Truth in Advertising: Considering the Chinese Star Wars Poster

The UK’s Independent Online features an article this morning entitled, “The Chinese version of the Star Wars: Force Awakens poster has edited out the non-white characters,” in which it’s hypothesized that this is likely an example of either Chinese racism or Hollywood assumptions about Chinese racism. The piece is accompanied by this graphic, which shows the two posters back to back:

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and it is absolutely the case that John Boyega’s image is significantly diminished in the Chinese poster, as well as Lupita Nyong’o and Oscar Issac having been erased entirely. And particularly if this is a poster from the home office, as it were, I’m not going to argue that it’s absolutely and positively NOT a racist move.

That said, I see other things happening here that are, to my mind, equally compelling. Daisy Ridley, who’s set front-and-center in both posters, looks here like nothing so much as a cross between young!Leia and Padme; which is to say, as Star Wars iconography goes, she’s familiar even though she’s new – and this (arguably) makes her a stronger selling point for an audience that might be familiar with, in particular, the prequel films, but maybe isn’t quite as caught up in the intricate Star Wars minutiae that’s so appealing to the American fandom. Indeed, minutiae is the name of the game in the English poster: there are more small figures crammed into the center of the poster than one can even make out, again arguably appealing to a fandom that’s already got as intimate a knowledge of the film’s new characters as they possibly can have in this pre-opening period. In contrast, the Chinese poster is about simplicity; it’s a higher concept rendering than the American one, which might have a certain appeal to an audience that’s probably more invested in Star Wars: The Force Awakens as new space spectacle than as youthful/fannish nostalgia.

Additionally, it’s worth noting the sheer hardware of the Chinese poster; that is, the emphasis on droids, ships, and metal masks – all suggestive of a broad, more generalized SF-fantasy genre that, again, seems intended to appeal to the Star Wars newcomer as much as (if not more than) the fan of old. The central droid – BB-8 – is itself at the center of a global marketing blitz – ‘cute’ in a vaguely Japanese way and entirely congruent with an East Asian regional genre of animated (and comic book) stories set in space.

In contrast with, say, the Hong Kong Chinese market, which will more than likely include Star Wars fans of old, the mainland Chinese market likely encompasses a large swath of moviegoers who have no – or only a passing – familiarity with the Star Wars franchise, particularly given the rate at which cinema construction has been expanding to places heretofore almost untouched by commercial theaters. Considered against the backdrop of Mainland China’s own relatively rich history of propaganda posters foregrounding Chinese/African continent solidarity, I’m simply not completely sold on the idea that the image of one dark-skinned character would be detrimental to the film’s marketing in China.

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The Poster Art of Chinese Propaganda | 1949-1990 (Maria Papaefstathiou)

Given Disney’s resistance to much in the way of nuanced understanding of its Marvel and Lucasfilm audiences, I’m not prepared to dismiss the possibility of racism fueling some (possibly even all) of the poster changes. Nonetheless, I can’t help but think the Independent piece leaves a lot unexplored in its clickbait-y rush to read (a particular kind of Western) racism into the Chinese poster.

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