(Ghost in the Shell, 2017)
Is there an excuse for white-washing in our contemporary time?
By Christopher Jacobs
The night of the living white-wash is upon us once again, triggered by the recent release of the latest Ghost in the Shell (2017) trailer. The consistent controversy of Scarlett Johansson portraying the anime’s protagonist, Motoko Kusanagi, must have Rupert Sanders navigating a minefield of razor dildos, whilst onlookers gawk and jeer, as if their watching Harrison Ford read haikus at a limerick convention. However, is ‘white-washing’ merely a mole hill that’s been conceived into a mountain?
Let me pose the concept of Yellow-washing; imagine if Jackie Chan was cast to play Captain America as one of Marvel’s Avengers. On paper, he’d be a good fit for the role; he’s acted in many action films, preforms his own stunts, speaks relatively good English, and he even owns an Oscar now. Yet, such casting would be deemed preposterous, and presumably met with belligerent consensus, even by contemporary crowds. His age and race doesn’t exactly meet the existing profile of the home-grown Cap’; he’d be more suited to play an old Tibetan monk in Doctor Strange (2016) …
…except Tilda Swinton has that role already.
So why isn’t this met with the same social stigma that a yellow-washed role would presumptively pose? I’d like to attribute this double-standard to the hyper-normalisation of the white-savior narrative in mainstream Hollywood cinema. Extensive enough to be classified as a subgenre, this narrative trope involves the white protagonist acting as a messianic model, who rescues diverse racial minorities from their predicaments in supposedly true stories. The subversive racial implications of this popular narrative are often undercut by the film’s plot and theme, and subliminally lends credence towards the minority’s inability to solve their own problems. They need help – preferably from Team America. Such tropes subsidize hyper-segregation instead of advocating diverse, racial interactions. Ever since the classical Hollywood era, the white-saviour narrative has pseudo-naturally implemented itself into the star system. Thus, in many big-screen adaptations, one is inherently accustomed to the coerced incorporation of the white protagonist, blindsided to the racial, geographical, and historical inaccuracies the cast represents. Hence, white actors always make money whereas diversity doesn’t.
To maintain such an outdated, traditional viewpoint, especially in a globalised world where the level of racial, political, and social awareness is constantly increasing would be a negligent and self-diminishing thing to do. To hold onto such ancient tropes, would be like holding onto Gandalf’s pubes as you hang off a hot-air balloon. You may as well advocate the replacement of all Asian actors with Mickey Rooney impersonators.
Therefore, when a Paramount producer, or Rupert Sanders, defend their negligent casting choices for Ghost in the Shell, tell them their time would be better spent shaving dolphins, as Jackie Chan would have been a sick Captain America.