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.
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.