Whitewashing: Hollywood’s Inexcusable Problem

Approximately one month ago, social media was in an uproar after a Screen Crush news leak. The website reported that the Hollywood remake of the immensely popular Japanese anime, Ghost In The Shell was running CGI tests to make its lead actress, Scarlett Johansson, look ‘more Asian’. Worst of all this case of whitewashing – though more extreme than most – is neither a new, nor an isolated, incident.

Whitewashing is a widespread problem in Hollywood. A very serious one, in fact, because irresponsible cultural appropriation is damaging to notions of culture and racial equality.

According to a study by USC, only 5% of characters in Hollywood’s top 100 grossing films were Asian in 2014. With a lead Asian actress, Ghost In The Shell could have elevated this underrepresented minority. Done right, the film could put Japanese art and culture on a platform for international recognition and valorisation. Unfortunately, it is doubtful that the studio will do justice to the Japanese property.

Given the indelicate casting decision, it is unlikely that the production will treat the core themes of Ghost In The Shell with any greater sensitivity. More likely, Ghost in the Shell will be stripped of its Japanese essence altogether. Reportedly, the studio has gone as far as changing the character’s Japanese name to an English one.

Claiming that audiences were angry at the wrong people, screenwriter Max Landis spoke out on YouTube. He argued that whitewashing is necessary to get big budget Hollywood films, like Ghost In The Shell, made because there are currently no Asian actresses that “mean anything”. According to him, Johansson was “the best thing that could’ve happened”, because “now you [audiences] get a Ghost In The Shell movie”. I strongly disagree.

Firstly, it is better to make no movie than a bad one. In fact, Ghost In The Shell already has a great Japanese animated full-length film. Why do we need a tactless Hollywood live-action remake? The epic flop of The Last Airbender (2010) and Dragonball: Evolution (2009) show that tasteless whitewashing does not work.

Secondly, contrary to Landis’s belief, a good plot and good characters are more important for box office success than superstars. The French film Intouchables (2012), for example, performed in a foreign language and with an unknown cast grossed $420 million – the same amount as Django Unchained (2012), which boasted the names Jamie Foxx and Quentin Tarantino.

Thirdly, there are prominent Asian actresses in America, such as Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi, Suicide Squad actress Karen Fukuhara or ABC star Constance Wu. Furthermore, if Hollywood’s main concern is revenue, why not consider Asian audience preferences? Asia has the largest population in the world – a market which Hollywood has yet to really focus on, outside of China.

Finally, Landis’s statement that the problem is cultural and therefore inevitable and unrelated to the film industry is completely false. The film industry is the world’s biggest cultural industry, because films are cultural products and contain cultural themes and cultural representations. Precisely because the system is flawed, it should be fixed rather than accepted. Audiences can be educated to appreciate racial diversity onscreen. In fact, audiences seem to want change, judging by the countless backlashes against whitewashed films. For Ghost In The Shell, a petition has been signed by over 65 000 people to replace Johansson.

At this year’s Oscars, Chris Rock made a speech about racism in Hollywood. People are aware of inequality in the film industry and are opposing it. Sadly, Hollywood productions like Ghost in the Shell undermine any potential change.

Mariana Avelino

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures/Dreamworks

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