All right. I’m a little late to the Ghost in the Shell party, but I’m here now and I’m going to give my .02 cents worth. To all you people complaining about the casting, calling it blackface1 or yellowface2, all I ask is that you take a step back and listen to what I have to say before you continue your activism. I don’t wish to discourage anyone from doing what they think is right, but it is very important to choose your battles carefully. Failing to do so isn’t just futile, but can seriously damage not only your credibility but that of others seeking equality or fair representation, as well as preventing the development of a particular genre.
BTW, this article is not for the true fanatics that believe that any new version of your thing must be exactly like the original. You’re entirely entitled to that opinion, and it is not what this article is about. And in case anyone is worried, this article will be entirely spoiler-free… in regard to the plot of Ghost in the Shell. I plan on spoiling plenty of other stuff.
A Little Background
I’m going to have to get personal here, or my opinion probably won’t make much sense. Technically, I am second-generation American Asian as my father was born here, but his birth was a happy (for me) coincidence. My grandfather was a Chinese diplomat and just happened to be assigned to the Chinese consulate in Seattle when my dad was born, and then went back to China shortly thereafter. I am generation X, and grew up at a time when there was little to no Asian representation in the Arts. My only role model was Bruce Lee, who died when I was very young, not to be replaced to any great degree for… well, ever, and George Takei, who was only ever given a secondary role and that I only saw on reruns. Got to see plenty of Asian women getting loved on by white guys, though.
I also grew up in a rural environment in Washington state, which is to say, redneck. Lots of people saying, “Oing Toing Toing” at me and pulling up the corners of their eyes and mocking the color of my skin. Even when I moved to Seattle, it wasn’t uncommon to hear, “Why don’t you move back to your own country, Gook!” or comment on how well I spoke English–well into the ’90s. Even to this day I’ll occasionally hear “you people” from white people and am taken less seriously than a white or a black man until I say, “would you please explain yourself,” or assume overtly dominant body language. Also, I’ve noticed that some black guys have no problem slinging the terms “gook” or “slant-eye” and don’t equate it to “nigger.” If it isn’t clear to anyone, those words are just as unacceptable. Just because most Asians are taught not to make a fuss, doesn’t give you permission to say them. One day, an Asian man might just surprise you. So stop.
Despite all this, I don’t feel that race has stopped me from achieving anything I’ve wanted to achieve, but it doesn’t mean other Asians haven’t, or that it won’t pose a problem for me in the future. I also know I haven’t suffered the same level of discrimination as other minorities. That doesn’t mean that the prejudice and humiliation I’ve experienced was any less keenly felt, nor does it make me insensitive to the plight of others. This is not a pissing contest to see who was the most oppressed, it’s about acknowledging and dealing with discrimination regardless of who it affects.
Why This is A Non-Issue
First and foremost is because the story of Ghost in the Shell is not a story about race, nor are it’s themes specific to Japanese culture, history, or identity. The themes are universal. No race or culture has a monopoly on the concepts of identity, or the origins of self, or the impact of technology on those things.If anything, Ghost in the Shell was inspired by the pioneering cyberpunk novels of William Gibson, particularly the seminal novel Neuromancer (1982) and probably the film Blade Runner (1982).
The Indiewire article I linked above was wrong to say that ScarJo’s part was written to be played by a Japanese actor, in the same way it would be wrong to say the characters in Sanford and Son were written to be played by African American actors. Sanford and Son was based on a British show starring white people. Had it not been adapted by legendary producer Norman Lear, it may very well have starred a white man, as the original did. But it was, and it didn’t. Sanford and Son was no more guilty of blackwashing than Ghost in the Shell is of whitewashing.
Any work of pop fiction needs to be a reflection of or appeal to the audience for which it is intended. You don’t cast pudgy middle aged men in the roles of Edward Cullen or Jacob Black. While I believe strong characterizations, solid plot, and universal themes can and does overcome audience particulars (otherwise there would be no American fans of Ghost in the Shell), casting contrary to the audience will cause an uphill battle–and studios don’t want an uphill battle, they want blockbusters. Or for another example, a Russian superhero film might be freakin’ awesome, but it will still have limited appeal in America.
Another thing to consider is that when the Japanese do live-action adaptions of Anime, they cast them with Japanese actors, even if the characters were not originally Japanese (Attack on Titan, Space Battleship Yamato), because… wait for it… the films are made in Japan for a Japanese audience. Not. Racism.
I’m not saying we should ignore diversity issues in film, but simply pointing out the fact that the Japanese aren’t hung up with casting as some are here in America.
“She [Johannson] has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place.”
Director of International Business Division,
Kodansha, publishers of Ghost in the Shell
And yet another thing to remember is that there is a long tradition of American adaptions of foreign films. Several of Akira Kurosawa’s films were adapted into western versions. Magnificent Seven for Seven Samurai. Fist Full of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More for Yojimbo and Sanjuro. And every hard-core fan knows the influence of The Hidden Fortress and Japanese culture in general on Star Wars. And yet Yojimbo was itself a Japanese version of Dashielle Hammet’s (of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man fame) classic detective novel Red Harvest. Don’t believe me? Read the book. It’s almost identical, right down to the fact that the true name of the protagonist is unknown. Then we have modern remakes, like The Ring, The Grudge, and Scorsese’s The Departed (Infernal Affairs). Turning to Europe, there is City of Angels (Wings of Desire), 12 Monkeys (Le Jetée), Point of No Return (La Femme Nikita), Blow-up, and on and on and on and on. This is not a matter of racism or cultural appropriation, but of either honest appreciation of the source material or Hollywood’s lack of imagination and desire to cash in on a proven property. Take your pick.
But don’t think I’m letting Hollywood off the hook.
There Are Plenty of Legitimate (Racial) Issues To Be Mad About
There are far, far more egregious examples of racism in Hollywood films. Everything from the outright fetishization of Asian culture (specifically of Asian women), in such films as The World of Suzy Wong, Memoirs of a Geisha; to truly horrific yellow-face caricatures (from the top to bottom, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, John Bennet as Weng-Chiang in Doctor Who, John Wayne as Genghis Khan), or very mild cases like casting David Carradine in Kung Fu (top right… though I have to admit I have a soft spot for the show as it shows an appreciation for Chinese culture); many, many, egregious cases of whitewashing; to the weird apologist portrayal of Japanese pilots in Pearl Harbor; the patronizing nature of having a white man star in a film about the Japanese internment in Come See The Paradise, and Snow Falling on Cedars; to omissions–we have films like Red Tails and the Tuskegee Airmen about black heroes, but there hasn’t been a single Hollywood film about the 442nd since 1951,3 and nothing at all about the No No Boys (BTW: boys. We all know how well black men appreciate being referred to as ‘boys,’ anyone think Asian men like it any better?); the disregard for authentic Japanese culture in Memoirs of a Geisha; the casual swapping of one race for another in Star Trek Voyager/Star Trek 2009, especially compared to something like The Sopranos which was rather meticulous about casting Italian-American actors; forcing unnatural accents and pidgin English on the actors in Memoirs of a Geisha4; or the fact Asian women always wind up with a white love interest, Star Trek the Next Generation, Ally McBeal… the list is too long, but the opposite is almost never true.
The one time Harry Kim has an on-screen love affair with a white actress on Star Trek: Voyager is in an episode called, I kid you not “The Disease”5, she has distinct cat’s-eye makeup and she was the only one of her people with an accent (all right, she’s a Dutch South African actress, but that doesn’t explain why the universal translator would give only her an accent on a ship full of xenophobes), the rest of his ‘love’ interests were either ethnic minorities, were ethnically ambiguous, or he failed to consummate–unintentionally perpetuating the stereotype of the Asian man as sexually impotent)–ah Star Trek, look at all that backwards progress you made since the first interracial kisses on TV (well, almost).
Or how about the fact that Asians on American television are where African Americans were over 40 years ago–relegated to the sit-com ghetto, relying on stereotypes6 to stay on the air… and it took 22 years for Hollywood to give it another shot. I suppose it’s better than nothing?7
Or how about casting in general? You can tell a show is filmed in Vancouver B.C. because of the sheer number (meaning a few here and there) of Asian men walking around in the background or regularly filling out bit parts–and it doesn’t seem to hurt ratings. Someone please tell that to Hollywood casting directors.
If you’re so inclined, pay careful attention to the background actors and extras during the first six seasons of X-files and then compare it to when they moved production to LA. Also consider that the OG Beverly Hills 90210 aired during the same period, and despite the fact that in real life, Asians make up a significant portion of the student body, there were a grand total of 5 Asian appearances, all female (what’s 0 divided by 5?), all one-and-done, and only one with a name–of the hundreds of credited actors to appear on the show.
Think on that for a bit.
Fair Representation vs Equal Representation
This should be a no-brainer, but clearly it isn’t. It is unreasonable to expect Hollywood to create products with equal representation if what you mean by that is to have a 1:1 ratio of white to minority. I believe most minorities don’t expect this, so stop getting your undies in a twist. I believe we should aim for fair representation, that is to cast a minority when it is realistic and appropriate, and to do so in a way that is authentic, not idealized, fetishized, or that focuses on limited aspects of that culture. Failing to do so perpetuates damaging stereotypes, and impedes the public discourse far beyond the realm of entertainment.
Support Scarlett Johansson
I think that supporting ScarJo is very important to the cause of fair representation in film. There is an obvious shortage of female action stars in Hollywood. She has proven both her acting and action chops, and Ghost in the Shell could be a tremendous opportunity for her. The character of the Major is a very strong and interesting part, the likes of which are rarely created for women, and the breaking of female stereotypes helps break all stereotypes. Hollywood needs proof that women can carry a film, and seeing as how women stayed away in droves from Mad Max: Fury Road despite an exceptionally strong female co-lead played by an Academy Award winning actress, can you really blame them? Attacking ScarJo will not only hurt the possibility of any woman ever headlining an action film, but any minority.
And let’s not ignore the reality that star-power is the only reason studios are willing to risk a hundred million (or more) dollars on a film (and no, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is the exception that proves the rule. The word Marvel in the title along with exceptional advertising and word of mouth sold it, while Ghost already has bad press). Period. And frankly, they’re right. Without her star power, the film probably wouldn’t reach a wide audience no matter how good it is.
The fact that Hollywood is taking a Japanese property seriously enough to pony up the dosh to hire a superstar like Johansson is significant. Even with her, they’re taking a big financial risk, considering the low opinion many Americans have of the genre.
I hope to see more great Anime titles adapted to American film. But if this one fails, the chances of getting a big-budget Battleship Yamato (or Arizona), Cowboy Bebop, Neon Genesis, or Attack on Titan will drop to zero. Don’t fuck this up, people.
To Outraged White People
Thank you, but please stop telling people of color how to deal with issues that directly affect us. Maybe it is good intentions, ignorance, white guilt, or some sort of regressive liberalism, but it is misplaced at best, and racist or leads to a racist backlash at worst.
The right of self-determination isn’t just what minorities are fighting for, but is the founding principle of this nation. It is reflected in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the Bill of Rights. Part of that right is to be able to refer to myself however I wish to refer to myself–to appropriate terms for personal empowerment9 if I so choose, and whether or not I should is up to me and my own community to work out. I appreciate the support, I really do, and by all means express your feelings and concerns. But before going ballistic, calling it reverse racism, or self-hatred, how about you talk to some folks within the community, first?
Also realize that the first, loudest voices that speak up on racial issues may not be an accurate reflection of what everyone within that community believes–or even what they themselves think once they’ve had a chance to cool down. We’re people, with our own personal baggage just like anyone else, so that shrill response may not be due to racism, but due to jealousy, shortsightedness, or being an insecure or troubled person. Or it may be he or she has found their own way of dealing with the issue.
I’m sorry if this is confusing. I’m also sorry that I am telling you wait before you jump in to help. The help of the majority is both appreciated and vital. But the right to frame the argument by those affected is just as important as the argument itself. Taking over the narrative and is just another form of dis-empowerment and can lead to more misunderstandings or provide fodder for raging bigots, like with R above. I may link to his video for educational purposes, but I’m not going to say his name.
To Outraged Asian People
First, stop attributing to racism what normal greed and lack of imagination more than adequately explains. Stop telling white people they don’t or can’t understand. Take Larry Wilmore’s example. Explain. Educate. Do it sarcastically if you must, but do it with love. Mean spirits don’t open hearts.
Please look beyond yourself and look at the big picture. Ghost in the Shell being made into a successful movie, even with a white lead actor, can only help create greater awareness if not appreciation of Asian culture and art. And changing the race of the main character is much better than presenting a stereotype.
So What Kind of White Washing Do I Take Issue With?
Other than the instances mentioned in the “Legitimate Issues” section, there is only one currently on my radar, which is Doctor Strange. But it probably isn’t for the reasons you think.
I was willing to give this one the benefit of the doubt. First, because I happen to be a fan of Tilda Swinton. She is a highly versatile, ephemeral actress. I figured if they made the Ancient One a spirit or a force or nature, it could be a very interesting take on the character. After all, what race is a spirit or a god? But the more I learned about the political maneuvering that was going on in order to keep China happy, the more worried I got. Then when I saw the trailer, I had to tap out. We still don’t know what her story is, but I was disturbed by how the character was portrayed.
Eastern spirituality is one of the greatest gifts Asia has given to the west. Not just the philosophy, but the morals and world-view. It is tied to martial arts (another great export), our superstitions, folklore, and art. Asians can’t be fully understood without taking to account our spiritual history any more than the history of Europe without understanding Christianity.
Not only does Doctor Strange shift the seat of much of this tradition and history to a culturally inappropriate location for the sake of increased Chinese box-office, but it seems to attribute the creation of this culture… to a white person. I know that’s a lot to get from a short clip, and it seems to contradict what I said earlier about being open to her casting, but I’ll attempt to explain.
My problems are the fact that her head was shaved, that she was dressed in Eastern garb, that she used obvious martial-arts type hand movements. It isn’t the fact that she’s demonstrating Orientalism. It’s wonderful when people can participate and appreciate aspects of a different culture, up to and including the adoption of a whole way of life. But in this context, those cultural trappings are part of her character, and as the master, she is the one disseminating those cultural features. So she, a white person, is the source of Asian spirituality. That is, if they hold true to the character of the Ancient One.
What I was hoping for was for her to be the embodiment of a magical or spiritual force. Doctor Strange would learn techniques from his fellow students (in this case, culturally Asian), but develop his own approach to drawing upon the spiritual wisdom and power of this Source/Conduit (for lack of a better word), based on his own talents and background–just as any practitioner of meditation or traditional martial arts does.
For example, when the Chinese invented, say White Crane Style, it was not the bird creating Kung Fu techniques, but the practitioners interpreting the movements of the animal. Or for a western example, the sun dial uses and was inspired by the movement of the sun, and could not exist without it, but the mechanism was not invented by the sun. This approach would have preserved respect the Asian culture legacy while at the same time creating an interesting reason for it to exist. Why not? It would take some fancy writing to do it right, but I know it could be done, because it has been done.
Well, we’ll see.
But if my worst fears are correct, does it make me angry? Nah. I would place it in the category of unintentional cultural appropriation due to political correctness and good old fashion capitalism. Disappointing. A little offensive, but that’s all. Worth talking about, but not worth protesting. Will I see the film? Well, Doctor Strange is one of my all-time favorite comic books, and the trailer looks fantastic apart from the questionable bits. So… maybe?
No conclusion. Though one may only hope.
1. Which, by the way, it is not. This was an incredible ignorant, insensitive thing to say.
2. It’s not that either since they’ve changed the race of the character. Regardless of what the rumors say.
4. Seriously… I feel bad for the actors and actresses just trying to make a living, and if it had advanced their careers, some good might have come of it. But it didn’t, so fuck this movie to hell.
5. Yes. Love between an Asian man and white woman is a fucking disease. There can be no other explanation for it. And none of the writers or cast ever heard of ‘Yellow Fever?’ Really? No one?
6. Check out the list of credits. Look at the names of the people who wrote and directed this show. Yes, these are clearly the most qualified people to speak about the Asian experience in America, definitely more than the star and woman whose stand-up comedy was the basis for the show.
7. No. Though there is an improvement in terms of writers and directors. However, Improving from an F to a C- doesn’t earn you a cookie.
8. The number of Asian men cast in Hollywood is vanishingly small, even compared to Asian women. Things have gotten better recently with Walking Dead, Crazy Ex Girlfriend, and Master of None. Well, it’s a start.
9. I’m sorry you’re upset you can’t call me the racial epithets I call myself or my friends. Oh wait. I’m not sorry at all. More from Larry.