Friday, April 22, 2016


There has been a lot of controversy over the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the 'Ghost in the Shell' (GiTS) live action film, which will hit theaters in March 2017. The casting of Johansson in an iconic Japanese role was bad enough, but the topic has exploded over the last few days because of the recent report by Screencrush that producers of GiTS attempted to "Asianfy" white actors with visual effects instead of just hiring Asian actors. Honestly, I've been concerned about Scarlet Johansson's casting as Major Motoko Kusanagi since it was announced last year, but that takes the cake. It's actually quite stunning to hear this type of thing happening in the year 2016. Are these people even from this century? Have they time traveled from 1956?

Max Landis
This has of course created a bunch of defenders of the poor oppressed Hollywood producers. The biggest defender was Max Landis, director of 'America Ultra,' who claims Hollywood is just afraid because of marketability reasons.

According to Landis, you shouldn't be mad at Hollywood, because Hollywood is just following what the culture wants and Hollywood is afraid. There are no Asian A-list actresses who could market this movie to the masses. Unfortunately Landis doesn't seem to get that casting Johansson in the role of an iconic Japanese character IS THE REASON WHY THERE ARE NO ASIAN A-LIST FEMALE ACTRESSES.

I guess we should feel sorry for Hollywood because they're just a reflection of our society right? I've commented before that had Gene Roddenberry given in to fear then neither George Takei nor Nichelle Nichols would have been cast in 'Star Trek' in 1966 and that was 50 years ago.  FIFTY YEARS and we are still dealing with this "fear as an excuse" crap. A more recent example would be when 'Sicario' filmmakers were pressured to make the lead character male--they refused. Emily Blunt owned that movie and the movie went on to be successful despite Hollywood's fears. Even if the "fear" excuse was valid, when did fear make it ok to exclude people? Also, it's just plain false. See below.

Chris Hemsworth in the doomed film 'In the Heart of the Sea'
As Landis himself alluded to, major stars are no longer the key to successful films. There was once a time when a certain film star could guarantee box office success. That just doesn't happen anymore. Hollywood's free lunch has gone away. As I noted in a previous article, there are very few people in Hollywood who can guarantee box office sales. Perhaps it's because of technology and social media. Why go see a movie with a 30% rating on Rotten Tomatoes when you can just wait for it to come on Netflix or not watch it at all? Given the expense of a full price movie ticket, Americans in particular are choosier on what films they go see in the theater. Domestic theater viewership in America has tanked. This is true.

This is why Hollywood heavily depends on the international markets to make it's money back. If the film tanks domestically it can still make its money back overseas. My father isn't a famous Hollywood director and I'm not a Hollywood insider like Landis, but I am a researcher by trade and have discovered that apparently Hollywood doesn't even read it's own research. Diverse films (and films with female leads) do better at the box office GLOBALLY and domestically. 

So why then if these films do better at the box office both domestically and globally--why does Hollywood still cast films based on old models? Because "Hollywood continues to treat those successes as anomalies."  So Hollywood's decision to exclude women and people of color is not logical and it's not based on making money. Hollywood is literally leaving money on the table.

Sarah Michelle Gellar in 'The Grudge' and Naomi Watts in 'The Ring'
Hollywood appropriates thousands of foreign films/television shows all the time. Making a western version of a film, based on a Japanese film is not a new concept. Both 'The Ring' ('Ringu') and 'The Grudge' ('Ju-On') are based on Japanese films and the American versions have white female leads. It's assumed that a western version will have a different casting. The GiTS publishers knew that once they sold the rights to Hollywood, a Japanese actress would (unfortunately) not be cast in the role. It would be nice if westernized versions included more cultural diversity, but that's a whole different issue. Diversity in Hollywood is a known problem. You can read my article about that here.

The problem is that the makers of this film...are crazy people. Not only does the film have diversity issues, but they failed to change the character names. So Scarlett Johannson is still named Motoko Kusanagi; Michael Pitt is the Laughing Man aka Kuze; Pilou Asbæk is Batou, etc. To top it off they attempted to visually alter the predominately white cast to look Asian.  If the producers of this film want to "westernize" this property, then they should start by changing ALL of the characters names. Also, they should make sure that ScarJo looks like ScarJo. Instead of putting a dark-haired wig on ScarJo to make her appear "more" Asian. Let ScarJo appear with her natural blonde hair with purple streaks so that there is no mistake that she is NOT an exact representation of Motoko Kusanagi.

The best and most simple thing to do would be to hire a Japanese actress. Rinko Kikuchi of 'Pacific Rim' would have been an ideal choice. But if Hollywood insists on making a western version with a white actress, then own it. Don't try to "Asianfy" the cast because you don't want to be called out for whitewashing. Simply put-- if you cast a white actress in an ICONICALLY Japanese role--you're going to be called out for it. There's no way around it. Don't make it worse.

Via Geek League of America
So what's the problem with 'GiTS' you ask? The problem is that the character of Motoko Kusanagi is iconic. 'GiTS' is probably the biggest anime to ever come out of Japan since 'Akira.' My typical rule of thumb is that an iconic character like Superman, Batman, Captain America, Peter Parker's Spiderman, or in this case Motoko, cannot and should not be culturally changed. The character has too much back story in support of their culture and it's part of their identity. I personally would never want to see a non-Caucasian Clark Kent/Superman. The character has 80 years of history and canon and is simply too iconic for a cultural change.

EDIT: That does not mean that Clark Kent shouldn't/couldn't be replaced as Superman with a character who was non-Caucasian. As I noted below, both Peter Parker and Miles Morales are Spider-Man. What I'm saying is that Clark Kent may be too iconic to be changed. However, that should not prevent another character from taking on the Superman mantel. Comic book characters change all the time.
Via Caped Wonder
Some fans have complained that cultural changes of comic book characters seem to happen one-way: from white to non-white and that those changes are considered acceptable, whereas the other way around is not. I understand this criticism. However, most of the characters that have been culturally changed are minor characters like Heimdall (Idris Elba), Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), or Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). To my knowledge the characters I mentioned above are not iconic or nearly as well known outside of the films. It's unrealistic for characters like Superman or Captain America to live in an all-white world. That's just not least not in America with a 37.4% minority population (who will be 57% of the American population in 2050). So it makes sense that minor characters are culturally changed to reflect a modern society.
Miles Morales is the new Spider-Man.
That said, I can understand why people took issue with an iconic character like Johnny Storm/Human Torch (Michael B. Jordan). Johnny Storm is an iconic Marvel character. It's difficult to culturally change a character with this much back story. Perhaps the best way to adopt cultural changes in comic books is organically. Comic book characters change throughout the years, depending on the comic book age they're in. For example, Peter Parker's Spider-Man has been replaced with Miles Morales. Miles is the new Spiderman, but he's completely separate from Peter Parker and has his own unique backstory. I would love to see a Miles Morales Spiderman. Unfortunately, since Hollywood plays with the same old playbook we will yet again see another version of Peter Parker. It's only the 3rd time it's been rebooted in the last 14 years, but who's counting?

First let me say that I'm not excusing ScarJo's decision to take this role. Either she or her agent should have known that Motoko Kusanagi was not a role she should play. The role is too iconically Japanese and should have been played by a Japanese actress. PERIOD. That said, ScarJo is also living and working in a messed up system. ScarJo is 31 years old (she'll be 32 years old later this year). That's still pretty young by most standards--but not by Hollywood. No, in Hollywood women may as well hit the retirement home by the time they hit 32. Anne Hathaway said she stopped getting roles at 32. At age 37 Maggie Gyllenhaal was told that she was "too old" to be the love interest of a 55 year old man. Yes, that's right.

Don't forget women only have 1/3rd of the speaking roles in films and most films can't pass the Bechdel Test. What few speaking roles women have mostly take place between the ages of 22 to 31. Men have most of their speaking roles between the ages of 42 to 65. Again, Johansson is 31.
This doesn't excuse her choice to accept a role like this, but it helps to understand where she may be coming from. Her direct competition for the GiTS role was not a Japanese actress, but Margot Robbie. Clearly the filmmakers were never going to cast a Japanese actress in this role. Robbie is 25 years old and the current "IT" girl in the movie community, but she's not yet a household name, which is why Johansson was likely cast. Johansson also had some success in the action genre as Black Widow and in 'Lucy.' Had this casting taken place after Robbie's role in 'Suicide Squad,' then this part in GiTS would have likely gone to Robbie because she's younger.

So to a certain extent I understand why Johansson took this role. Her decision to take this role was not a good decision, but in my opinion the majority of the problem lies with the producers, writers, and director of this film. It doesn't help that Rupert Sanders is directing. The same Sanders who directed 'Snow White and the Huntsman' and not much else.

Actresses Kumiko Goto, Characterization of Motoko, Nozomi Sasaki, and Meisa Kuroki
I have been having amazingly civil debates on Youtube about this casting, but one of the big bones of contention I've had with people is that Motoko either looks white or is secretly white in the manga and the anime. Motoko has had dark hair with purple streaks and blue eyes. Motoko has also had purple eyes and red eyes. Motoko is a freaking cyborg. But if the name MOTOKO KUSANAGI doesn't scream Japanese, then I don't know what will.

I will simply direct you to an article explaining that according to the Japanese their anime characters look Japanese. Anime is all about the exaggeration of features. As you can see above, there are plenty of Japanese actresses who have Motoko-like features.

Lastly, if Motoko was actually white and not Japanese, then why would the producers of GiTS go to all the trouble of visually altering the character to look Asian?

Finally, I want to make the important point that non-white characters are changed to white ALL THE TIME, but you may not even be aware of it. Here are albeit brief examples of how Hollywood whitewashes films and you don't even notice it:
  • 'Warm Bodies,' Nora's character was half Ethiopian. In the book, she had brown skin. 
  • Katniss Everdeen in 'The Hunger Games' is described as having dark olive skin with dark black hair and grey eyes. Suzanne Collins said that "it is a time period where hundreds of years have passed from now. There’s been a lot of ethnic mixing." 
  • Irene (Carey Mulligan) in 'Drive' was supposed to be a Latina woman in her early 20s.
  • Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Prince of Persia.' Nuff said.
  • The lead character in '30 Days of Night' (Josh Hartnett) was changed from Eskimo to white. 
  • John Nash's wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly) in 'A Beautiful Mind,' was originally from El Salvador. 
  • In 'Star Trek Into the Darkness' Khan Noonien Singh (Benedict Cumberbatch) is supposed to be Indian. At least in previous films, Khan was played by Mexican-born Ricardo Montalban.
  • In 'The Lone Ranger,' Johnny Depp played Tonto. It's rumored that Depp may or may not have some Native American blood somewhere in his family, but he's not sure. Hmmm, then perhaps get a Native American to play a Native American.
  • Rooney Mara played Tiger Lily in 'Pan.' 
  • Kevin Spacey plays a character who was written to be African American in 'Play it Forward.' 
  • Anthony Hopkins plays a light-skinned African American man in 'The Human Stain.' 
  • In 'House of the Spirits' Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, and Winona Ryder are all Latin Americans. For some reason a Hispanic person translates to white actor with dark hair in Hollywood.
  • In 'A Mighty Heart,' Angelina Jolie portrays a bi-racial woman.
  • In 'Argo,' Ben Affleck played a man of Mexican heritage, Tony Mendez.
  • In 'Starship Troopers' Casper Van Dien portrays Johnny Rico who was of Filipino descent. 
  • In 'The World Trade Center,' William Mapother plays Marine Sergeant Jason Thomas, who of African American descent.
  • In 'Spotlight' Mark Ruffalo portrays Mike Rezendes, who is visibly Hispanic.
  • The film '21' (based on Bringing Down the House) changed the entire cast from Asian to white. 
  • Then there are the less obvious exclusions like the exclusion of Sophia Duleep Singh "who led the Women’s Tax Resistance League and was a major player in the Women’s Social and Political Union, yet was never featured in the film 'Suffragette.'"
  • Don't get me started with 'The Last Airbender,' 'Dragonball Z,' 'Gods of Egypt,' 'Exodus,' or 'Aloha.'
I am not saying that casting directors shouldn't have the flexibility to cast who they believe will best fit the role. There are of course scenarios in which an actor is so incredible their ethnicity shouldn't matter, but the rate at which the very few roles for non-white characters are changed to white is higher than people realize. Changing white characters to non-white is not as prevalent despite the public perception of it.

So anyhoo, as much as I love Scarlett Johansson I will not be supporting or seeing 'Ghost in the Shell' in theaters. I am Hollywood's direct demographic. The sad thing is that if this film fails, Hollywood will not blame itself for its ineptitude. No, on this point I agree with Landis. Hollywood will claim, "well I guess anime films just don't sell" or "we should have changed the lead to male."
Hollywood is like a cat with a urinary tract infection. The cat doesn't realize that the problem is coming from within so it always blame the litter box. Or perhaps Hollywood is just the litter box. 


  1. This is an excellent post. I'm still having trouble understanding why Scarlett accepted this role in the first place though. She's still a very in demand actress. While you're 100% correct on actresses getting shafted in their 30's because *gasp* we age! She's still an Avenger ffs. She's got not only that, but probably a lot of other things to do. I'm assuming she did some research on that character, there's no way I'd take a role that was supposed to be a Japanese woman.

    And the fact that the VFX people wanted to alter them to make them look more Asian without their knowledge is just sick.

    1. Thanks Brittani! Yes, I was trying to understand it from Scarlett's perspective, but I agree she shouldn't have accepted the role. She is still in high demand for now. It's really sad that women are routinely marginalized in Hollywood when they do what everyone else does--age.

      I am still flabbergasted at the decision to VFX the actors to make them Asian. I didn't think I could be shocked anymore.

  2. I don't pretend to understand any of the intricacies of movie making or stats - what they say or why. I just know when something stinks, and this does. But it isn't the first time, and with all the publicity around it they still don't respond. Unbelievable! They have an amazing ability to change things for the world, and all they can do is make it worse. Small, small minds!

    1. I totally agree Yolanda! I really adore Johansson as an actress. I would also love to see her in more action roles. I just wish it wasn't in this film. She's so talented. She doesn't need this film.

  3. Whitewashing is rampant at the moment, which is fairly ridiculous given the immense talent pool they have at their fingertips. It doesn't really make sense.

    1. I really hope we get to 2016 one day! There are so few roles for Asian women. I hope to see more Asian actresses in major films.

  4. Wonderful article Mariah, wow it's really astounding isn't it the kind of whitewashing of roles. We haven't really come a long way at all since White actors wore Black/Asian makeup in classic films. Another crazy example of whitewashing is casting Gerard Butler who's Scottish as Mongolian leader Attila The Hun. They made him look like he spent months inside a tanning salon but didn't bother asking him to wear brown contact lenses as his green eyes looked even more pronounced w/ tan skin! SMH

    I do agree though that certain roles should maintain the original race it was created, "I personally would never want to see a non-Caucasian Superman" yep me neither and I'm non-white & not born in the US.

    1. Hi Ruth! Thanks for your comment. You know I totally forgot about when Butler played Attila the Hun. I think I may have even watched that movie. It was a mini-series? Ha, I totally remember that. SMH!

  5. I firstly want to say that this is a great post. You raised some good points and I think Hollywood still has a long way to go. I think that there are instances when the race of a character is negligible and can therefore be changed. I coincidentally wrote a post about this too, you can check it out here, if you wish.

    One of these characters that I think has a negligible race (along with many comic book characters) is Superman. You need to remember that the majority of these characters were created in a racist society so they had to be white. Why does an alien who can fly and shoot lasers from his eyes need to be white? Yes, the character is iconic but he's malleable and there's no need for him to stay white. In that same breath, take a character like Batman, who's identity is predicated on his resources and wealth. Now it's difficult to make him non-white because non-white families were not in a position to have the kind of money the Wayne family would have amassed in the past. But if you made Batman's dad an internet billionaire or had Bruce be adopted then the problem disappears. Icon status is not enough to justify casual racism. Saying that Superman can't be non-white is racist. The idea bothers you but there's no reason for it to except your own perception.

    I think changing characters from white to non-white or 'blackwashing' is not only acceptable, it is necessary. Once again, it boils down to the need to correct injustices of the past. If the society these characters were created in allowed for diversity then Superman would be black, Citizen Kane would be about a Latina fellow and Darth Vader would have been a lesbian women. So there's a need for retroactive justice and that's the point of all of this.

    1. I appreciate your comments and agree with most, but I strongly disagree with some of your statements. I'm not sure if you read the entirety of my article, particularly when I said that changing non-iconic characters is important because it reflects modern day diversity. I also wrote an extensive list in which non-white characters were changed to white. It's a problem and happens frequently, but it goes unnoticed.

      That said, I think there are some iconic characters that should not be culturally changed. I believe this applies to a character like Motoko and Superman. Saying that Superman should not be culturally changed is NOT racist. The character has been Clark Kent--a white man from Kansas for 80+ years. Yes, of course the character was created in a more racist era. Which is why it's essential to update the other characters to reflect a more diverse society.

      If the character were to undergo a canon change in the comics (similar to Miles Morales/Spider-Man), I think that would be a different story. I'm not sure why another kryptonian of a different culture couldn't have also survived? He could take up the mantel from Superman. But I don't necessarily think that character should be named Clark Kent. There are also a plethora of less iconic characters, like Martian Manhunter, in which race is more fluid and who should be culturally changed.

      Lastly, as a person of African American, white, and native American heritage, I don't appreciate being called a racist. "Saying that Superman can't be non-white is racist." Not only is it impossible for me to be racist, as I would have to hate myself and my family, it goes against everything I believe in, as I have fought ardently for racial diversity and equality. But I take a very measured approach when I write these posts, because I believe that making blanket statements makes people defensive. My goal is that we all understand each other's perspectives a little better through mutual respect.

  6. Okay, first off let me say that the purpose was not to antagonise you or offend you. But saying that Superman can't be any other race than white is a racist statement. Yes, he's iconic but there's nothing about his story that calls for him to be white. He's from a different planet and he's given the name Clark Kent by humans. Yes, it would be an adjustment to see him as another colour but there's no reason other than our conceptions about the character that stop this. It's like saying James Bond can't be white because he's such an iconic character and his name is James.

    I'm not trying to pick a fight, I just feel that saying a character can't change because we're so used to them being one way irks me. If Superman is non-white nothing about his character changes.

    1. I understand and appreciate that you're not trying to antagonize. But I disagree with your characterization that such a statement is racist. There are some instances in which I would normally agree with you--that characters should be culturally changed to reflect the current times. In fact, I think most characters can be culturally changed. However, there are a few characters, such as Clark Kent/Superman and Steve Rogers/Captain America, etc. that would be very difficult to change. It doesn't mean it would be impossible, but very difficult because it would change 80+ years of canon.

      IMO this is a very different from a character like James Bond. I personally think James Bond could be from any culture. But Clark Kent has a long history of being a white male from Kansas. Yes, he's an alien, but he's also an alien with an iconic look--Caucasian, black hair, dimpled chin, and blue eyes.

      As I noted in my comment, this does not preclude the representation of Superman from being from a different culture. Similarly, as Peter Parker is no longer Spider-Man. Miles Morales is the new Spider-Man. Why can't we have a new Superman, with a different backstory? IMO, Clark Kent's backstory is too entrenched and should not be changed. That does not mean there couldn't be a different Superman. There are different iterations of the same character throughout comic book canon. This is a very common occurrence.


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