The big movie-related controversy right now? The alleged “whitewashing” of the currently-in-release high-profiler GHOST IN THE SHELL, which was adapted from the popular 1995 anime feature and 1989 manga. The argument is that, given the tale’s Japanese origins, the lead role, essayed by the very Caucasian Scarlett Johansson, should have been played by an Asian woman. Among the manifestations of this controversy are a meme that allows people to insert Asian faces over that of Johansson and reviewers who can’t keep from bringing up the W-word (from an abcnews.com write-up: “Her body may be a robotic artifice but the history of Hollywood whitewashing is all too real”).
The furor has provided Paramount Pictures with a handy excuse for the fact that GHOST IN THE SHELL has underperformed at the box office. I’d argue that other issues are at work here, starting with the fact that, quite simply, the movie just doesn’t look very interesting; those dumb trailers depicting ScarJo running around a neon-addled landscape in a weird faux-nude outfit that are underwhelming, to say the least!
Full disclosure: I’m no fan of the GHOST IN THE SHELL manga, which I’ve never been able to get through (and I have tried), nor the anime feature, which I found dull and self-satisfied. I haven’t yet seen the new version but have an inkling that, as a $130 million Hollywood production, it will dumb down the material—a suspicion that would appear to be confirmed by the reviews it’s received thus far. So no, I don’t have any wish to defend the movie or its makers.
However, I will assert that the whitewashing controversy is ridiculous because: a). GHOST IN THE SHELL’S themes and subject matter are not exclusively Asian-centric, having been heavily inspired by the writing of the Caucasian scribes Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, b). much of the ire has been rather inexplicably focused on Scarlett Johansson rather than the people who hired her, as exemplified by the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) publicly calling her a liar after a recent GOOD MORNING AMERICA interview, and a picture found on the aforementioned meme generator of ScarJo with the caption “This is the Face of White Privilege” (a face, I must say, that looks pretty damn good!), c). the character Johansson plays is an android and, as has been pointed out by the anime feature’s director Mamoru Oshii, there’s no law stating that movie androids have to be Asian, d). in early 2016 the Hong Kong graphic designer Ricky Ma made headlines by constructing an “eerily lifelike” robot that closely resembles Scarlett Johansson, making her an ideal candidate for the role of a robot babe, and e). GHOST IN THE SHELL, believe it or not, IS quite progressively-minded, being a woman-centered action movie with an ethnically diverse cast that includes the Japanese superstar Takeshi Kitano, the French actress Juliette Binoche and the Danish actor Pilou Asbaek.
To expand on that last point, it seems that GHOST IN THE SHELL ran into a not-uncommon problem with PC-minded cinema: it wasn’t PC enough! This is a problem that seems to particularly afflict Asian-based movies, such as 2002’s BETTER LUCK TOMORROW, an indie about Asian-American teenagers turning to crime that was slammed for portraying the Asian community in a negative light, and 2005’s MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, which was blasted for casting the Chinese actresses Ziyi Zhang and Michelle Yeoh as Japanese women—controversies that would doubtless be magnified a thousand-fold were those films released today.
To address the larger controversy, pertaining to Hollywood’s tendency to marginalize Asians, I’d love to write it off as another example of political correctness run amok, but I’ll have to concede that on this issue the anti-GHOST IN THE SHELL crowd has a point. I recall being puzzled by the casting of the non-Asian Joel Grey as a Korean in 1986’s REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS, which apparently entailed hours of elaborate facial make-up. Surely today’s Hollywood wouldn’t do such a thing, and indeed, in the case of 2015’s ALOHA at least, it didn’t: in that film Emma Stone was cast as a Japanese woman without any elaborate make-up!
The fact that no Asian actress exists with the clout to headline a major motion picture like GHOST IN THE SHELL only points out how dire the situation has gotten regarding Asians in the American film industry. I don’t believe this is due to racism so much as, simply, the fact that this is way things have been and still are in Hollywood, which, as it always has been, is stubbornly resistant to change.
To quote MANAA President Guy Aoki, “Without a conscientious effort, how will anyone ever break through and become familiar enough with audiences so producers will confidently allow them to topline a film? When will we ever break that glass ceiling?” That “conscientious effort” would of course involve taking a chance, and, as I’m sure we’re all aware, that’s something modern Hollywood is loath to do. So while I think the protesting about Scarlett Johansson in GHOST IN THE SHELL is misplaced, I recognize that there does exist a glass ceiling for Asian actors in Hollywood, and I don’t envision it breaking any time soon.