Hollywood has a bad problem with casting women; it has an even worse problem with casting women who aren’t white.
Let’s get this out of the way: live-action adaptations of anime rarely go well.
But it’s not just that stylized animation doesn’t always translate well into a medium with human bodies on screen. When western film producers have the chance to offer opportunities to lesser seen actors and minorities, we see the same people again.
Scarlet Johansson has reportedly signed on to DreamWorks’ adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, a manga with several animated adaptations. The story focuses on Motoko Kusanagi, unrelenting cyborg taking down cybercrime. The 1995 animated film adaptation of the manga is one of the better known and more celebrated adaptations, and it stands with other Japanese anime of the time like Akira (1988) and Cowboy Bebop (1997) as interesting takes on technology, people, and moral ambiguity.
But why a white woman? When a Hollywood producer or director announces interest in an adaptation of a Japanese anime, the source material is often Americanized. The Akira live-action adaptation, which seems to have fizzled, featured whitewashed characters in a New York-like city. In an early iteration of the project, concept art showed white characters as Kaneda and Tetsuo, renamed Travis, and later when the second director departed the project, white actors such as Robert Pattinson, Andrew Garfield, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Chris Pine, and Keanu Reaves were candidates for the main roles. Because we obviously want someone named Andrew Garfield to play a character named Tetsuo Shima.
This is the same situation with Motoko Kusanagi. While there are plenty of Asian actresses who are just as talented as Scarlett Johansson, the industry overlooks those women. The easy excuse is that hiring those actresses would be financially risky. The industry has already grappled with the belief that only women will see movies where the main characters are woman, yet female-led Frozen is the fifth highest-grossing film in history, while Lucy and Maleficent earned $40 million in their respective opening weekends in the box office. Movies in the past several years have made it obvious that films with female leads are just as financially successful, and yet only 31% of speaking roles in films are female, according to research by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Only 7% of directors are female!
There is clear gender disparity in the film industry, but there is an even greater disparity in race. A 2014 Hollywood Diversity report by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA found 10.5% of lead roles went to minorities in the 172 films from 2011 examined. For casts in general, half of films had 10% or fewer minorities on board. Is it any surprise that when a film with a female hero is a financial success, the actress is white?
The film industry has a long history of denying ethnic minorities acting roles. White actors have used blackface and yellowface to take lead roles in minorities’ stories. If a white actor didn’t look like a character, they could use makeup, often in incredibly offensive manners that stressed ethnic stereotypes, while actors of ethnic minorities struggled to find work at all. While the practice of blackface is shunned to a much greater extent today, plenty of casting directors look for white actors to play non-white characters. Katara from Avatar: The Last Airbender (titled The Last Airbender for the live-action adaptation) is played by a white woman in the adaptation, Moses and Ramses in the recently released Exodus: Gods and Kings are played by white men, and nearly all of Dragonball Z‘s characters in the live-action adaptation are white. Those movies were also horrible.
Ethnic minorities are prevented from playing white characters, yet white characters are given free reign to play minorities. Too often the excuse is that the most qualified actors just so happen to be white. We know the real reason is that Hollywood believes white actors who are already well-established can pull people in to see movies.
That is exactly why Scarlett Johansson is a likely choice for Major Motoko Kusanagi in the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. The film isn’t off the ground yet, and it needs star power to get anywhere. Johansson, who played the titular role in Lucy (a film in which a white woman kills many Asian people) and Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Avengers, has shown both that she has immense talent and that she can handle action-heavy roles. I am definitely going to, at the very least, look into a film if she’s cast as a major character. And if Johansson’s character in the Avengers can’t make it on the front cover of the Blu-ray, what chance does an Asian woman have at getting major roles?
I understand why DreamWorks would cast a white woman, but I can’t wait to live in a world where that reasoning is no longer acceptable. Unless we start giving lead roles to minorities, we are going to remain in a vicious cycle of giving lead roles to white actors because minorities have less of a drawing power because they’re denied opportunities because we keep giving them to white actors.