If you keep up with entertainment news on social media, chances are you’ve seen the countless memes, articles and tweets regarding the casting of white actress Scarlett Johansson in the role of Major, the protagonist of the 1995 Japanese anime on which 2017’s “Ghost in the Shell” is based. Social media users had an overwhelmingly negative reaction to this casting decision in the wake of its announcement, shocked that in 2017, whitewashing still occurs.
The term “whitewashing” refers to the casting of white actors in roles meant for people of color. While this concept may seem like a thing of the past, it is unfortunately all too common even today. The difference between the public reaction to whitewashing in the 1960s and the public reaction to whitewashing in 2017 is social media. Social media has given a voice to moviegoers and allowed them to express their outrage at this disturbing phenomenon, and “Ghost in the Shell” has suffered because of it.
However, not everyone understands the backlash. Some have wondered why casting a white woman in a role meant for an Asian woman is a big deal and the answer is simple: representation. In 2015, USC researchers found that roughly 73.1% of the actors in the top 100 films of 2014 were white, 12.5% were black, 5.3% were Asian, 4.9% were Hispanic, and the remaining 4.2% were left with the label “other.” These grim statistics might seem like nothing more than numbers, but those numbers affect people and those people often go forgotten.
#RepresentationMatters is a well known hashtag used by crusaders for equal representation across social media platforms, and though it states exactly what it means, many people, particularly white people, are still baffled by the hashtag’s meaning. Its message is a simple one: everyone deserves to see themselves in the media. People of every race, every sexual orientation, every gender, every age, every religion, every culture and every degree of ability deserve to be represented by characters in popular culture to whom they can relate. “Ghost in the Shell” was, above all, a missed opportunity. It was a missed opportunity for Asian women to see themselves portrayed as a big screen sci-fi heroine.
The motivation behind Johansson’s casting was more than likely financial, as Johansson currently holds the title for the highest grossing actress in movies today. Not only is she marketable and bankable, but she has a significant fan base composed of both men and women, thanks to her role as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Black Widow. From that standpoint, Johansson seems like the perfect choice for any role. However, the studio behind “Ghost in the Shell” seriously underestimated its audience’s desire to see equal representation in film, as the movie will reportedly lose 60 million dollars due to poor attendance.
What’s truly depressing about this situation is the thought of what could have been. “Ghost in the Shell” should have been a big break for an Asian actress. Casting an Asian actress in a big budget adaptation of a popular anime would have given Asian women the boost in visibility they so deserve. Instead, “Ghost in the Shell” will fade from the memory of audiences, reduced to a box office flop and characterized by yet another role being stolen from a person of color.