Kelly Marie Tran on Raya, Internet Harassment, and Fandom | Sunday Observer

Kelly Marie Tran on Raya, Internet Harassment, and Fandom

5 June, 2021

Kelly Marie Tran is living proof of the power of representation. The actor’s two breakout roles — as Rose Tico in the latter two-thirds of the Star Wars sequel trilogy and, most recently, as Princess Raya in Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon — provide much-needed Asian visibility in mainstream science fiction and fantasy media. Despite both genres pulling heavily from different Asian cultures, historically, Asian performers or characters in these films and shows are often portrayed in ways that don’t allow them to be fully fleshed out.

As Raya, the first Southeast Asian Disney princess, Kelly voices a character who is brave, clever, and willing to do what it takes to help the people around her. The movie (available on 4K/Blu-ray and digital streaming now) is about a young woman who isn’t afraid to fling herself in the direction of danger. In the film, Raya and a slow-growing band of allies, including the titular last dragon Sisu (Awkwafina), go on a quest to collect the separated pieces of the dragons’ gem, banish the monstrous Druun once and for all, and reunite their people.

Raya’s key traits are present in Kelly, too, even though the context is different. Kelly, who has faced more than her fair share of trolls and racist critics, is an actor who continues to push forward in the face of adversity and negativity. While she’s gotten to see the positive impact of her presence in these films and how a new generation of usually underrepresented fans have embraced her, she’s also been subject to a long and very public harassment campaign from a certain faction of the Star Wars fandom.

In 2018, she deleted her Instagram photos and penned an essay for The New York Times about her experiences with racism not just from one segment of the Star Wars fandom, but also just growing up in the United States, a country where Asian Americans are always “othered.” “I want to live in a world where children of colour don’t spend their entire adolescence wishing to be white,” she wrote at the time. “I want to live in a world where women are not subjected to scrutiny for their appearance, or their actions, or their general existence. I want to live in a world where people of all races, religions, socioeconomic classes, sexual orientations, gender identities and abilities are seen as what they have always been: human beings.”

In a new interview with Teen Vogue, Kelly opened up about experiences with online harassment from aggressive fans, how to handle that harassment, and what it means to see someone who’s a fellow fan have the ultimate fangirl experience.

Stitch: So let’s start with the tough stuff. Because you are incredibly visible, because of the situation that started with the fandom menace — and I think giving these fans a name... I hate that that’s the thing that happens — but that community, they really went in on you, and it was really overtly because of your race, and because of your gender. And you took back your time; you reclaimed it with the op-ed three years ago. One of the things that you did in that moment was you pulled back a lot from social media, from any presence you had digitally. Do you think that helped with what you were dealing with?

KMT: Yeah, absolutely… I think it depends on the person. We’re living in a world where we’re all constantly being bombarded all of the time with so much stimulus, and I don’t know that we are all conscious of the ways in which it affects us. For me, I knew that the most important thing was to protect my mental health, and make myself a space where I felt like I could create again and where I could be an artiste again, which for a time, I didn’t know if I could do that again. That being said, I don’t think leaving social media is the answer for everyone, I think it was the answer for me in the moment. I recognise my own privilege and understand that there are some people who have to be on social media for their work and their positions, and... the thing about it that makes me really upset is just what you were saying in the beginning of us initially speaking, where it’s like, why are we as artists, or as writers, or as creators in the spaces on social media, why are we the ones that have to normalise receiving harassment? That should not be okay.

Stitch: You are absolutely right.

KMT: I don’t wanna live in a world where my kids, and my kid’s kids, all have to be like, “Well, [it’s] normal, babe, sorry, you’re gonna have to get [used to] being called these words.” We need to talk about how we are treating each other, not just in the spaces where we are anonymous, but also spaces where we are, you know, actually in person. I think it is all permeating into society and the more that we normalise an experience where someone anonymously gets the authority to call you something that they wouldn’t call you in public… Where do those lines cross? I never want to normalize any sort of behaviour that gives someone permission to make anyone feel like they are not welcome in a space like that. And I’m sorry, you brought that up in the beginning, and it just makes me so mad that you’ve experienced that as well. So I’m, like, very impassioned at the moment.

Stitch: It’s a lot... It’s something that I’m very interested in analysng. It’s always been really weird becoming part of a story. ‘Cause I’ve been doing this writing about fandom for a decade, becoming part of the story is never fun. At this point, a lot of people are just told, you know, lock your social media accounts; delete the posts that are making people mad at you. But as you pointed out, that’s not good advice, so what advice would you give someone, at any level of harassment, with any level of privilege, what advice would you give them to push back? Especially in the case of the kind of harassment that women of colour get, and especially, increasingly, Asian women from different diasporic communities are getting tons of hate. What advice would you give?

KMT: So, I just wanna acknowledge my own privilege for a second, because I understand that I left social media and yet I still have the ability to use my voice, and I still have the ability to have a platform by talking to amazing individuals, like yourself, and that, for me, is a very mentally healthy thing for me, is to be away from social media. That being said, if you are a person that has to be on that platform for your job, or, you know, in order to get the word out there about something that you are working on that’s important, I think that having limits on social media is really important as well. If you’re able to recognise that it is something that is so new, that there haven’t even been studies about what is going on with our brains, psychologically, when we are constantly being berated… We’re receiving all of the time, and we have no filter on it. It’s just constant, and we don’t even have time to process everything that’s coming at us. So I think my advice to anyone, but also my younger self, would be to take the steps that I need to take to protect my own mental health, and to protect myself, so that I can continue to do the things that I love.

And also recognising that there are ways to exist in the world, even if people are telling you, like, you have to do A, B, and C. I don’t know everyone else’s experience, so I’ll only use myself as an example, but I think there was a time as an actor when I was afraid to leave social media, when all this was happening, because my agents would say like, “Oh well, you can do brand partnerships, or you might wanna do this or that.” I was like, no, I don’t actually want to be selling diet products to young women. Everyone should make decisions for themselves, and even if you feel like it’s a decision that not a lot of people have made, it doesn’t mean that you can’t forge a path for yourself that feels mentally safe and also feels like you can continue to do the work that you love. I think it’s really important to acknowledge that just because things are done a certain way, or have been done a certain way, does not mean that you can’t create a path of your own that is better for yourself.