I wrote this for my first-year seminar, but it’s about the timeless issue of white-washing in Hollywood. So this is really old news.
Ghost in the Shell, based on Masamune Shirow’s manga series of the same name, is set in a futuristic Japanese city and follows protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi and members of Public Security Section 9, a covert task force within the Japanese National Public Safety Commission specializing in cyber-warfare.
The casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi is unfortunate because
- she lacks the emotion/physical presence of Motoko
- it takes away an opportunity from an actress of Asian descent
- it perpetuates a long-standing tradition of whitewashing because of the financial stability in it
I don’t really have anything against Scarlett Johansson. She’s talented, though definitely better in some films than in others. But I just can’t see her as Motoko.
Major Motoko Kusanagi of the Japanese Public Safety Commission is both terrifying and alluring. As an elite member of a covert task force, Motoko takes command of a room with nothing more than a look. She is enigmatic and lethal, while simultaneously lonely and even vulnerable. She leads a team of men, who both fear and respect her. While she prefers to be in the body (shell) of a young female, her soul and mind (ghost) are old and wise. The old-soul-trapped-in-a-young-body cliché actually allows her character to alternate between being optimistic and cynical about human nature.
I have yet to see Johansson fulfill a role as complex as Major Motoko. In most movies, I’ve found her a too flirty and a little too infantilized—even as Black Widow. When she’s plays a “badass female,” Johansson always seems like she’s trying to be an underestimated threat, rather than an actual threat who immediately instills fear in others. Her tendency to cover the lethal nature of her characters (let’s throw Lucy in there too) makes her a very bad fit for the role of Major Motoko.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of Asian and Asian American actresses who could have been recruited as the lead role. (Hello! Maggie Q of Nikita, anyone?) This movie could have been an amazing opportunity to enhance diversity in the industry. But those things didn’t happen and it’s a shame!
A USC study examining on-screen diversity found that in 2013, Asian characters accounted for only 4.4% of speaking roles in the top-grossing films. A year later, afollow-up USC study found that Asian characters accounted for 5.3% of speaking or named characters in the 100 top-grossing films of 2014. Yay, 0.9% increase. That should be a good sign right? No, because in the same survey, we see that women accounted for 28.1% of speaking or named characters in the 100 top-grossing films of 2014.
Given these numbers (oooo scary ~ no, more like sad), can you guess how many women of Asian decent are speaking or named character (don’t be scared of this high standard)?
Answer: A pathetically small number.
So why would the American remake star a white actress? Why would the industry continue whitewashing roles from source material that features Asian and Asian American leads? Is it that difficult to find people of Asian descent to play lead roles for these film adaptations? (Especially now that more Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders performers on appearing on TV and on YouTube.) Plenty of white folks have played lead roles, why not give Asian/American actors a crack at it?
Whitewashing, the practice of casting white actors to play characters that should have been people of color, has been a Hollywood staple since the beginning of the film industry. It comes in many forms: changing the identity of characters completely, blackface, brownface, yellowface, etc.
While Major Motoko certainly transcends gender and ethnicity, the story of Ghost in the Shell is heavily intertwined with Japanese culture. It is an unfortunate that DreamWorks made a simple economic decision: Cast Scarlett Johannsson because she’s the safe and conservative choice for a “secret-agent character.”
The gist of the problem is that plenty of complex characters (who could/should have been played by actors of color) were played by white actors, because it was deemed more appropriate/lucrative/superior.
I’m sick of capable and talented performers of color being passed up on roles for characters of color, especially in anime adaptations. My heart is done with being let down when source material featuring characters of Asian descent are whitewashed, while my favorite Asian American performers have few opportunities to break out of type-casted roles.
This American remake will not my American society, which includes Asian Americans. What a sham. Looking forward to hate-watching Ghost in the Shell in 2017.