Like a lot of female Star Wars fans, I was thrilled by the introduction of Rey (Daisy Ridley) in The Force Awakens: how centered she was in the narrative, how her story seems to be the main hero’s journey we’re going on this time around.
But I was equally thrilled by the introduction of a far less prominent female character: Jess Pava (Jessica Henwick), the badass Asian lady X-wing pilot who shows up during the climactic battle. I was immediately obsessed. I scoured the internet for more information, watched her scene extra closely during repeat viewings, and bought the Force Awakens visual dictionary simply because I knew it had a gigantic picture of her.
I’ve written about my search and longing for more Asian female characters in my beloved SF/F stories—characters who look like me, characters I can imprint on, characters that show me I too can be an X-wing pilot. Finding one in Star Wars, one of my original fandoms, made me downright teary (and momentarily terrified they were going to kill her off. Thankfully, Jess Pava lived to fight another day, and hopefully many more after that).
When I was younger, the mere existence of these characters would have been enough, even in bit roles or supporting sidekick parts. But now I want more. I want protagonists. I want a whole freaking Star Wars movie dedicated to Jess Pava. I love that we’re finally starting to get Asian lady characters who are more centered, like Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) and Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) on Agents of SHIELD, the various Sharons (Grace Park) on Battlestar Galactica, and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) in Pacific Rim. But for every character that gets a decent amount of screen time, there’s a Jubilee (Lana Condor) in X-Men: Apocalypse—present all too briefly, then shunted to the side. Or worse, when a prominent Asian lady role comes up, it’s cast with a non-Asian actress (see: Ghost in the Shell, Battle Angel Alita).
The longing for centered representation in genre is one of the reasons I wrote my novel, Heroine Complex, the first in a series starring Asian American superheroines. The protagonist of the book, Evie Tanaka, starts out as a sidekick of sorts—the personal assistant to a glamorous superheroine—and must learn how to be a hero in her own right. In that vein, here are some female Asian/Asian American/Pacific Islander characters from genre movies and TV who I’d love to see step out of the supporting role shadows and into the lead.
(Warning: there are SPOILERS for the properties discussed.)
Jess Pava (Jessica Henwick), The Force Awakens
When it comes to Jess Pava’s ace X-wing piloting, there is much to explore—perhaps she can team up with the (still secret) character played by Kelly Marie Tran in Episode VIII for some awesome Asian girl adventures in ass-kicking? Henwick has also been cast as Colleen Wing in Marvel’s upcoming Iron Fist TV show and I can’t help but hope she’ll just take it over altogether. (A Daughters of the Dragon TV show with Colleen and Misty Knight is my ultimate dream.)
Demora Sulu (Jacqueline Kim), Star Trek: Generations
I’ve written quite a bit about Demora already, but basically: she’s Sulu’s daughter and she shows up for like five minutes in Generations to remind Kirk that he’s old and I’m still totally obsessed with her. Demora Sulu for captain of the next Enterprise!
Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim), Avengers: Age of Ultron
We’re so starved for women of color representation in the cinematic Marvel U that at first I was just happy to see Helen Cho show up, express interest in Thor, and hang out with the core Avengers. When she was captured by Ultron, I was terrified she was going to get killed (and so was the rest of my Asian geek girl gang—whenever a WOC shows up in a huge genre property, there is a general assumption she’ll be used as cannon fodder), so it was a big relief to see her alive and well at the end of the movie. But the more I thought about Helen—who seems smart, resourceful, and generally cool—the more I longed to see her having her own adventures.
Nani Pelekai (Tia Carrere), Lilo & Stitch
Nani exists in a property that actually does center a woman of color—her younger sister Lilo. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself drawn to Nani’s story more and more, and wondering what a tale might be like from her point of view. I mean, she’s the sole parental figure to a rambunctious younger sibling who ends up adopting a weird alien experiment as the household pet. And she somehow also finds time to support her family and date a really cute surfer. I would love to see what the prickly, complicated, ultimately loving sister relationship with Lilo looks like from Nani’s side of things.
The Writer (Anna Akana), Ant-Man
I’m a big fan of Anna Akana’s standup and YouTube videos, and she packs a boatload of charisma and sass into her brief appearance as Ant-Man’s “crazy stupid fine writer chick.” Even the tiniest crumbs revealed about the character are intriguing (she’s “a boss in the world of guerilla journalism,” she has connections to the Avengers), so obviously a whole movie about her would be even better. Basically, a superhero movie starring Anna Akana is all I want out of life.
Meera Malik (Parminder Nagra), The Black List
I don’t know if The Black List technically qualifies as sci-fi, but some of its more outlandish reveals certainly trend in that direction. In any case, I’d like to suggest the show go full sci-fi and resurrect CIA agent Meera Malik from the dead. In my opinion, the strong-willed, sharp-as-a-tack Meera was never explored to her full potential—she’s one of those characters who sent me scurrying for fanfic after every episode.
Rain Lao (Angelababy), Independence Day: Resurgence
I was excited when an Asian lady fighter pilot popped up in a big, splashy summer would-be blockbuster. I was far less excited when it became apparent that she was mostly there to be viewed through a male gaze-y lens as the object of a white dude’s affection. But really, that sort of encapsulates what this list is all about: it used to be enough for me to see Asian women existing at all in genre. Now I want to see them existing on their own terms: as lead characters worthy of having their stories told.
Sarah Kuhn is the author of Heroine Complex—the first in a series starring Asian American superheroines—for DAW Books. She also wrote The Ruby Equation for the Eisner-nominated comics anthology Fresh Romance and the romantic comedy novella One Con Glory, which earned praise from io9 and USA Today and is in development as a feature film. Her articles and essays on such topics as geek girl culture, Asian American representation, and Sailor Moon cosplay have appeared in The Toast, Uncanny Magazine, Apex Magazine, AngryAsianMan.com, IGN.com, Back Stage, The Hollywood Reporter, StarTrek.com, Creative Screenwriting, and the Hugo-nominated anthology Chicks Dig Comics. In 2011, she was selected as a finalist for the CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) New Writers Award. You can visit her at heroinecomplex.com or on Twitter: @sarahkuhn.