Is Ghost in the Shell Hollywood’s Latest Whitewashed Movie? The Lack of Opportunity and the Restrictive Representation of Asian Actors on Screen

by sakuowo on April 27, 2017 - 2:39am

“50% of all film, TV and digital services don’t have a named or speaking Asian character” (Waurenchen, “Race” 6). Although individuals of Asian descent constitute 5.6% of the population of the United States (Wikipedia contributors), they are exceedingly underrepresented in Hollywood’s predominantly white film industry, often restricted to portray a select few roles constructed upon racial stereotypes. In addition to the restrictive representation of Asian characters in movies and their lack of acting opportunities, Hollywood also has a history of casting white actors in roles destined for these ethnic groups. The release of Ghost in the Shell, a multi-million dollar blockbuster adaptation of the popular Japanese animated series of the same name, has once again sparked the discussion surrounding the issue of whitewashing following the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi. Although a position should be given to the most qualified individual regardless of ethnicity, the lack of opportunities for adequate representations of Asian characters exacerbated by the phenomenon of whitewashing is a major problem across the movie industry as demonstrated by the Ghost in the Shell controversy.

Initial misrepresentations of individuals of Asian descent in the United States stemmed primarily from concerns about the economic power of the newly arrived groups: their stereotypical portrayal in the early 1900s reflected the negative opinion held by white Americans towards the booming Asian population along the west coast. Composed of mainly workers from Chinese and Japanese origins as well a modest amount of Filipinos and Indians, the Asian work force’s ability to compete successfully with their white counterparts in cultivating local produce as well as applying for low-paying jobs prompted nativists to go as far as to form the Asian Exclusion League (AEL) with the intent to “expel all Asians from the US and prevent immigration from Asia farmers” (Shah 9). In an attempt to ostracize and demonize such ethnic groups considered as the Other, Asian men were depicted as “menacing, predatory, and lusting after white women” (11) whereas Asian women were characterized as “diabolical, sneaky, and mean, but with the added characteristics of being sexually alluring and sophisticated and determined to seduce and corrupt white men” (12), giving rise to Yellow Peril and the Dragon Lady stereotypes respectively. Two other Asian stereotypes were developed during the following decades. In wake of World War II and the Japanese threat, China was portrayed as a “benign and mysterious land” inhabited by a “virtuous, industrious, and trustworthy” (13) population in contrast to the “cruel” (13) Japanese man, prompting the creation of the ostensibly positive figure of Charlie Chan. Derived from the derogatory character of Asian domestic servants known as Charlie, this character was depicted as “quiet and unassertive” and played by the Swedish-American actor Warner Oland during 16 films (Berman). Such cases of whitewashing ethnic roles were common: Katharine Hepburn’s eye shape was modified using makeup for her portrayal of a Chinese woman named Jade in the 1944 movie Dragon Seed whereas Genghis Khan was played by John Wayne in the 1950s, among others. Lastly, the concept of the Lotus Blossom was introduced following the end of World War II in movies about US servicemen on leave in post-war Japan, generating the stereotype of Asian women as “submissive, meek, and ready to serve a man's every need” (Shah 14). The pervasiveness of the four stereotypes - Yellow Peril, Dragon Lady, Charlie Chan, and Lotus Blossom – coupled with the ostracization of the Asian population by the American society on an economic and social level contributed to the invisibility of Asian actors on screen, as well as the misrepresentation of their culture and role in society.

The phenomenon of whitewashing roles in addition to the stereotypical representation of such populations is still a modern-day problem despite recent movies and series starring Asian leads, such as the ongoing 2015 series entitled Fresh Off the Boat. Indeed, Asian actors are still mostly cast in roles adhering to the four aforementioned stereotypes as conveyed through the statements of many Asian actors such as Pun Bandhu, a Thai-American actor trained at the prestigious Yale School of Drama: “[w]e’re the information givers. We’re the geeks. We’re the prostitutes. . . . We’re so sick and tired of seeing ourselves in those roles” (Levin). The casting of Emma Stone as a half-Asian character in Cameron Crowe's 2015 movie Aloha (Berman) as well as the 2016 controversy following Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of an originally Himalayan high priest with long, white facial hair in Marvel’s Doctor Strange (Rose) also suggest that the movie industry has not implemented new practices despite the growing pressure for diversity in Hollywood. The latest whitewashing controversy surrounding the 2017 movie adaptation of the popular Japanese animated series Ghost in the Shell has prompted discussions about the legitimacy of such claims considering the ambiguous ethnicity of the main character. Some people argue that the Major’s role was not whitewashed by the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the female character does not have a defined ethnicity. Mamoru Oshii, the director of the first Ghost in the Shell movie, states that “[t]he Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her” (Berman), strengthening the claims that an actress of any origin should be able to play this role. Indeed, Johansson was chosen based on her qualifications as an actress and her ability to “embod[y] the physicality and the ability to inhabit that role” (Berman) as stated by director Rupert Sanders. Individuals such as the movie’s producer Steven Paul also argue that the diversity of the rest of the cast is representative of the different types of people and nationalities in the world of Ghost in the Shell, stating that the film “was a very international story, and it wasn’t just focused on [Japan]; it was supposed to be [about the] entire world” (Berman).The choice of casting Johansson as the Major is however ultimately a product of whitewashing as it not only demonstrate Hollywood’s unchanging structure restricting acting opportunities for Asian actors, but also suggests that individuals from such origins cannot sustain lead roles in major productions. The remark by Sanders stating the diversity of the rest of the cast conveys the notion that Asian actors are more suited for one-dimensional supporting characters, a major issue regarding the quality of their roles according to Darnell Hunt, a UCLA professor who co-authored a diversity report on Asian representation in the media (Levin). Furthermore, the casting of an iconic character deeply ingrained in Japanese pop-culture to a white actress overlooks the fact that there are a great number of equally qualified Asian actresses capable of undertaking such a role. Moreover, it trivializes the lack of representation of Asian figures in Hollywood: if an Asian actor/actress cannot even obtain a lead role in a movie centered on many aspects specific to their own culture, how is it possible for them to be cast in major productions destined for white leads? The whitewashing of Asian roles coupled with the lack of three-dimensional characters only exacerbate the issues surrounding Asian representation in Hollywood as suggested by Bandhu: “[w]hen a white actor gets the role, it denies us our bodies and it denies us our voices” (Levin).

In conclusion, the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead in Ghost in the Shell demonstrated once again the phenomenon of whitewashing Asian roles in the movie industry. Such actions contributing to the lack of opportunities for Asian actors in addition to the absence of three-dimensional characters available to these ethnic groups are detrimental to a population unable to defy the four main stereotype reinforced by the media. Taking into consideration the hostile and racist attitudes at the origin of the aforementioned stereotypes, perpetuating the production of these shallow roles sustains the notion of Asian populations as the Other and inferior to the native American culture. Although it is in my opinion that society has progressed and does not intend to convey such hateful messages, it is impossible to ignore the fact that issues including whitewashing and lack of representation are still omnipresent in the film industry. In face of Hollywood’s inaction towards these issues, the public and actors alike have come together to demand changes. The Korean Wave, commonly known as Hallyu, can be considered to be a reaction of the Asian people towards the domination of the West in the globalization of popular culture (Hyun-key Kim 1). With the expansion of Asian influence in the economic sphere as well as on a cultural level, Hollywood might want to start being more calculated in their distribution of roles if they wish to cotinue to prosper in the future.

Works Cited

Berman, Eliza. " A Comprehensive Guide to the Ghost in the Shell Controversy." Time. 29 March 2017, time.com/4714367/ghost-in-the-shell-controversy-scarlett-johansson/. Accessed 25 April 2017.

"Demographics of Asian Americans." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 7 April 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Asian_Americans. Accessed 25 April 2017.

Hyun-key Kim, Hogarth. "The Korean Wave: An Asian Reaction to Western-Dominated Globalization." Perspectives on Global Development & Technology, vol. 12, no. 1/2, Jan. 2013, pp. 135-151. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1163/15691497-12341247. Accessed 24 April 2017.

Levin, Sam. "We're the geeks, the prostitutes': Asian American actors on Hollywood's barriers." The Guardian. 11 April 2017, www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/11/asian-american-actors-whitewashing-hollywood. Accessed 24 April 2017.

Rose, Steve. "Ghost in the Shell’s whitewashing: does Hollywood have an Asian problem?" The Guardian. 13 March 2017, www.theguardian.com/film/2017/mar/31/ghost-in-the-shells-whitewashing-does-hollywood-have-an-asian-problem. Accessed 24 April 2017.

Shah, Hemant. "Asian Culture" and Asian American Identities in the Television and Film Industries of the United States." Simile, vol. 3, no. 3, Aug. 2003. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=cookie,ip,url&db=aph&AN=10358336&site=ehost-live. Accessed 24 April 2017.

Waurenchen, Sarah. “Race.” 21 February 2017. PowerPoint presentation.