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Cinematic Spin-Cycle: White-Washing in Modern Film

A major topic of discussion in the modern era of entertainment media is equal representation of all races, sexual orientations, and creeds. Because of this, the idea of white-washing is becoming more and more relevant. For those who may not know, white-washing refers to the practice of casting caucasian actors and actresses in historically non-white roles. Japanese-American activist Guy Aoki spoke out on this practice decades ago, pointing out the flaw in having members of a specific culture seeing their select group almost belittled into an over exaggeration of stereotypes.

Historically, this practice entailed caucasian actors adorning physical manifestations to represent the race of the character they were portraying. One of the most referred to examples of this is undoubtable Laurence Olivier’s use of “black face” in his portrayal of the titular character in the 1965 adaptation of Othello. The idea of a member of one background taking on the role of someone completely different from them, beyond characterization and action, leaves plenty of room for insultingly insensitive marks.

A NEW FORM

However, this concept has been turned in recent years. Rather than having actors and actresses change their physical appearance with makeup and prosthetics to represent another culture from their own, films have are now accused of casting caucasians out right, as they are, to take the mantle of characters that many believe should be of another background. This gained traction with the 2016 fantasy film The Great Wall. Aside from the plethora of disappointing critical reviews, one of the most talked about facets was the leading man. Matt Damon was cast as the central figure, which caused quite a stir. Essentially, people were outraged that a caucasian actor was taking center stage on the Great Wall of China. Disregard that fact that he was acting in the role of William Garin, a European mercenary.

Nonetheless, the distain for accusatory modern white-washing persisted. The newest film under attack for this is the eagerly awaited Ghost in the Shell live action adaptation. Taking place during the mid-twenty-first century in the fictional Japanese city of Niihama, Ghost in the Shell tells of a special, elite task force. In this near future world, cybernetics and organic research have molded, allowing the enhancement of humans building all the way up to fully realized cyborgs. The protagonist Major Motoko Kusanani is such a being.

BUT…IS IT?

Here is where the problem comes into play. In this iteration, Motoko is being portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. Many have criticized this casting decision since it was first announced. But the troubled bump of direct continuity and explanation rears its ugly head. Given the setting and story, assumptions are easily made, but at no point in the manga or anime is it directly and explicitly stated what Motoko racial background is.

Arguments have been made that on the basis of animated comparisons of how the original source material presented Motoko and deliberately caucasian individuals. But, this argument falls a little short given that there is variation in all individuals. From there, the dispute could be made that the source material is Japanese and takes place in Japan, so the protagonist can be assumed as such. But, that leads to the idea that an individual cannot create a character outside of their background and that characters cannot be transplants. Thus, this too falls flat. Never mind the idea of prosthetic enhancements playing a role in altering physical appearance.

WHERE IS THE LINE?

Exploring the idea of having only members of a specific group represent members of the group brings up questions about voice acting. Is it appropriate to have people of a different background providing the vocal tracks for an animated character different from them, or is physical appearance that only hallmark for this? And playing on the anime to live action transitions a little more, is it not possible that Asian story tellers have created stories about character that are not of Asian descent? It seems as though the visual stylings known as “anime default” have now come to mean Asian representative.

In all honesty, it all probably boils down to the simple ideas of star power and name recognition. To say that Scarlett Johansson is a well-known and popular actress is a gross understatement. Her involvement in a project aids in gaining attention, publicity, and drawing a bit of a crowd in and of itself. Following her depiction of Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she was clearly a great option to grab the reigns of Major Motoko Kusanani. The differentiation of her race from something that was never explicitly noted was probably never a key thought in the film’s development. Unless, of course, this is all part of some dubious plot to slowly but surely remove all non-caucasian actors from Hollywood. Which many may believe. And there are plenty of people who believe that the Earth is flat and the world government is controlled by shapeshifting reptilian creatures.

The want and desire for greater racial, sexual, and honestly all diversity in entertainment media should be a given. And by all means, drastic departures from the original source material fans have grown to love can be just as damaging. For this reason, it is important for people of different cultures to be represented in tasteful and respectful ways. Yet, this does not enforce the idea that characters must fit into a certain mold based on expectation when solid statements on them were never presented. Honestly, you do not see half as many people getting upset that Lakeith Stanfield has been casted as L in the upcoming live action adaptation of Death Note. Representation of diversity is as important now as it ever has been, but energy needs to be focused on actual problems and not just the small, made-up ones because something does not exactly fit what you had expected with not concrete basis for.

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  • “And by all means, drastic departures from the original source material fans have grown to love can be just as damaging.” I have to disagree with you here. Growing up first Gen Canadian with Indian parents, having people’s imaginary ideas of how a character should be shattered, compared to people asking me if my parents spoke like Apu from the Simpsons as a kid was far more damaging than someone’s ideas of how a book or comic should be interpreted on screen. We as a society have become more diverse and no longer need white actors to have makeup in Brown, Black or yellow face. India and China have huge cinema stars that if anyone in Hollywood wanted to cash in on star power they could literally just approach any of those people and most likely crush a premier world wide. Studio executives are too scared to take the risk. Indians and Chinese alone, if someone cast Shahrukh Khan and Donny Yen in a buddy cop movie together with a good story, that movie would make far more money in my opinion than any Hollywood movie before it, it would cash in on the stars following in their own markets and all of the expats living abroad in NA. I think the main reason why people are speaking up against the white washing of films is that as someone who’s parents come from a colonized country we are sick and damn tired of the “white saviour” like Matt Damon in the Great Wall. That shit was reminiscent of the British telling Indians that we were savages and that they saved us. Eff that shit. We are tired of taking it. For so long white actors have been put into our roles just because, now that we realize that we are consumers and want to see ourselves represented on screen, we must speak up and roles that can be easily switched out, should be! It’s our turn!

    • The line that you quoted was a paraphrase of Guy Aoki when he talked about characters that are important to a culture are altered when brought to a different medium can impact the culture originally represented. I should have made that clearer.

      By all means, characters of different races should be represented by the appropriate group, but the telling of a story that includes someone of a different background coming into a different area should not be a problem. Correct me if I missed it, but where was the outrage at Tom Cruise in the The Last Samurai?

      At no point did I agree with black, brown, or yellow face. The central focus was on the modern twist on “white-washing.” That was just a little historical context for what the phrase actually means that is not really done these days; at least I can’t think of modern examples. That is, except for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which tackled it wonderfully.

      As far as the difference of building star-power, it makes sense that western studios would gear their stars towards a western audience. Much in the same way that eastern film studios do not focus their movies directly at western audiences.

      Basically, films are now being criticized for white-washing because they have caucasian actors playing roles that have no defined or explicit reason for not being caucasian other than fans’ desire. There is a need for more diversity in film, but people are focusing on this small facet that isn’t really a problem. All under the banner of misappropriation from the source material of course. But, it is not a problem when a character is completely changed to accurate another race.

      Basically, I’m all for whatever race taking on any role as long as it is not disrespectful of offensive.

      • Ok apologies for not realizing you were paraphrasing that part, it’s just something that I read and was triggered by.

        I personally thought it was ridiculous that tom cruise was cast in the last samurai. But then again I’m opinionated and pay attention to these things, even if people dismiss me.

        Also black, brown or yellow face still happens or people still think it’s cool or funny to do, as recently as that stupid full house reboot where they made every stereotypical Indian joke possible at a Bollywood themed party, including A remark about the curry hurrying through someone’s stomach. Or even Ashton kutcher last year dressing up in brown face with a turban and Apu style accent for a dating commercial I think (could be wrong about that part)

        It simply doesn’t make sense that western studios gear all their big blockbusters towards the typical “white” “westerner.” I am a westerner, I am Brown skinned, so are both of my kids. We are all becoming more mixed up and heading to area shades of brown. My own family is mixed with Indian, Italian, Portuguese, Malay, black and Filipino just off the top Of my head. So white washing or casting white actors for bankability purposes needs to just stop entirely.

        Ed, I read your response but can’t see it, but you mentioned a minority being cast and it bombing, what about that ridiculous movie gods of Egypt being cast with all white actors that’s as an insane bomb!

        I’m not really concerned with this movie Alexander, I’m concerned with white washing as a whole. I think we agree that as long as it isn’t disrespectful or offensive all parts should be open to all actors of different races.

        On the other side of things Crazy Rich Asians is being cast right now with the author of the book having input in casting, and they just cast a half white half Asian actor and he’s getting quite a bit of backlash for it, so in a way it’s a tricky subject to debate at the moment…no one on any side of the fence can really be pleased, I find it all very frustrating,

        • I must have not been clear in the star-power portion. I am not saying that it has to be a caucasian and popular actor, but just well known in general. Currently, there just aren’t as many big named female Asian actresses in general. Which is a completely different topic of discussion.

    • The way I see it is this: white-washing should not be a thing, plain and simple. Studios casting a person of any ethnicity shouldn’t be seen as a risk, simply because that’s not the world we live in any more. Blackface, yellowface, brownface are concepts that should be extinct and looked back on with a kind of “how the hell did we ever think that was a good idea” mentality. And I truly do think that that is changing in Hollywood. Just look at POWER RANGERS, where almost every ethinicity is represented in the lead characters, in addition to the LGBT and autistic communities.

      As a long time Ghost in the Shell fan, I didn’t see the issue with Scarlett Johansson being cast in the lead role. The source material never stated that the protagonist had to be Japanese or the whole point of the story would be lost. And to be honest, this is like the last thing that is wrong with the movie. But maybe it was just the last straw that had been building up from decades of seeing this. Alex’s point, to my understanding, is, if we’re jumping to conclusions and specifically attacking certain productions as “white-washing” when there can be a serious debate for the opposite made, are we really taking steps to solve the problem? Or is it a mere case of social media bandwagon jumping (which I would argue it was, because Scarlett Johansson’s casting, if anything, is one of the only things that isn’t wrong with this new movie).

      Also, THE GREAT WALL was a Chinese production made with Chinese financing. I’d also argue that Matt Damon’s role was more of the outsider being in awe of the Chinese people’s ability to withstand monsters, since he did nothing in that movie but stare in amazement. So, I wouldn’t really include this movie as a case of Hollywood “white-washing.”

      The other question is, are studios warranted in having this underlying fear of casting a non-white lead in a big budget film? Will audiences actually turn out? PACIFIC RIM took a risk and cast an unknown Japanese female in the lead role, and the film was a huge bomb. But then again, BLADE was an R-rated film that had a black leading man; in the 90s! I don’t know this answer. I think it depends on the individual studio heads. And I do believe that this is a change that will inevitably happen. But we as film fans have to be smart about it.

      If enough people believe that GHOST IN THE SHELL should flop for its “white-washing”, then they shouldn’t see it. I think it should flop because it’s a bad movie. But that loss of money will make studio heads rethink their casting strategies……I hope.

      • I still haven’t seen power rangers I want to and I especially love the casting bring so diverse !

        I feel like if studios plan on developing animation into real life they should look at how Disney is doing it, changing up the stories to fit better for today’s audiences.

        This remake looked terrible before all the white washing stuff came up! By the sounds of your review it was!

        • By the rational of changing up classic stories in order to make them more indicative of modern society, wouldn’t characters have to be changed to incorporate characters of all races? For example, a classic Japanese story altered just a little bit to include African-Americans, caucasians, hispanics, etc.?

          • Yes I agree with that Alexander. I think I may have went off on a tangent…I don’t I was clear enough in stating that this movie in particular isn’t too concerning for me, but white washing overall is something that happens it needs to stop along with the white saviour narrative. I’m not against a stories being altered for today’s audiences. It just doesn’t always have to be a white actor playing the saviour. As a minority it bothers me immensely. It bothers me that my children will grow up with it, and possibly think that also. My parents were told that growing up in India and my generation of kids have seriously struggled with being less within our own community because of the colour of our skin.

            In case I’m not clear I agree with you on most of what you are saying, it’s just a touchy subject.

            Let’s debate lack of lead Asian actors another time!

    • Lol. I know right. Healthy criticism is a good thing. But crying about stuff does no one any good at all. I’m a huge fan of GiTs and I still liked the movie. I mean it was pretty good. Not as good as the series though or the original. I want to see them try and make trigun into a live action movie.

  • A character named MOTOKO KUSANAGI in the setting of JAPAN… yyyyea that really sounds like it’s open for interpretation. I don’t think there has ever been speculation as to what the creator’s intentions were, how about a little common sense? There is no question whether the character was asian, the question is regarding the actual issue of white washing.

    • If there are Asiatic peoples in the US with English names, what makes you think there aren’t Caucasian people in Japan with Japanese names? Think before you comment.

    • The creator’s intentions are not clear at all. Her mind is that of a Japanese, but her body is up for interpretation because she’s in a different one that what she was born in. You might say that the creator left the physical appearance up to interpretation. So, common sense here dictates that we view the issue with a more objective point of view. Having Johansson play the role is an appropriate choice. They could have had someone who is black, white, yellow, purple, orange, sparkly gold… it doesn’t matter. What matters is the content. I would go so far as to say that the creator of Ghost in the Shell is pushing the idea that the mind is what matters, not the body. Yet, here we are all worried about what the body looks like.

  • Speaking of diversity, did the author forget there’s more to film than Hollywood? There are independent and foreign films too. Eg If you want to see more Asian people, maybe watch a Japanese film? It seems to me that complaining about lack of diversity in “entertainment media” is like going to a supermarket and complaining about the lack of interesting books for sale, when there’s a bookstore just around the corner. Not everything has to be under one roof, and it isn’t.

  • If you’re going to write an article about whitewashing and cultural sensitivity, maybe check that you’re spelling the foreign names correctly. It’s Kusanagi, not “Kusanani” and I know that’s not just a typo, since it’s in there twice.

    And for the record, the erasure of people of color in tv and film IS an actual problem, not a “small, made-up one.” You clearly have no idea how profound the impact of representation is. To have someone to point to and say “s/he’s like me! I can be the hero, too!”

    You do raise a valid question when you ask whether an actor can portray someone of a different race, etc. I believe a good actor can embody–realistically and respectfully–a character who is of another race, or transgender, or disabled… but the point is they shouldn’t. There are plenty of perfectly capable actors in all of those demographics who can’t get work because all the parts they might’ve gotten went to white, cisgendered, able-bodied actors. And that’s not right.

  • is whitewashing real? certainly, has been happening for some time, is ghost in the shell an example of it, no. the ancient old one in Dr. Strange is definitely whitewashing. at least in that movie they changed her back story to make her Celtic but it was still whitewashing. Laurence Olivier playing in Othello in black face is not whitewashing, he was a classically trained Shakespearian actor who had played the part many times in his career and it had to be done in black face as the character was black, lest we forget the theater had not allowed black actors to grace the stage through out most of it’s history, by the time that adaptation was made it was still traditional for a white actor to play the part in black face. of course we wouldn’t see that now. Just curios though, do we complain the same when we see traditional white characters played by other races? or traditionally male characters suddenly turned into females as in many comic books lately? it’s strange, I’m white and a huge fan of Spiderman, have tons of the comics in my collection, have seen all the movies, enjoyed it all. the latest one that just came out is great, enjoyed it very much. when they decided to go with a more diverse cast it didn’t bother me at all, it’s way more representational of what life is like now for most teens. I especially like the new actress playing MJ. I guess sometimes these changes are ok, usually when the character in question isn’t being played as another racial type a white actor. I’m sure mickey rooney went to his grave wishing he’d never taken that part of an Asian, I cringe every time I see it. I also used to cringe when ever I saw the character played by Alfonso Ribeiro on fresh prince. it was a direct comedic stab at white people. while I enjoyed the show that character never sat quite right with me. Maybe what Hollywood needs to learn is a little tact.