Annette Choi ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
“They sent us their most dedicated, accurate and hard working representatives. Please welcome Ming Zhu, Bao Ling and David Moskowitz,” Chris Rock read off the screen, “If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.” Cue uncomfortable laughter from well-dressed white people of the Academy. Also cue a collective cringe from Asian-Americans everywhere.
Constance Wu, who plays Jessica Huang on the comedy series Fresh Off the Boat, took to Twitter and called Rock out for the “reductive” and “gross” joke, along with NBA player Jeremy Lin and many others. The Academy eventually published an apology on Rock’s behalf, but George Takei, actor, director, activist and author best known for his performances in the Star Trek films, remained unconvinced at the “bland and corporate response.”
“Diversity means much more than black and white,” Takei said, “It means Asian-Americans, it means Latinos, it means LGBT people, it means Native-Americans, it means — particularly in today’s context — Arab-Americans… I was astounded at the obliviousness and the ignorance of the Academy people with regard to the notion of stereotypes.” In the midst of #OscarsSoWhite, typecasting remarks and the overarching debate of racial representation in Hollywood, Asian-Americans are left to look around curiously and ask: does this dialogue include us?
The controversy regarding whitewashing Asian characters is seemingly never-ending. Sure, green-eyed, blond-haired Emma Stone was cast as the quarter-Chinese, quarter-Native Hawaiian fighter pilot Allison Ng in Aloha. Yes, white actress Mackenzie Davis played NASA employee Mindy Park, a conceived Korean-American astronaut in The Martian. Who cares?
Racial misrepresentation and under-representation matters because it affects everyone who owns a television or buys a movie ticket. It creates for an incredibly flawed and biased representation of a country that boasts diversity and equality. In 2015, international movie ticket sales were responsible for a whopping 73% of box office receipts, led by China. Seeing the tremendous success Hollywood films are having overseas as of late, wouldn’t it make more sense now more than ever to cast Asian actors and actresses?
The latest dose of whitewashing in Hollywood takes the form of Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell. The controversy regarding Doctor Strange revolves around the decision to cast English actress Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, originally a Tibetan-born man in the comic. By casting Swinton as the Ancient One, the plot has now essentially turned into a white person trekking through Tibet, experiencing Tibetan culture, encountering Tibetan people and then getting mentored by another white person.
Casting a woman as the Ancient One seems like a progressive choice at first. That is, until you realize that it might actually be a careless one. Props to Marvel for avidly trying to avoid the beat-you-over-the-head stereotype of the wise, timely (and most-likely bald) Asian martial arts master, but there are other ways to go about it. The released trailer clearly depicts a very Tibetan setting heavily decorated with Oriental furnishings. There is no need to take the Asian out of an inherently Asian franchise, only to keep all the convenient Asian details of the film.
This brings us to Ghost in the Shell. One of the producers of Ghost in the Shell, Steven Paul, told Buzzfeed that he thinks the public will be satisfied with the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as “The Major” aka Major Kusanagi. He says the choice was a conscious one, made in hopes of taking a more international and inclusive approach to the manga. “We’re utilizing people from all over the world,” he said, “There’s Japanese in it. There’s Chinese in it. There’s English in it. There’s Americans in it.” Paul further justified the decision by stating that he doesn’t believe Ghost in the Shell is a Japanese story. Further stating that Ghost in the Shell “wasn’t just focused on [the] Japanese; it was supposed to be an entire world.”
The conclusion to whitewash Major Kusanagi’s character might not be facing the heat it’s facing now if only the producers had thought to completely rid the storyline of all Japanese origins. Edge of Tomorrow is a successful example of just that. Edge of Tomorrow adapted the Japanese novel ‘All You Need Is Kill’ and anglicized protagonist Keiji Kiriya into William Cage, played by Tom Cruise and rid all Japanese implications in order to avoid criticism.
However, with Ghost in the Shell, Paramount and Dreamworks have decided to keep all the definitive characteristics of the manga’s culture and setting (the Japanese antagonist, women in kimonos) as well as Major Kusanagi herself (dark eyebrows, short, black hair)—everything except her ethnicity, that is.
Many have already associated Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell with other culturally insensitive blockbuster fails like Pan and The Great Wall. Whitewashing minority characters might not seem like a big deal, especially if it isn’t your own ethnicity that’s being painted over. It may be irrelevant to you that Rooney Mara was selected for the part of Princess Tiger Lily or that Matt Damon got to swoop in, play the white hero and save China. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to believe that there isn’t a greater message that’s being conveyed by these casting decisions.