People are outraged. They are storming twitter and hashtagging #WhitewashedOut in protest. At this point, I am just tired.
Scarlett Johansson’s upcoming movie Ghost in the Shell is facing a lot of controversy for whitewashing a beloved Japanese anime. Based on the original 1989 manga by Masamune Shirow, the Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell debuted in 1995 to wild acclaim. After various remakes and sequels, Paramount agreed to produce a live-action film of this classic story with Rupert Sanders as the director and Scarlett Johansson as the lead.
The manga is set in the year 2029, where the world has morphed into a dangerous playground for evil villains who hijack into people’s minds and control their bodies. A specially-designed force of human-cyborg hybrids, led by Major Matoko Kusanagi (played by Johansson in the upcoming film), has been tasked with stopping these crimes.
Those defending the movie have claimed that Johansson’s casting wasn’t whitewashing because Kusanagi’s character, a futuristic cyborg humanoid, should be viewed in an ethnically ambiguous light. While that may be completely true within the anime community, Hollywood’s history of yellowface and whitewashing makes that sound more like an excuse than an attempt to authentically emulate the spirit of the story.
If this was truly paying homage to this international franchise, why did they have to hire a high-profile white American actress? If ethnic ambiguity is central to Kusanagi’s characterization, hiring an unambiguously white actress is a step in the wrong direction. This isn’t to say that the heritage of white actors doesn’t matter—but on those grounds the character could have been played by an actor of any race, and Hollywood’s incredible lack of Asian-American representation lends greater importance to every single opportunity that might be available (or denied) to Asian actors.
The truth is that Asian-Americans aren’t just protesting Johansson’s role—this is also about Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi, Linda Hunt’s Oscar-winning Billy Kwan, Marlon Brando’s Daniel Mann. This rage stems from the way that, time and time again, Hollywood has turned a blind eye to talented Asian-American actors and actresses in favor of a more “marketable face.” The hours and hours of “Asian face” makeup, offensive dialects, and grotesque misrepresentations of beautifully diverse Asian cultures have ultimately presented widespread obstacles to success for many aspiring Asian actors and actresses. The reason that we don’t see Asian-Americans in film isn’t because they lack talent; it’s because they haven’t been offered enough platforms and opportunities to showcase it.
Surely there has been immense progress over the past several decades. The fact that we are able to have dialogues about the definition (and consequences) of yellowface is an amazing fact in of itself. Johansson’s dyed black hair is light years better than Mickey Rooney’s repugnant caricature of a Japanese man. But are we supposed to be happy with this progress? Are our twitter hashtags denouncing Emma Stone’s role as a quarter-Asian woman in Aloha enough to call it a day?
I don’t have all the answers to these questions. All I know is that when I was growing up, I never even dreamt of being an actress because I genuinely didn’t know if Asians could be part of the film world. I felt so conflicted about labeling Breakfast at Tiffany’s as one of my favorite films because, despite my admiration of Audrey Hepburn’s elegant performance, I couldn’t help but feel that my love for that movie meant I was “being racist to my own race.” For all the fierce Jackie Chans and Lucy Lius of the world, I couldn’t possibly believe that any part of me belonged in that circle.
Hollywood’s hideous history of Asian erasure makes the decision to cast Johansson highly questionable, if not outright wrong. It’s not that Johansson is a bad actress; it’s that casting an Asian-American woman as the lead in this movie, or in any of the other movies throughout history in which white women were cast as Asian characters, would have told me—told so many young Asian American actors and actresses watching—that their dreams can come true because someone who looks like them—like us—proved that they can do it.
Hollywood has put one too many actor in yellowface and whitewashed one too many role. At this point, I am tired, plain and simple, because I am so used to Hollywood exploiting my culture and ethnic identity for cheap humor. Although Hollywood has come so far in the past several decades, Ghost in the Shell is a sign for so many of us watching that it still has a long way to go.