Scarlett Johansson might be Hollywood’s premiere female action star, and she clearly recognizes the responsibility that carries. She’s also no stranger to controversy when it comes to the politics of blockbusters.
Her character Black Widow was at the center of a debate around feminism and hero-equality after the release of Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. Black Widow, who was having a strange pseudo-romance with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), revealed that she is infertile, calling herself a “monster.” Film critic Jen Yamato put it best:
“Whedon gives his favorite character the kind of female troubles only a man can write. The result is an overdue character exploration for Black Widow that still manages to reduce the baddest bitch in the MCU to a shell of a superheroine who’s sad she can never be a complete woman.”
Though Yamato is dead-on, NPR’s Linda Holmes made an important point as well: the problems with Black Widow would be lesser if there were literally any other female superhero to compare her with. Putting all of the expectations for female characters on one woman is a losing fight; you’ll always exclude an important aspect of characterization.
Scarlett Johansson was mostly quiet during those debates, seeing as how the problems were not with her, but more with Joss Whedon and Marvel at large. But now Johansson finds herself embroiled in another debate, and this time she decided to weigh in.
Johansson stars in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell, an adaptation of a popular Japanese manga and anime series. The controversy is simple, and nothing new: the character she is playing is a cybernetic law enforcer named Motoko Kusanagi. Casting a white actress to play an originally Asian character is what’s referred to as “whitewashing.”
Johansson, in an interview with Marie Claire, had this to say about the casting:
“I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive. Also, having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity. Certainly, I feel the enormous pressure of that—the weight of such a big property on my shoulders.”
So basically, it seems like Johansson is of the opinion that her character, as it exists in the film version, is not Asian. This is supported somewhat by the fact that the character has been referred to only as The Major in the lead up to the film’s release. Just ignoring a character’s name doesn’t exactly fix the problem, however.
The backlash to her casting was vocal and thoughtful, especially pieces like this one by Kwame Opam that examine the real importance of having a Japanese actor in the role (hint: it’s not just representation, it’s ownership).
And part of the reason this debate is so prevalent right now is because it’s been bolstered by a series of recent and upcoming movies that have similar problematic elements. Last year’s Doctor Strange featured Tilda Swinton in the role of a Tibetan character known as the Ancient One.
And while it doesn’t feature “whitewashing” in the technical sense, the upcoming Matt Damon film The Great Wall is at the center of this discussion as well, accused of “white savior” tropes. The film, which is directed by legendary Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, stars Matt Damon as the savior of China, while Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau plays second fiddle.
It all contributes to a severe lack of complex Asian representation on screen in Hollywood films. And while Johansson makes a good point about the importance of a female-led action film/franchise, she essentially chooses to sidestep the racial discussion.
The bottom line is this: don’t let anyone tell you that this year’s Oscar nominations mean that Hollywood’s racial problem is solved and in the past. The conversation is ongoing.
Ghost in the Shell opens on March 31.