COLUMN: Whitewashing in the shell

The Rupert Sanders thriller draws criticisms



With the recent Academy Awards show being much more diverse than the previous few years, Hollywood continues to try to appeal and listen to the public about the importance of diversity in films. But are they doing enough to increase diversity in casting for Hollywood movies?


An example of this is the current uproar over Scarlett Johansson’s casting as the Japanese character Motoko Kusanagi. A year before this film came out, people were already upset over her casting, demanding that Hollywood studios choose an Asian or Asian-American actor. Fans of the original franchise are angry that a white American woman agreed to play a role that was meant for an Asian or Asian-American actress, particularly a Japanese actress.


“Ghost in the Shell” was written by Masamune Shirow and first debuted as a manga in 1989. While having multicultural elements, it is inherently a Japanese story. Comic writer Jon Tsuei tweeted, “the manga came out in 1989, the first film in 1995 — an era when Japan was considered the world leader in technology.” He went on to explain that Japan is a country unable to defend itself; however, it was a world leader in technology and gained a reputation in technological innovation that was unique.


It is of the utmost importance that a Japanese actress play the leading role. “Ghost in the Shell” is a Japanese narrative, and because anime characters are typically identified as Japanese, casting a white woman erases that narrative.


It is hard enough for Asian actors and actresses to receive work in Hollywood because there are so few roles for them. Whitewashing a role that could’ve been played by an Asian actress takes away valuable opportunities for representation of Asian characters, culture, and identity.


Actress and comedian Margaret Cho, who has been outspoken on Asian representation in Hollywood, went on the podcast “Tiger Belly” to talk about the email exchange between her and Tilda Swinton, who played a Tibetan sorcerer in “Doctor Strange.” She stated that the exchange made her feel like a “house Asian,” meaning that Cho felt like she was a servant to Swinton. Jessica Prois from the Huffington Post said, “a white person asking a person of color to do the emotional labor of explaining race relations is inherently problematic and privileged.”


According to a study conducted by PBS NewsHour, only 5 percent of Asian characters were in the top 100 grossing films of 2014. In the 89 years of the Academy Awards, only two lead actors with Asian backgrounds — Ben Kingsley and Merle Oberon — have either been nominated or won an Academy Award. There are more actors or actresses that have been nominated in the supporting actor, director or technical categories, however.


Hollywood needs to listen and gain the perspectives of Asians and Asian Americans and learn how they want to be portrayed. How can they practice what they preach when there does not seem to be a significant change in Asian representation?