2016 started off as a farcical mess of a year and quickly descended into something much more awful than anyone anticipated. Despite this, however, I have tried to remain hopeful–after all, this is the future where we get a new Star Wars movie every year. That is one bright spot in the sea of troubles that has not relented since the ball dropped in New York City eleven months ago. Still, in true 2016 nature, we could not have our blue milk and drink it too. The question remains…
Where in the world is Bodhi Rook?
Bodhi is one of the six main protagonists in the upcoming film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the rebel team’s lead pilot and go-to man for technical skills. He has a rich backstory, reminiscent of Finn’s in The Force Awakens: A cargo pilot employed by the Empire who defects to join the cause of the Rebel Alliance. Plus, he’s portrayed by Riz Ahmed, an extraordinarily talented actor that recently garnered mainstream attention from his roles in Nightcrawler (2014) and in HBO’s The Night Of.
Even at this stage in the game, given LucasFilm’s normal level of secrecy about its upcoming releases, Bodhi has the potential to be an iconic Star Wars character, just as the rest of his Rogue One compatriots do. Except there is one difference: Bodhi is being omitted from merchandise.
It should be noted that the official merchandise from Disney has included Bodhi–he has an action figure and a Lego, a place in the ensemble photo shoot spreads in recent issues of Empire Magazine, and his own Topps trading card. Outside of that, things become a little dicey–if anyone of the main six is excluded, it is always Bodhi.
Take, for example, Funko’s Pop figures released for Rogue One:
Five of the main protagonists have a Pop (Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor, Chirrut Îmwe, Baze Malbus, K-2SO), with Jyn and Cassian receiving alternates. Wild-card Saw Gerrera has one as well. The rest are Imperial characters: Krennic, variations on nameless stormtroopers, R2-D2’s Imperial cousin, and two figures for Darth Vader.
Star Wars fans who have been eagerly anticipating Rogue One since its first teaser was released at the beginning of this year immediately noticed that Bodhi was missing from the lineup and took to Twitter to inquire:
The situation did not improve. In the months following this exchange, numerous members of the Star Wars fandom repeatedly inquired about when they could expect Bodhi to get his own Pop. Funko most often responded with radio silence, at least until one of their Q&A sessions that took place on November 10th:
Two months of regular questioning and about one month out from the premiere of the film and still there are no plans? That is a bold statement considering Funko themselves have said that it takes four months from concept to product to create a new Pop. Even if plans were put in motion the day after this Q&A, the Pop would not be on store shelves until March.
Based on the timeline for the second wave of Pops from The Force Awakens, however, a second Rogue One wave might not even be available until July 2017. Among The Force Awakens’ second wave were new variants of main characters such as Rey, Poe Dameron, Leia Organa, and Kylo Ren–but the most notable are the additions of minor, fairly inconsequential characters that became fan favorites. General Hux, FN-2199 (otherwise known as “TR-8R”), a member of the Guavian Death Gang, a droid that makes a brief appearance in the Takodana cantina. That was Funko answering an unprecedented demand with the supply.
This context lends new meaning to Funko’s original response from September. We know nothing about Bodhi? As early as June, Bodhi was included in an EW article profiling the new characters in the film, and additional interview excerpts with Riz Ahmed have offered more insights into his backstory. We know as much about Bodhi as we do about anyone in the film–and certainly more than the generic stormtroopers and astromech droid that do get a spot in the first wave.
And Bodhi could be a traitor? It could happen, though the likelihood of that plot thread has waned as more backstory emerges. But it is an odd disqualifier for inclusion in the first wave given that known Imperial figures like Darth Vader and Krennic were not disqualified for their own acts of evil, ones that are documented and not the product of hypotheticals.
Both of these reasons offered by Funko appear more as flimsy excuses for why Bodhi was not determined to be important enough–like Hux or FN-2199–for Rogue One’s first wave of Pops. This would be merely annoying in most cases, but Bodhi is not most cases. His is the first main character in the Star Wars universe to be portrayed by a South Asian/Muslim actor.
Why is it that the character played by a Muslim actor of Pakistani descent is the one omitted from most of the group merchandise? Why is it that the Muslim actor of Pakistani descent is the one insinuated to be a traitor with no evidence to back up the claim?
Coincidence? Anything is possible, but nothing exists in a vacuum. Merchandise for women and characters of color are often the most difficult to find for “nerd” properties. Funko didn’t release a Sam Wilson/Falcon Pop in the lineup for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the single Pop of Star Wars Original Trilogy favorite Lando Calrissian is so rare that they go for over $100 on Amazon. Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow is conspicuously absent in Avengers: Age of Ultron Lego sets based on scenes she was in, and there was a noticeable lack of Rey toys in the immediate aftermath of The Force Awakens‘ release.
Bodhi’s absence is part of a pattern. Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Muslim people face an incredible amount of prejudice and hatred in the West today. Muslims living in the West especially have to live their lives knowing a good portion of the people carry the bigoted misconception that their religion is a violent one, urging them to turn against the country in which they reside to wage some form of “holy war.” That incorrect stereotyping is a reality Muslims live with, and then Funko goes on to speculate that Bodhi is a traitor.
At the onset, it seemed less like a coincidence and more like an insidious example of racism and Islamophobia. In the two months that followed, given the noted lack of plans and the uptick of overt Islamophobic sentiment in the United States from Donald Trump’s election, the impression of racism on Funko’s part has only grown.
“Funko’s actions are completely disrespectful not only to the fans who are asking, but to the character and actor,” stated one Star Wars fan who wished to remain anonymous. “To deliberately exclude him and ignore fan discussions on why that is wrong just shows how tone-deaf the company is. Their initial response to fan complaints was childish and rude as well.”
And it’s almost funny–almost–considering much of the work Riz Ahmed has done up to this point in his career. For one, he’s not only an actor, but also a rapper–his music as Riz MC as well as with the group the Swet Shop Boys is highly race-conscious. One of Ahmed’s most well-known songs is specifically about the Muslim experience after 9/11. The track “I Ain’t Being Racist But…” from his 2016 mixtape “Englistan” explicitly tackles the ignorance of white British xenophobia, while 2012’s “All in the Ghetto” criticizes gentrification.
Ahmed also recently posted an essay in The Guardian about how he is stopped at the airport every time he flies into the United States.
From the poisonous rhetoric of the new president-elect to the hijab and burkini bans in France, Islamophobia is an epidemic; so often the arts can push back against bigotry with portrayals of these marginalized communities in a positive light, and that is an enormous part of what makes Bodhi’s inclusion in the Rogue One story so important. Representation matters: it is being able to see someone like you in one of the most iconic film franchises in history and knowing that space belongs to you, too.
And it’s not only representation that matters–it’s the recognition that follows. If you are represented, but your contributions to the story are not recognized as significant, what is that supposed to convey? Bodhi, according to revealed bits of the plot, “kicks off the action” in Rogue One and plays an instrumental role in the film. Yet, he’s still ignored by the Powers That Be controlling the early merchandising, essentially omitting him from this stage of the marketing. Bodhi exists as a positive portrayal of South Asians/Muslims, as a key player in the film’s narrative, yet he is still not important enough in the eyes of others to be included elsewhere.
It undermines the value of what that character brings to the film and even the character itself, and it is downright shameful.
I hope–for Bodhi and Ahmed’s sake, but also for my spiteful side–that Bodhi is not only a fan favorite but also an essential part of Rogue One, and that the marketing teams of the companies that have mysteriously kept him from their group lineups have their Monday-morning meetings with a new level of self-awareness and a smoldering bundle of shame.
High hopes, I know. But do I like to be optimistic.