What to Say to ScarJo When She Says Her Ghost in the Shell Character Is 'Identity-less'
There seems to be no end to the madness of the whitewashing controversy currently plaguing the Ghost in the Shell movie. This time around, it was a well-meaning effort from Scarlett Johansson to quell the disgust when she said her Ghost in the Shell character is "identity-less," but that claim did little to subdue the backlash that she whitewashed a beloved character.
In an interview with Michael Strahan on Good Morning America, Johansson explained the "identity-less" comment further: "I would never attempt to play a person of a different race, obviously. Hopefully, any question that comes up of my casting will be answered by audiences when they see the film." This has been in line with Johansson's defense of her stepping into the shoes of Ghost in the Shell protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi, known in the reboot simply as Major.
The major problem here (no pun intended) is that it appears, to the reader, that Johansson is attempting to neatly explain away her casting in a role that is very clearly originally Asian. To claim that Major is "identity-less" because she's an android is pretty problematic. To this claim, I would tell Johansson that it's a nice try, but no cigar when it comes to convincing me that her casting remains a big issue. I'm not the only one who thinks Johansson's explanation is bunk, either. There's been an incredibly vocal response to her comments on Twitter already.
First of all, in the original film as well as the manga the film is based on, Major is clearly acknowledged to be a woman. She was made in the image of a woman and is referred to with female pronouns in both versions of the story. There's even an implication that when she has sex in the film and the manga, it's either a lesbian encounter or she is having sex with her boyfriend. Nevertheless, in both instances, she is regarded as a female android. All of this implies gender identity.
While this was never the part of Major's identity that Johansson was referring to, it's important to understand that the claim can easily fall apart when you start to pick apart the meaning of "identity." If Johansson meant to say that she was simply playing an "identity-less" android when, more often than not, films love to specifically code robots and androids with a gender, what must she have been referring to when it comes to an "identity-less" Major? There appears to be no attempt to change her hair or physique to appear less feminine.
Secondly, that "identity-less" claim falls way the hell apart when we can very clearly (I cannot state this firmly enough) ascertain that both Major and the world she lives in are of Asian origin, specifically — where the original film and manga are concerned — the fictional Japanese city of Niihama. There is Japanese imagery throughout the Ghost in the Shell trailer. From the neon Japanese billboards to geisha robots to dining rooms set in a Japanese style to, yes, those crucial character names, this is a Japanese world.
There have been attempts to explain away this severe lack of Japanese or, thinking broadly, Asian actors despite the filmmakers clearly retaining Japanese aesthetics as a choice to portray a future society that is more international and diverse as a result. Ghost in the Shell producer Steven Paul, as a way of justifying this choice, said that there are "all sorts of people and nationalities in the world of Ghost in the Shell. We’re utilizing people from all over the world. ... There’s Japanese in it. There’s Chinese in it. There’s English in it. There’s Americans in it. [...] I don’t think it was just a Japanese story. Ghost in the Shell was a very international story, and it wasn’t just focused on Japanese; it was supposed to be an entire world." This certainly stays in line with Johansson's comments, but she and Paul both managed to reductively erase the bigger problem.
I get that the entire Ghost in the Shell team is trying to do damage control here and keep one foot on either side of the fence. The fence is the public outrage that the film's creators would so blatantly whitewash a well-known character and franchise. One foot is on the side that acknowledges the Japanese origins of Ghost in the Shell, and the other foot is on the side that firmly denies any wrongdoing.
As lovable and talented as Johansson is, she must have known this was always going to be an issue. The outrage at her casting has been going on for a majority of this film's production; it was going to come up during the press tour. Listening to Johansson — a smart, aware, well-meaning woman — explain away a seriously poor casting choice with potentially sweeping negative effects in terms of representation of Asians on film just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.