More Aliens than Asians on Screen: White-Washing Ghost in the Shell

by Kathryn Graham

This month, Ghost in the Shell will be released with Scarlett Johansson, a white actress, cast as Japanese character: Major Motoko Kusanagi. This is a process known as ‘white-washing’: Hollywood’s long-standing racist practice of casting white actors as characters of color.

In the 1930’s, we had ‘yellowface’: ‘Predictably, Asian Americans actors would spend most of the war years cast as sinister Japanese, often in films now viewed with some embarrassment. There were still “good Asian” roles being written–but they were restricted to Caucasian actors while Asian Americans played the villains.’

In 2017, we have white-washing, which is not the same thing, but still casts white people in roles that should have been Asian roles. The result: there are almost no roles for Asians on screen even in stories where the characters in the source material were Asian.

Chloe Tze: The University of California School of Journalism put out this study. There was a report that said less than 4.5% of Asians were on screen in speaking roles over the span of six years. So we’re not represented. You’re more likely to see an alien on screen than an Asian female. (Queer Women of Color Panel @ ClexaCon 2017)

NPR: Hollywood Has a Major Diversity Problem Study Finds

Why? There’s a whole raft of reasons why, but here’s a small snapshot: Writers aren’t writing roles for people of Asian descent. In the rare cases when we are, they’re being given to Caucasians.

When asked about the controversy surrounding her casting, Scarlett Johansson told Marie Claire magazine:

“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. Also, 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.”

But, much as I love ScarJo, she is playing a character of another race, which is a problem precisely because there is so little inclusion in Hollywood. Kusanagi is a distinctly Japanese name. This is a Japanese character.

She’s right that there is a dearth of films with female protagonists. The same NPR study above shows that only one third of female characters on screen have speaking roles (let alone leading roles). Combine that with the incredibly low instance of Asians in speaking roles, and despite her intentions and her personal desires, Johansson has usurped a role where an Asian woman should have been cast.

But this is more on the casting director than it is on the actress. So, what did Steven Paul, a producer on the film, have to say about this choice to white-wash the movie?

“I don’t think it was just a Japanese story,” Paul told BuzzFeed. “Ghost in the Shell was a very international story, and it wasn’t just focused on Japanese; it was supposed to be an entire world. That’s why I say the international approach is, I think, the right approach to it.”

Basically: this story isn’t focused on Japan exclusively, so therefore we cast a white woman as a clearly Japanese character.

Is anyone buying this?

This isn’t a new defense of a white-washed movie. M. Night Shyamalan said the same thing about his choice to white-wash the Asian cast of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

“Here’s the thing. The great thing about anime is that it’s ambiguous. The features of the characters are an intentional mix of all features. It’s intended to be ambiguous. That is completely its point. So when we watch Katara, my oldest daughter is literally a photo double of Katara in the cartoon. So that means that Katara is Indian, correct? No that’s just in our house. And her friends who watch it, they see themselves in it. And that’s what’s so beautiful about anime.” – M. Night Shyamalan

I mean, who could tell that Aang was a Tibetan monk, Katara and Sokka were Innuits, and Zuko was Japanese? Anyone with eyes. Anyone who watched the show. And also…

The creators of the original cartoon: Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino.

The thing is: Avatar was not an anime. It was an American cartoon in the vein of anime. Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino had a blueprint for how they created their characters – and that blueprint was distinctly based on Asian culture. It’s not like Shymalan had to guess. His excuses, like always when a movie is white-washed, don’t hold water.

Even though the creators of Ghost in the Shell back the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson, and even though I doubt these decisions were made on purpose to harm Asians, the impact stays the same: another clearly Japanese character will be played by a Caucasian actor. Regardless of intent, this film is now a part of the history of American white-washing.

It’s worth thinking about this both if you’re considering seeing this movie and when you sit down to write your own stories. What are you doing to combat this? Are you writing Asian or Asian American characters into your shows in an ethical way? Are you bolstering stories by Asian creators? Informing people about this issue? Sharing this and/or many other articles?

Update: For a spot of good news, Disney looks to be doing it right with their upcoming live action Mulan movie! All-Asian cast and a female director? I’m in.


Kathryn Graham is a TVWriter™ Contributing Writer. Learn more about Kate HERE

About Kathryn Graham

Los Angeles-based television writer, TVWriter Contributing Editor, and lover of women. e-mail: kathrynagraham@gmail.com