I know I’m about a week late on this news, but I’ve got something really important to say: ScarJo, you look absolutely ridiculous in yellowface.
When the news first broke that Scarlett Johansson had been inexplicably cast in Paramount’s film adaptation of blockbuster anime/manga series Ghost in the Shell, I wrote a scathing post declaring that ScarJo is #NotMyMotoko. Last week, that debate was rekindled when studios released a teaser image of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi. I think we can all agree: sporting a black wig styled into an asymmetric bob, Johansson looks unbelievably absurd in the role of a Japanese cyborg woman who has long stood as an icon of Asian and Asian American feminism, queer identity, and gender fluidity.
Adding insult to injury, Scarlett Johansson is joined in the film’s whitewashing of the anime and manga’s main cast by a number of other actors. Pilou Asbaek plays Batou. Michael Pitt plays Kuze. Although Asian and Asian American actors have been cast in the film — Chin Han is attached to the film in an undisclosed role while Beat Takeshi will play Aramaki — the film’s main leads and the majority of its speaking roles will go to three White actors.
There is a putrid patina of yellowface smeared all over this film. The characters in Ghost in the Shell are all explicitly Japanese — a point overtly made in the series’ world canon — and their names and general appearances have been preserved in the film adaptation. Yet, White actors have been cast to play these roles. ScreenCrush.com even reports that a CGI company was briefly hired to explore digital ways to alter Scarlett Johansson’s appearance to make her “more Asian”; Paramount vigorously denies this report. Regardless, what remains true is this: Hollywood routinely mines Asian and Asian American culture for our stories, while they refuse to put Asian and Asian Americans in the positions to tell them ourselves. Instead, our ideas and narratives are appropriated while we are erased.
Sometimes, that erasure comes in the form of an insipid, doomed-to-failure adaptation of a breathtaking science fiction anime developed by creators who clearly do not understand the source material. And sometimes, #AStrangeWhitewashing comes hand-in-hand with the violence of Orientalism. Such is the case with Tilda Swinton, in the genderbent but still Whitewashed role of The Ancient One in the upcoming Dr. Strange film.
Last week, Marvel Studios also released a two-minute teaser trailer introducing Benedict Cumberbatch as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Dr. Strange. We also knew this was coming, but there’s nothing quite so gut-wrenching as witnessing in real-time Tilda Swinton in yellowface alongside the film’s built-in Orientalism. Like many Marvel and DC superhero properties, Dr. Strange’s origin stories is grounded in an Orientalist imagining of a mystical Asia steeped in magic and fantasy whose ancient Asian secrets stand in vivid contrast to the rationalism of the Occidental world. In Dr. Strange, as in Iron Fist and a host of other comic book stories, that Oriental-Occidental dynamic is mined to empower White (or even Asian and Asian American) superheroes and villains, in much the same way that the Western world has always sought power over Asia by first dehumanizing it and then conquering it, whether militarily or culturally.
Nothing — not even casting Asian and Asian American actors in Asian and Asian American roles — can fix the violence of cultural appropriation (as with the upcoming Ghost in the Shell) or Orientalism (as with the upcoming Dr. Strange). But, certainly, casting White people in yellowface in films that already employ other tools of White supremacy only compounds the error.
In a recent vlog, Max Landis defended the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi by saying that “there were no A-list Asian celebrities” who could have taken the role. This is bullshit for several reasons: 1) Asia is a big fucking place with a lot of A-list celebrities who could have taken this role (and that’s before you start considering Asian America’s talented bunch of actors), 2) celebrities don’t become A-list until they get a chance to play a role, and audiences get a chance to support them, and 3) films have cast non-A-listers in their leading roles in the past, and miraculously have still managed to make money. By now, the internet is rife with stories of film production meetings and casting calls, where filmmakers are told that an actor of colour won’t sell to White audiences while actors of colour are directed to play up some predetermined racial or ethnic stereotype in order to land a coveted minor role.
The lesson here is simple: Hollywood is fucking racist. If this past week wasn’t enough to tell Asian America that it’s time to give up on the mainstream of Hollywood’s production companies as an avenue for social change, I don’t know what it will take.
An abundance of young Asian and Asian American independent actors and filmmakers are, right now, making films by, and oftentimes about, Asian America. And we are doing it really fucking well. (By the way, you should check out Self-Starters, the current series airing on NBC News Asian America’s newest video channel.) While Hollywood is busy using makeup and computers to Rachel Dolezal the Whitest actors you know because somehow the idea of an Asian person portraying an Asian person is just too much for White film executives, Asian and Asian Americans artists and actors are showing them what real art and creativity in film looks like.
So, yeah — fuck Hollywood. It’s time to speak with our consumer dollars and support our independent Asian and Asian American filmmakers. No matter what they make, it’s guaranteed to be better than Tilda Swinton in a bald cap talking about chakras while Benedict Cumberbatch implores her to “teaaaachhh meeee.”