I will be seeing Ghost in the Shell fairly soon (not this Tuesday, but the following Tuesday). The Rotten Tomatoes aggregate reveals that I will be mostly entertained by the visual fidelity of the work, though I will likely read into the film from my own working knowledge of the source material and glean some added appreciation from the set pieces and characters.
The whitewashing controversy is the big question and I will have to judge for myself to see if this is any reason to discredit a film which is based off a series preoccupied with transhumanism and the transcendence of ethnic and nation boundaries because of the unification of the world through a thinking, feeling internet. In one episode of Stand Alone Complex (Season 1, Episode 19), a former Russian operative active during the Cold War undertakes a full body operation to implant her brain into a prosthetic body. This body, distinctly Japanese and likely made by Mitsubishi, or some fictionalized Japanese multinational heavy-manufacturing company, is younger, sexier, and masks the ethnicity of an old Slavic woman in favor of a Japanese appearance. One wonders why there is no uproar in Japan over the whitewashing (Japanese-washing? Yellow-washing?) and depiction of foreign nationals as Japanese citizens who speak impeccable Japanese with Level N1 speaking comprehension. Or perhaps the show (likely) is making a statement about the malleability of race and how the advent of machine prosthesis supplants the need for racial classifications? Obviously, my dismissive tone indicates my position.
Whitewashing is a peculiar thing because the concept of it is exclusive to Americana. I say this because we have many distinct ethnic contributions to the “melting pot” (originally from a play, where the phrase is pejorative). That we originated as a British colony of varied religious diversity—and in the case of Pennsylvania, Pluralism—indicates a largely Continental European origin. It wasn’t until our success drew the eyes of the world to come and take part in the great “American Experiment,” albeit built on the back of slaves and the poor. But the original body of colonists, that heritage societies covetously illustrate (Daughters of the American Revolution, The Mayflower Society, Sons of Norway, etc), their rank in society managed to remain dominant. When those from other countries come to American they culturally assimilate to the “American Way.” And yet this way has changed markedly over the years. The “way” is not the same as it was in 1865, when the Irish acclimated to American Customs and traditions, not fifty-three years removed from the War of 1812, when the sons and daughters of the Crown eschewed their British customs and accents for more “American” expressions of their nation’s proof of concept, earned by a successful repulsion of the British incursion from both Canada and the Gulf of Mexico. Imagine being a Polish immigrant adjusting to the “way” paved by culturally normative customs purloined from the Irish, the Germans, the French, and the Italians. Imagine the strain and intercultural conflicts between blacks who had been there before all of them. Somewhere, in all of this historic complexity, is the Hollywood controversy of whitewashing.
I do not presume to be a sociologist, or someone with the ability to read culture with lossless accuracy, but I do know a thing about myths and legends. But were I to ask a Greek what a God looked like, he/she would describe a Mediterranean man or woman, with smooth bronzed skin from the Agean Sea. Were I to consult a “Galatian” (3rd Century Christianity), they would likely describe a Hellenistic Jew, with a dark complexion and curly dark brown hair that was short and groomed. Were I to ask a pagan Northman in the 8th century (from Denmark or Sweden) to describe the complexion of Thor, they would more than likely describe a pale, muscular warrior, with dark brown beard and white skin, similar to a man that would not see the light of the sun for eight months out of the year. The Yoruba people, from Nigeria, would not describe their thunder god Shango, as a white Northman, but would likely think of him as a creature matching the same definitions of beauty and magnificence that a Yoruban would think. So for each ethnic group of people there are idealistic permutations of beauty and strength and grace that they believe. Our very “American” problem is that we have such a diverse culture that we no longer know what to worship as an ethnic standard of beauty.
When the motion picture industry began, our caste like system, invigorated by failed attempts at post-Civil War Reconstruction, placed non-whites at the bottom of the barrel. And so the trend continued. No “respectable” film company would star a black man as Othello. So, instead, they cast Orson Wells and Lawrence Olivier, and put them in black face. America’s problem continues to this day where Motoko Kusanagi is white, and I recalled reading somewhere they were considering using CGI to make her look “more Asian.” I can’t confirm that so take that with a grain of salt.
In Ghost in the Shell, the producers-that-be felt, for some reason, that Motoko Kusanagi would actually be named “The Major” (a short-hand name for the character in the manga and animated productions), which is coincidentally fitting given the subtext of the near post-human future where ethnicity doesn’t matter and a four hour operation can change your skin color, height, weight, and eye color without consequence.
I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have preferred a Japanese woman to play Motoko. (Maybe Lucy Lu, who is Chinese. Would that still count?). The Major’s character consistently is an over sexualized, lean and athletic, no-nonsense commanding officer, who is bi-sexual and also sexually ambiguous (if you have seen the latest incarnation, ARISE). Scarlet’s stint as Black Widow is an approximation to Motoko’s character, but there is still a lot left to desire, and I am certain that an equivalent actress of Japanese ancestry or nationality could fit the bill. Lasarus Ratuere, who plays Ishikawa, a very typical Japanese intelligence officer and A-Class hacker, is a Fiji born, Australian actor. Does that mean he was “brownwashed?”
Whenever I see these articles on whitewashing, there is little thought to the deep cultural, social, mythological biases that particular cultures embody. Moreover, every country is guilty of doing exactly what we do in other aspects. In Dr. Who it’s the United Kingdom that always makes first contact with the alien invaders. In Star Trek: First Contact, the origin of faster than light travel originates in the American heartland of Montana, on an American missile base. (Thus from the vestiges of the military industrial complex rose the event that catalyzes global peace and interspecies communication.) And, must I remind you, the rampant cultural appropriation made by Bollywood, where the government isn’t in a constant state of upheaval and isn’t profoundly corrupt. Evolutionary Biologists recognize that within our own groups we see those most similar to us favorably and keep away those that are foreign and unfamiliar. They, in essence, suggest that this odd brand of cultural antagonism is bred into us as a survival mechanism and is our “human nature.” But, while I believe in the process of Evolution and the ability for organisms to adapt to their environment, I also don’t want to believe that we are hopelessly shitty and destined to fight over resources with one another like a pack of wild dogs. I believe that we are sentient and enabled to make decisions that descend from our will and not our biology. Which means we can work past our monkey brains to make a responsible, adult decision to not need Emma Stone to play a half Asian Air Force Captain.
And can I add something, slightly unrelated? “White people” itself is sort of a pejorative categorization of lumping anyone with fair colored skin into a larger group of people. There are Germans, Norwegians, Polish, Bulgarian, Czechoslovakians, Italian, French, Belgian, British, Scottish, Irish, Finnish, Russian, and Greek, all with “fair colored” skin. Each of these are simplistic reductions of larger bodies of minorities, that are underrepresented in mainstream culture. (Such as the Soumi people, who are the indigenous people of Finland, and live as nomadic tribes, and, are you ready? Very white.) To say that all white people are alike is, frankly, fucking offensive.
The Bottom Line is, the only way to stop whitewashing is to stop reducing people to skin colors and geographies, but see people as fellow humans who occupy the world alongside us, and to be acquainted with their cultures, and to understand the reality that culture is fluid and ever changing. As a Christian, I know the Gospel of Christ referenced a Kingdom of Heaven, wherein ethnic, social, financial, and gender boundaries co-inhabit the same lands. There are non-religious alternatives also. But, in either case, I believe a shakeup is in order. All this social outrage is nauseating.