After Doctor Strange, The Great Wall, Iron Fist and Ghost in the Shell, we all get that whitewashing is bad, but how bad exactly, and why?
Maybe I lied. Maybe we don’t get why whitewashing is bad at all. Really, what’s the harm in Tilda Swinton playing what had traditionally been an Asian man? No one in actual China seemed too bothered that Great Wall had Matt Damon save the country from monsters. So, what’s the big deal? Poor Finn Jones just quit Twitter because people are still mad that Marvel didn’t change Iron Fist into an Asian character. Who cares if his character is a white dude who goes to Asia and comes back a kung fu master with a glowing fist? That’s how it’s always been in the comics. And, seriously, just be happy that Ghost in the Shell even exists. They had to cast Scarlett Johansson to get the movie made. It’s not politics; it’s business.
However, as a new short video from Chewy May and Jes Tom argues, “Movies aren’t real, but they affect real people.” A white person such as myself can debate whitewashing on a case by case basis, play devil’s advocate here, come down on the side of liberalism there, but my opinion is forever suspect because, well, I’m white (part-German, part-Slovenian to be exact). I can never know the hurt of being a person of color continually marginalized by pop culture nor the history of belittlement which is tapped into when a white face is put on an Asian character (as with Ghost in the Shell) for “commercial” reasons.
Thus, May and Tom’s video, entitled “Ghost in the Shell PSA,” speaks to the small, but significant impact whitewashing can have on someone’s worldview and sense of self-worth. In “PSA,” a little Asian girl walks into a comic book store and is instantly disheartened to find an endless supply of white heroines, all of whom are being happily fawned over by white girls in the store (to be fair, the fact these girls have any female superheroes to look up to is a huge sign of progress in the industry). The sense of empowerment she feels upon finally finding in Ghost in the Shell a character who looks like her is undeniable.
Cut to years later as the adult version of the little girl catches a glimpse of Scarlett Johansson on the Ghost in the Shell movie poster, and your heart breaks. She doesn’t get mad. Instead, she simply looks defeated and frustrated, shrugging her shoulders while being reduced back to feeling like a helpless child in a world which doesn’t recognize her.
May told io9:
“People don’t realize how whitewashing affects us as adults, and also our inner child that always wanted to see us represented. I wanted to put a face and a story behind why people are angry, and to show why this affects us so much.”
Tom, who plays the adult version of the girl, shared her own thoughts:
“What we see in that last part of the video is, ‘Here I am, I’m here, it’s my world.’ Then I see this movie poster for Ghost In The Shell and now I’m that child again, and it’s not my world anymore.”