KELLY MARIE TRAN, the actress best known for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” deleted all her posts on Instagram this week, leaving her 192,000 followers to see nothing but a note that says: “Afraid, but doing it anyway.”
The immediate question sparked by Tran’s sudden action: Was she moved to do so because of online harassment?
Tran, the first Asian American actress to have a leading role in a Star Wars movie, is part of the franchise’s increasing racial and gender diversity.
That shift has sparked particularly intense reactions from fans — both positive and negative.
The Star Wars universe has been political since it landed in theaters in 1977, of course. But Disney/Lucasfilm’s reboot of the franchise in the era of Twitter and Instagram has faced new levels of scrutiny, support and backlash over issues of cultural identity and multiculturalism.
Compare the Star Wars universe to that of Star Trek, which Gene Roddenberry envisioned as a future ideal that reflected the diversity of the United Nations. By contrast, George Lucas’s “Flash Gordon”-inspired space opera — with all its retro influences — was hardly aiming to be so socially progressive.
From out of the gate under new parent Disney, though, Star Wars grew far more diverse. As my Post colleague Alyssa Rosenberg noted shortly before 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opened: “Part of what’s striking … for ‘The Force Awakens’ is the explicit way it positions a woman — Rey (Daisy Ridley) — and a man of color — Finn (John Boyega) — as the inheritors of Luke’s role.”
While “The Force Awakens” may have stoked debate over its less monochromatic and male-dominant human contingent, “The Last Jedi” — arriving at the end of Year One of President Trump — became a flash point for conversations that mirrored larger culture wars.
Writer-director Rian Johnson gave “Last Jedi” viewers at least four Resistance characters — including Tran’s Rose — who received featured prominence as fierce female warriors. Such representation prompted spasms of backlash, including a now-removed “alt-right” Facebook page titled, “Down With Disney’s Treatment of Franchises and Its Fanboys.”
Since 2015, Tran, the Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o and the Golden Globe-nominated Thandie Newton have all become pioneering women of color in the Star Wars universe, representing a distinct progression in representation. But Tran and Ridley have especially been singled out for criticism on social media.
On Instagram, Tran, a 29-year-old Vietnamese American actress, had offered upbeat and encouraging posts, such as images of her and castmate Ngô Thanh Vân — credited in “Last Jedi” as Veronica Ngo — wearing traditional Vietnamese clothing in the fall while promoting the film in Vietnam. In her press tour posts, Tran also expressed pride in her heritage, as HuffPost reported.
“So much of me is because of what my parents experienced in this country,” Tran wrote of Vietnam in an Instagram post. “So much of me is because of the things my parents overcame so that I could have the luxury of having a dream.”
But Tran — who played Resistance mechanic Rose Tico in “Last Jedi” — faced online trolling and harassment as the divisive film opened in December. Several days after the film’s release, for instance, the fan-run encyclopedia site “Wookieepedia” was edited to contain racist comments about her, according to multiple outlets.
In noting the change in Tran’s account Monday, the fan site Star Wars Facts pointed to “months of harassment” that Tran had faced over her portrayal of Rose.
Tran’s publicist has not responded to The Washington Post’s requests for comment. But Johnson wrote Tuesday about his larger view of online fans, tweeting: “On social media a few unhealthy people can cast a big shadow on the wall, but over the past 4 years I’ve met lots of real fellow SW fans. … We’re the VAST majority.”
Johnson also tweeted about the difference between “not liking a movie and hatefully harassing a woman so bad she has to get off social media.”
Before being cast in “Last Jedi,” Tran was a relatively little-known comedic actress in films and web series. Similarly, Ridley was launched into global fame before retreating from social media.
“I was on Instagram, trying to do that whole thing, and people weren’t very nice,” Ridley told Glamour last year about quitting the platform in 2016 — the year after she first starred as the heroine Rey in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
“I posted a thing about gun regulations, because I was at an event in tribute to the Orlando shooting at Pulse. People weren’t nice about how I looked. And I was like, ‘I’m out.’ Simple as that. That is not what I signed up for.”
Ridley went on to say about social media: “It’s not good for me, personally. I’m just not equipped for it. I’m super-sensitive — not too sensitive — but I really feel things.
“Also there is also a sense that I’m asked who I’m dating a lot more than [co-star] John [Boyega] is. I don’t answer, because I have things in my life that are private.”