Whitewashed in the Shell: A Follow-Up


A while back I wrote an article on Infinite Rainy Day discussing the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. In it, I stated the following point:
“The rumours of a live-action, Hollywood remake of the film have been going on for years. They’ve been circulating for almost as long as that of a live-action Akira, honestly. The film has been constantly switching directors, studios, cast members, the list goes on. It’s pretty much been in a constant flux of “production hell”, which sounds even worse when you consider that no one was willing to take it seriously. Still, the project seemed destined to make its way to theatres, so that's exactly what happened: Ghost in the Shell is slated for a 2017 release, with Scarlett Johansson being cast as the lead character, Matoko Kusanagi.”
Ignoring the obvious name misspelling, I then went off on how this was the wrong casting choice, how the role could’ve been better-suited to someone who was of Asian descent and how the movie would still probably be bad regardless. What I didn’t touch on, however, was what Scarlett Johansson herself thought. The reason was two-fold: on one hand, I didn’t know what she thought at the time, while on the other hand, I wanted to think there was a way of salvaging her casting via an apology. In hindsight…I was expecting way too much.

See, a recent article on i.D-Vice was published discussing her decision to take on the role of Motoko Kusanagi. (You can find said article right here.) When pressed over whether or not it counted as whitewashing in her eyes, she immediately shrugged it off and gave an…unusual response:
“But now, in a conversation with Marie Claire, the actress has weighed in. ‘I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive.’

She explained that she approached the role with a focus on gender, not race. Adding, ‘having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity. Certainly, I feel the enormous pressure of that — the weight of such a big property on my shoulders.’”
Yeah… *Scratches forehead in confusion*

In anticipation of what’s to come, i.e. extreme, internet-based rhetoric, I'll get the obvious elephant in the room out of the way: yes, Johansson’s comment was shifty and out-of-line, completely missing the point. But no, she’s not suddenly a “white supremacist”. It certainly doesn’t help in the fight against white supremacy, especially in Hollywood, but calling her that ignores a bigger, more-pressing problem: Scarlett Johansson is Jewish. She's less a “white supremacist” and more a “product of the society she’s from”. It’s not unlike how Hayao Miyazaki’s comments about women in anime are sexist, but don’t automatically make him a raving misogynist.

See, there’s an Antisemitic misconception that Jews embody white privilege simply because of their skin colour. Not only does this ignore the reality that white, or Ashkenazi, Jews aren’t the only Jews out there, but it assumes they were always fully-integrated into mainstream culture. Because, rest-assured, they weren’t. Emancipation of Jewry into European society only began in the late-18th Century, and even then it was in stages. France was one of the first to emancipate their Jews, while Russia didn’t do so until well-into the 20th Century. And even then, emancipation didn’t cause Jew-hatred, later coined “Antisemitism” by Wilhelm Marr in 1819, to disappear. One need only look at The Dreyfus Affair of 1894, in which a French soldier was stripped of his rank and arrested on the false pretence of “selling information to the Germans”, to see this was still a problem. Even ignoring modern tragedies like The Holocaust, Jews are routinely attacked in the media for being supporters of Israel, aka the only Jewish state in the world.

I mention this because people will most-likely conflate Johansson’s undeniably racist remark, one she may not have even realized was racist, with the absurd notion that she’s an inheritor of white privilege “like all the other white people”. This is both unhelpful because she’s Jewish, and unhelpful because it doesn’t fix the problem. Was her comment out of line? Absolutely. Did an Asian-American deserve the role over her? No doubt about it! But calling her a “white supremacist”?

Yet this does bring up something that’s been rearing its head more and more frequently in Hollywood: subtle bigotry. Hollywood, even through osmosis, is a circle-jerk of whitewashing and white-centric beliefs dating back to the 1920’s/30’s. White talent has so frequently moved ahead of their non-white peers that there’s bound to be indirect bigotry from-time-to-time. This ranges from slut-shaming, to transphobia, to sexism, to racism and, yes, to even whitewashing. And it happens with even the most well-intended individuals, Johansson included. It sucks that it happens, but this is why you shouldn’t lionize your favourite actors/actresses and instead focus on what they contribute acting-wise.

That having been said, I’m not giving Johansson an automatic free pass here. Firstly, she agreed to the role, when she could’ve said no. Secondly, assuming she owed someone a favour, she could’ve at least acknowledged that this was wrong and apologized. I understand that she can’t slander her employers on the job, lest she ruin her career, but Johansson seems like a smart woman and could’ve easily figured something out. And thirdly, it doesn’t reflect well considering that she was unjustly-slammed a while back for promoting SodaStream in a Super Bowl commercial. Given how it must’ve felt to be attacked for that because she was Jewish, it’d make sense for her to reciprocate that sensitivity to another marginalized community.

As a final-note, I’d like to address the defence of Motoko Kusanagi being white in the original Manga as a justification for Scarlett Johansson being cast in the live-action film. It’s a terrible defence, namely because the original Manga artist, Masamune Shirow, was equally guilty of whitewashing. Since Ghost in the Shell is Japanese/East Asian-inspired, to have a white protagonist amidst a supporting cast of Asian characters is insensitive. This movie could’ve fixed that, and that it went the lazy route and copied the Manga’s biggest flaw is no excuse.

Overall, though, this was a bad justification for a bad casting decision, plain and simple. But calling Johansson a white supremacist is disingenuous, especially when actual white supremacists do exist.


Popular Posts