
Yep – the characters I related to best were a white woman and a black man. That’s uh… a little odd, no? I didn’t relate much to Luke, or Obi-wan, or Vader, or Biggs and Wedge, or really any of the notable white male characters besides Han. But even there, it turns out Harrison Ford is of Jewish ancestry!
Now, my heritage is about half southern european and half eastern european. One side of the family comes from Italy (split about evenly between Northern and Southern regions), and the other side comes from Poland for sure and possibly other nearby countries too. Yet I never really was exposed to the Polish side of things as a kid, and I grew up mostly a pretty unremarkable third generation Italian American.
Now, with the Ford comparison, my Polish half almost certainly has some Jewish in it somewhere – but that’s genetic! I didn’t identify with the culture or history or anything until very recently when I got interested and started researching my family tree. So unless I was responding to some genetic coding, even my love for Han “Shegetz” Solo doesn’t make sense!
And at the same time, there weren’t really any swarthy mediterranean types such as myself in Star Wars either! Sure are a lot of Limeys floating around in space, but why are there no goombah paizons like me? And why didn’t I notice or care?
So what’s the deal? Why is it I was able to relate to these characters who I didn’t share racial backgrounds with, when clearly for many people this is a major stumbling block? This is actually stumping me here, and it’s bugging me.
Maybe my focus is too narrow? After all, there’s more to my media exposure than just Star Wars – the Italian American community has arguably been pretty well represented in American culture, especially compared to groups like Asian Americans.
I wonder how much of that representation is due to the passage of time? America is a nation of immigrants, and the Italians came over a lot earlier than most Asian populations did. Simply put, we’ve had a longer period of time to assimilate, and consequently we receive better treatment and representation.
Influencing factors also stretch back further into the past – Italy enjoyed centuries of major cultural, technological, and economic exchange with the rest of Europe that Asia flatly lacked. Religious cohesion and shared linguistic origins also bond Europeans closer together.
And then there’s even just basic genetics and phenotypes. Physiologically speaking, despite mediterranean swarthiness, the visual similarities between Italians and other Europeans are pretty high.
So there seems to be something to the whole notion that even if a movie like Star Wars is full of mostly British actors, my ancestry’s high compatibility with other European groupings makes it easy for me to feel well represented?
But then why do I fail to relate with those characters? Is it just my own personal oddity that I tend to gravitate towards characters who are less physically like myself than others? Or is there some other factor at work?
One thing I haven’t touched upon is personality and behavior. If I look at characters like Luke and Obi-wan, I realize they don’t act or think like I do – or even how I would want to act in an idealized fantasy. Luke’s kind of wishy-washy and bland when you stop and think about it, and Obi-wan is more passive and collected than I’ve ever really been.
I found myself much more able to relate to Leia’s fiesty, cynical badgering and Han’s devil-may-care attitude than most other characters. Maybe it simply fit better with my own classically animated Italian American family bantering? Lots of cheek, lots of teasing, lots of sarcasm, and beneath it all a great deal of love that we don’t always express very well.
And when Lando shows up as a confident, cheeky, wide-smiling loveable rapscallion whose greatest weakness is trusting the Empire in a ploy to protect the people of the city he is responsible for? Talk about your idealized hero figures!
He’s charismatic, he’s capable, he’s intelligent, he’s confident, he’s loyal to his friends (having to betray Han troubles him deeply), he’s charming with the ladies, he’s funny, he’s brave… the guy’s pretty much the epitome of an awesome role model.
Ultimately, I’m not sure why, exactly, I relate to the characters I do. I’m not sure I’m self aware enough to figure out my psychology deeply enough to make sense of it, and I’ve rambled long enough already. But it certainly has been food for thought!