Tag Archives: appropriation

Rogue One smacks of Star Wars‘ obsession with aggressive appropriation

As you might have read from my Rogue One review, I enjoyed it very much. But with the good comes the bad, and I had some gripes with it. One gripe I forgot to mention in my review was the uber-aggressive Arab world coding they were doing in it. It had gotten so aggressive on Jedha that I was literally taken out of the movie at points and was like, “Where’d they film this?!”

I was reminded of my distaste for these films when I saw Twitter user Dina’s thread on the subject. Key takeaways:

So key questions to ask here are 1) Why did the film get this aggressive with its coding, 2) How hurtful is it to the average American’s international knowledge, and 3) How can Hollywood wean themselves away from projecting the same stereotypes on foreign places?

1: Why did the film get this aggressive with its coding?

Star Wars has a history of being slightly aggressive with coding planets with real world analogs. Tatooine is basically the Sahara Desert, but was actually filmed in Tunisia and America’s Death Valley. Yavin 4 is a lush jungle planet, which was represented by Guatemala’s Tikal ruins and the forests the ruins reside in. For every planet, there’s a real world place. But beyond just the filming locations, other parts of the planets crib from real life as well. For instance, George Lucas got the name “Tatooine” from the real Tunisian city Tataouine. Similarly, as Dina points out, The planet Jedha gets its name from Jeddah, a city in Saudi Arabia.

Of course, seeing how this film is made by terrestrial humans who have never been to space, much less to other galaxies and off-world terrains, it’s understandable why the planets (which, if we’re being honest, act more like moons than actual planets with different continents and climates) feel familiar to us. It’s because they, in many ways, are familiar. They’re a collection of earth’s coolest/most awe-inspiring places, launched into a space opera.

However, using a desert for a desert planet is benign. When you start cribbing parts of cultures while layering stereotypical imagery onto planet’s people, then we have a problem.

Let’s get into what makes Jedha troublesome.

Jedha as Mecca: The official description of Jedha is that it’s a holy city for those who are disciples of the Force. Rogue One director Gareth Edwards has described it, quite literally, as Mecca. To quote him (via MTV News):

“If A New Hope is kind of like the story of Jesus, there must be a whole religion beyond that,” he said. “We felt like, for 1,000 generations, the Jedi were kind of these leaders of the spiritual belief system. It’s got to be like a Mecca or a Jerusalem, but in the Star Wars world.”

In the story of Star Wars, it makes sense that there should be a holy city. But does it have to be quite literally a city that takes all of the stereotypes of the Arab world and mash them together? Take a look at these pictures, culled from various press junkets and collections of official Star Wars images and screenshots:

Do these images seem familiar? Well, you might have seen some of their other brothers in Raiders of the Lost Ark:

and The Phantom Menace.

There are other tropes like this found throughout film and television. Dina notes Homeland, which is a great example, as well as Season 4 of Sherlock:

And Lawrence of Arabia:

And many more.

Hollywood’s fascination with what I’m calling “the bazaar aesthetic” is something that’s throughout film, and sure, bazaars exist throughout the Middle East and India, as shown below. But even then, there’s varying difference between bazaars; they don’t all look the same.

Hyderabad bazaar
near Charminar, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India. (Ryan/Flickr Creative Commons)


Grand Bazaar in Kapali Carsi, Istanbul, Istanbul (Antti T. Nissinen/Flickr Creative Commons)

But that’s not all to the Middle East. Take for instance Jordan, where some of the Jedha desert scenes were filmed. What Rogue One used were Jordan’s deserts for the outskirts of Jedha. That’s cool. But let’s also look at what else Jordan has to offer in the real world aside from its deserts:

Jordan Trip (Christian Heilmann/Flickr Creative Commons)


Amman, Jordan (Alicia Bramlett/Flickr Creative Commons)


Jordan Trip (Christian Heilmann/Flickr Creative Commons)


Aqaba Street, Jordan
The main street along the sea front in the centre of Aqaba, Jordan. (Rob/Flickr Creative Commons/www.bbmexplorer.com)

Of course, the main Jedha scenes were shot at Pinewood Studios in London, but I’m using these images of modern Jordan because the tropes of Jedha reflect on the Middle East as a whole. Hollywood would have you believe that the Middle East is all desert and open-air markets, but surprise! The Middle East is just like the rest of the world; full of paved roads, cars, and buildings.

Seriously aggressive sartorial references to the Middle East: It’s worth pointing out that the headscarves and ceremonial robes found in Jedha reference today’s headscarves, hijabs, niqabs, and burkas worn in various parts of the Middle East. Not that there wouldn’t be an outer space city that might have a cultural tie to head coverings, but it’s especially noteworthy that a place designed to be Space Mecca also has clothing with such overt references to Islam. Did the allegory have to be taken this far in Star Wars, to the point that we forget a little that we’re watching a film about distant planets?

Also, the act of using Islamic sartorial choices goes along with Star Wars‘ other practice of cribbing cultural and ethnic styles and arranging them in a mish-mash to “create” something otherworldly. This practice goes all the way back to Princess Leia’s “cinnamon buns,” the style stemming from Lucas supposedly using Revolutionary-era Mexican women freedom fighters, or soldaderas, as inspiration. However, there’s been contention with that statement, and some now link Leia’s hairstyle to the hairstyles worn by the women of the Hopi tribe. But the appropriation-as-inspiration practice was at its height during the years of the Star Wars prequels, in which Padme/Queen Amidala had styles ranging from Japanese geisha to ancient Mongolian elite, to African updo to actual Hopi hair buns.

Inspiration: Geisha

Inspiration: Mongolian headdress

Inspiration: Geisha

Inspiration: Hopi hairstyle

Inspiration: The hairstyles of the Mangbetu women of the Congo

I get that these styles are “cool,” but they aren’t just cool for cool’s sake; there’s are complete cultures these styles are attached to, and to rob them of their actual context by putting them in a “cultureless” space opera whitewashes these styles to a certain degree.

2: How hurtful is it to the average American’s international knowledge?

The answer is simple: Americans already believe in too many stereotypes as it is. Due to what the media tells us about foreign locales, we believe that cities that aren’t in the Western world are behind the times or haven’t been affected (for better or worse) by westernization and capitalism.

Another example of a modern movie casting a “noble savage” light on a foreign place: Doctor Strange. As I wrote in my review of the film, the film posits Nepal as a place that still hasn’t been touched by the effects of the 21st century.

The film portrayed Nepal as some mystical place without roads or modern transportation. Everyone looked like they were mere seconds away from getting on their knees to pray. Religion might be a huge part of a country, but that doesn’t mean everyone in the country have to look like devotees. The film shows a side of Nepal that looks like this:

Kathmandu, Nepal--Asan Tole Market by Juan Antonio F. Segal (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Kathmandu, Nepal–Asan Tole Market by Juan Antonio F. Segal (Flickr/Creative Commons)

This picture looks similar to the types of crowds Stephen Strange came upon as he was looking for The Ancient One. But Nepal also looks like this:

Shiddha Pokhari by Dhilung Kirat "This centuries old pond is situated at Dudhpati-17 the entrance of the ancient city Bhaktapur. This 275m×92m pond was built in the early fifteenth century during the reign of King Yakshya Malla. It is considered as the most ancient pond in Bhaktapur which is known to have many myths associated to it. Nowadays, the pond of both religious and archeological importance has been one of the popular hangout and dating destinations in Kathmandu valley." (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Shiddha Pokhari by Dhilung Kirat
“This centuries old pond is situated at Dudhpati-17 the entrance of the ancient city Bhaktapur. This 275m×92m pond was built in the early fifteenth century during the reign of King Yakshya Malla. It is considered as the most ancient pond in Bhaktapur which is known to have many myths associated to it. Nowadays, the pond of both religious and archeological importance has been one of the popular hangout and dating destinations in Kathmandu valley.”
(Flickr/Creative Commons)


Kathmandu Valley Sunset by Mike Behnken (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Kathmandu Valley Sunset by Mike Behnken (Flickr/Creative Commons)


Kathmandu , Nepal,Himalayas,Everest by ilkerender (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Kathmandu , Nepal,Himalayas,Everest by ilkerender (Flickr/Creative Commons)


Boats at Lake Phewa in Pokhara, Nepal by Mario Micklisch (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Boats at Lake Phewa in Pokhara, Nepal by Mario Micklisch (Flickr/Creative Commons)


Nepal, Kathmandu, Boudhanath by SCILLA KIM (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Nepal, Kathmandu, Boudhanath by SCILLA KIM (Flickr/Creative Commons)

The point is there’s a lot more to Nepal, to just Kathmandu, than the film suggests. Is there time to visit every locale in Nepal? Of course not. But there was enough time to not give Nepal the “noble savage” treatment, which means, according to Wikipedia:

A noble savage is a literary stock character who embodies the concept of an idealized indigene, outsider, or “other” who has not been “corrupted” by civilization, and therefore symbolizes humanity’s innate goodness. In English, the phrase first appeared in the 17th century in John Dryden‘s heroic play The Conquest of Granada (1672), wherein it was used in reference to newly created man. “Savage” at that time could mean “wild beast” as well as “wild man”.[2] The phrase later became identified with the idealized picture of “nature’s gentleman”, which was an aspect of 18th-century sentimentalism. The noble savage achieved prominence as an oxymoronic rhetorical device after 1851, when used sarcastically as the title for a satirical essay by English novelist Charles Dickens, whom some believe may have wished to disassociate himself from what he viewed as the “feminine” sentimentality of 18th and early 19th-century romantic primitivism.[a] 

Even though the film didn’t have any of the extras speak, it clearly showcased Kathmandu as an idealistically mystical, Othered space, with closeups on holy men and temples. The extras also weren’t wearing Western clothes, something that further separated them from actual depictions of 21st century Nepalese people. Western exports have made their way all around the globe, including Nepal, and as you can see in the above pictures, folks are wearing leather jackets, hoodies, polo shirts, slacks and jeans. Even the woman with the shawl on in the first picture is wearing Westernized sandals, a long-sleeved red shirt and some green pants, and one of the men buying her wares, the guy with the leather jacket, has an iPod. If you took a shot of the extras in the Kathmandu sequence and put it in black and white, it could act as a shot from a film about Nepal in the 1800s, not the 21st century. This is not to say that portraying Nepalese people wearing traditional clothing is anachronistic; what I am saying is that painting a picture of the Nepalese as a people who haven’t been affected by world commerce and capitalism is a false picture.

The “noble savage” idea wasn’t explicit, but it was very subtly implied in order to make Kathmandu seem like a perfect place for The Ancient One and to act as further contrast to Stephen’s New York sensibilities and, indeed, his whiteness.

When movies decide to portray places in a stereotypical fashion, it’s too easy for the stereotype to be accepted as the truth. It’s even more dangerous to use stereotypes in science fiction; when a place can look like anything and be anything, why rely on stereotypes? But when stereotypes get used in science fiction or fantasy, they’re usually couched in the excuse of “Well, it’s not real anyway! It can look however the creator wants it to look.” But when we’re limiting what’s possible in the imagination, we’re also dulling our senses to what actually exists in reality.

3: How can Hollywood wean themselves away from projecting the same stereotypes on foreign places?

The quickest answer is for Hollywood to start using a bit more imagination when coming up with a look for a futuristic place. Too often, science fiction relies on stereotypes or cultures-as-backdrop to do much of the heavy lifting in a scene. For instance, Blade Runner, in which an aggressive Japanese undercurrent can be seen in futuristic San Francisco.

Actress Alexis Rhee portrays the geisha depicted in Blade Runner. (Warner Bros.)

Of course, it can be explained away that San Francisco has a high Japanese population, so perhaps San Francisco would embrace more of Japan the more futuristic it gets. However, there’s hardly an Asian person in Blade Runner–Alexis Rhee, who is the billboard geisha, and James Hong as Hannibal Chew, round out the film’s Asian population. So the whole effect comes off as a cynical costume for a huge audience payoff.

Currently, we have Ghost in the Shell coming in where the original Blade Runner left off, using Japan itself as a costume for a film lacking in Japanese characters.

It literally uses the same billboard idea from Blade Runner. (Paramount Pictures)

Hollywood has got to stop relying on tired tropes like these. It only helps keep America in the dark about its neighbors, and it keeps movies themselves from having an even greater impact than they could have.

Star Wars images: Lucasfilm/Disney

Five Fantasy Books by Native Authors to Combat J.K. Rowling’s “History of Magic in North America”

You might have heard about J.K. Rowling’s literary misfire in recent days. The Harry Potter writer is busy creating new stories for her Magical Beasts and Where to Find Them movie, and a new set of stories, telling the history of magical North America, hit Pottermore to eager fans. A promotional trailer was also released, in which some of the details of her North American history are revealed.

I’ve been a fan of the Harry Potter books, despite my personal gripes. But one of gripe I had while reading her textbook tie-ins was that America was always put into stereotype. We didn’t get Quidditch; we got some dumb analog to American football because Americans are just more brutish that way (that’s how I interpreted it anyway). Now, we Americans don’t have the simple term “muggle” to describe non-magical people; we have some clunky term like “No-Maj,” which seems to imply that America’s usage of English is clunky and fumbly, unlike the Brits’ musical-sounding words. But she’s not the first European to view America as an overbearing, loud place, and she won’t be the last. And in truth, if she had stopped at just a history of white America, she might have saved herself some grief. But she decided to include Native American history into her fictional tale, and that has proved disastrous, and rightly so.

The major points of contention are:

• JKR lumped all of Native American culture together in one term, a term we should all be careful about using: “Native American community.” Native Appropriations’ Dr. Adrienne Keene writes that that phrase represents “[o]ne of the largest fights in the world of representations,” which is “to recognize Native peoples and communities and cultures” as “diverse, complex, and vastly different from one another.”

•  JKR appropriated the Skin-walker myth. JKR writes in her story that skin-walkers are a myth created around Native American Animagi (animagi being people who can transform into animals, like Professor McGonagall). The myth states that the skin-walkers had “sacrificed close family members to gain their powers of transformation,” but in her world, the Native American Animagi used their powers “to escape persecution or to hut for the tribe.” She goes AWOL when she decides to call the Skin-walker myth itself “derogatory rumours often originated with No-Maj medicine men, who were sometimes faking magical powers themselves, and fearful of exposure.”

The skin-walker (yee naaldooshii) legend itself, in actuality, is of Navajo origin, and refers to a witch who gains their power to transform by breaking cultural taboo. Medicine men aren’t the same as skin-walker witches, since witches are using their methods to harm, and medicine men are using theirs to heal. I got my info from Wikipedia as well as other sites, which shows that it’s not that difficult to at least try to pay homage to a particular culture’s legends. I admitted the little research I’ve done because I’m not going to act like I’m an expert on Navajo culture; far from it. But Keene’s statement on the myth tells you what you need to know. “…[T]he belief of these things (beings?) has a deep and powerful place in Navajo understandings of the world. It is connected to many other concepts and many other ceremonial understandings and lifeways. It is not just a scary story, or something to tell kids to get them to behave, it’s much deeper than that.” So with that said, why does JKR feel she can call a part of someone else’s belief system “derogatory”?

• JKR doesn’t address the atrocity of white colonialization on Native peoples. In her story, JKR calls Europeans settlers merely “explorers,” as Keene points out, when we know that there was a lot more that went into their “exploring.” It’s currently unclear as to how she will address the full extent of devastation brought on by colonialization, but some clues are probably in how she addresses Africa and India’s magical histories in that same Magical Beasts textbook I mentioned above.

Native American fantasy and sci-fi, written by Native Americans

The story hasn’t gone without getting properly reamed in social media and on numerous websites. But this story is also just one of many stories out there that appropriates and erases Native culture until it can fit into a highly limiting, Eurocentric, often stereotypical view of Native Americans as a whole. JKR’s misstep also begs the question of if this, a story written by a non-Native, is out there, and if there are plenty other books by non-Native authors writing about cultures they might not know anything about, where are the fantasy stories (and sci-fi stories) written by Native American writers? How can we expose ourselves to fantasy that respects Native cultures and exposes non-Native readers to new ideas? Well, check these five examples out:

• Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, edited by Grace L. Dillon

This anthology is a great entryway into the world of Native American fantasy. The anthology, the first of its kind, features fantasy, stream-of-consciousness, sci-fi, and magical realism. Indian Country Today Media Network also states that Dillon, a professor of Indigenous Nations Studies at Portland State University, provides literary and cultural context for each piece, “making this book an excellent starting point for scholars and sci-fi fans alike.”

• Intersection of Fantasy and Native America: From H.P. Lovecraft to Leslie Marmon Silko, edited by Amy H. Sturgis and David D. Oberhelman

This book is more a literary study than an actual sci-fi or fantasy novel, but such a text is also useful for those wanting to become more versed in Native American fantasy and speculative fiction. Sturgis, part of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and David D. Oberhelman examine the push and pull between stories by Native authors such as Gerald Vizenor, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich, and non-Native uthors like J.R.R. Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft, and ironically enough, J.K. Rowling.

• Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles, Gerald Vizenor

Vizenor, part of the Anishinaabe people and a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, White Earth Reservation, envisioned the destruction of America amid, as Wikipedia describes, “white greed for oil,” leading tribe of pilgrims to traverse the country’s dystopia. It could very well be argued that Vizenor’s then fictional world is coming true, seeing how bad climate change has become, much of it fueled by irresponsibility and a desire for oil. Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles was part of the literary movement known as the Native American Renaissance, which took place during the 1990s.

• The Tantalize Series by Cynthia Leitich Smith

The Tantalize Series, by Smith, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, writes young adult science fiction that also reflects today’s highly diverse society. The series is set in Austin, TX and focuses on a werewolf protagonist who, along with her uncle, open a vampire-themed restaurant. But when a murder leaves them without a chef, they have to transform their new fill-in into a convincing vampire. This leads to a love triangle, skirmishes with the supernatural, and the reveal of just who is playing whom.

• Robopocalypse, Daniel H. Wilson

Robopocalypse, by roboticist, Popular Mechanics contributor, and television host Wilson, of Cherokee heritage, advances the idea (and the fear) of robots becoming sentient and, of course, against humanity. In Wilson’s world, a supercomputer turns the world’s technology against its creators, killing most of the world. The only hope left is, as Tribal College Journal’s Ryan Winn describes it, “an off-the-grid Osage stronghold where humans resisting the assault find sanctuary.” The fact that this book (and its sequel, Robogenesis), is written by a robotics engineer makes the story even that more terrifying due to its potential plausibility.

There are more books out there, but the difference between throwing up your hands in defeat and actually finding them is putting in the work. The literary world is still very homogenous, to be nice about it. To be honest about it, the literary world is a colonialized, whitewashed place, with too many literary agents (many who are white) picking authors (many who are white) that reflect their same worldview. Finding proper representation in the literary world takes some work, but it’s out there.

What we as a society should work on is lifting up marginalized voices, such as Native writers. Their stories are just as valuable to the literary framework, and lifting up those voices would alleviate the anxiety that comes when other writers are given unmitigated freedom to write about characters from different cultures and races. When more Native American writers are given the chance to write about their experiences, and when they’re given the correct exposure, then everyone wins.

Click to read the latest issue!

But you still want to write your story about Native Americans. What you can learn from JKR’s missteps when it comes to writing about Native cultures (and any culture that’s not your own):

With all of this said, I’m sure there are still many of you writers out there who want to use Native American characters and cultural elements in future stories, but don’t want to fall into the JKR trap. From both my passive and active experiences, I can offer the following advice that might come in handy.

The lessons we can glean from JKR’s mistakes are lessons that we can learn from many books throughout history, including classics like the Tarzan series, movies like Disney’s Peter Pan, and books-turned-movies like The Help.

• Do your research. If you’re not of a culture, it would behoove you to crack open a book, or get on Google, or do something to arm yourself with knowledge before ever writing anything down. JKR’s lack of success when it comes to writing about Native American beliefs as a whole is that it would appear she did cursory research, but neglected to go deeper into any of the things she was investigating. For instance, Skin-walkers. Instead of co-opting the term and turning it into something of her own creation, she could have incorporated the belief as it is and as it has been for centuries without changing it into a “derogatory” set of “rumours” created by non-magical people. She could have shown some level of sensitivity.

• Once you do your research and get comfortable, you still might have some questions. It doesn’t hurt to ask someone—RESPECTFULLY—to help you out. As an outsider, you will never know everything that comes with being the race you’re writing about, but you can gain some valuable insight from someone who agrees to work with you on your story.

JKR could have asked for a Native American writer or consultant, or several Native American writers, consultants, and historians, to help her edit her story and point out some things she should include more of or forget altogether. This brings up another point: I’d suggest you only ask a person of the culture you’re writing for help after you’ve done the proper legwork necessary in terms of research. Don’t expect a person not of your culture or race to fill in everything for you, since that’s not how reciprocity or actual cultural exchange works. You come with your knowledge, and ask for guidance. Don’t expect that person to be the representation of all of their people. No race or ethnicity is a monolith; Native American culture is certainly not a monolith, since there are many different nations and tribes with their own customs and cultural attitudes. I can’t say this enough: CULTURES AND PEOPLE OF THOSE CULTURES ARE NOT MONOLITHIC. THIS ISN’T STAR TREK.

•Don’t take something of another culture and appropriate it to mean something else. Where JKR lost many is when she decided that the Skin-walker myth was something she could create into her own idea. It’s similar to how white Christianity turned voodoo into the devil’s religion, when it’s not that all. Cultural mythos and belief systems, especially the belief systems and myths of cultures that are routinely forgotten and appropriated in society, should be honored and respected. There’s still a way to incorporate these ideas into modern literature, but to me, the way to do that is to keep the original myth intact.

To this point, I also add: Don’t rewrite a peoples’ entire history on the earth to suit your whims. JKR’s attempts to write a complex history of American magic and provide a nuanced, diverse approach to inclusion, but her efforts became hamfisted, seeing how her knowledge on Native America, and America in general, is limited to stereotype. JKR writes of Native Americans, as a whole, as a magical people, but limiting an entire group to “magic” undercuts any of JKR’s good intentions and just makes her Native American characters “magical ethnic” tropes and flattens any inroads towards learning at least the very basics about the many types of Native American cultures. Again, to use voodoo, Americans (and I’m sure Europeans as well) tend to limit Africa to witchcraft (or huts, child solidiers, or the Savannah). None of these express the cultural, societal, ethnic, and racial complexities of an entire continent.

• If you still feel uncomfortable and believe you could offend people, just don’t write about that culture. There’s a lot more I could say about this, but you can’t write about what you don’t know.

• Despite your best intentions and even after you research and get outside help, you’re still taking a risk in misrepresenting a culture that’s not your own. Taking precautions and utilizing sensitivity can help you mitigate any issues, but you’ve got to remember that you’re still the outsider, and the insiders have every right to dissect what you’ve put out. Be careful.

These are just basic lessons, and I’m sure there are plenty more that can be learned from JKR’s mistake. Overall, if a writing decision feels sketchy, just don’t do it. You’ll save yourself headaches.

Great blogs on the subject:

They Are Not Ghosts: On the Representation of the Indigenous Peoples of North America in Science Fiction & Fantasy (aidenmoher.com)

“Formations of ‘Indian’ Fantasies: European Museums and the Decontextualization of Native American Art and Artifacts”

Non-white Protagonists in Fantasy and Science Fiction (theillustratedpage.wordpress.com)

Native American and Speculative Fiction: An Interview with Amy H. Sturgis (journeytothesea.com)

Native Americans to J.K. Rowling: We’re Not Magical (National Geographic)

Critic’s Notebook: J.K. Rowling’s ‘History of Magic in North America’ Reads Like a High School Textbook