To those who saw the recent live-action renewal of the retro anime Ghost in the Shell, you might be wondering why in a movie set in Japan and cast almost entirely with Japanese actors, the lead role was given to Scarlett Johansson- notably a non-Japanese actress. Perhaps the casting agent or director thought a Western audience would identify with the character more, or maybe they just wanted a reason to get Johansson into a skin-tight body suit.
The original anime and manga (animation and graphic novel) featured a crime-fighting android of Asian complexion, so why didn’t the remake? Either way, this is the basic concept of ‘whitewashing’, where roles of different race or skin colour are given to Caucasian actors based on some kind of subversive racism inherent in the industry. This appearance of “white” being a default race on television and other forms of media leads to institutionalised and internalised racism, writes Margaret Andersen, author of White Out. Minorities are often cast as either comic relief set against white counterparts, or stereotyped based on racist generalisations, ultimately being misrepresented or underrepresented in mainstream media.
This isn’t a new happening in film and TV, some truly atrocious attempts at whitewashing have been made in the past. Take, for instance, Prince of Persia. The title alone should suggest a Persian prince, but I’d be willing to settle for someone who even looks middle-eastern. If the first name that comes to mind is Jake Gyllenhaal, then congratulations- you could have cast that movie! No matter how many scimitars you give him, or how much desert garb he is cloaked in, the pale, Swedish Gyllenhaal will never look Persian. When asked their reasoning behind what almost amounts to cultural appropriation, the studio replied that the white movie star was bankable. They were forced to eat their words later when the movie turned out to be a box-office bomb and has since become known more for its terrible casting rather than the mediocre movie itself.
Whitewashing is dangerous to the film industry- it is the erasure of idiosyncrasies and the under-representation of people of colour at acting, directing, and producing levels in film. It is this retrograde mindset that an audience associates better with a character of the same tone of skin, rather than the qualities that the character represents. While there is nothing wrong with race-blind casting, it almost never runs both ways; a leading white character is rarely cast as an African American, Latino, or Asian actor.
A sample of the most popular 100 movies from 2014 showed the extent of whitewashing- almost three-quarters of characters were represented by white actors. More than forty films had no Asian speaking characters, and only seventeen had a lead or co-lead role from a minority ethnicity. This was reflected in the 2015 and 2016 Academy Awards where all Oscar nominees were white- for two years in a row.
Whitewashing, or perhaps more fittingly, minority erasure, is damaging to cultures that are not represented to a wider audience unless confined to small, quirky roles. To youth growing up without their gender, sexuality, or race being displayed in a role where it clearly ought to be, the subconscious message is that a white male is somehow more competent or likeable.
The original Ghost in the Shell was about as Asian as things can get– Eastern philosophy set in Hong-Kong styled locations, with a cult manga and ground-breaking animation. With the 2017 remake, almost all of these factors were ignored, with the American accent of Scarlett Johansson cutting through the other cast, against a “Hollywoodized” triple-A production value. Three of the most prominent roles in Ghost in the Shell were played by white actors, coincidentally receiving some of the highest screen-time and being the most enhanced android figures.
If the whitewashing of a cult iconic anime were not so blatant, perhaps the film would have received a better critical reception. A key scene of the movie (spoiler ahead), is where Motoko finally remembers her past, and goes to see her mother. The mother somehow recognizes that underneath the white body of an android lies her teenage daughter, and they embrace. This moment is incredibly jarring as a viewer; to see an elderly Asian woman embrace Scarlett Johansson as an immediate family member pulls you completely out of the suspension of disbelief that the movie tries so hard to cultivate.
Further, the realisation that the company that is on the forefront of creating superior androids seems to only create white people adds a subtle racist vibe to further views. The whole movie has white Scarlett Johansson with her white friends, beating up Asian, less competent and less enhanced bad guys. As Japanese-American actress Atsuko Okatsuka concludes: “Hanka Robotics [the corporation in the film] is making a being that’s the best of human and the best of robotics. For some reason, the best stuff they make happens to be white.”