On April 14th, Paramount Pictures released their first official production photo of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming adaptation of GHOST IN THE SHELL. The film centers around a The Major, a cyborg working for an intelligence agency known as Sector 9 working to thwart cyber criminals and hackers. However, a new enemy has emerged to sabotage the Hanka Robotic’s Artifical Intelligence technology at any cost. Will the Major and her team be able to stop this new threat? The film is being directed by Rupert Sanders of SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN fame, with a script from William Wheeler. The film starts Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Michael Pitt, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Kaori Momoi, and Chi Han and is scheduled for release on March 31st, 2017.
Some fans have expressed their delight of the promotional photo, as Johansson has proved time and again that she has the chops to play the lead in action films. Many people are excited that her star power coupled with the high acclaim of the source material for this upcoming feature will pave the way for more female lead action blockbusters in Hollywood. However, others are none too pleased at the casting. According to an article from The Huffington Post, longtime fans of the many iterations of GHOST IN THE SHELL, be it the television series, the manga, or the film, have been expressing their disappointment with the studio’s casting decision since it was announced last year. There is even an online Care2 petition entitled “DreamWorks: Stop whitewashing Asian characters” that, at the time of this article has reached 89,734 supporters, just shy of its goal of 90,000. Fan outrage has cited this as the latest in a long list of Hollywood whitewashing of Asian roles, and they aren’t exaggerating. In 2015’s Ridley Scott film, THE MARTIAN, MacKenzie Davis played the role of Mindy Park, who was described as Korean-American in the original novel. Scott’s casting choices also came under fire when he said he couldn’t cast middle-eastern actors in EXODUS: GODS AND KINDS in 2014.
“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
Emma Stone was cast to play a character of Asian descent in Cameron Crowe’s ALOHA. After enormous outcry on social media, Crowe issued an apology on his personal blog.
“Thank you so much for all the impassioned comments regarding the casting of the wonderful Emma Stone in the part of Allison Ng. I have heard your words and your disappointment, and I offer you a heart-felt apology to all who felt this was an odd or misguided casting choice…I am grateful for the dialogue. And from the many voices, loud and small, I have learned something very inspiring…So many of us are hungry for stories with more racial diversity, more truth in representation, and I am anxious to help tell those stories in the future.”
Marvel has also come under fire for its casting choices in the upcoming film DOCTOR STRANGE. In DOCTOR STRANGE, The Ancient One who in the comics takes the form of an Asian man, in the film will be played by Tilda Swinton, and the titular Doctor Strange is played by Bennedict Cumberbatch, the latest in a string of white male protagonists leading films in the MCU. Though Doctor Stange’s ethnicity in the comics is ambiguous, many fans were disappointed that Marvel did not take this opportunity to branch out and allow for more open casting. The same can be said for its upcoming Netflix series IRON FIST, where the original comics follows the antiquated troupe of “Mighty Whitey” in which a white character “lives with native people and not only learns their ways but also becomes their greatest warrior/leader/representative.” Many Marvel fans saw this as an opportunity to cast an Asian American actor as a character reconnecting with his heritage rather than the typical “white man learns the value of Asian culture and becomes a martial arts master” story. But to their disappointment, GAME OF THRONES actor Finn Jones was cast as the lead. This isn’t to say that Jones won’t do a good job or that the choice isn’t consistent with the source material, but rather it’s a disappointment in that when presented with the opportunity for diversity, Marvel elected to make the “safe” choice.
I have also expressed my disappointment with American casting of anime adaptations, particularly with the upcoming DEATH NOTE adaptation, which cast Nat Wolff as Light Yagami. The same could be said of Tom Cruise’s casting in EDGE OF TOMORROW, the adaptation of the manga ALL YOU NEED IS KILL. However, the latest outrage towards Johansson’s casting has sparked equally vitriolic remarks from supporters, many of whom are siting “anime characters aren’t Asian”, “shouldn’t you just be happy we have a female lead”, and “no Asian actors have the star power for a Hollywood feature” as their arguments, all of which fall flat when held up under any scrutiny. American audiences see anime characters as “white” because that is their interpretation of the characters, as they see white as the “default human being”. As it turns out, the Japanese draw and see anime characters as representations of themselves. As for those who state that audiences should stop being so “PC” and just be grateful we finally get to see Scarlett Johansson as the lead in an action movie (as many Black Widow fans have long been clamoring for), this argument falls short in two regards, the first of which is that asking for women to be less marginalized doesn’t mean we should marginalize another group (one only needs to see the controversy of the film SUFFERGETTE to note that promoting women’s rights should mean promoting all women’s rights, not just the white ones). Feminism without intersectionality, isn’t real feminism. Secondly, the anit-PC argument is getting stale. As Cracked.com has pointed out on numerous occasions, blaming SJWs and affirmative action initiatives has rapidly become the go-to excuse for people who are called out on their casual racism because they feel like their freedom of speech is being threated or that they are being denied opportunities to succeed because of the call for greater diversity. All these arguments do is perpetuate the more insidious types of racism that persists within our country. The final argument can be summed up in Max Landis’ defense of Johansson, stating that the outcry should not be directed at her, but the industry as a whole.
“The only reason to be upset about Scarlett Johansson being in GHOST IN THE SHELL is if you don’t know how the movie industry works…you’re mad at the wrong people.”
However, giving Hollywood infrastructure a pass is not necessarily the best way to change the system. This is especially troubling amidst the rumors that the studio has been running VFX tests to make Johansson appear more Asian. Though the studio denies this, many media outlets haven’t taken this denial at face value, and have continued the scrutiny of Johansson’s casting in the first place.
Additionally, the ideology of “there are no A-list Asian stars” creates a vicious cycle of exclusion, if we never give Asian actors the chance to shine, how can they ever become stars? As it stands, it seems that Asian actors can only break through the system when they fall in to the stereotypes and particular archetypes, as highlighted in the DOCTOR HORRIBLE SING-A-LONG commentary track.
Ming-Na Wen of MULAN and AGENTS OF SHIELD fame has expressed her disappointment on social media as well.
Many fans have expressed their desire to see PACIFIC RIM’s Rinko Kikuchi as The Major, as she is a Japanese actress who has proven herself as a lovable protagonist in the 2013 action-adventure film, and was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal in 2006’s BABEL (for context, she was the first Japanese actress to be nominated for an Academy Award in 50 years).
John Oliver’s run on LAST WEEK TONIGHT has also been quick to point out that there are still numerous examples of overtly racist facets of the media, often leading both the writers of the show and audiences alike to ask themselves “How is this still a thing?”
In my DEATH NOTE article, I asked Hollywood to hold itself accountable for its lack of diversity in its portrayals of international stories. I reiterated the words of Zero Gravity’s Mark Holder, that opportunities for Asian actors to success should be granted, because in the end “All anyone wants is a fair shot.” If you feel like calling for more diversity, or asking studios to refrain from whitewashing in the name of “they were the best actor for the part”, is in some way unfair to white actors, I would advise you to think of the “bowl of raisins” metaphor that is often cited to express how much white representation vastly outnumbers any other type of representation in the media, and that taking a representative role away from an actor of a particular minority is in fact taking something precious away from people who have very little.
Honestly, after looking at all the different ways I’ve seen people reacting to the photo of Johansson, I could probably write a college dissertation’s worth of material on why Hollywood still clings to this antiquated attitude on representation. Between shots taken at Asians during the Academy Awards, Johansson and Wolff’s casting, as well as the numerous cases of taking nearly an entire cast of white actors and passing them off as representative of another culture, I fear my entreaties have fallen on deaf (or rather indifferent) ears. As a writer and reviewer, I have a relatively small sphere of influence within the entertainment world, so I know that my words will only carry so far. As such, I will ask something different today. I will not be asking it of Hollywood, because as we have seen in numerous examples, even though it is 2016, whitewashing is still a problem in our media, and this is reflective of a problem both in our society’s willingness to accept other culture’s stories, and in the powers at be being unwilling to challenge the preconceived notions of diversity and status quo in the name of their bottom line. So instead I will ask you, dear reader, to stop accepting it. When you see a studio resorting to using makeup or CGI to make an actor appear more “ethnic”, don’t accept it. When a studio claims to have open casting as an excuse to cast a white person in a nonwhite role, don’t accept it. When you see storytellers using cultural appropriation to further their own careers rather than honor that particular heritage, don’t accept it. When you see social media clamoring against an actor of color being offered a role traditionally offered to a white person, don’t accept it. When you see a studio refusing to give actors of color a chance, don’t accept it. When you see a celebrity donning black, yellow, or brown face, even if it’s for a part, don’t accept it. Sign that petition, write a blog post, use whatever platform you have available to you to let your voice be heard. The only way to break the cycle of exclusion, for women, for the LGBT community, and for people of color is a refusal to accept the way things are, and collectively show that things need to change. You have the power to make studios listen, to make directors see the error of their ways, and to elicit celebrities to make their voices heard and rally others to the cause. I can’t change the system to act as it should, but together we can. Demand something better, and we just might see it someday.
How do you think we can change things for the better? Be sure to let us know @TheMovieChickk!