The Dangerous Implication of White-Washing
At this point we’ve heard every argument for and against white-washing, but for some reason there are people that still can’t seem to understand what the problem is. I told myself that I’d stay out of the current (Note: I say current, but this is just the controversy re-appearing due to images of her in the role being released. This was also a big issue when the casting was announced. I remember not liking it then either, but again, I said nothing.) GITS controversy because it’s not my fight, but then I asked myself “why are you sitting back? Wouldn’t you hate it if someone tried to do a white version of August Wilson plays or something?” and I thought...yeah, I probably would.
Listen, the biggest issue with white-washing isn’t that some people think of the headline ‘White People Make Great Movie Stars’. The problem is that these people think ‘Non-White People Don’t’. They think this so strongly that they’re willing to completely ERASE the people of color from their own narratives. Now, I’m not a fan of GITS. I’m not even going to pretend to be. It’s why I initially didn’t want to talk about this, but I have heard from people that are fans.
I’ve heard from a good number of people that this story is intrinsically Japanese and in some cases very critical of Western culture (most of them linking me to Jon Tsuei’s twitter thread about it *here*). The mere idea of needing to “Westernize” it probably speaks more against this film adaptation than for it. I have nothing against Scarlett Johansson. I think she’s a fine actress, but she’s well off enough that she could’ve seen the writing on the wall with this and passed on it. I’m a struggling actor myself. I’m not going to crap on anybody for getting work, but when you’re a Hollywood A-Lister you’re allowed a few passes in your life.
The same thing happened with Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange. Again, I’m not a Doctor Strange fan at all, but from what I hear her character was originally an Asian man. I’m much more of a fan of Tilda than Scarlett and I again say: pass on this mess. But it’s bigger than the actors. We all know this. The studios need to sack up and stop letting their talent take the fall.
I’ve seen a thousand and one excuses for asian erasure in media over the years. From “they don’t care” to “they’re still making all the money” to “the only reason anime characters are japanese is because anime’s made in japan! We SHOULD change it for American audiences! Half of them look European anyway!”. Yeah, that worked so well for Dragonball Evolution. The bottom line is that we blatantly disregard Asian-American actors and then look for excuses to justify our incompetence.
I mean at some point we’re going to have to look at the way we treat people and their stories and examine our own behavior. This story didn’t take place in America. It’s not linked to American culture. There’s nothing European about it. It’s straight up Japanese. So why are we supposed to ignore that just because Scarlett Johansson is the face on the cover?
The idea that casting a big name actress will save your movie needs to be killed right here and now. What will save your movie is good storytelling and a good enough marketing team to get the right eyes on it. What will save the industry is representing all members of it. In keeping all of our leads white and pushing out the people that are desperately seeking representation within their own culture’s story; we’re specifically telling those people that they don’t have a place in Hollywood. Asian actors already get so little when it comes to Western roles. Stories based here in the US are so lacking in Asian representation that the #OnlyOnePercent tag on twitter was started to show the lack of Oscar nominations and wins for Asians in the industry.
It’s not just them. It’s not just black people. It’s not just latinos. It’s all of us. We’re all hurting for representation and we all need to start calling stuff like this out when it pops up.
This is not ‘color blind casting’. I mean, I guess it is, since to me the phrase color blind casting can sometimes be code for ‘brain dead casting’. We need to be aware of color in order to not offensively disregard it. The lack of representation in media is dangerous and harms a lot of different actors of color both male and female. A lot of them are discouraged from auditioning for big roles. A lot of them won’t believe that they can be cast in anything worthwhile due to not ‘having a name’. This re-affirms the idea that a European woman is a better idea to play a Japanese character than literally ANY Japanese woman.
White-washing needs to be called out plain and simple. Not because we want to take roles away from white people, but because Hollywood would be content with not having people of color be in anything ever if we didn’t say something about it. It’s a dangerous implication. It implies that we’re not talented enough, that we’re not strong enough, that we’re not passionate enough to both tell and watch our stories. Would Asian-American viewers go out and see a Ghost in the Shell film because there’s an Asian actress involved? I don’t know, but the fact that the studio behind this wasn’t even willing to try means that we’ll never know.
White people can see movies starring Asians too, by the way. And if those people somehow became stars in the process then it means that the viewers in this country would be more likely to see them in films in the future. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy when you say ‘a Japanese woman couldn’t have sold this movie’. There was no effort to make one.
This entire controversy just damns this movie to be seen as careless. If you’re casting Scarlett in the lead role how can anyone have faith that the story is good? How can anyone trust that you respected the source material? And if your goal was to make something different than the source material to sell to a wider audience then why bother trying to convince people that you’re being faithful? Just call it a day, put up your middle fingers, and count your money.
I’m not saying that you have to be outraged about this. Do what you want, man. All I’m saying is that when it comes to people of color in entertainment; we can’t keep sitting back on this. I’m not saying this as a knock on Asian actors and actresses, but as a criticism of those that aren’t. The industry as a whole needs to come together and crack down on stuff like this. Tell your white friends that this stuff “is not a good look” and when they ask you what that means just say “trust me. Tell them no and save yourself the headache”. The white actors need to start saying “no. hire someone that fits this role and this story”.
Solidarity brings strength. We need to stand with each other if these studio executives refuse to stand with us. We need to be conscious of color and attempt to fix the inequality. Some will say “well what happens when a POC gets a traditionally white role?!” but guess what, that’s an attempt to ‘make’ that person! Half the time these ‘white roles’ are never even specifically white. They’re just roles that have always just...been white people. No one ever thought “maybe we should cast a non-white person in this role” because non-white people didn’t have equal rights in this country until like...a little over 50 years ago, dude. We couldn’t even get the role of ‘water fountain drinker’ back then. Don’t tell me that we had a chance to be cast as Stanley Kowalski.
Now that times are changing, so are roles, and that’s a good thing. The reason people get so pissed about white-washing is that WE created these roles in the absence of acceptance. White people didn’t want us playing on their playground, but now that we’re here they come at us with the “real friends share” bullshit. The color palette was expanded to include all of us and every time someone wants to add a little more you have the white brush drifting over it. Let us live. Let us thrive. And even in the case of adapting the work of other cultures: Respect them! Japan does not belong to us. This was not Japan adapting an American story to their medium. This was them telling their own story without any American interference. And hey, look what we did, we interfered in its translation!
The more diverse the story-telling the better the stories will be. Have you ever painted over something too many times? It gets muddy and weird looking. That’s what this Ghost in the Shell film looks like. Whatever they thought they were doing by putting European ScarJo was nullified by the fact that they weren’t thinking about what was already there.
You had an opportunity to shine a light on an important touchstone in Japanese culture and media. Instead you cast a big, dark, American-ized shadow on it. That reflects badly on all of us.