Editor’s note: This piece contains Ghost in the Shell spoilers.
When I was in junior school, my group of friends spent every lunchtime playing Captain Planet. This meant that we’d wolf down our food, assume our assigned roles, and re-enact scenes from the latest episode.
As a group of seven year olds in the mid-90s, our insight into cultural nuance was, in its most generous viewing, not great. We assigned the five main characters based on our looks and background. The girl with Sri Lankan parents and darker skin than the rest of us was Kwame (because, you know, he’s from Africa so…), the girl with strawberry-blonde hair was Wheeler (American, red hair, close enough), our token white friend was Linka (Soviet Union? What’s the Soviet Union?) and the girl with the blunt fringe and dark bob was MaTi (because you’ve got the same haircut, just take your glasses off, okay?).
At that point, my Eurasianness was the closest we were going to get to someone from Asia, so I found myself playing Gi, the Water Planeteer (whose nationality is defined simply as ‘Asian’), week in and week out. It was fun – or as fun as cramming yourself into a locker and shouting ‘you’ll pay for this!’ can be.
I suppose in some ways we were progressive – gender-flipping years before anyone bat an eyelid over an all-female Ghostbusters. But it’s kind of sad to reflect on just how much we were a microcosm of the casting world at large; sadder still when you realise things haven’t really changed in the 20 years since.
I walked into Ghost in the Shell off the back of a week spent hate-watching Marvel’s Iron Fist on Netflix. I knew three things before settling into my seat: that the film was an adaptation from a beloved anime; that Scarlett Johannson had been cast in the lead role, as a character who had previously been Asian; and most of all, that people were angry.
Reviewers would be having a much easier time at the moment if Ghost in the Shell were terrible, even mediocre. But, unfortunately, I actually thought it was pretty good. It’s not ground-breaking by any means, but aesthetically it’s stunning, the fight scenes beautifully choreographed, and it somehow manages to evoke a feeling of nostalgia despite its futuristic setting.
Ghost in the Shell is perfectly enjoyable, but it’s undeniably a White Film. It’s essentially the movie version of an Asian-themed dinner party, where race is used as window-dressing to enhance something else, rather than being seen as its own distinct identity. As a result, audiences remain trapped in the cycle of seeing the same tropes, over and over again. It’s good, but only because it’s what we’re used to: whiteness as a default.
Ghost in the Shell is perfectly enjoyable, but only because it’s what we’re used to: whiteness as a default.
If a character is anything but white and straight in a mainstream film, then usually the filmmaker is using their race or sexuality to make a point or to underscore a message. As a result, we find ourselves drowning in one-dimensional characters, defined by their ‘otherness’, rather than as complex individuals. The follow-on harm of this is almost impossible to quantify; it tells people who are anything other than white and straight that they are different to the norm – and moreover, that they are solely defined by their point of ‘difference’.
In Game of Thrones, Loras Tyrell basically devolved from devoted brother, gifted fighter and political player to That Gay Character. In Gilmore Girls we have Mrs Kim – you know, the strict, Christian Korean.
A well-known example of how tightly some cling to their need for whiteness to remain the default is the casting of Rue in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games. In the book she is described as having dark skin, and so it followed that Amandla Stenberg was cast in the role. A score of fans unleashed their wrath on the internet, all somehow having missed the character description in the book. Even unconsciously, characters are imagined as white unless we are specifically told otherwise (sometimes, apparently, even despite this).
Whiteness as a default is one thing; whitewashing is its natural extension. The fact is, in film and television, white roles tend to stay white, while non-white roles are seen as more flexible in the casting department.
Due to the backlash over Johannson’s casting, most audience members go into the film with the controversy at the front of their minds (indeed, the controversy has been blamed for the film’s poor box office performance).
In film and television, white roles tend to stay white, while non-white roles are seen as more flexible in the casting department.
In the first scene, we see Hanka Robotics creating the perfect specimen of a human–robot hybrid: a Japanese woman’s brain implanted into a robotic body, one that just so happens to be white. Righto then. Eventually, of course, we we learn that Hanka Robotics is an evil corporation of lying murderers. Motoko, the girl whose brain ends up in the ScarJo shell, was a staunch opponent of the company and robotics in general. Her fate, then – to become a prototype of the very thing she opposed – seems extra cruel.
A very generous reading of this plotline could be that filmmakers have used Johannson’s casting to make the violation of Motoko extra cutting – in the same moment that she is stripped of her human body, she is simultaneously cut off from her heritage. But I highly doubt it’s intentional.
The cultural gaffes scattered throughout Ghost in the Shell and the missed opportunities that result from the casting decisions (coupled with the whole thing having a white director) are dissected particularly well in this Hollywood Reporter piece, which centres around a conversation between four actresses of Japanese descent: Keigo Agena, Traci Kato-Kiriyama, Atsuko Okatsuka and Ai Yoshihara. The four women highlight issues that might otherwise have been overlooked. Discussing the film’s big reveal of Major’s Japanese heritage, Yoshihara was unimpressed: ‘Major’s backstory is white people trying to justify the casting.’
Casting directors aren’t the villains here; the real problem is the societal expectation that most roles will be played by white actors, irrespective of the source material. When was the last time you saw a person of colour in a lead role, where their heritage wasn’t their defining feature? Of course, there are exceptions, but they are painfully rare.
For every Halle Berry in Catwoman we have fifty emasculated Asian computer geek/scientist/all-purpose nerds. My friends and I have a grim game we play whenever we binge-watch an established series: how many seasons will it take for the Asian male supporting character to get a love interest? (On seeing Hayden Szeto’s role in The Edge of Seventeen we nearly threw a ticker-tape parade.)
It adds insult to injury when roles that logically should be non-white are still whited up. The Netflix series of Iron Fist the series is pretty much unforgivably bad. The dialogue feels like it was produced by a random sentence generator, characterisation is inconsistent, and for a plot that centres around martial arts, the fight scenes are almost laughably underwhelming.
In the original comics, lead character Danny Rand is written as white; he’s a wealthy heir who disappears in his teens, only to return with kung-fu skills and a fist that glows because of a mystical vision quest or something. That a white actor (Finn Jones, who incidentally also played Loras Tyrell) was cast in the role seems perfectly fair, given the source material. So why then did the internet erupt when it was revealed that Eurasian actor Lewis Tan, who is martial arts trained, was also in contention for the part – but cast instead as a one-off villain?
Let’s be clear here – different casting would not have saved the show; Jones was given a pretty much impossible task. However, the adaptation did arguably squander a lot of goodwill, and an opportunity to right past wrongs. Rand simply does not need to be white; in fact, him being white actively makes parts of the storyline uncomfortable to watch.
Danny Rand simply does not need to be white; in fact, him being white actively makes parts of the storyline uncomfortable to watch.
Adaptation aside, the original comic already faced criticism for Rand being white to begin with – part of a long history of cultural appropriation. Watching the adaptation I cringed my way through a scene where Rand essentially stalked a woman, waiting on her front stoop surrounded by incense sticks and petals in an apparent Buddhist ritual. Then, a few episodes later, I watched as he whitesplained that Guangzhou is a city in China.
While we can’t know what specific factors go in to casting decisions, Tan seems like a more natural fit for a 2017 Iron Fist. But alas, Rand was written as a white character and so he must be played by a white actor. It’s frustrating then that the same stubbornness doesn’t seem to apply in the opposite direction.
But it seems almost laughable to suggest that a white role be played by a non-white actor when even stories drawn directly from Chinese folklore are adapted, directed and acted in by a virtually all-white team. Most recently there has been uproar at the casting of the Monkey remake – apparently the fact that it is through and through a Chinese story isn’t enough to warrant casting a Chinese actor.
There does, however, seem to be slightly more flexibility when it comes to supporting characters. Iron Fist’s creators were so impressed with Lewis Tan’s martial arts training, they gave him a bit part in one episode (where Danny Rand beat him to a pulp – but let’s not get bogged down in symbolism). Iron Fist’s Davos is played by Sacha Dhawan, a slender British actor of Indian descent – a big contrast to the muscular, light-skinned Davos of the comics. But, not to malign the performance of Jessica Henwick, who was impressive with the material she was given – she is a Eurasian playing a Japanese role.
Our screens are littered with talented Eurasians; Henwick, Tan, Maggie Q, Bob Morley. However, irrespective of acting chops, there does seem to be a tendency to use us as a kind of tool for graded exposure. Eurasian actors are used to play Asian roles, leaving, I guess, Emma Stone to play Eurasian roles? It’s like they’re trying to slowly get audiences used to the idea of seeing non-whites on screen by easing us in with halfies. It’s weird.
Expose your audience to something for long enough, and they’ll get comfortable. Then, if you shake things up too much, they won’t handle it well. We have become used to white faces on our screens, leading our stories. There have been some positive leaps: in Australia we’ve had The Family Law, Maximum Choppage, Black Comedy and Cleverman, to name a few. But the fact that these shows immediately jump to mind as being exceptions to everything else on screen (and that I can count how many POC-led shows there have been in recent history on one hand) shows that there is still something deeply wrong running through our shared consciousness as an audience.
It’s 2017, and in the space of one week I watched both a show about a blonde-haired, blue-eyed man becoming the world’s leading kung-fu master, and a film where a Japanese woman’s brain transplanted into a white body is valorised as a ‘perfect specimen’. Things are progressing far too slowly, and it is increasingly frustrating. Hollywood continues to look to the past as a valid template moving forward, but perhaps it’s time for them to take the next step. To quote Ghost in the Shell: ‘We cling to memories as if they define us, but they don’t. What we do is what defines us.’