It took Steven Spielberg eight years to get Ghost in the Shell into production. His film company, DreamWorks, acquired the rights to adapt the cult Japanese science-fiction comic for a Western audience in 2008. The project was always a gamble: its themes are overtly existential and much of the plot is little more than an excuse to pontificate about the nature of consciousness. Yet Scarlett Johansson’s casting in the lead role – as Major Kusanagi, a hacker-hunting cyborg – was a coup, and financial backers were lured by her star power. The moneymen were happy.
Online campaigners, however, were not. By the time the first image of Johansson as the Major was released in April 2016, they were demanding: “Stop whitewashing Asian characters!” A petition under that slogan has attracted more than 101,000 signatures.
“DreamWorks could be using this film to help provide opportunities for Asian-American actors,” they said. The comic-book writer Jon Tsuei tweeted that Ghost in the Shell was an “inherently Japanese story”, and that the choice of actors represented “the erasure of Asian faces”.
It soon emerged that DreamWorks had attempted to counter claims of racially dubious casting by using digital effects to make a white “background character” seem yellow – but this experiment was abandoned and the actress Constance Wu quickly mocked the move as “blackface employed on Asians”.
Hollywood has a problem with representation – as the “all-white” 2016 Oscars demonstrated – and anger over whitewashing is grounded in the palpable paucity of prominent minority figures in the industry. When characters written as Egyptian (as in Alex Proyas’s Gods of Egypt), Native American (Joe Wright’s Pan) or part-Chinese and Hawaiian (Cameron Crowe’s Aloha) are played by the conspicuously white Rufus Sewell, Rooney Mara and Emma Stone, respectively, it’s no wonder that minority activists get angry.
Yet their anger seems misplaced. While derisive “yellowfacing” in the manner of Mickey Rooney’s I Y Yunioshi in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s should be condemned as racist, the kind of race-blindness that Johansson’s casting as Kusanagi represents feels benign to me – even progressive.
It’s worth thinking back to a similar uproar in 2013, when Benedict Cumberbatch played Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek Into Darkness. At the time, Christian Blauvelt of hollywood.com complained that the character had been “whitewashed into oblivion”. Khan was a Sikh from northern India and the film-makers, he argued, should have chosen “an Indian actor” for the role. The io9 blogger Charlie Jane Anders agreed: “Khan is one of the most iconic people of colour in space opera, so to turn him into another angry white guy seems just kind of sad.”
But although Khan may have been “one of the most iconic people of colour in space opera”, he was a villain, and his villainy had been needlessly racialised in earlier appearances. In the 1967 Star Trek episode Space Seed and in the 1982 film Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan, he was played by the Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán. Khan’s heritage went unmentioned until later spin-off novels expanded his biography, yet his name and the use of an ethnic-minority actor to portray him seemed intended to present him as an untrustworthy, foreign “other”.
After the release of Star Trek Into Darkness, Roberto Orci, a screenwriter on the film, explained that he had been “uncomfortable” about “demonising anyone” on the basis of their race. By choosing a white actor, the film-makers decoupled Khan’s villainy from his brownness – which was significant, especially in the light of Khan’s terrorist attack on a skyscraper in the film.
The portrayal of non-white characters by Cumberbatch and Johansson, in its small way, disrupts a culture that accepts skin colour as somehow absolute. Major Kusanagi is the heroine of Ghost in the Shell, not its villain, and her embodiment by Johansson will have different implications from Cumberbatch’s Khan. But the casting of whites as Asians serves as a reminder that much of what we understand as race is ultimately just performance, make-believe, a put-on.
Accusations of Hollywood whitewashing sometimes carry with them an essentialist attitude that is at odds with an anti-racist agenda. Constance Wu says that the CGI tests to alter the shade of actors in Ghost in the Shell reduced “our race and ethnicity to mere physical appearance, when our race and culture are so much deeper than how we look”. I agree: those tests were misguided. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “The true self . . . is not flesh or bones or sinews but the faculty which uses them.”
Yet if our racial identity is not entirely determined by our bodies – if our essence is “deeper than how we look” – surely the authentic elements of our being can be brought to life by actors with “flesh” that is superficially different from our own. All acting is pretending. None of it is real: so why should an actor’s race have to be?
The campaigners’ plea for more diversity in Hollywood is valid but their insistence on minorities having exclusive rights over representing those whom they view as “their people” risks reinforcing colour lines. We will remain “people of colour” – a dubious term that means the same thing as “coloured people” – as long as race is fetishised as the core component of who we are. We should fight those who use stereotypes to define us by our race, not those who behave as if race weren’t all that mattered.
This article appears in the 11 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump