Since I heard about the extremely controversial casting of Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell,” I’ve been about as enraged by it as anyone. At first, I resolved not to see the film in protest. As a woman, I understand how meaningful it can be to see yourself represented in mainstream media. It makes you feel seen and accepted by your society, your people. It makes you feel like an equal and someone who matters. And as a lover of women in general, I don’t want to see any kind of woman shut out of our culture’s media. Every kind of woman, no matter what she looks like or how old she is or where she comes from or who she’s attracted to or what she believes in, deserves recognition and acceptance.
The film is nauseatingly racist. In addition to the blatant racism of casting a white woman in an originally Asian female role, it reportedly attempted to yellow face some of its extras, and possibly even Johansson herself.
I had a friend once who was half Chinese and half Scottish. She was outgoing, excitable, charming, feminine, and beautiful. We took ballroom dance classes together, and that was where I first realized how marginalized Asian women are. The men looked at her like she was a sex toy – old, often married men and this 14 year old girl. They flirted with her and ogled her. She was their favorite dance partner, and it had nothing to do with her dancing ability. Her personality had quite a bit to do with it, but I’m also quite certain that her race made them feel much more confident in treating her like she existed purely for their pleasure.
I often get ads for Asian women from dating sites. I get those more than any other dating site ad. I’ve seen statistics that Asian women are the most fetishized women in America. What comes with that fetishization? Viewing them as non-human.
Which is why it was so deeply offensive for this film’s producers to take an iconic, inspiring female character like Major Motoko Kusanagi and make her the default woman that we always see on our screens, rather than an underrepresented minority who deserve to see themselves as these inspiring people.
But despite feeling so strongly about that, I also couldn’t ignore that it was a female lead, who is meant to carry the film. Now, I don’t mean to say that it is REMOTELY okay that they whitewashed this character. But I kept thinking, how often do we have a female lead in a big-budget, mainstream cyberpunk film? A woman starring in an action film is unusual enough, but what’s even more unusual is a story that focuses on the humanity, or lack thereof, of a female cyborg. The cyborg trope and the question of whether cyborgs and human-like robots should be treated as equal humans has been so deeply explored within the science fiction genre that I’m sick of contemplating those questions. (I’m a sci fi baby.) It’s a very unique way to explore the human condition, and relevant to our modern world.
I’ve been taking a science fiction movie class this spring, and with all the talk of whether technologically altered humans or robots that are essentially human should be treated as people, I’ve noticed something: the most iconic, influential cyborgs and human-like robots in major Hollywood productions are all male. Data of Star Trek, Andy Murphy of Robocop, Roy Batty of Blade Runner, Darth Vader of – well, we all know. The deep self-exploration that cyborgs and robots allow us to do has mainly been done with male characters, and if they’re main characters, they are certainly male. Female characters have been explored in this way, but not nearly as iconically and in-depth as their male counterparts. Data is far more famous than 7 of 9. I can’t think of a single iconic female counterpart for Andy Murphy or Roy Batty. The closest I can think of, besides 7 of 9, is the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact and Rachael in Blade Runner, both of whom are supporting characters. Their identities are explored, but not to the extent that their male counterparts are.
So for a big-budget, mainstream Hollywood film to use this method to explore the humanity and identity of a woman for once instead of a man is pretty fantastic. I just wish they hadn’t slighted, to put it mildly, a particularly marginalized group of women to do it.
For a long time, I thought that because of the film’s racism towards Asian women (as well as Asian men, considering the attempted yellow facing of extras), I had to condemn the film completely, or I would be a horrible person. I never want to be insensitive towards people different from me. But I was sad that I felt it would be wrong to support this film, because apart from the racism, it looks like something I would really enjoy. A story about a woman whose life was taken from her and now doesn’t know what or who she is, who doesn’t feel at home in her body because it’s not truly hers, who takes revenge on her abusers, plus all the cool visuals I’ve seen in trailers. I mourned that a film that could have been so good for women chose to marginalize an already marginalized group further, and the simple fact that a movie that looked like it might be good was also a let down. Cyberpunk is a pretty great genre, and add in a female heroine? That’s a recipe for something I’d love. But I thought supporting this film by going to see it would mean I was endorsing the racism.
But then I realized something: I don’t have to choose one stance or the other. I don’t have to either boycott the movie for its racism or love it for its feminism. I can do both.
In addition, I realized just how rare and meaningful it is to have a female-led cyberpunk movie. Much as I wish it hadn’t meant whitewashing its lead character, I think that making her white is the only way Hollywood was going to make a film like this. Hollywood is insanely sexist and racist. It can hardly ever be bothered to produce a film that shows a woman who is a true, complex character equal to her male counterparts. This film is a step in the right direction.
I’m not saying that the producers only made her white because that was the only way they could get the film made. The producers are clearly pretty racist if they tried to use digital effects to turn white actors into Asian characters. I think that it’s so unusual for a female character like this to lead a movie that it was probably difficult for them to wrap their bigoted brains about doing so in the first place. But her not even being white? They couldn’t handle that, because they are racist f*cks. But the good news is, they are at least willing to try to wrap their heads around a white woman. And though it is FAR from perfect, that is progress.
Progress, unfortunately, can be offensive while it’s happening. It often happens through marginalizing certain oppressed groups within a broader, already oppressed group, in order to advance those who are least oppressed within such a group first. For example, Susan B. Anthony famously argued for the equality of white women on the basis of them being better than black women. It’s horrible that she used that platform, but she is a huge part of the reason that all women in America (theoretically, anyway) have the right to vote today. Rosa Parks was chosen by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s movement to represent them because she was quiet and genteel, unlike the teenage girl, Claudette Colvin, who did the same thing as Parks but nine months earlier, because Colvin was “feisty,” mouthy” and “emotional,” all of which are words that are almost exclusively used to describe unruly women. They decided that in order to achieve equal rights for all African Americans, they had to sacrifice feminism for African American women in the process. It sucks and it’s infuriating and it’s exhausting, but progress is painful, and sacrifices and compromises have to be made.
In fact, given Johansson’s success in the action movie genre as practically the only woman allowed in those films, she’s close to the only woman who could have possibly been acceptable to mainstream Hollywood
Also, Hollywood is shockingly dumb. Boycotting and completely condemning this film to protest its racism could very well send the wrong message. It will likely tell these producers and the rest of Hollywood that no one wants to see a cyberpunk film about a woman. If that sounds unlikely, let me tell you about something that sounds way dumber. Disney once made a film called Mom Needs Mars, which is pretty much universally regarded as a terrible film that no one likes. Rather than realizing that the film just wasn’t good, Disney thought that this meant that people don’t like Mars. Everyone’s favorite planet besides Pluto. So another Disney film in production at the time, John Carter of Mars, was renamed “John Carter,” and all mentions of Mars were removed from trailers.
If major, successful studios like Disney can be that stupid and biased, it seems pretty likely that the producers of Ghost in the Shell might think people didn’t watch it because they didn’t want a film about a female cyborg, not because they didn’t want a film about a whitewashed cyborg. To use Disney as an example again, they actually tend to bend over backwards to please their male viewers so much that they don’t care if they lose female viewers. This has little to do with how much money they make by marketing based on gender, and everything to do with pure, simple misogyny.
So I don’t think boycotting this movie is the answer. I think that supporting its female lead is something that must be done, or these filmmakers will simply say “Welp, I guess no one wants a movie like this about women after all.” But I also don’t think we should be quiet about the racism. I think we should scream and rage about it, make it known that whitewashing is not okay, as people have been doing. We can do both.
And who knows – maybe the film is horribly misogynistic, too. Johansson’s character may be overemotional, turn into a villain because she’s too weak to handle what she’s been through, get killed, kill herself, or any number of other classic tropes that show up in these “feminist” stories (cough*Joss Whedon*cough). But right now, I’m focusing on the theory of whether or not a movie like this should be tossed out based on its racism. I’m planning to see the movie this weekend, and hopefully I won’t be too overwhelmed by homework to write a review. (College. Help. At least y’all are getting plenty of good content from Metacrone. 😊)