Hollywood appropriation strikes again in the form of the March 31 release of “Ghost in the Shell” starring Scarlett Johansson, a film based on a highly popular Japanese manga, or comic, series. Johansson’s casting in a role that has always been occupied by a Japanese woman is only the latest of the issues that Hollywood has always had with accurate representations of non-white characters.
I’ve written about representation in media before, about how important it is for audiences to see themselves on screen and to have their stories told. “Ghost in the Shell” is somehow more than that. Admittedly, I don’t know much about Japanese culture or the original manga that this film was based on, but I do know that this is just another in a line of films contributing to the absence of non-white cultures.
As a review of the film from The New York Times unabashedly said, “like so much in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ — the toddling geishas, the Asian extras — it helps to reduce an entire culture to a decorative detail.” The critic went even further in her criticism of the film, and outright stated: “This isn’t just appropriation; it’s obliteration.”
I’m a huge fan of Scarlett Johansson; she’s always a standout to me in Marvel films, and a standalone film of her character Black Widow is something I’d love to see. However, though she doesn’t carry all the blame for this casting decision, she does harbor some of it. Hollywood can talk about how much they love diversity at the Oscars every year until they’re blue in the face, but it doesn’t mean jacks— if they don’t do anything to change how they cast films. And if casting directors and producers aren’t going to step up to the plate and responsibly represent those who need to be represented, then actors need to call them out for it.
While I immensely enjoy Johansson’s work, I don’t think she should have accepted the role for the film. It wouldn’t have hurt her career to turn down the part, and there’s already been a slight precedent set in the past for this kind of move.
About a year ago, Adam Lambert explained in an interview with Out.com, an online LGBT magazine, that, upon originally being offered to play the iconic Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Fox’s remake of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” he turned it down. He says in the interview that “in 2016, to be cis and playing the role of a trans character, it felt inappropriate to me. In the ‘70s, it was different. But nowadays we have such an amazing conversation that has started about trans and gender in this world.”
Fox then went on to cast transgender actress Laverne Cox in the role, with her performance subsequently stealing the show and doing great justice to the original film, and the blurred lines about gender and sexuality introduced in it.
For now, however, Hollywood isn’t shying away from using white actors to garner support and attention for their films.
Director Ridley Scott openly admitted this in an interview with Variety when his film “Exodus: Gods and Kings” opened in 2014, saying, “I can’t mount a film of this budget…and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
You would think though, that after all this time and especially in recent years with the rise of social media and the scrutiny that comes with it, Hollywood would have realized people have caught onto what they’re doing and reacted negatively to it. Indeed, the recent films that had the biggest examples of whitewashing were also notable flops at the box office and, in some cases, spawned online boycotts. These include the aforementioned Ridley Scott film “Exodus: Gods and Kings” that starred white actors Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton as Egyptian characters, Bale in particular portraying the Biblical figure of Moses. Other such films include the Scottish Gerard Butler playing an Egyptian deity in “Gods of Egypt,” Jake Gyllenhaal being cast as the Prince of Persia in the film of the same name, and, most recently, Matt Damon being placed at the forefront of “The Great Wall,” a Chinese film about the Great Wall of China.
Ridley Scott’s mindset and directors with views similar to his are, in my opinion, instances of lazy storytelling. By his account, he needs a well-known white actor to sell his film and gain attraction from an audience at the box office. But shouldn’t a compelling story that’s well-acted do that for him, regardless of how well-known the lead actor is prior to that film? The previously mentioned flops prove this; if your film is bad, and if the writing and storytelling is sloppy, it doesn’t matter that you’ve got Matt Damon at it’s forefront, audiences aren’t going to like it, and the whitewashing will just add insult to injury. It’s racism mixed with Hollywood greed, which paints a very ugly picture.
The bottom line is that as much as individual films have been called out for their ethnic and cultural appropriation, Hollywood has only made an “effort” to fix things in that since blackface isn’t appropriate anymore, Asian and Middle Eastern characters are the next to be disrespected in this way. “Ghost in the Shell” is just another example of Asian culture being erased in media by white Hollywood, and is a serious issue concerning representation that isn’t going to be remedied without a concerted effort from all of those involved in the movie-making process.