There are several Ghost in the Shell things to catch up on, so let’s get into it.
Last thing to discuss: Paramount has invested in some viral marketing to make Ghost in the Shell a hit with the social media crowd. Their meme website allows anyone to create memes of themselves illustrating why they’re unique. Folks who are upset with this film, like writer Valerie Complex, have used it to showcase their frustration with this film, as well as other pieces of media that use Asian themes without Asian faces, like Iron Fist, Doctor Strange, and others.
The Ghost in the Shell Website https://t.co/eqy8CpndC6 has a meme maker of sorts where anyone could “become Major” so I had some fun…. pic.twitter.com/EadKs04H9a
— VzA (@ValerieComplex) March 11, 2017
She inspired many more to make memes of their own:
— Kayla/Marie (@Maria_Giesela) March 12, 2017
@ValerieComplex @JennLi123 pic.twitter.com/fGLySmZv8z
— David Lo Pun-ch Nazi (@helpmeskeletor) March 11, 2017
@weimingkam @KellyKanayama @helpmeskeletor @JennLi123 pic.twitter.com/LMSKxFFNp7
— VzA (@ValerieComplex) March 12, 2017
— ?Tina? (@Nice_White_Lady) March 12, 2017
@ValerieComplex Yup! pic.twitter.com/mYVmO8zfBB
— ?Tina? (@Nice_White_Lady) March 12, 2017
— ?Tina? (@Nice_White_Lady) March 12, 2017
Ghost in the Shell’s first 12 minutes premiered for critics, and while several critics are giving the film the thumbs-up, Valerie Complex wrote a different tune for Nerds of Color.
First, here’s what some of the reviewers said about the first 12 minutes:
“It’s hard to tell from these twelve minutes how faithful (or not) this new live-action Ghost in the Shell will be to the manga, anime or animated feature(s). But it does appear to be exploring the same themes of individuality, consciousness, and the intersection between the two. If the rest of the movie is anything like these twelve minutes, Ghost in the Shell may well be the deepest and strangest big budget film of its ilk in quite some time. I, for one, can’t wait.” –Tommy Cook, Collider
“Visually speaking there is much to be impressed by. Sure twelve minutes can’t tell you a whole lot, but it appears that the filmmakers have really tried to do justice to the franchise. From The Major’s appearance to the hustle and bustle of the futuristic city, there is much to admire in the look of the film. When she comes crashing through a window and the shards of glass explode around her, there isa definite energy that is on-screen.”—JimmyO, JoBlo.com
Now, here’s what Valerie wrote for Nerds of Color. This is the take you’ll want to grab a seat for.
“The plot of this movie is nothing like anything in the original Ghost in The Shell films or shows. Don’t let a few of the philosophical conversations in the trailers fool you. It’s a hodge-podge of familiar elements from different parts of the series, but the philosophy and exploration of existentialism seem to be missing. Even the trailers denote this adaptation is nothing more than a revenge story. Nothing about the original Ghost in the Shell has been about revenge. Revenge is never a prime theme here.”
As Valerie writes, the film is worse than just Scarlett Johansson playing “The Major,” which is bad enough.
“From the sneak [peek] footage I saw, it looks [like] the Major is originally Japanese. Let me explain. It appears that the character is in a nearly fatal accident. This accident causes her body to be rendered useless, but her brain is the only thing that can be salvaged. So this Japanese woman whose brain is recovered is transferred into a body, or Shell, that just happens to be Scarlett Johansson’s new body. Now her name is ‘Mira.’
This is horrifying.”
We’ll see what the full reviews will be like once the film comes out March 31.
What I will say is that any attempt for anybody to say that the film isn’t aware of its source material’s Japanese roots and that it isn’t whitewashing hasn’t seen this trailer, which literally has Kenji Kawai’s theme for 1995’s animated Ghost in the Shell, “Utai I Making of Cyborg” in it, remixed by Steve Aoki (yet another instance of this film using an Asian face to try to allay fears of whitewashing without actually fixing the root of the problem).
Here’s the real version of that song:
The lyrics from that song, as IMDB states, are written in Old Japanese (like Olde English for us Westerners), steeping it even more in Japanese history and culture. The lyrics are also confusing at first:
When you are dancing, a beautiful lady becomes drunken.
When you are dancing, a shining moon rings.
A god descends for a wedding,
And dawn approaches while the night bird sings.
When you are dancing, a beautiful lady becomes drunken.
When you are dancing, a shining moon rings.
A god descends for a wedding,
And dawn approaches while the night bird sings. (Lyrics Wikia)
But after thinking over what the 1995 film is about and pairing it with what I know about “The Ballad of Puppets” from Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, I’m going to venture a guess that not only are the lyrics referencing something ominous that happen in the film (Spoiler alert: Major Motoko Kusanagi unwillingly merges with the villain of the film, The Puppet Master, hence the line about a “wedding”), but also reference the overpowering might of technology in the Ghost in the Shell world, the technology being referenced as a “God,” and life before technology as the person dancing so beautifully they can make people drunk and make the moon ring. Like “Ballad of Puppets,” the song is sung in an exclusively Japanese folk style called min’yō.
Sidebar: you can read my whole dissertation on the meaning of “Ballad of Puppets” in relation to Japanese history and Ghost in the Shell at Nerds of Color, in which I posit that the song deals with exclusively Japanese themes that subtly relate back to Japan’s existential war with technology invading its memory of the past as well as how it affects Japan’s future.
This point is not even bringing up the fact that the film is flooded with Japanese imagery and Japanese actors playing secondary roles. Secondary roles in their own story. What’s that about?!
What do you think about Ghost in the Shell? Give your opinions in the comments section below!
As you might have read from my Rogue One review, I enjoyed it very much. But with the good comes the bad, and I had some gripes with it. One gripe I forgot to mention in my review was the uber-aggressive Arab world coding they were doing in it. It had gotten so aggressive on Jedha that I was literally taken out of the movie at points and was like, “Where’d they film this?!”
I was reminded of my distaste for these films when I saw Twitter user Dina’s thread on the subject. Key takeaways:
From garb to environment to “primitive devout culture”, all of the usual suspects of stereotyping and denigrating arabs are there.
— Dina✨ (@PetiteMistress) December 28, 2016
Seriously, are you kidding me? From color palette to sand to cables and chaos, every “savage Arab” stereotype coded right in. pic.twitter.com/GwZfXNj4IF
— Dina✨ (@PetiteMistress) December 28, 2016
For reference how Hollywood “codes arab” and “actually Arab” are completely different things. Like this from Homeland (the series). pic.twitter.com/lFdLLev2M0
— Dina✨ (@PetiteMistress) December 28, 2016
On left is what media wants you to think the Middle East looks like, carefully curated (shot in Israel), on the right is the real Hamra st.
— Dina✨ (@PetiteMistress) December 28, 2016
I’m Lebanese born and bred. I’ve hung out in Hamra, gone shopping, met friends for drinks. It’s a lovely, normal street in the Middle East.
— Dina✨ (@PetiteMistress) December 28, 2016
So key questions to ask here are 1) Why did the film get this aggressive with its coding, 2) How hurtful is it to the average American’s international knowledge, and 3) How can Hollywood wean themselves away from projecting the same stereotypes on foreign places?
1: Why did the film get this aggressive with its coding?
Star Wars has a history of being slightly aggressive with coding planets with real world analogs. Tatooine is basically the Sahara Desert, but was actually filmed in Tunisia and America’s Death Valley. Yavin 4 is a lush jungle planet, which was represented by Guatemala’s Tikal ruins and the forests the ruins reside in. For every planet, there’s a real world place. But beyond just the filming locations, other parts of the planets crib from real life as well. For instance, George Lucas got the name “Tatooine” from the real Tunisian city Tataouine. Similarly, as Dina points out, The planet Jedha gets its name from Jeddah, a city in Saudi Arabia.
Of course, seeing how this film is made by terrestrial humans who have never been to space, much less to other galaxies and off-world terrains, it’s understandable why the planets (which, if we’re being honest, act more like moons than actual planets with different continents and climates) feel familiar to us. It’s because they, in many ways, are familiar. They’re a collection of earth’s coolest/most awe-inspiring places, launched into a space opera.
However, using a desert for a desert planet is benign. When you start cribbing parts of cultures while layering stereotypical imagery onto planet’s people, then we have a problem.
Let’s get into what makes Jedha troublesome.
• Jedha as Mecca: The official description of Jedha is that it’s a holy city for those who are disciples of the Force. Rogue One director Gareth Edwards has described it, quite literally, as Mecca. To quote him (via MTV News):
“If A New Hope is kind of like the story of Jesus, there must be a whole religion beyond that,” he said. “We felt like, for 1,000 generations, the Jedi were kind of these leaders of the spiritual belief system. It’s got to be like a Mecca or a Jerusalem, but in the Star Wars world.”
In the story of Star Wars, it makes sense that there should be a holy city. But does it have to be quite literally a city that takes all of the stereotypes of the Arab world and mash them together? Take a look at these pictures, culled from various press junkets and collections of official Star Wars images and screenshots:
Do these images seem familiar? Well, you might have seen some of their other brothers in Raiders of the Lost Ark:
and The Phantom Menace.
There are other tropes like this found throughout film and television. Dina notes Homeland, which is a great example, as well as Season 4 of Sherlock:
And Lawrence of Arabia:
And many more.
Hollywood’s fascination with what I’m calling “the bazaar aesthetic” is something that’s throughout film, and sure, bazaars exist throughout the Middle East and India, as shown below. But even then, there’s varying difference between bazaars; they don’t all look the same.
But that’s not all to the Middle East. Take for instance Jordan, where some of the Jedha desert scenes were filmed. What Rogue One used were Jordan’s deserts for the outskirts of Jedha. That’s cool. But let’s also look at what else Jordan has to offer in the real world aside from its deserts:
Of course, the main Jedha scenes were shot at Pinewood Studios in London, but I’m using these images of modern Jordan because the tropes of Jedha reflect on the Middle East as a whole. Hollywood would have you believe that the Middle East is all desert and open-air markets, but surprise! The Middle East is just like the rest of the world; full of paved roads, cars, and buildings.
• Seriously aggressive sartorial references to the Middle East: It’s worth pointing out that the headscarves and ceremonial robes found in Jedha reference today’s headscarves, hijabs, niqabs, and burkas worn in various parts of the Middle East. Not that there wouldn’t be an outer space city that might have a cultural tie to head coverings, but it’s especially noteworthy that a place designed to be Space Mecca also has clothing with such overt references to Islam. Did the allegory have to be taken this far in Star Wars, to the point that we forget a little that we’re watching a film about distant planets?
Also, the act of using Islamic sartorial choices goes along with Star Wars‘ other practice of cribbing cultural and ethnic styles and arranging them in a mish-mash to “create” something otherworldly. This practice goes all the way back to Princess Leia’s “cinnamon buns,” the style stemming from Lucas supposedly using Revolutionary-era Mexican women freedom fighters, or soldaderas, as inspiration. However, there’s been contention with that statement, and some now link Leia’s hairstyle to the hairstyles worn by the women of the Hopi tribe. But the appropriation-as-inspiration practice was at its height during the years of the Star Wars prequels, in which Padme/Queen Amidala had styles ranging from Japanese geisha to ancient Mongolian elite, to African updo to actual Hopi hair buns.
Inspiration: Mongolian headdress
Inspiration: Hopi hairstyle
Inspiration: The hairstyles of the Mangbetu women of the Congo
I get that these styles are “cool,” but they aren’t just cool for cool’s sake; there’s are complete cultures these styles are attached to, and to rob them of their actual context by putting them in a “cultureless” space opera whitewashes these styles to a certain degree.
2: How hurtful is it to the average American’s international knowledge?
The answer is simple: Americans already believe in too many stereotypes as it is. Due to what the media tells us about foreign locales, we believe that cities that aren’t in the Western world are behind the times or haven’t been affected (for better or worse) by westernization and capitalism.
Another example of a modern movie casting a “noble savage” light on a foreign place: Doctor Strange. As I wrote in my review of the film, the film posits Nepal as a place that still hasn’t been touched by the effects of the 21st century.
The film portrayed Nepal as some mystical place without roads or modern transportation. Everyone looked like they were mere seconds away from getting on their knees to pray. Religion might be a huge part of a country, but that doesn’t mean everyone in the country have to look like devotees. The film shows a side of Nepal that looks like this:
This picture looks similar to the types of crowds Stephen Strange came upon as he was looking for The Ancient One. But Nepal also looks like this:
The point is there’s a lot more to Nepal, to just Kathmandu, than the film suggests. Is there time to visit every locale in Nepal? Of course not. But there was enough time to not give Nepal the “noble savage” treatment, which means, according to Wikipedia:
A noble savage is a literary stock character who embodies the concept of an idealized indigene, outsider, or “other” who has not been “corrupted” by civilization, and therefore symbolizes humanity’s innate goodness. In English, the phrase first appeared in the 17th century in John Dryden‘s heroic play The Conquest of Granada (1672), wherein it was used in reference to newly created man. “Savage” at that time could mean “wild beast” as well as “wild man”. The phrase later became identified with the idealized picture of “nature’s gentleman”, which was an aspect of 18th-century sentimentalism. The noble savage achieved prominence as an oxymoronic rhetorical device after 1851, when used sarcastically as the title for a satirical essay by English novelist Charles Dickens, whom some believe may have wished to disassociate himself from what he viewed as the “feminine” sentimentality of 18th and early 19th-century romantic primitivism.[a]
Even though the film didn’t have any of the extras speak, it clearly showcased Kathmandu as an idealistically mystical, Othered space, with closeups on holy men and temples. The extras also weren’t wearing Western clothes, something that further separated them from actual depictions of 21st century Nepalese people. Western exports have made their way all around the globe, including Nepal, and as you can see in the above pictures, folks are wearing leather jackets, hoodies, polo shirts, slacks and jeans. Even the woman with the shawl on in the first picture is wearing Westernized sandals, a long-sleeved red shirt and some green pants, and one of the men buying her wares, the guy with the leather jacket, has an iPod. If you took a shot of the extras in the Kathmandu sequence and put it in black and white, it could act as a shot from a film about Nepal in the 1800s, not the 21st century. This is not to say that portraying Nepalese people wearing traditional clothing is anachronistic; what I am saying is that painting a picture of the Nepalese as a people who haven’t been affected by world commerce and capitalism is a false picture.
The “noble savage” idea wasn’t explicit, but it was very subtly implied in order to make Kathmandu seem like a perfect place for The Ancient One and to act as further contrast to Stephen’s New York sensibilities and, indeed, his whiteness.
When movies decide to portray places in a stereotypical fashion, it’s too easy for the stereotype to be accepted as the truth. It’s even more dangerous to use stereotypes in science fiction; when a place can look like anything and be anything, why rely on stereotypes? But when stereotypes get used in science fiction or fantasy, they’re usually couched in the excuse of “Well, it’s not real anyway! It can look however the creator wants it to look.” But when we’re limiting what’s possible in the imagination, we’re also dulling our senses to what actually exists in reality.
3: How can Hollywood wean themselves away from projecting the same stereotypes on foreign places?
The quickest answer is for Hollywood to start using a bit more imagination when coming up with a look for a futuristic place. Too often, science fiction relies on stereotypes or cultures-as-backdrop to do much of the heavy lifting in a scene. For instance, Blade Runner, in which an aggressive Japanese undercurrent can be seen in futuristic San Francisco.
Of course, it can be explained away that San Francisco has a high Japanese population, so perhaps San Francisco would embrace more of Japan the more futuristic it gets. However, there’s hardly an Asian person in Blade Runner–Alexis Rhee, who is the billboard geisha, and James Hong as Hannibal Chew, round out the film’s Asian population. So the whole effect comes off as a cynical costume for a huge audience payoff.
Currently, we have Ghost in the Shell coming in where the original Blade Runner left off, using Japan itself as a costume for a film lacking in Japanese characters.
Hollywood has got to stop relying on tired tropes like these. It only helps keep America in the dark about its neighbors, and it keeps movies themselves from having an even greater impact than they could have.
Star Wars images: Lucasfilm/Disney
Representation in Hollywood is an issue by itself, but Asian representation in Hollywood is near non-existent. With the state of Hollywood being that black equates to “diversity” (despite there being more types of diversity out there than just being black) and Asian characters are still overrun with stereotypes or whitewashing, Asian actors and actresses have had a tough uphill battle in breaking through the glass ceiling.
JUST ADD COLOR is all about exploring how all types of diversity are showcased in Hollywood, so I thought it would be fantastic to have an ongoing series called POC in Hollywood. First up, the Asian American experience in Hollywood. In this longform piece, we’ll take a closer look at some of the issues and biases plaguing Asian creatives in Hollywood.
This is a longform, so if you’d like to jump to specific parts, here’s the table of contents:
- Whiteness as the default
- The pain of exoticism
- The #OscarsSoWhite effect and the Academy
- What Hollywood’s doing right and wrong
- What audiences need to know
Whiteness as the default
Historically, Hollywood has used Asian locales and people as props, while white characters are given layered characteristics. In short, white characters have been treated as humans, while everyone and everything else are only developed in stereotypes.
The most recent examples of this include The Birth of the Dragon, in which a white character is used to frame Bruce Lee’s biopic, Doctor Strange, which sees Tilda Swinton playing an Asian role and Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, which is a white character used to exploit a stereotypical Asian mysticism, Ghost in the Shell, which uses Japanese culture to frame Scarlett Johansson as The Major and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel series, which features India as a backdrop for white characters and Dev Patel playing a stereotypical Indian character.
“What’s particularly silly about The Birth of the Dragon is that they invented a fictional white character thinking that that would be what North American audience would want,” wrote Quentin Lee, The Unbidden director and founder of Margin Films in an email interview. “The filmmakers obviously fell flat on their faces. Not only it wasn’t historically accurate for the story, the film ended up insulting Bruce Lee and the audience who would support it. It was a creative misfire.”
Chris Tashima, an Academy-winning director for the 1998 short film Visas and Virtue and co-founder of Cedar Grove Productions, wrote that while he hasn’t seen The Birth of the Dragon yet, he found the basis of the film “ridiculous.”
“It’s understandable, why this has been the practice—being that traditionally, decision makers have been white males, and like anyone else, will want to see stories about themselves, and that audiences have traditionally been thought of as young, white males,” he wrote. “However, all of that is changing. It has been changing for a while, and it’s easy to see where it’s going: towards a diverse world. That’s an old practice and you’d think Hollywood would want to project, and put themselves on the cutting edge, and be more inclusive. It’s old, and tired, and more and more, I think audiences will want to see something different, something more truthful.”
“I think the overarching theme that runs through how Hollywood/the West represents POCs has to do with the ease with which they are able to strip POCs of agency over their own stories,” wrote Kesav Wable, Brooklyn-based actor, writer, 2011 HBO American Black Film Festival finalist for his short film, For Flow and Sundance lab short-listed screenwriter for a script about a Pakistani boxer wrongfully accused of planning a terror attack.
“This may come across as a bit exaggerated or radical, but I do believe that there is a link between white imperialist concepts such as ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘white man’s burden,’ which validated a lot of the literal takings from POCs that happened throughout earlier periods in civilized history, and now, in a media-hungry world where information, content, and stories are the most valuable currencies, there is an analogous “taking” of the narratives that POCs have lived through. By depicting POC characters through the lens of a white character, it enables white audiences to keep POCs’ stories at arm’s length, and to not completely empathize with those characters because they are not given the complete human dignity and complexity that is afforded the white character.”
“Perhaps, this, in a way, damps down the guilt that white audiences may feel if the POCs stories/circumstances have to do with the literal takings that were exacted by their ancestors. Or it’s just good for a cheap laugh. The truly insidious effect of POCs being usurped from their own narratives is that, even many of us POCs begin to start viewing things through a white lens and stop questioning whether these stories truly represent who we are because of how pervasive white-controlled media is.”
Wable used the upcoming film Happy End, which is about a bourgeois European family living amid the current refugee crisis. “Granted, I haven’t seen the film, so it’d be presumptive of me to conclude that refugees are not conferred with dignity/complexity as characters, but the very thought that French filmmakers think that shining a light on a bourgeois family with the refugee crisis as a ‘backdrop’ can be instructive about their world, speaks volumes about what it is white people are most interested in; themselves,” he wrote. “In this case, apparently, the context is a rueful rumination on their own blindness to the refugees’ plight. Somehow the irony of the very film’s existence as a manifestation of that blindness seems to be lost on them.”
Mandeep Sethi, filmmaker and emcee, also discussed about Hollywood’s tendencies to erase non-white people from their own stories. “I think centralizing POC stories around white characters is Hollywood’s way of taking a black or brown story and making it about white people,” he said. “Our culture is full of amazing stories and histories and Hollywood loves to cherry pick what they like but leave out the real nitty gritty including the people who created, interacted, and setup that story.”
Sinakhone Keodara, founder CEO of Asian Entertainment Television and host of Asian Entertainment Tonight, wrote that Hollywood’s penchant for using whiteness as a default is “a heinous tradition that is long overdue for a change.”
“Rather than trying to normalize Asian presence on screen to a wide American audience, Hollywood often goes the tired, well-worn and ‘safe’ route of using a white character in an attempt to more easily relate the character to a majority white American audience. It’s cheap and unnecessary, because the proper and more effective way of relating a character to an audience is writing a character with emotional depth,” he said. “Ethnicity informs and colors our individual and community experiences, but emotion transcends ethnic boundaries. With political correctness aside, Hollywood needs to stop engaging in a form of neo-emotional and neo-psychological colonialism against people of color, especially Asians by injecting whiteness into our stories.”
“I think that centralizing PoC stories around white characters is always going to happen as long as the people telling these stories are white,” wrote Asia Jackson, an actress, model and content creator. “What Hollywood needs is not only diversity on-camera, but to also make greater efforts to allow filmmakers of color to tell their own stories.”
Jodi Long, an actress who was a castmember of the first Asian American TV sitcom All-American Girl and member of the actors branch of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, wrote that while whiteness as the default is the reality in Hollywood, a study shows a much needed change in film. “I just saw a new study The Inclusion Quotient done by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media where the reality in terms of box office is changing, where women and diverse actors in lead roles are now performing extremely well,” she wrote. “Money talks in Hollywood but we still have to get beyond the implicit (unconscious) bias that factors into which projects get greenlit based on outmoded ways of thinking.”
Kunjue Li, Ripper Street actress and founder of China Dolls Productions Ltd., also addressed how money rules Hollywood, despite Hollywood not making the audience demand actually work for them financially. “I don’t think [whitewashing] is the right thing to do, and second of all, I don’t think it’s very commercial,” she said. “…[I]f they want to sell to Chinese audiences, which is the second biggest film market, then they need to tell a Chinese story…I think you have to tell a Chinese story [with] a Chinese cast.”
“If the film [was] an an American-Chinese co-production, [it would] actually help with the film itself because then it doesn’t have to go through the quota system…which means that only 30 percent of foreign films are allowed to show in China markets every year. If they do it as a co-production, then they get 1/3 of Chinese funding, but they have to have 1/3 of a Chinese [cast]. They’ll have one-third of Chinese funding, they’ll have domestic showings, they don’t have to go through the quota system, it’s much more feasible. Commercially, [whitewashing] doesn’t even work. I don’t understand why people keep doing that.”
Edited to reflect the full team behind #whitewashedOUT
JUST ADD COLOR has been doing some major coverage about the whitewashing of Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange, and if you read my virtual roundtable with The Nerds of Color’s Keith Chow and Afronerd and Renegade Nerd’s Claire Lanay, you might have seen some mention of Chow’s hashtag project, #whitewashedOUT. The hashtag went live Tuesday, and it sparked such a wave of responses, it tracked to number two in the Twitter trends.
Since it’s been a few days (and since I’ve been busy with my own Ghost in the Shell article for The Nerds of Color), let’s recap what happened this week.
The power of #whitewashedOUT
The hashtag #whitewashedOUT was a combined effort of Chow, Sarah Park Dahlen, Assistant Professor of Library & Information Science at St. Catherine University, writer Ellen Oh (@elloellenoh), writer Amitha Knight, writer Sona Charaipotra, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Terry Hong , “Bookrageous” podcaster and writer Preeti Chhibber (@runwithskizzers), surgeon and writer Ilene Wong Gregorio, writer Thien-Kim Lam, and Written in the Stars author Aisha Saeed. (It’s also worth noting that many listed here are also a part of the We Need Diverse Books Campaign, with Oh as the CEO and President.) Comedian and actress Margaret Cho also contributed to the hashtag with her commentary and support.
Everyone came out in droves to support it and to offer their own experiences with racism, lack of representation, and struggles for self-acceptance.
White Washed Out takes a stand against Asian erasure
Junot Diaz on why we need to represent #whitewashedOUT pic.twitter.com/eu8qPaY6AH
— Sita (@sitamsini) May 3, 2016
Anna Mae Wong, the Chinese American Star of “Golden Age” Hollywood was #whitewashedOUT pic.twitter.com/wlqQEZV7rO
— Sita (@sitamsini) May 3, 2016
.@pesbo @NoTotally POC have accepted erasure in a myriad of ways, for far too long. #whitewashedOUT
— Claire (@claireshegoes) May 3, 2016
#whitewashedOUT is also the erasure of Black Asians. Need to remember mixed doesn’t only mean being mixed with white https://t.co/lj0WsxaE0J
— The Nerds of Color (@TheNerdsofColor) May 3, 2016
.@NoTotally I’ve worked with students who have changed their names because it’s “easier”. #whitewashedOUT
— Claire (@claireshegoes) May 3, 2016
The female lead of #StarWars EpVIII won’t be #whitewashedOUT! #Maythe4thBeWithYou #KellyMarieTran https://t.co/BmKUKUEfF3
— The Nerds of Color (@TheNerdsofColor) May 4, 2016
— The Nerds of Color (@TheNerdsofColor) May 4, 2016
We can’t have #AAIronFist but a Celtic Ancient One is ok because ‘canon’ doesn’t matter unless the character is white. #whitewashedOUT
— The Nerds of Color (@TheNerdsofColor) May 3, 2016
Stars like Kerry Washington, Jackée Harry, Hari Kondabolu, Constance Wu, BD Wong, director Lexi Alexander and others helped bolster the hashtag, too, making the movement even more powerful. (Make sure to check the hashtag for yourself to see what everyone else had to say.)
Around the same time as #whitewashedOUT, a Facebook post Star Trek‘s George Takei made about Doctor Strange went viral. Here’s what Takei wrote on his Facebook page:
So let me get this straight. You cast a white actress so you wouldn’t hurt sales…in Asia? This backpedaling is nearly as cringeworthy as the casting. Marvel must think we’re all idiots.
Marvel already addressed the Tibetan question by setting the action and The Ancient One in Kathmandu, Nepal in the film. It wouldn’t have mattered to the Chinese government by that point whether the character was white or Asian, as it was already in another country. So this is a red herring, and it’s insulting that they expect us to buy their explanation. They cast Tilda because they believe white audiences want to see white faces. Audiences, too, should be aware of how dumb and out of touch the studios think we are.
To those who say, “She [is] an actress, this is fiction,” remember that Hollywood has been casting white actors in Asian roles for decades now, and we can’t keep pretending there isn’t something deeper at work here. If it were true that actors of Asian descent were being offered choice roles in films, these arguments might prevail. But there has been a long standing practice of taking roles that were originally Asian and rewriting them for white actors to play, leaving Asians invisible on the screen and underemployed as actors. This is a very real problem, not an abstract one. It is not about political correctness, it is about correcting systemic exclusion. Do you see the difference?
Wong also had stuff to say on the erroneous casting of late. In his speech during May 2nd’s Beyond Orientalism: A Forum, Wong discussed about the instances he’s faced racist casting and yellowface in his acting career. “The tradition of white actors transforming themselves, playing whoever they want, crossing race, painting themselves up, and doing all sorts of things like that is as deeply entrenched in them as our pain is in us,” he said (as recounted by Fusion). “…You [white actors] can’t win when you have the yellowface on. You can’t win when you take the yellowface off. You’re in the wrong part.”
Online coverage of #whitewashedOUT
Several outlets covered the impact of #whitewashedOUT, including NBC Asian America, Buzzfeed, CNN Money, Colorlines, Salon, Bustle, Blavity, and others. Chow told Buzzfeed in a phone interview that the hashtag is about everything whitewashing represents, not just the optics of seeing Asian faces in film. “The whole idea of being whitewashed goes beyond just Asian characters being played by white people,” he said. “It’s the idea of centering whiteness in every story. Whiteness to them is ‘colorblind.’ Everyone can project themselves onto a white guy. Being an Asian-American person, I’ve spent my entire life identifying with non-Asian people, because you have to. And I want [to] tell white moviegoers it’s not that hard to see a person [who isn’t of] your ethnicity and identify with that person. We’ve been doing it for years.”
Marvel’s response to #whitewashedOUT
Marvel brass has certainly heard about #whitewashedOUT and have responded. To the level of satisfaction one might feel about the responses depends on you, the individual.
Scott Derrickson, the director of Doctor Strange, wrote on Twitter, “Raw anger/hurt from Asian-Americans over Hollywood whitewashing, stereotyping, & erasure of Asians in cinema. I am listening and learning.” The test is if Derrickson (and other directors who are also watching the #whitewashedOUT movement) will put what was learned into practice. (Some of the responses Derrickson received from his Twitter response were from a person who wrote that he had been blocked by Derrickson last year for bringing up the whitewashing in the film. “Now all of a sudden, he’s ‘listening,’ he wrote.)
Kevin Feige was asked about the controversy by Deadline, to which he responded with several interesting statements:
On the erroneous statement of Swinton being cast due to Chinese-Tibetan tensions (as originally alluded by Doctor Strange co-screenwriter C. Robert Cargill): We make all of our decisions on all of our films, and certainly on Doctor Strange, for creative reasons and not political reasons. That’s just always been te case. I’ve always believed that it is the films themeselves that will cross all borders and really get people to identify with these heroeos, and that always comes down to creative and not political reasons.
On the casting of Swinton as a creative choice: The casting of The Ancient One was a major topic of conversation in the development and the creative process of the story. We didn’t want to play into any of the stereotypes found in the comic books, some of which go back as far as 50 years or more. We felt the idea of gender swapping the role of The Ancient One was exciting. It opened up possibilities, it was a fresh way into this old and very typical storyline. Why not make the wisest bestower of knowledge in the universe to our heroes in the particular film a woman instead of a man?
On the whitewashing controversy: The truth is, the conversation that’s taking place around this is super-important. It’s something we are incredibly mindful of. We cast Tilda out of a desire to subvert stereotypes, not feed into them. I don’t know if you saw [Doctor Strange director] Scott Derrickson’s tweet the other day. He said we’re listening and we’re learning, every day. That really is true…I’m hopeful that some of our upcoming announcements are going to show that we’ve been listening.
On Captain Marvel being directed by a woman: [W]e are meeting with many, many immensely talented directors, the majority of whom are female. I do hope they will have announcements certainly by the summer, before the summer’s end, on a director for that.
Feige gives answers that are typical of an exec who has to respond to a controversy, but having said that, I personally think he means well. But “meaning well” is different than actually putting your money where your mouth is, and Feige himself addressed that sentiment in his interview (which is why he said he’s hopeful that upcoming films will help assuage fears of further diversity issues). However, three points of contention here, one of them not even having to do with Feige:
- Why did Deadline writer Mike Fleming, Jr. call the controversy a “pseudo-controversy”? What makes this a fake controversy or half of a controversy? There’s nothing “pseudo” about it.
- If Feige wanted to subvert The Ancient One by casting a woman, why not have an Asian woman do it? (This point is actually discussed in my roundtable article). Or, if a woman is all that’s needed, why cast a white woman only? Were other actresses considered? Were certain casting agents even aware of the role to pass it along to their WOC clients? What was the audition process like? What did the casting call entail? There are a lot of questions here, because if The Ancient One is a learned woman, then anyone could play that role. The word “woman” doesn’t equal “white woman.”
- To that end, Doctor Strange didn’t have to be played by Benedict Cumberbatch either, because the assumption is still that a white man has to lead a Marvel movie. Twitter user Gelek Bhotay brings this up in his Twitter thread. If we’re really breaking away from the racist past of the Doctor Strange comics, take it completely out of the white male gaze and put it in the gaze of a POC woman and a POC man. It would also help if Marvel considered representing more of its viewership, such as LGBT viewers, disabled viewers, etc. Of course, you can’t address all of these in just one film, but that’s the beauty of a huge Marvel universe; you can address everyone when it comes to future film decisions. There’s still a lot of “listening and learning” Marvel has to do.
The big Hollywood news: Jon Chu to direct Crazy, Rich Asians
In this midst of #whitewashedOUT coverage, news was released that Jon Chu is set to direct the film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel Crazy, Rich Asians. The book, according to Entertainment Weekly, “tells the story of an American-born Chinese woman who travels to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s super-wealthy family once there, she encounters jaw-dropping opulence and snobbery.” The book has two sequel books, China’s Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems (the latter of which will be out in 2017).
Chu tweeted about the news, also adding, “With amazing Asian actors cast in EVERY SINGLE ROLE. #itstime.”
It is time. It’s past time. So let’s hope that Crazy, Rich Asians doesn’t act as this generation’s Joy Luck Club (i.e. be an incredible film only to become an anomaly in Hollywood’s filmography featuring Asian-Americans in major roles). Let’s hope that Crazy, Rich Asians is just the first of an overflow of films starring Asian-Americans as leading men and leading ladies.
JUST ADD COLOR’s “Ghost in the Shell” and “Dr. Strange” Online Roundtable featuring Claire Lanay and Keith Chow
Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange are two of the latest in a litany of projects in Hollywood that have whitewashed and otherwise erased Asian identity from film. The films have been an issue for as much as a year in advance (or, in Ghost in the Shell’s case, longer) before their initial releases, meaning worry for the respective studios and mounting anger for fans and moviegoers who want an authentic and culturally respectful film experience.
Each film has its many problems, but to give a short overview of what’s plaguing these films, here are the bulleted points:
Ghost in the Shell
• Scarlett Johansson cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi (now just called “The Major” in the film, possibly the first clue that the film is not only wiping away the main character’s Japanese racial identity, but also the property’s inherent ties to Japan’s post-World War II tech boom).
•According to ScreenCrush’s source, Paramount allegedly hired visual fx company Lola VFX to create a Japanese filter for a character, probably Johansson’s Major. Paramount maintains that the fx filter was for a background character and never for the Major, but the fact remains that Paramount engaged in yellowface, regardless of who the character is.
• Sam Yoshiba, the director of Kodansha’s international business division (based in Tokyo), states that he’s fine with Johansson as The Major and that this is a great opportunity for a Japanese property to make it to the international (i.e. American) market. (which has rights to the Ghost in the Shell property). According to Kotaku, Yoshiba told The Hollywood Reporter, “Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well cast. She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place.” Yoshiba also told The Hollywood Reporter that “he was impressed by the respect being shown for the source material.”
• Max Landis, the screenwriter of American Ultra, released a video condemning the casting, but also states in his video (as reported by Entertainment Weekly), “The only reason to be upset about Scalrett Johansson being in Ghost in the Shell is if you don’t know how the movie industry works.” He also stated that outraged fans are “mad at the wrong people,” stating that the problem isn’t with parties such as Johansson, the studio or the director, but with the film industry itself. He also argues a point that many would disagree with—that there’s a dearth of big names in film. “As recently as about 10 years ago, there stopped being big stars,” he said. “There are fewer and fewer stars who mean anything.” Not true.
Meanwhile, the internet took matters into their own hands by fancasting Rinko Kikuchi, from Pacific Rim, as Kusanagi. What’s heavily ironic is that it seems like the costuming/hair department took direct inspiration from Kikuchi’s Pacific Rim character Mako Mori when designing The Major for the big screen.
How the Ghost in the Shell remake would have looked if Rinko Kikuchi was cast as Major Kusanagi (artist unknown) pic.twitter.com/f5sIPln4A3
— Samuel Dore (@Bursteardrum) April 18, 2016
• A video features Japanese participants talking about the Ghost in the Shell controversy. The throughline of the video is that the people interviewed don’t see a problem with Johansson as The Major. But now the video is being used by pro-Ghost in the Shell movie fans to denigrate those, particularly Asian Americans, who are against Johansson as The Major.
•Fresh Off the Boat actress Constance Wu invokes the term “blackface” when discussing the Ghost in the Shell casting controversy, making people upset.
The statement was made during a panel including Wu, Ming-Na Wen, Joan Chen, and Lynn Chen, moderated by Teddy Zee. “It was particularly heinous because they ran CGI tests to make her look Asian,” said Wu. “Some people call it ‘yellowface,’ but I say ‘the practice of balckface employed on Asians’ because that’s more evocative.” She also said the special effects tests “reduces our race and ethnicity to mere physical appearance, when our race and culture are so much deeper than how we look.”
Before the conference, Wen had tweeted about Johansson’s casting, writing, “Nothing against Scarlett Johansson. In fact, I’m a big fan. But everything against this Whitewashing of Asian role.”
• Tilda Swinton is cast as The Ancient One, originally a Tibetian character as well as an antiquated stereotype of an Asian mystic. Swinton was cast as a way to create a more updated, non-stereotypical version of the character, and while casting a woman is a unique decision for the character, the casting also erases the character’s original Asian roots. Check her out in the trailer:
(Personal commentary: aside from Swinton as a jarring Ancient One, hearing Benedict Cumberbatch with an nasally American accent is…upsetting.)
•Swinton tells Den of Geek that when she was approached to do the character, she was never told that she was playing an Asian man. “The script I was presented with did not feature an Asian man for me to play, so that was never a question when I was being asked to do it. It will all be revealed when you see the film, I think. There are very great reasons for us to feel very settled and confident with the decisions that were made.”
• C. Robert Cargill, the co-screenwriter for Dr. Strange, tells his friends, film reviewers and hosts of movie review/comedy show Double Toasted Korey Coleman and Martin Thomas, about the process he took in remaking The Ancient One. In his words, he didn’t want to offend China with a Tibetan character. (Discussion occurs around the 18 minute mark.)
However, Cargill later clarified his comments on Twitter, since his original comments suggest that he and Marvel were of the same mind about the Tibet-China situation. “CLARIFICATION: that interview answer going around was to a question from a fan specifically about MY JUSTIFICATION, not Marvel’s…FOR THE RECORD: no one at Marvel or with the film ever talked to me about China, so contrary to headlines, I didn’t confirm anything.”
Entertainment Weekly also states that the film version of The Ancient One is now based in Nepal, which makes it even more confusing as to why a non-Asian actress was chosen.
• Marvel releases a statement about their record of inclusion, obtained by PEOPLE.
“Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe] to life. The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic. We are very proud to have the enormously talented Tilda Swinton portray this unique and complex character alongside our richly diverse cast.”
One could say their statement features many fictional statements as far as their film universe goes, because the MCU is still not diverse enough in terms of race, gender, and sexuality.
These are a lot of moving parts, and there’s a lot to parse through. At first, I was going to write a post providing my point of view, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt like I, a black woman, might want to sit this one out. I’ve written on entertainment moves affecting Asian Americans before, but let’s be honest; I’m not Asian, and I’m not about to wade in any “honorary Asian” waters, especially with how nuanced the issues surrounding these films have become. Instead, I thought I’d ask some of my online buddies if I could interview them about their opinions on these films.
Keith Chow is the creator and head of The Nerds of Color, a site focusing on the nerdy side of entertainment, but from the perspective of POC and other marginalized peoples. Claire Lanay is the new weekend co-host of podcast Afronerd Radio and CEO of Renegade Nerd Entertainment. I was happy to interview them both via email and break down just what people needed to understand about the lack of foresight and sensitivity that went into the creation of the Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange movies.
What were your initial reactions to the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One and Scarlett Johansson as Kusanagi?
Chow: I think like most folks, I was disappointed but not surprised. It’s hard to believe that whitewashing is still considered acceptable practice in Hollywood, and these castings are no exception. But in light of the outrage (and lack of box office) that movies like Aloha and Gods of Egypt engendered, you’d think the studios would start taking the hint.
Lanay: Initially, I was mildly annoyed yet amused by Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One…I tried to play devil’s advocate and ask myself what discussions led to this outcome? Similar to the problems with the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, many of these comic book characters were created several decades ago and are inherently racist. Other properties were created as a result of cultural appropriation which has now become a recognizable trope in it of itself i.e. White guy learns the ways of the East, masters it in a day and is better suited to unlock the wisdom, magic and skills of these mystic teachings in a manner the savage natives never could – Iron Fist, anyone?
So why switch The Ancient One from a Tibetan man to a British woman? Could the reason have been that without including another female character, the film would look the way most movies, comic book or otherwise, do – a sausage fest? OK fine. Let’s make her a woman.
I half-jokingly tell my friends that Hollywood has an unspoken rule about not allowing more than one person per color per movie or TV show (if at all). On the rare occasions there is more than one person per color, they’re usually a minor/expendable character and therefore, the first to get killed off…Unless you’re Empire or Blackish, you can’t have more than one black character…Doctor Strange has Benedict Wong playing the servant. They have Chiwetel Ejiofor playing Baron Mordo. So, of course, they most certainly cannot have another POC playing the Ancient One. Heavens, no! Too many minorities! I may not like Hollywood’s twisted logic and how they conduct ethnic/gender musical chairs to feign balance or political correctness, but I’ve grown accustomed to it.
Now that they’re saying the reason why the character isn’t Tibetan is because it would piss off China… I’m right back to square one asking “WTF?” Here I was trying my hardest to understand their reasoning and then they go throwing me for a loop with their mental gymnastics in a weak attempt to rationalize whitewashing. Just because you don’t want the character to be Tibetan doesn’t mean the character cannot be Asian. Would The Ancient One originally have announced him/herself as Tibetan? If they’re so worried about making all that Chinese dough… why not make the character Chinese? Have him/her speak Mandarin. Have him/her walk around with a large neon sign that says “Made in China”.
They’re implying that in order to avoid offending other cultures, they have to erase them. Are they so lazy that they are not willing to put any thought into how they could modernize these POC characters for today’s audience?
As for Ghost in the Shell, here are some thoughts I had in regards to Max Landis’ comments:
To make a blanket statement that there are no Asian A-List actors, well yeah, if Asians are not even allowed to play Asian, then I don’t see how it would be possible for them to be visible enough to become A-list. That’s not by accident, that’s by design.
The other thing that was mentioned was that there are no Asian actors capable of getting a movie greenlit… See the highlighted movies on this list [in this article’s inset]. [Most] fail, flop, bomb. Yet, nothing changes. I’m starting to wonder if they ever will…Scarlett Johansson is playing a character named Motoko Kusanagi. It baffles my mind that there are people who don’t see this as offensive.
Marvel has had a long-standing issue with casting for a certain demo; i.e. casting all male leads except for the Black Panther as a white male (even more specifically, a white male with either dark or blonde hair and a “dudebro”-ish attitude, even if the character wasn’t originally written that way). Marvel has no Asian superheroes, and the chance they could have had to give representation, with Iron Fist, was missed [for more information on Iron Fist and the lack of Asian representation, visit The Nerds of Color and Twitter hashtag #AAIronFist]. With that said, how do you feel Marvel should have tackled The Ancient One?
Chow: The problem is that Marvel, like a lot of people, assume whiteness is the default. So when they encounter tricky ethnic characters (i.e., stereotypes) like the Mandarin or the Ancient One, their solution is to remove that character’s race and think they’re doing us a favor. I said this during the whole #AAIronFist thing, but the way you deal with negative racial stereotypes isn’t to erase race from the equation, just write the character better. In the case of the Ancient One, just make the character not one-dimensional, and he/she could still have been Asian.
I guarantee an actress of Tilda Swinton’s caliber would not have taken the role if it was one-note. So why not afford that opportunity to an actress of color? Better yet, if you had to racebend Ancient One (for fear of Chinese censors or whatever) then don’t cast Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange! Can you imagine someone like Sendhil Ramamurthy or Naveen Andrews in the role? Hell, I would have been happy with Keanu Reeves (who was rumored). But they cast the whitest man in the world? Come on now.
Lanay: Wasn’t anybody out there the least bit curious as to what George Takei could have done with The Ancient One? Ken Watanabe? Chow Yun-Fat?…How about Michelle Yeoh? Joan Chen? Gong Li? Bai Ling?
I’ve had so many heated debates and arguments with people about Iron Fist. The argument for keeping Danny Rand white is that “it’s what the author intended for how that character’s story should be told”. According to that logic, we should stay 100 percent true to the original cannon and lore even if that means 80-plus years of American comic book history has primarily only given us white male leading characters as the hero and a handful of female/POC characters seen mostly as sidekicks, background or filler.
Recall, if you will, Michelle Rodriguez’s comments after Michael B. Jordan was cast as Human Torch and Jason Momoa was cast as Aquaman – “Stop stealing the white people’s characters and make some of your own”. As if no one has tried? Even if I understood why it’s bemoaned when a POC is cast as a character originally envisioned as white, why is it ok to “steal” our characters who were specifically created to be of color?
As much as I like and respect Marvel, I am truly disheartened by their approach to this issue. They rather avoid it than face it head on. For a company whose brand is kick-assery and bravery, this looks cowardly. Am I surprised? No. Disappointed? Yes. Captain America: Civil War will be their 14th film and only now are they barely getting Black Panther and Captain Marvel on the film schedule.
I will say that they do seem to be putting in a concerted effort on the TV side. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has the wonderful Ming-Na Wen as Melinda May and Chloe Bennet’s Daisy Johnson (nee Skye) has addressed her bi-racial parentage. I’m pleased to see that has been acknowledged since other hapa actresses such as Kristin Kreuk have played fully white characters on shows like Smallville.
Dr. Strange, as a comic book series, draws its inspiration from the 1930s radio series Chandu the Magician, which also features a white man receiving mystic instruction from an Asian teacher, this time an Indian yogi. With all of the stereotypical Asian mysticism Dr. Strange is based in, how do you feel the film should have been approached (despite the fact that we haven’t seen the full movie)? With Benedict Cumberbatch playing Dr. Strange and set pictures featuring non-Asian actors in Asian locations and in Tibetian monk-esque clothes, how do you feel about the appropriation factor of the film?
Chow: It’s the same problem with Iron Fist, Doctor Strange is another example of the white man goes to the Orient for enlightenment trope. It’s so obvious that people’s reaction to the trailer was “Didn’t we already see this in Batman Begins? And I’d answer, yeah, you’ve seen it in every movie! At this point, Hollywood should start casting more POC leads just to stand out from the pack. Studies have already proven those films make more money anyway. But Strange and Iron Fist and even Daredevil prove Hollywood only thinks of Asians as set decoration and not human beings.
Lanay: I do not deny they have a very talented roster. I’m a Sherlock fan, so I don’t doubt Cumberbatch will bring something interesting to the role. Tilda Swinton also played a role originally meant for a male in the movie Snowpiercer. Her bizarre character was in no way defined by gender or race regardless of the fact the movie was directed by a Korean or that the story was based on a French graphic novel. Swinton’s look is androgynous, unique and has always benefited her with sci-fi roles. For all we know, she’ll be utterly fascinating to watch in Doctor Strange.
As for them playing dress up in monk-esque attire? Appropriation is unavoidable. I’ll say this – I have a problem with folks using all of my toys but not allowing me to play with them.
Swinton has come out and said that the way she was approached for the role was never under the guise that she was playing an Asian man and that she’s confident in how she’s portrayed the character in the film. How do you feel about her statement? Also, what do you think about the compounded problem Marvel has created by whitewashing a character, yet adding diversity by making the character a woman?
Chow: It could have been a woman of color. Just because they gender bent the character doesn’t give them a pass if they’re still being racist. If they were going to change the character, and not make him “Asian,” then what’s with all the orientalism in the setting? Even then, it’s still wrong because they’ve taken yet another POC character and erased him from existence.
That goes back to what I said earlier, she may not be “playing Asian” but that doesn’t mean they didn’t whitewash the character. They still took an originally Asian character and bent over backwards to come up with a reason for why said character had to be played by a white person. This is the double standard that’s the most frustrating. When I called for an Asian American actor to play Danny Rand, I had to come up with every justifiable reason for the suggestion, how an Asian American would not alter the character whatsoever. But white folks are like “just shave your head, it’s all good.”
|Hollywood’s History of Whitewashed Asian Films (as provided by Claire Lanay)|
Ghost in the Shell is, as Jon Tsuei has written on Twitter, an inherently Japanese story, but now the history is probably getting taken out of the film. Do you think the film is on the path of ignoring some of the historical and cultural elements that makes Ghost in the Shell as provocative as it is?
Lanay: If that’s the case, then why call it Ghost in the Shell? If you’re going to remove the character’s backstory and culture, then call it something else. At least Tom Cruise and Doug Liman understood that when they were making ‘Edge of Tomorrow’. It was an American adaptation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill. They weren’t going to be idiots and keep the same title, the same character names and the same history. Would you buy Tom Cruise playing a character named Keiji Kiriya?
The publisher of Kodansha has stated that he sees nothing wrong with Johansson playing Kusanagi, and quite a few Japanese movie goers have expressed the opinion of not going to see the movie anyway. What does this tell you about how the international market, particularly the Asian market, might accept or reject this film?
Chow: The way we view and discuss race in America is very different than how people in other countries view and discuss race. Japan has its own issues with how it views race and ethnicity that is irrelevant to Asian Americans in America.
To be blunt, folks in Japan or China might flock to the movie. Who knows? But that isn’t the problem. My advocating for Asian American actors has nothing to do with Chinese moviegoers, to be honest. China has its own movie industry with its own stars. There are a billion and a half Chinese people in the world. In China, “representation” of Chinese faces isn’t an issue. That is not what’s happening here, however. We [in America] have to move away from this idea that Asians in America are all foreign. Going back to Iron Fist, the whole gist of my original essay was to prove that we too are American. Why does “westernizing” something automatically require casting white people? This is the question I want people to ask themselves.
Lanay: The reason why a lot of folks in Japan are not upset about Johansson’s casting in Ghost in the Shell is because they already have their own media infrastructure. They already have their own, actors, singers, dancers, writers, producers, directors. They already have their own content made for them by them. So they don’t really care about one movie with one white actress. In this country, Hollywood gives us less than a handful of opportunities to see ourselves represented in movies and television, so of course we’re clamoring for whatever crumbs and scraps are tossed our way. The rest of the world soaks up our content, but we don’t promote or watch content from the rest of the world. That makes seeing diversity in American media all the more important to POC in this country because it’s such a rarity.
Do I think it’ll do as well as Lucy? Doubtful. Do I think a Black Widow movie would be the better option for Johansson? Absolutely! She’s not hard up for cash or some struggling actress trying to make her big break. She didn’t have to say yes to Ghost in the Shell.
I want to see Doctor Strange. Controversy aside, I am a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor. I’ll take a look at Iron Fist since I’ve enjoyed watching Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Even though the nasty discourse has left a bad taste in my mouth, I’m very curious to see how they build towards The Defenders. Can’t wait to see Luke Cage! Will I watch Ghost in the Shell? Nah, I’ll be skipping that one.
Recently, several actresses of Asian descent have called The Major “blackface,” launching another layer to the outrage. Do you think about the controversy over calling such casting “blackface,” despite the term “yellowface” in existence?
Chow: Yeah, I cringed when I saw that report. I in no way condone the analogy, primarily because yellowface is an offensive and racist enough practice on its own — but I get why Constance felt she had to make it. One of the problems is that most people think race in America is binary. This has always been part of the struggle for Asian Americans when discussing race in that context.
Often in matters of race, Asian Americans are only perceived depending on their relation to whiteness or blackness. But I don’t think that excuses co-opting black struggle to make a point. I think as a community we have to be mindful about how we coalition build and support one another without being anti-black in the process. This is why the backlash against #OscarsSoWhite was disheartening. This was an example of a pan-ethnic protest against the industry’s overwhelming whiteness, but for whatever reason non-black POCs thought their issues were being ignored. It didn’t help that during the telecast aired, Asians were still openly mocked.
So I understand the frustration and feeling like you’re invisible. But we shouldn’t criticize others for not standing up for us if we don’t first stand up for ourselves. This is why I’m working with Ellen Oh (of #WeNeedDiverseBooks fame) to launch a campaign to bring even more attention to the racist practice of whitewashing. We’ll be attempting to take to social media on May 3 with the hashtag #WhitewashedOUT. I’ll have more details on that soon[click here for that information].
Lanay: As someone who was fortunate enough to grow up with friends and influences of all backgrounds… As someone who has so much love and respect for the African American community… As someone who is deeply proud to call many intelligent, creative, beautiful Black people my friends… I’m very troubled by Constance Wu’s choice to use the term “blackface” over the term “yellowface” in regards to what we’re discussing here. She specifically said “blackface” because she thought it would be more “evocative”.
While I fully appreciate the outrage towards her comments, I have some idea of where she’s coming from. During the Oscars telecast, Chris Rock did a fine job of addressing the #OscarsSoWhite elephant in the room. So all the more reason people in the Asian community were upset and insulted by three little Asian kids being paraded on stage to make fun of their own kind. Can’t forget Sacha Baron Cohen’s “little yellow people with the tiny dicks” joke.
While I deem her tone to be a little aggressive or hostile, I can understand why Wu and many others were incensed by these jokes during a show that was basically hammering diversity down people’s throats. Yes, there were no Black nominees. There were no Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Disabled, or LGBT ones either (as far as I know).
…When I came across the “blackface” comment, my first thought was: “Why all of the sudden, are Asians getting angry now? Why weren’t they speaking out and standing up when we were getting disrespected or excluded before?” I was starting to feel like I was the only Asian-American who gave a damn. Why are the rest of them so late to the party?
…I’m bothered by Wu’s comments because it reinforces the divide amongst POC. We should be working together. It’s bad enough that we keep falling into the trap of begging Hollywood for a seat at the table and trying to convince white people of our worth without us turning on each other too.
What do you want Hollywood to learn from these casting debacles?
Chow: Mainly that white people are not the only people in the world. I wan the studios to understand that having non-white people in a movie can actually be a good thing. But mostly, I want there to be more opportunity for actors of color.
Lanay: The studio executives don’t view these decisions as debacles. They’re not listening. They don’t care. They wanted to cast name-actors, so they did. White is the standard of beauty. White is the grade for which excellence is measured. White is the default setting. Anything outside of that is seen as an abnormality.
Rinko Kikuchi is an academy award-nominated actress for her role in Babel. She’s already in the nerd-sphere starring in projects like Pacific Rim. Tao Okamoto is a supermodel in Japan. She was in The Wolverine and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I bet you anything, these women weren’t even considered. I bet you no Asian actress was considered for Ghost in the Shell.
There have been plenty of white-starred movies that have failed. There have been plenty of diverse-starred movies that have succeeded. Hollywood learns nothing. The outliers who take risks and go against conventional wisdom are the ones who will instill change… eventually. I hope I’m still around to see that change. Scratch that. I am going to be part of that change. ♦
The controversy surrounding these films are needed, and the conversations they’re starting are necessary. If Hollywood is really going to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to proper representation, two of the first places to start are finally ending the practices whitewashing and yellowface. When a group of people grow up hardly ever seeing themselves on-screen, that causes serious psychological, social, and cultural repercussions. Ending these practices and representing people fairly on-screen would allow for everyone to feel accepted and like they are a valued part of America. Lanay states this point best:
“For a long time, I hated being Asian. I hated the way I looked. I hated not getting the auditions I wanted. I hated not being taken seriously. My mother would always tell me not to make waves. With all due respect – F*ck that sh*t! I’m making some damn waves! Nobody should feel like they were born in the wrong skin. Nobody should feel ashamed for being what they are.”
Other articles to check out:
#S4MBlerds: Dear Hollywood, whitewashing doesn’t make better movies|Blavity
Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and How Hollywood Keeps Giving Asian Roles to White Actors|Complex
6 Japanese Actresses Who Could (and Should!) Replace Scarlett Johansson in ‘Ghost in the Shell’|Yahoo
Hollywood’s glaring problem: White actors playing Asian characters|L.A. Times
N.O.C. One-Shot: Whitewashing in Black and Yellow| The Nerds of Color
Some Thoughts on Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell|The Nerds of Color
Hollywood’s upcoming films prove it loves Asian culture – as long as it comes without Asians|Media Diversified
What a Shitty Week to be an Asian American Woman in Hollywood|The Nerds of Color
Constance Wu And Ming-Na Wen Protest Hollywood’s Whitewashing Of “Ghost In The Shell”|Buzzfeed
Why Won’t Hollywood Cast Asian Actors?|New York Times
Remember when the news about Scarlett Johansson playing playing Major Mokoto Kusanagi in the live-action Ghost in the Shell film was released? Remember how it was apparent that people would start petitioning and venting in outrage? Well, here’s the petition.
It’s official: Scarlett Johansson is going to play Major Mokoto Kusanagi in the Hollywood adaptation of the Japanese classic manga and anime series Ghost in the Shell. Color me and thousands of other Ghost in the Shell fans disappointed and oddly resigned. Resigned to resisting, that is.