by Ryan Ricks and Karen Wang
Hollywood and Western media at large have always had a history of marginalizing and misrepresenting people of color and other minorities through whitewashing and the exclusion of non-white actors. But can whitewashing really be considered “history” and has Hollywood made progress in terms of representing people of color in media?
Yes, to an extent.
Mockery and egregious degradation of people of color, exhibited in films such the American cult classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s, are not considered socially acceptable and would be almost universally condemned in modern cinema.
While we no longer see blatant forms of blackface and yellowface in film, we continue to see trends of casting white actors to portray characters of color on the big screen, with some actors dying their hair and filmmakers even going so far as to attempt to digitally modify the features of their actors to appear more “ethnic.”
In one such example, Scarlett Johansson was cast as the lead role of “Major,” a cyborg controlled by a human brain transplant, in the live-action film adaptation of the anime and manga series Ghost in the Shell. Although the casting drew criticism and controversy, the film was still released, with the production and advertising teams unapologetically ignoring and diverting attention away from the outrage sparked by the casting of Johansson to play a character traditionally viewed as Asian.
It was also later reported that Paramount Studios had commissioned for visual effects to be used in post-production to digitally modify Johansson’s features to appear more East Asian. Paramount later confirmed the speculation by releasing a statement saying that tests using the visual effects were “short-lived” and “immediately abandoned” and that Johansson was not involved in the process.
However, I personally wonder if Paramount understands that the question isn’t how long they considered using the effects or how many tests they ran with the effects; the real question is what motivated them to believe they needed to commission the effects in the first place. What kind of oversight did it take for an entire production and filmmaking team to choose to attempt to use a euphemistic version of digital yellowface?
Ghost in the Shell as a film itself is undeniably stunning and well-produced visually, from its beautiful shots of a futuristic cityscape to its heart pounding sci-fi action scenes, but there is, admittedly, something very strange and very off about the movie.
The cityscape is Hong Kong, albeit with a couple more holographic billboards and more technologically modified humans wandering around, and the East Asian influences are present everywhere, from the Chinese characters used on signs around the city to the portrayal of “geisha cyborgs” and even to the usage of spoken Japanese throughout the film. Everything about Ghost in the Shell is undoubtedly Asian—except for the people.
Now, from a marketing perspective, it is understandable that Paramount would cast Johansson over other celebrities because as of now, there are very few A-list Asian celebrities. However, instead of blaming the Asian community at large for lacking acting talent, we should ask ourselves why Asians, who have managed to excel in so many fields in the West, have not been able to tap into entertainment.
The answer is simply that they have never been given an equal chance. America’s relationship with the consumption of non-European cultures has always been skewed and in many ways is degrading. Many white Americans want to enjoy and participate in aspects of other cultures without actually having to deal with the people associated with those cultures.
Another example similar to Ghost in the Shell is the live-action adaptation of The Last Airbender. In a striking parallel with Ghost in the Shell, The Last Airbender was adapted from a TV series with heavy Asian influences, visible in both the appearances of the characters, the use of Chinese characters throughout, and the cultures portrayed in the show.
It was not surprising when fans of the show were outraged to see the casting decisions for the live-action adaptation because well, all the lead actors were white, and the characters were all originally Asian.
Another disturbing trend in Hollywood, distinct but related to the continued casting of white actors to portray people of color, is the use of the “white savior trope” in film, where a white lead takes on the role of the hero with the assistance of several side characters who are non-white.
One could argue that Ghost in the Shell exhibits elements of the white savior trope, as Johansson, whose character was revealed to be originally Japanese, is not considered a hero until her brain is transplanted into a cyborg body with Caucasian features. All of the cyborgs, save for the flat and faceless geishas, have Caucasian features, and this sends a disturbing message about power and heroism to young viewers, where an Asian girl can only become significant and important once she has a white body.
A more blatant example of the white savior trope is The Great Wall, a collaboration between the Chinese movie industry and Hollywood. The film itself is filled with Chinese superstars, from well-known Andy Lau to experienced actress Jing Tian to rising star Lu Han, but the focus is on Matt Damon and his friends, the Roman saviors of China.
Disregarding the fact that the presence of Romans in Song dynasty-era China is blatantly historically inaccurate and that this storyline was created for the explicit purpose of casting white actors into the film, the undertones and themes of The Great Wall do not bode well.
The Chinese are seen struggling to keep the Tao Tieh, mythical monsters, at bay until Matt Damon comes along to take care of the creatures for them and then gets hailed as a hero by the Chinese. All of the Chinese characters are simply Damon’s sidekicks.
Personally, I don’t understand the necessity of having a white lead actor when the film is set in China, with so many Chinese superstars and with an acclaimed Chinese director at the helm. Unfortunately, this goes back to the points about marketing and how many Hollywood producers don’t see movies without white stars as profitable.
Hollywood has undoubtedly come a long way in terms of diversity in film, but there is still another long road lying ahead for the American filmmaking industry if we are to really see profound improvements in the representation of people of color in modern Western cinema.
With blackface having been long since been abandoned in film, using white actors to portray African American people is still relatively common. Take the 2007 movie Stuck for example. This movie is based on the story of Chante Jawan Mallard, a Texas woman sentenced to 50 years in prison for the murder of a homeless man. The problem? Mena Suvari, cast as the Mallard-inspired Brandi Boski, is white, and Chante Jawan Mallard is black. Dressed in cornrows, Suvari represents modern whitewashing—blatant, common, yet mostly under the radar.
Casting Mena Suvari was an awkward casting choice at best. With so many brilliant black actresses around, the best justice they could give Mallard was a white woman?
Even beyond giving casters the benefit of the doubt regarding casting Suvari, someone on board must have known who exactly they were basing this movie on, because they decided to give the blonde Suvari cornrows, the newest hairstyle white people think they can wear because black people do, a testament to their history of banking off of black culture.
Another more infuriating example of erasing African Americans in film came a year later, in 2008, with Wanted. Starring popular actress Angelina Jolie, thankfully without cornrows, it still promotes the trend of casting white actresses in black roles. The film was based on the Wanted comics, with Angelina Jolie’s character, Fox, being of African American descent.
Even worse, the character of Fox is reportedly based on actress Halle Berry, who could have and should have been cast for the role instead. Sadly, this is another one of the plentiful examples of actors of color being passed up in favor of their white counterparts, with reasons merely coming down to white actors being seen as more “bankable” in today’s America.
Regarding that trend, the only question I can ask is why? Is it because of white America’s complicated history of including people of color in anything? Is it because whitewashing is such a common occurrence that it takes out-right discrimination and racism to raise eyebrows?
I’m afraid I can’t provide answers to these questions, but the best I can hope for is more inclusion of people of color in modern films.
— Ryan Ricks