Recently, Dreamworks announced that Scarlett Johansson has been cast as Major Mokoto Kusanagi in the live-action adaptation of the popular manga series Ghost in a Shell. The story follows a cyborg cop heroine as she is on a mission to capture a dangerous cyber-terrorist, the Puppet Master. Scarlett Johansson, hot off of the Avengers franchise and other sci-fi flicks such as Lucy, has the supposed star power to get the movie green-lighted. This, of course, has ruffled a few feathers as one more role for an Asian actress has gone to a white one. Fuel was added to the fire when it was discovered that the studio tried to use CGI technology to make actors in the movie “appear Asian,” a.k.a. digital yellowface. Actresses Constance Wu and Ming-Na Wen have spoken up about the issue.
This isn’t anything new. Hollywood has a terrible track record when it comes to representation of minorities, whether they are racial, sexual, or otherwise. Recent movies such as Pan and Gods of Egypt faced similar criticism when they cast Rooney Mara as a Native American princess and miscellaneous white people as every Egyptian character, respectively. Not to mention the horrible judgment calls that lead to Emma Stone playing a half Asian character in Aloha and Exodus, another movie about Egypt with a white cast. The list is already unacceptably long and it doesn’t even cover the last decade. People are obviously upset at this lack of respect and visual erasure of minorities from stories and characters which they have inspired.This sort of miscasting and whitewashing continues as Natt Wolf has been cast to play Light Yagami in a live-action adaptation of the popular anime Death Note and Tilda Swinton has been cast to play the Ancient One in Marvel’s Doctor Strange.
The explanations given for these decisions somehow are even more misguided. Ridley Scott, the director of Exodus, even went as far to say that “I can’t mount a film of this budget… and say my lead actor is Mohammed so-and-so from such-and-such.” Tilda Swinton has also addressed her casting as the Ancient One, originally a male Tibetan monk. Although the role isn’t an inventive one to begin with as it relies on stereotypes, refusing to cast an Asian actor whether it is a male or a female one is clearly problematic. In response to the controversy, Tilda Swinton made the statement, “I wasn’t asked to play an Asian character, you can be very well assured of that… You just have to wait and see, because it’s not an Asian character.” Ms. Swinton erroneously ignores the problem at the root of the situation. If the character was originally a person of colour and then changed to be written as white, that is symbolic annihilation regardless of the reason.
Asian-inspired franchises have been popping up throughout the last few years with white characters and this trend doesn’t seem to be going away. Dragonball: Evolution, The Last Air Bender and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time were all borrowed or inspired from Asian cultures yet none acknowledged this in their casting. An interesting fact about all three: they were all box office failures. Part of the reason is the fact that miscasting and whitewashing a movie has a strong correlation with how much respect the studios have for the content. On top of that, discounting the international profit Hollywood makes, minority populations in the US alone account for a huge portion of the ticket sales. So not only does whitewashing prove an utter disrespect for the movies themselves, but it also disrespects the audiences. First, Hollywood refuses to cast people of colour in appropriate roles because they aren’t bankable which allows them to keep casting more white actors. Then, come award season, Hollywood will still maintain that there just weren’t any people of color in prominent roles to nominate. These practices act as self-fulfilling prophesies which do nothing more than aid in the symbolic annihilation of people of colour from the media.
As John Tsuei, a comic book writer writes, Ghost in a Shell is inherently a Japanese story about Japanese people. Taking that factor out of the movie will leave it feeling hollow and incomprehensible. With a history of oppression in the United States, Japanese-Americans as well as other people of color deserve to see themselves represented in the stories of Hollywood — especially when Hollywood uses their stories and cultures for profit. The arguments that “Hollywood makes movies for mostly white audiences” or “The studios won’t green-light a POC actor because they have to make money” are all stemming from one fundamental assumption: white people won’t want to watch people of colour on screen. And that one assumption quaintly and effectively underscores why Hollywood is racist. It’s greatly apt that this backlash in culminating around Ghost in a Shell, a narrative in which the main character doesn’t even fully possess her own cybernetic body.