Ghost in the Whitewash

Entertainment media is buzzing with news that a Ghost In The Shell remake may be coming soon to a theater near you, and Scarlett Johansson has been offered the role of Major Kusanagi.


Major Motoko Kusanagi  from Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex.

Major Motoko Kusanagi.

The Major apparently fell into a giant vat of whitewash on her way to Hollywood.

There’s already been a fair bit of backlash, thanks in part to the good folks at racebending, who do excellent work raising awareness about this problem and calling it out. Over on twitter, the hashtag #whitefandombelike kicked off around this issue, and went on to become a much broader conversation around race in fandom.

The defenses I’ve seen for whitewashing the part have fallen along predictable lines. There’s the classic “but we need big names to carry the project forward,” which last starred alongside Ridley Scott in Exodus‘s press tour. This argument is insidious in its circularity.

Are we to imagine that white stars spring fully-formed from the head of an Oscar, instantly famous? They get famous because people take chances on them. And if you’re white, there are a lot more chances to go around. The already painfully limited roles for women in Hollywood overwhelmingly go to white women. Even roles that should go to actresses of color–like the starring role in Ghost in the Shell–often get whitewashed, thus denying actresses of color the opportunity to even reach for the brass ring (this isn’t just women, of course–characters of all genders get whitewashed–but for actresses of color, racism and sexism act as multiplying factors to limit their opportunities even more).

You can’t claim that whitewashing is just about business and ‘star power’ rather than systematic racism while actively contributing to the very racist system that denies actors of color access to stardom.

We’re also seeing more tired variations on “but it’s fantasy!” The Major is a cyborg, after all. Bodies are interchangeable to her. But while her body might be a little more like clothes for her than bodies are for most of us, she still has a history of making pretty specific choices about the body she wears.

Rather, her creators have made specific choices, because pretending that fictional characters have the agency to choose how they’re portrayed is a cheap trick that’s pretty much exclusively used to silence criticism. But if you’re going to use in-universe arguments to justify whitewashing her, you can’t ignore all the in-universe evidence that doing so is a misrepresentation of the character. If you’re arguing that she can choose any body she wants, you can’t ignore the fact that the body she has consistently chosen across many stories has been Japanese.

Then there’s the folks saying that it’s okay because the remake is almost certainly going to be set in the US rather than Japan, as if erasing the culture from which a thing is being appropriated makes it acceptable. But even if they do set it in the U.S, it doesn’t automatically follow that the cast should be white. Japanese Americans are part of the U.S, too. Some of them are very talented actors, and all of them deserve to see positive representations of people who look like them on TV and film.

Casting a white actress to play a canonically Japanese character is racist, and tired old excuses don’t change that.

Further reading:


3 thoughts on “Ghost in the Whitewash

  1. Pingback: TV Tropes Monday: Old-School Dogfighting | Neither Here nor There....

  2. wren romano

    To say nothing of the fact that anime characters have a long history of being whitewashed. The anime-default complexion and build is too often interpreted as “White” by US audiences— in spite of the intentions of their creators, the interpretation of Japanese audiences, and explicit evidence within the worlds themselves.

    It’s not just a single racist act, it’s a contribution to the systematicity of our racist culture.

  3. cypher

    Leave aside the racism / Whitewashing issue for a moment, and there’s other reasons for fans to be concerned, even if The Major can switch bodies in Transhumanist style.

    Ghost in the Shell as a series exists in the political and cultural climate of Japan, specifically, and this has a lot of influence over it. Casting a white woman implies they’re going to move it to America. Now, with a good writer who really understands Transhumanism, that could be done without losing the soul of the series, but usually Hollywood really doesn’t understand Transhumanism(!), and we don’t see any really great sci-fi authors attached to the project.

    So, as an indicator of how the project will go, it’s suggesting that they’re going to rip out lots of important stuff and replace it with Hollywoodness.

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