Posted on Monday, April 18th, 2016 by Angie Han
Earlier this year Chris Rock caused a minor kerfuffle at the Oscars when he took the stage to take on Hollywood’s mistreatment of black people… only to crack jokes at the expense of Asian people. The tasteless jokes underlined what I think many Asians and Asian-Americans have long suspected: that the push for more “diversity” and “inclusion” in Hollywood does not extend to us. That to them, we aren’t worthy of respect or consideration or even common courtesy.
Last week, two major projects further drove that point home. On Tuesday night, Marvel dropped the first trailer for Doctor Strange, rich in Orientalist undertones and featuring a white woman (Tilda Swinton) as a racebent version of an Asian character. Then on Thursday, Paramount and DreamWorks unveiled the first official still from the anime adaptation Ghost in the Shell, starring another white woman (Scarlett Johansson) as a character named “Motoko Kusanagi” in the source material. Whitewashing is a tradition as old as Hollywood itself. Still, you’d think that after the Oscars misstep, and the Emma Stone in Aloha dustup, and the The Last Airbender and Exodus: Gods and Kings and Pan and Gods of Egypt controversies, Hollywood would have learned its lesson. Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell suggest that they most certainly have not.
Granted, neither of these movies have come out yet. It’s theoretically possible that something in them will inspire me to change my mind, and come around to agreeing that the filmmakers handled the thorny racial issues surrounding both properties just right. Not super likely, considering that all of the titles named above turned out to be just as eye-rollingly problematic as their marketing suggested, but theoretically possible. But the marketing itself says something about how Hollywood wants these projects to be perceived, and which audiences they do and don’t care about, and the message from both teams is quite clear: they do not give a shit about Asians.
Doctor Strange and Marvel’s Asian Problem
Doctor Strange‘s casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One raised eyebrows from the moment it was announced. The character is Asian and male in the comics; Swinton, as you may have noticed, is neither of those things. To be sure, the character as written in the comics is plenty problematic, as Marvel has acknowledged. He’s essentially a variation on the “Magical Asian” archetype, a wise and enigmatic mentor who trains arrogant surgeon-turned-sorcerer Stephen Strange in the mystical arts. But changing the character into a white person hasn’t rid Doctor Strange of its off-putting Orientalism. The film still appears to be heavily Asian-influenced. The characters visit exotic locations full of Asian people and architecture and neon signs in Chinese text, train in rooms that look like martial arts dojos and wear robes reminiscent of martial arts uniforms.
The difference is that now, Asians themselves appear to have been erased from the narrative. At least in the trailer, no Asian actor gets to try and own the role, or comment on the Orientalist nonsense saturating the film, or offer a contrasting image of Asian-ness. Some have insisted that Doctor Strange actually has a strong Asian presence not hinted at in the marketing so far, and maybe it does — perhaps in the form of the sidekick played by Benedict Wong? But if Marvel’s plan for dealing with the property’s unsavory exoticism is to give that nonsense to white people so actual Asian characters can appear in less stereotypical roles, they aren’t tipping their hand. The marketing team that okayed this trailer presumably knows a thing or two about maintaining good PR. Even so, apparently, they figured that no one who matters would care that Doctor Strange (regardless of what the movie actually turns out to be) would look like a movie steeped in Asian culture but without any actual Asian people.
It’s worth pointing out, too, that the Doctor Strange trailer arrives at a time when Marvel’s obliviousness about Asians is more apparent than ever. Allow me to remind you of Daredevil, with its hordes of nameless, faceless, totally expendable ninjas, and the upcoming Iron Fist, which seems to be centered around the premise that no one wields a mystical Asian power better than a white dude. The Marvel franchise has zero major Asian characters so far. Maybe the Marvel franchise has plans to add some leading Asian superheroes in the coming years (how about a Ms. Marvel movie, huh?), but if so they’ve not revealed them.
Ghost in the Shell: Whitewashing a Japanese Tale
As for Ghost in the Shell, here is a film based on an iconic property that some have argued, convincingly, is every bit as uniquely Japanese as Akira is. It would probably be naive of me to suggest that Hollywood leave such a big, fat, juicy potential franchise alone, but it would be nice if they’d at least tried to adapt it in a way that demonstrates respect for its Asian roots. Especially since, unlike Doctor Strange‘s Ancient One, Ghost in the Shell isn’t an Orientalist fantasy cooked up by white people, but a Japanese story told from a Japanese perspective. Instead, Paramount and DreamWorks gave the lead to white girl Scarlett Johansson.
To make matters much, much worse, the very next day, Screen Crush published a report claiming the studios had commissioned visual effects tests to make Johansson appear “more Asian.” In fairness, according to their sources, the production rejected the idea “immediately” after seeing the test. And it’s true lots of crazy ideas get thrown around in the development process. That’s what it’s for. But the fact that the studios even considered a digital yellowface makeover is, to put it frankly, some fucking bullshit. Clearly, the studios understood they’d get some blowback for their casting decision. Just as clearly, they have no clue why. The problem was never one of aesthetics — people weren’t mad because Johansson’s skin, hair, and eyes were the wrong color. It was one of politics — Johansson, a white woman, was claiming an iconic Asian role as her own. Or maybe the studios did understand that, which is almost worse. What does it say when filmmakers decide they’d rather invent an Asian person out of pixels than cast an actual Asian person in their movie?