#AStrangeWhitewashing Continues with New Images from Upcoming Ghost in the Shell & Dr. Strange

April 18, 2016
scarjo-ghost-in-the-shell
Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming “Ghost in the Shell” film adaptation.

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.”

  • vasquez

    Yes, I think its fine for adaptations to change things like the ethnicity of characters or the time and place of the settings. Films do it all the time. See http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ForeignRemake and http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CulturalTranslation for big long lists of examples. I don’t see it as “appeasement”. I think its naive to assume that a foreign remake can preserve “important cultural aesthetics” just by casting actors of the same ethnicity.

  • vasquez

    I suspect that Japanese-language sites and articles are more likely to be a reliable indicator of what Japanese people think, although I don’t claim to have made any kind of comprehensive survey.

    Look at the Australian chick from the latest Star Wars movie, she’s a straight up rookie.

    You mean Daisy Ridley? She’s British. The Star Wars franchise is so well known that you could cast three planks of wood in a Star Wars film and people would come and see it. That’s basically what they did in the prequels.

  • Ax

    Your reply tells me all I need to know. You are not interested in how authentically Japanese this movie is. You are only interested in scoring points in your domestic race game that so many Americans play. Again, you are just using Japanese people for your own purposes, while falsely pretending to be better than the people you condemn.

    Japan makes plenty of our own movies. And if a Japanese company wanted to make a version of GitS with an all Japanese cast, they could. We don’t need your self serving “help.”

  • Ax

    Just because Asian American actors are having trouble finding work, that doesn’t entitle them to appropriate other cultures while condemning Caucasian Americans. You are esentially saying that it is not fair someone else gets to be a jerk because you want to be a jerk too. Ether cultural appropriation is wrong, or its not. Make up your mind.

    If you are worried about people of the Asian race finding acting work, don’t bother. There are thousands of movies, with all Asian casts, being made in Asia every year.

  • Guest

    “You mean Daisy Ridley? She’s British. The Star Wars franchise is so well
    known that you could cast three planks of wood in a Star Wars film and
    people would come and see it. That’s basically what they did in the
    prequels.”

    The director claimed that they cant cast any Asians unless they’re top tier actors. Thats why I mentioned Daisy Ridley (and yes she is Australian. Check out any interview she had done). She’s a rookie but according to her obviously being in the movie shes the “right” kind of rookie (being white).

    She’ not the only one obviously. You cant name an famous actor, alive or otherwise, that wasn’t a rookie at one point. But yet Asian actors/actresses cant have a leading role due to him/her not being famous? That’s one of the worse lies I’ve heard in my entire life. Id laugh at that excuse if the white washing problem wasn’t so serious.

  • You’re right, we don’t know what ScarJo’s character is in the film. What we know is that a White actor was cast to play a character that in all her iterations have been explicitly Japanese, and if Screencrush.com is to be believed, that efforts were made to explore CGI effects to subtly make her appear more Asiatic. If true, it’s hard to say that’s not an indication that ScarJo’s character is intended to be Japanese.

  • Right, because saying: “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) …” and then following that up with a plea that we reject Hollywood in its entirety and support indie AAPI filmmakers clearly means that I support the cultural appropriation of GitS.

  • Guest

    “Yes, I think its fine for adaptations to change things like the
    ethnicity of characters or the time and place of the settings. Films do
    it all the time. See http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmw… and http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmw
    for big long lists of examples. I don’t see it as “appeasement”. I
    think its naive to assume that a foreign remake can preserve “important
    cultural aesthetics” just by casting actors of the same ethnicity”

    Thats only in countries like China or India when the majority of the people in those countries are the same racial background. But this is America and Japanese Americans live here. Its doesn’t make sense if our country that is doing the “Ghost in a Shell” remake refuses to cast the very people that the movie is based off of.

    What if Tom Cruise played the main character in “12 Years A Slave” after the director’s claimed he couldn’t find a good black actor to play the part? Sounds crazy, right? Well thats how Jen, myself and plenty of other Asians and non-Asian are saying about the director’s excuse and casting (Im black by the way). Its just flat out wrong and racist. Thats it.

  • I’m also just going to add that according to a few mainstream Asian actors I’ve interviewed, or whose interviews I’ve read, playing Asian characters of other ethnicities is relatively common, and seen as roughly equivalent to an Irish actor playing a person of British or Italian descent, here. I want to say it might have been Michelle Yeoh. Anyways, my point is that at least in some parts of the Asian film industry, cross-ethnic casting is apparently seen as the norm, which seems to stand in sharp contrast to the angst and outrage being expressed in this comment thread. I’m not saying this is something I defend; only something that seems to be more acceptable than is being portrayed here.

  • Guest

    Thanks for mentioning cross-ethnic casting because I wasn’t sure how the Japanese community would react seeing a Chinese or an Korean person playing the role of Motoko. Maybe (this is just a guess!) its more acceptable since the animosity between the different Asian ethnic groups kinda disappears since they are under one form of government instead of living within their own respective countries where those animosities between the groups persist.

  • Skeet Duran

    they had to explain the term “whitewashing” because people in Japan aren’t familiar with it.

    If they aren’t familiar with “whitewashing”, how can they denounce it? Can you denounce something you aren’t familiar with?

    When people in Japan don’t speak up against “whitewashing”, it does not mean they accept it, it just means (like you said) they aren’t familiar with it.

  • Guest

    “Just because Asian American actors are having trouble finding work, that
    doesn’t entitle them to appropriate other cultures while condemning
    Caucasian Americans. You are essentially saying that it is not fair
    someone else gets to be a jerk because you want to be a jerk too. Ether
    cultural appropriation is wrong, or its not. Make up your mind.”

    Since when was wanting Asians to play Asian roles cultural appropriation? WHITE PEOPLE playing Asian roles is cultural appropriation. Its VERY obvious that you don’t know what that term means.

    These are examples of what Im talking about: http://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/the-yellowface-of-ldquothe-mikadordquo-in-your-face/

    http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2013/11/25/memories-of-a-geisha-katy-perrys-amas-performance-stirs-debate/

    “If you are worried about people of the Asian race finding acting work,
    don’t bother. There are thousands of movies, with all Asian casts, being
    made in Asia every year.”

    AGAIN what are you talking about? Were talking about AMERICA not Asia, where it is EXTREMELY obvious that there is no shortage of Asians getting work. Here in America its HARD for an Asian to get a meaningful roles outside of being a nerd a martial artist or other racist stereotypes. Just look at all the movies past and present.. How many Asian AMERICANS (gotta emphasize American when talking to you) have been giving a starring role, let alone being in a movie? Not many.

    Please stop this nonsense. You are not making any sense at all.

  • Ax

    What arrogance that you think you can tell a Japanese person how to react to the appropriation of Japanese culture. I would not tell you how to react to matters related to African Americans. It is very simple: Casting Asian Americans for a Japanese story is still cultural appropriation and does not solve the problems pointed out by this blog.

  • Again you confuse race with ethnicity, and more seriously, you dismiss that Asian Americans have any sort of a stake in this issue. This is about Japanese source material, but this is not just about Japan: you cannot just wish away or ignore the fact that the Asian diaspora includes Asian Americans whose identity politics both matter and differ from yours.

    Finally, and this is an important point, no one here is advocating specifically that a non-Japanese Asian or Asian American actor play this role. No actors’ names have been suggested in the post, nor in this thread. This post discusses race, not ethnicity, to criticize ScarJo’s casting, because with regard to power/privilege of media representation, race is the salient point.

    Your argument that this blog defends the casting of a non-Japanese Asian or Asian American actor is therefore something of a strawman. This blog does not specifically recommend this. No one in this comment thread specifically recommends this. To recommend or defend such a casting starts to move into the world of a hypothetical casting that distracts from ScarJo and the film’s whitewashing, with that distraction into a hypothetical also leading to absolvement of the White filmmakers and actors who are complicit in actual erasure.

    With all due respect, who are you to tell Asian Americans that they have no right to be offended by their own mistreatment by and in the media of their own countrypersons?

  • A mainstream media outlets survey of Japanese language posts have found that reactions run the gamut from anger to bemusement. There is no monolithic Japanese opinion on this subject, as would be expected since Japan is home to people also capable of free thought and diversity of opinion.

  • Japanese Americans were upset about it too. I was also upset about it, as part of my larger critique of the film. Heck, this discussion is always a subtext to when AAPI appear in film. Randall Park is a talented actor and really great in FOTB, and I’m glad he is doing good work, but that doesn’t mean he gets a pass for the cross ethnic casting issues associated with him being Korean American while playing a Chinese American character.

    But not can we commit the sin of conflating race with ethnicity by arguing that Park in that role would be the same as Jerry Seinfeld or Matt LeBlanc in that role. Systems of power and oppression in this country are linked to race, not ethnicity.

  • I would have a real hard time seeing how they could combine aramaki and togusa since aramaki plays the aloof insider whose lack of cyberization is an act of resistance, while togusa is the impassioned and naive outsider whose lack of cyberization denotes his humanity and his virginity. I believe a Togusa character is essential — he’s arguably the main character in some iterations — but as far as I can tell he has not been cast. I have a hard time seeing Chin Han, the other AsAm actor of note in the cast, in that role.

  • vasquez

    True, but there are often significant differences between Asian-American and Japanese discourses on identity-politics issues, I don’t think that these should just be dismissed as mere diversity of opinion. (FWIW, I also saw many positive reactions to Johannsen-as-Kusanagi – along with people wondering whether Kitano Takeshi would also have “that hairstyle” from the anime!)

    For example, this paper discusses differences between Japanese and Asian-American reactions to the Boston MFA “Kimono Wednesdays” event last year: https://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/nfile/4447

    [BTW, some of my posts on this thread have randomly been flagged as spam]

  • Skeet Duran

    When Asian Americans or Japanese Americans came to the US they brought with them part of their popular culture from their home countries, that includes Kimono, Hanbok, Ao Dai, are brought by Japanese, Korean, or Asian people to the United States. When the US establishment makes it a transgression for any Asian Americans or Japanese Americans to speak up against cultural appropriation, the US establishment is stripping the identities of these people, and what gives these US establishments the rights to do that?

    Also, many Japanese people travel back and forth between their home country Japan to the US constantly, they may have duel citizenships or they have citizenship in Japan and at the same time have residency in the United States. Horibuchi is an example of that, Horibuchi is the CEO of New People, a Japanese pop-culture shopping mall located in San Francisco’s Japantown. Horibuchi said “I hope [the METI fund] will bring new Japanese star or hit property to the global market,” he adds, “but it takes time. It took us over 20 years to finally see anime and manga culture take root in the United States.”

    You see, they want to see their Japanese stars make it to the US markets too, spreading popular culture does not exclude its people.

  • Guest

    Correct as usual, Jen

  • Ax

    Asian Americans can be as vocal and offended as they want. Just don’t pretend that your race entitles you to appropriate Japanese culture more than some other group of people. It’s hypocritical. Pick a different example/project. Japan is not your political pawn, so “keep our name out yo mouth.”

  • “Just don’t pretend that your race entitles you to appropriate Japanese culture more than some other group of people.”

    Ok, sure but literally no one is arguing this.

  • Ax

    “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)”

  • justinslot

    (googles) I dunno, I think he could do it. Give him a suit and a gun…the Togusa mullet is optional.

    And it’s not like Kitano looks like Aramaki…

  • “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).”

Comment Policy

Before posting, please review the following guidelines:

  • No ad hominem attacks: A person's identity or background is not up for debate.
  • Be courteous: Respect everyone else in this space.
  • Present evidence: This space endeavours to encourage academic and rational debate around identity politics. Do your best to build an argument backed not just with your own ideas, but also with science.
  • Don't be pedantic: Listen to those debating you not just for places to attack, but also where you might learn and even change your own opinion. Repeatedly arguing the same point irrespective of presented counterfacts will now be considered a violation of this site's comment policy.
  • Respect the humanity of all groups: To elevate the quality of debate, this site will no longer tolerate (racial, cultural, gender, etc.) supremacist or inferiority lines of argumentation. There are other places on the internet where nationalist arguments can be expressed; this blog is not those places.
  • Don't be an asshole: If you think your behaviour would get you punched in the face outside of the internets, don't say it on the internets.
  • Don't abuse Disqus features: Don't upvote your own comments. Don't flag other people's comments without reasonable cause. Basically, don't try to game the system. You are not being slick.

Is your comment not approved or deleted? Here are some common reasons why:

  • Did you sign in? You are required to register an account with Disqus or one of your social media accounts in order to comment.
  • Did a comment get flagged? Comments will be default be published but flagged comments will be temporarily removed from view until they are reviewed by me.
  • Did you not play nice? You may have gotten banned and a bunch of your comments may have been therefore deleted. Sorry.

I monitor all comment threads, and try to address comments requiring moderation within 24-48 hours. Comments that violate this comment policy may receive a warning and removal of offensive content; overt or repeat violations are subject to deletion and/or banning of comment authors without warning.

I reserve final decision over how this comment policy will be enforced.

Summary:

Play nice and don't be a jerk, and you'll do just fine.