Scarlett Johansson is a skilled actress whose prominence in popular culture continues because she’s a solid performer. She has chops as a dramatic actress and as an action hero, seen particularly in her role as the special ops superhero Black Widow in Marvel’s Avengers franchise.
The same Scarlett Johansson, talented, Caucasian actress, has been cast in Paramount’s Ghost in the Shell, a Hollywood adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s Japanese manga and Mamoru Oshii’s pivotal 1995 animated film, which was publicly admired upon its release by Steven Spielberg. She’s starring as “Major,” a human/cyborg hybrid who commands an elite squad to battle terrorists. (In the source material, her name is Major Motoko Kusanagi, remember that because that’s important later.)
Fans and other internet dwellers have now seen the first image from the film, and many of those people aren’t happy. People, in fact, are livid. On some level, I understand why.
Ghost in the Shell is a uniquely Japanese story, crafted by Japanese artists and writers to comment on the way they collectively experience their time and place. The late ‘80s and ‘90s, when Ghost in the Shell was released, were financially prosperous but culturally troublesome for the island nation, which is why so many great sci-fi projects released at the time were prophetic about doomsday and the futility of effort. Japan was doubtful about its future, evidenced by prominent but apocalyptic works like Akira and Neon Genesis Evangelion.
And now, star-spangled America, who in some ways literally created Godzilla has entered to snatch Japan’s story away and reinterpret it for a Western audience. Remaking stories is not a novel concept, but sometimes art flourishes because it isn’t cross-culturally adaptable.
Art, I’d argue, doesn’t have to be for everyone. When naive changes are made to particular fictions, that process can even involve insidious cultural colonialism. Scarlett Johansson, by way of her casting, is now the literal face of that effort. And make no mistake, people have been mad about this remake since Johansson was hired, and they’re mad still because looking at it, it’s almost worse than many of them feared. That Johansson is playing a character whose name was Motoko Kusanagi (and still is? Paramount’s press release had no mention of “Motoko Kusanagi”) is telling all people of color their faces and stories are just not marketable enough, not to Americans.
Their frustration is reasonable because whitewashing and the lack of diversity behind and onscreen is still a problem, publicized as recently as the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Diversity in fiction, especially in science fiction, is not just one conversation; it’s several different discussions and they’re overlapping and beginning to echo.
A brief search on Twitter yields the following results, regarding Ghost in the Shell:
This tweet below from BuzzFeed writer Ryan Broderick was “dusted off” by Broderick in light of the teaser image’s release this morning. It’s of actress Rink Kikuchi, from 2013’s Pacific Rim.
And this morning, Rinko Kikuchi trended alongside “Ghost in the Shell,” but not Scarlett Johansson.
Naysayers eager to fight diversity tooth and nail will be quick to point out that robots can’t have ethnicities. That is true, sort of, but any image, even manmade, can be coded to incorporate certain ethnic features.
Case in point, some guy made a real robot modeled after, hey whaddaya know, Scarlett Johansson. And on the other side of the coin, it was no mistake that in Ex Machina Oscar Isaac’s misogynistic tech bro made a sex robot look purposefully like an Asian girl. A robot may not belong technically any particular ethnicity, but every robot has a design.
Representation matters. While no one is seeing Star Wars to learn about the nuances of space exploration, when people see people act adventurous and defiant against empires, those images stick in the cultural consciousness, informing not only how each viewer regards themselves, but how we consider and empathize with others who don’t look like us.
When a film set in an imaginative world features exclusively white people (as pretty much all of the original 1977 Star Wars does), or when characters of color are made into clowns (the ultimate example is still Breakfast at Tiffany’s), the resulting narrative argues that people of color have no business being heroic, defiant, or brave, or anything but set dressing. And now they can’t even be robots.