Whitewashing (and) Asian American Audiences

Curator's Note

Ghost in the Shell PSA, Chewy May and Jes Tom produced one of the best and most polished responses to the film’s whitewashing controversy, garnering views and reposts across social media. The comments, predictably, criticized May and Tom for assuming that the cartoon character was or should be Asian and that being unable to cross-racially identify with a character was, in itself, racist. What the video makes clear, however, is that the problem is not simply Scarlett Johasson playing Major Motoko but in the sustained media exclusion of Asian-appearing heroes. Indeed, the uproar over the casting for Ghost in Shell built on similar protests against casting Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Dr. Strange, casting Emma Stone as the mixed race Asian protagonist of Aloha, and the majority of casting for Avatar: The Last Airbender, among others. We see a repeated compulsion to identity with whiteness in media representations with neither equal nor reciprocal calls to identity with powerful and heroic Asian women.

The response by both Swinton and Johansson to their critics was telling in its unity. Both acknowleged fan concerns but then pointed out the marginalized place of women in the industry overall and viewed their roles in huge budget movies as a win for all women. Their response asked Asian American viewers to again cross-racially identify, this time with the actresses themselves. The path to empowerment, it seems, is routed through an imaginative identification with white stars. The movie itself demonstrates the persistence of this narrative when, in a break from the original film, we discover that the character played by Johansson was once a Japanese woman. The character, like the film cast, is now remade into something more powerful and heroic but only through a transformation into whiteness. 


This is a great post and clip! I think if you go into comic book stores now you would see some new heroines and especially new women of color such as Moon Girl and Ms. Marvel. In the X-men comics, Jubilee or Jubilation Lee was Chinese American and she first appeared in 1989---I remember this! In the films, she is a background character.

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