Why Ghost in the Shell’s casting matters, even if you think that this time it doesn’t

Whitewashing always matters, whether it's the first time or the hundredth

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Maybe I shouldn't be, but I'm surprised at how many of my social media friends are fighting incredibly hard to support huge corporations' rights to give minorities the shaft… yet again. Of course I'm talking about Ghost in the Shell and the casting choices made for the flick. Maybe if they were just starting out or low budget, we'd cut these production companies some slack, but DreamWorks and Paramount are doing just fine for themselves, and a film backed by such huge powerhouses would surely have the ability to cast a wide net while search for the starring role, correct? So what's the excuse?

But ok, The Major is cyborg. I get it. Cyborgs don't have to be Japanese. I know, I know. But here's the thing—there's also no reason why Cyborgs can't be Japanese. See where I'm going with this? If "we don't have to cast a minority in this role" was how movie roles were determined… well, I guess we'd have just about the same amount of white people in our media as we do now.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't have anything against white people. In fact, I am a white person. But guess what, I also can see that white people are going to be just fine if we lose a few roles in the name of accuracy and even, yes, simply giving someone else the opportunity.

White people are in the spotlight enough, don't you think?

But wait, am I overreacting? I mean, how much of a discrepancy is there really? Well, according to this study conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California, nearly three-fourths of actors in the top-grossing films in 2014 were white. A little over 12% were black, a bit over 5% were Asian, just under 5% were Hispanic, and around 4% were in that infamous category, "other."

Hold on, though, because I know what you're thinking. You're super informed (good, I like that!) and you happen to know that the 5% population of Asians in film pretty closely matches the just about 5% population of Asians in America. All good, right?


Most of those Asian actors have roles that either heavily rely on or perpetuate stereotypes, or they are actors that don't speak at all. This isn't the number of Asian leads or even quirky Asian sidekicks. According to the same study, of the top 100 films in 2014, over 40 of them have no Asian characters who speak on screen. None. Zero, zilch, nada. Do you know any Asian people? Do they speak? Do they have opinions? Do they affect the world around them in any way? Then I feel like it's clear that they are not being fairly represented in film. Oh, and of the films that do have Asians with speaking roles, keep in mind that a "speaking role" can be a sentence or two. It still doesn't mean the part has any substance or drives the plot in any way, or that they're not a token character perpetuating stereotypes. In fact, if you're a fan of Master of None, Dev's struggles on the "Indians on TV" episode might be coming to mind right now.

So, if we're being realistic, I think that if we counted the number of films with Asian actors where those actors' characters aren't racist caricature versions of themselves and actually have some bearing on the outcome of the movie, I'd imagine that number would be embarrassingly low.

Speaking of controlling the outcome of the movie, who has more power on set than the director? So how do the demographics of this powerful position add up? According to the same study, of the people who directed the top 700 films between 2007 and 2014 (excluding the year 2011 for reasons that are not entirely clear to me – that's kind of weird, Study on Inequality in Popular Films), only 2.4% – that's 19 directors out of 700 films that got made – were Asian or Asian American. This leads us to believe that it's not just acting roles, it's behind the scenes too; it's the whole industry.

So let's get back to Ghost in the Shell. Why does it matter if the main character is white? Aren't we getting a little up in arms over nothing here? After all, it's just one movie. But really, it's not. If you're familiar with John Oliver's Last Week Tonight, perhaps you've seen this little video entitled "Hollywood Whitewashing: How Is This Still a Thing?"

The clip cites, first, how people say something along the lines of how there aren't more minority actors because there aren't enough good roles for minority actors. It then goes on to give examples of movie after movie after movie that have roles that could be played by a minority, but instead are filled with white people. Prince of Persia is a film about a man from, well, Persia (that's in ancient Iran, for those of you keeping score at home). Who plays the Prince? Jake Gyllenhal. Emma Stone plays a character who is supposed to be half-Asian in Aloha. White actor after white actor was cast in Exodus: Gods and Kings, which takes place in Egypt (Egypt is on the continent of Africa, in case you missed that), and the lead roles were taken on by white men from Britain and Australia. Do white people live in African countries? Sure. Were Ramases and Moses white? No. The clip continues on to assure us that, of course, the movie Gods of Egypt learned from these mistakes and starred instead… a Scottish guy. Did you know John Wayne once played Genghis Khan? John. Wayne. As. Genghis. Khan. That was in The Conquerer. Marlon Brando even put on a cringey "Asian" accent to play a Japanese character once upon a time as well. Have you seen Breakfast at Tiffany's? Do you remember that Asian character?

Keep in mind that that dude would count as a speaking role for Asians in the study above. And that racist portrayal of was praised (praised!) as being "broadly exotic" by the New York Times in the 60s.

The clip goes on to make the excellent point that "when filmmakers get called out on whitewashing, the justification has less to do with black and white, and more to do with greed." They then quote Ridley Scott saying (and yes, this is a real quote), that he can't mount a high-budget movie "and say that my lead actor is Mohammad So-and-So from Such-and-Such." Because he wants more money, and using known, white actors gets you more money. Then it shows an unknown white actor in his movie in a role meant for an Egyptian. So money's one excuse, but it's not the whole story.

My favorite point in the clip, though is when it points out that "maybe all of this would be less egregious if any time an actor of color took on a traditionally white role, half the country didn't go apeshit." Like, seriously, guys, people were ready to boycott Star Wars: The Force Awakens because the trailer showed a black Storm Trooper. Storm Troopers are nearly always wearing helmets and full body armor. For all you know, Storm Troopers are, like, 95% black. And more importantly, why is this even a problem? And do you remember when Rue in Hunger Games was portrayed as black in the movie? Do you remember the outrage? And neither of these roles, either Rue or Storm Troopers in general, were even explicitly stated as being white in the source material. But take source material that should have minority characters and cast white actors instead? "What are you guys complaining about? Cyborgs don't have to be Japanese!"

The clip ends by reminding us that the problem isn't that the roles "aren't there," but rather that we'd rather put white people in those roles. "Just remember, the Academy gave Oscars for characters named O-Lan, Billy Kwan, and Luis Molina to actors named Louise, Linda, and William."

So it isn't really about Ghost in the Shell; it's about Hollywood doing this over and over and over. We're focusing on Asians here, but they're doing it to black people, Hispanic people, Middle Eastern people, and the list goes on. Honestly, if you're not white, they're doing this to you. They're representing you with token roles if they're representing you at all.

And what gets me is that people – people I know personally, even—are fighting for the production companies' right to continue. They're justifying, they're making excuses, and they're trying to explain it away. One person said to me that Americans don't want to see movies with actors who have accents. After someone pointed out that there are plenty of Asian-American actors with no accent, the next point was that most Asian American actors can't act. My rebuttal to that statement (other than that it's ridiculous) is how do we even know what Asian actors can and can't do? How many of them have actually been given the opportunity to prove themselves? The answer is an embarrassingly small number.

Finally, the biggest argument I see thrown around for Ghost in the Shell is that, hey, it's actually a decent adaptation of an anime. We don't get that enough. Let's not spoil it, guys!

And you know what that reminds me of? Those shirts I see sometimes pointing out America's hypocrisy when it comes to our acceptance of black people. The shirts read "America loves black people culture."

And this seems similar to me. You "love" anime, but not enough to give the people who created it adequate props? You don't want to support Japanese actors or directors, you just want more ways to consume the same anime you already like. You like Japanese culture, to hell with whether or not Japanese people are being given an equal seat at the table, equal, positive representation in the media, or equal chances to show us what they have to offer in the entertainment industry. Do you think it's going to stop with Ghost in the Shell?

Well, have you seen the casting for the upcoming live-action adaptation of Death Note?

Of course this time it's about the Japanese, but it's been every minority there is, and it will continue to be as long as we keep making excuses. Ghost in the Shell is important right now because it's the latest in a clear trend that shows little sign of slowing down. It's not really that movie alone, but rather what it represents: a continuance of the disrespect of and disservice to minorities perpetuated by Hollywood and eaten up again and again by the money-spending public. Ghost in the Shell came out to mixed reviews, but it has still grossed $62 million worldwide. Tell me that won't encourage them to just do the same thing again. (And again, and again.)