White privilege and issues of proper representation in Hollywood’s “Ghost in the Shell”

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Considering that Mamoru Oshii’s “Ghost in the Shell” has a strong popularity among anime fans that has lasted over 20 years, similar strong fan bases such as J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” and Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” oftentimes insist that adaptations be accurate to the original plot and setting. Given this, it is not surprising that the 2017 film adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson made a measly $19 million for its box office opening weekend. Combined with the strong support from the Media Action Network for Asian Americans and the anime fan community’s staunch dismissal of Hollywood’s attempted adaptations of anime, “Ghost in the Shell’”s Hollywood film adaptation has helped bring attention to the mainstream media’s lackluster representation of Asians through whitewashing – the practice of casting white actors in originally minority roles. Instead of dismissing this as another Hollywood’s faux pas in adapting anime into films, this brings into question the full ramifications of white privilege.

For Johansson, her white privilege in “Ghost in the Shell” comes in the guise of white feminism. When the premise of “Ghost in the Shell” revolves specifically around Japanese culture intermixed with a futuristic cyberpunk society, this disproves Johansson’s claim of trying to promote diversity by using the feminism card as a cop out. Even though some fans may claim that Johansson’s role as the Major is appropriate since anime characters are often depicted more racially ambiguous and the Major can switch between bodies as a cyborg, this still does not change the fact that majority of Hollywood’s roles go to white actors. The Major’s full name, Motoko Kusanagi, also suggests that she should be played by a Japanese actress. Given these factors, Johansson did in fact promote Hollywood’s lack of diversity and took opportunities away from other well-qualified Asian, if not Japanese, female actors like Rinko Kikuchi and Jamie Chung.

In fact, Johansson’s disassociation with her white privilege is yet another common case of Hollywood’s female white actresses trying to deny white supremacy by underplaying their white privilege. Margaret Cho and Tilda Swinton’s infamous email debacle, where Cho described feeling like Swinton’s “house Asian,” serves to highlight an interesting Stanford research on white privilege. Researchers found that because “Whites are motivated to believe that meritocratic systems and personal virtues determine life outcomes,” white Americans tended to deny their white privilege when exposed to it. Their survey group that went without the self-affirmation test, where participants were asked to rank and explain 12 values, were more likely to overplay their hardships when shown evidence of racial inequality. So instead of thinking critically about their privilege when presented with it, white Americans like Johansson and Swinton are able to systematically deny their white privilege by exaggerating their hardships.

This brings up another interrelated issue of white privilege — which is the concept of making a space or giving representation for minorities like people of color (POC) and LGBTQs. This is seen more clearly in mainstream society’s push for there to be female and minority representation in the STEM fields and also in how organizations have recently begun offering multicultural specific internships. A Latina feminist friend of mine explained the concept of creating a space for minorities rather well through observing how representation played out in the various Los Angeles organizations that she attended. For example, whenever there are feminist group meetings, female speakers are prioritized over male speakers. The same went for LGBTQ meetings where heterosexual supporters were scheduled to go after their queer counterparts. Johansson and Swinton’s actions in participating in whitewashing originally Asian roles are proof of failing to give proper representation.

Since Hollywood’s adaptations of “Ghost in the Shell” and “Doctor Strange” were probably in production at the same time as Disney’s recent success with “Moana,” perhaps these Hollywood film adaptations would have been box office hits if they had created an advisory team specifically for diversity inclusivity. While Disney’s “Moana” is imperfect, it is one of the most successful attempts at giving representation by having the direct input of the community’s story that it’s telling — which was through creating the Oceanic Story Trust, a team full of Polynesian choreographers, linguists, historians, anthropologists and cultural practitioners that acted as Moana’s cultural advisors. This adds another nuanced way of how representation could have happened in “Ghost in the Shell,” instead of its now quite famous whitewashing casting fiasco.

Perhaps if Johansson and Swinton had pushed for a similar diversity inclusivity advisory team as Disney had for “Moana,” they would not now have reputations as staunch white feminists that promote white supremacy. While it is easy to dismiss Hollywood’s misguided belief that whiteness somehow sells, there are serious ramifications that result from this continued practice of white supremacy. As Kelly J. Baker noted about the alt-right’s attempt to hide their white supremacy, a lack of “historical awareness” is a major part of why America elected Donald Trump as the 45th U.S. President and has white people like Brock Turner, the Stanford rapist, roaming free. Hence the reason why Disney’s Oceanic Story Trust was critical as the Pacific Islander community was effectively represented in “Moana” and was more successful than Hollywood’s “Ghost in the Shell.”

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