Why Did 'Doctor Strange' and 'Ghost in the Shell' Whitewash Their Asian Characters?

This week in cultural appropriation: Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton and a conversation between two THR writers.
Courtesy of Film Frame; Paramount Pictures
Marvel's 'Doctor Strange'; Paramount and DreamWorks' 'Ghost in the Shell'

This week, Marvel dropped the first teaser trailer for Doctor Strange, based on its comic series about a critically injured neurosurgeon who travels to the Himalayas to learn mystic arts from a powerful sorcerer known as the Ancient One. Two days later, Paramount and DreamWorks released the first image from Ghost in the Shell, their live-action adaptation of the Japanese manga about an anti-cyberterror task force set in mid-21st century Japan and led by cyborg Major Motoko Kusanagi.

On paper, it reads like a great week for Asian representation in Hollywood — but the Ancient One and the Major are played, respectively, by Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson. And so these two projects — long-awaited by many fans of their source material — instead join Gods of Egypt, Aloha and Pan as recent inductees to Hollywood's Whitewashing Hall of Shame.

Below, The Hollywood Reporter's Heat Vision blogger Graeme McMillan and senior reporter Rebecca Sun discuss the similar circumstances greeting the films so far. 

Rebecca Sun: We braced ourselves when the castings were announced, but (just like that Nina trailer) the visual evidence still stung.

In flipping both race and gender to cast Swinton as a character who in the original comics is a Tibetan-born man, Marvel admirably went out of the box to correct one aspect of underrepresentation in its cinematic universe, but did so at the expense of another. Like its fellow Marvel franchise Iron Fist, it is steeped in cultural appropriation and centers around what Graeme previously noted as the "white man finds enlightenment in Asia" trope.

Give Hollywood partial credit for continuously trying to cleverly sidestep the Fu Manchu stereotype of characters like DC's Ra's al Ghul and Marvel's The Mandarin — but why is the solution consistently to reimagine those characters with white actors (Liam Neeson in Christopher Nolan's Batman films and Guy Pearce in Iron Man 3, respectively)? The Doctor Strange movie doesn't need its Ancient One to look like Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China, but there are creative ways to interpret the character without yet again erasing an Asian person from an inherently Asian narrative.

Graeme McMillan: The casting of Strange is a very frustrating thing; it's not just the Ancient One that's racebent — Baron Mordo, a white man in the comics, is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the movie; you see him for an instant in the teaser — but it all seems to be done with little thought about the implications of the changes. While I'm happy to see a "white role" played by a black man in the movie, Ejiofor's casting reinforces the implications of ThorCaptain America: The Winter Soldier and the Iron Man movies that every white hero gets a black sidekick in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (see also Zoe Saldana in Guardians of the Galaxy, but there, she's painted green, because space).

Switching the Ancient One to Tilda Swinton feels similarly well-intentioned, but thoughtless. On the one hand, yes, you're trying to sidestep the stereotype present in the source material, but in the most lazy way short of making the character a white man. Wouldn't a younger Asian actor have offered enough of a play on the trope — not to mention a play on the character's name — while also avoiding the utter tone-deafness of having Strange head to Tibet in order to learn about enlightenment from another white English person?

Sun: Too many stories, from Lawrence of Arabia to Avatar, relegate natives of a culture to background players and, at best, mentor, antagonist, love interest or sidekick. In Doctor Strange, Swinton fills the mentor role, Mads Mikkelsen is the villain and Rachel McAdams seems to be the damsel, leaving British actor Benedict Wong to play Dr. Strange's personal valet.

Of the four, he's the only one not glimpsed in the two-minute trailer, which mostly features Benedict Cumberbatch's Dr. Strange wandering through streets in Nepal and Hong Kong and learning magical martial arts from Swinton in a temple beautifully appointed with traditional Asian architectural features. In other words, Doctor Strange is a movie that looks very Oriental, except for the people part.

McMillan: To make matters worse — or, at least, more frustrating — there's the fact that, in the casting of Cumberbatch, Marvel managed to sidestep the possibility of offering up a nonwhite, non-male lead in one of its movies for the first time. Unlike, say, Iron Man or Captain America, there's nothing inherently gendered or racially specific in the lead character's main concept — while it's unlikely that anyone other than a white man would be chosen to be the figurehead for the U.S. Army in WWII, or the head of a multinational arms manufacturer built up by his genius father, all that's really required of Dr. Strange is that they're a successful surgeon who suffers a terrible accident that sets them on a new path afterward. That role, literally, could have gone to anyone.

That train of thought points me toward a theory put forward by comic writer Kurt Busiek on social media recently — namely, that Dr. Strange as a character is an early example of the comic book industry whitewashing itself. The idea, as Busiek lays it out, is that artist and co-creator Steve Ditko "conceived Doc Strange as a stock 'mysterious Asian mystic' type," and later actually changed his look after writer Stan Lee wrote an origin in which he was Caucasian.

It's a weird coincidence that offers a worrying excuse to those supporting Marvel's decision to whitewash the Ancient One for the movie: It has historical precedent! Perhaps Doctor Strange, for all its positioning as a project that opens up horizons to new realities and new possibilities, has an accidental metatextual purpose of demonstrating how tied to the safer, cowardly white "norms" entertainment can be.

Sun: Which brings us to Ghost in the Shell and that first-look image of Scarlett Johansson this week. Ghost in the Shell (at least all previous iterations of it) also is set in Asia, albeit a very different one from that of Doctor Strange. There is no indication that the name of Johansson's protagonist has changed from the source material — IMDb still lists the character as "Kusanagi," although the press copy released alongside Thursday's image refers to her simply by her police rank, "the Major." That photo continues to send an ambiguous message — Johansson appears in a short black bob and darkened eyebrows, hewing closely to how Kusanagi is depicted in the comics.

Traditionally, this is a fan's greatest hope — an adaptation as faithful to the source material as possible. But in this case, Paramount/DreamWorks seem to have retained all the markers of Kusanagi's Japanese identity — her name, her basic physical appearance — except for the actual ethnicity of her portrayer. Perhaps the whitewashing controversy wouldn't have gone quite as viral had the producers cleanly erased all traces of the material's origins, as Edge of Tomorrow did in adapting the Japanese novel All You Need Is Kill and anglicizing protagonist Keiji Kiriya into William Cage, played by Tom Cruise.

McMillan: The comparison to the (lack of) outrage met with Edge of Tomorrow is an interesting one, but perhaps a more appropriate one is the response to the multiple attempts to make a live-action Akira with non-Asian actors — which is to say, any of the numerous American attempts to make a live-action Akira. Both Akira and Ghost in the Shell are better-known properties than All You Need Is Kill — which started life as a prose novel, which arguably also allowed for more visual/racial deviation as a result — and so any attempt to move away from the (to fans) iconic elements of the original are likely to be met with, at the very best, apathy or dismay. Add in the implied racism of casting only Caucasian actors, and you have something that seems utterly guaranteed to upset almost everyone.

By far the strongest response I've seen to the Ghost in the Shell casting comes from indie comic writer Jon Tsuei on Twitter, where he argued that the story is "inherently a Japanese story, not a universal one" because of the context in which it was created, specifically the cultural relationship the country had with technology, and how that feeds into the characters' relationships with tech in the story.

I'm not entirely sold on that line of thinking, I admit — in part because I think that the relationship with technology has become a universal thing in the decades since the original manga was published 27 years ago — but it touches on the degree to which the story is interconnected with the culture in which it first appeared. Watching filmmakers misunderstand that to such a degree as they appear to have in casting alone doesn't really offer much hope that they'll manage to handle the themes of the story with any greater sensitivity.

Sun: The reaction to Johansson's Ghost in the Shell look reminds me of the backlash when the Nina Simone biopic starring Zoe Saldana was released last month. In both cases, the filmmakers went to some lengths to alter the appearance of their leading ladies, rather than cast actresses who more naturally matched the subjects. What makes these two examples different from the countless instances of actors transforming themselves for a role — Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, Nicole Kidman in The Hours — is that Asian women and dark-skinned black women rarely get to be the leads in Hollywood movies. So whitewashing any Asian character is unfortunate, but keeping the character Asian-ish (but not actually Asian) is salt on the wound.

Many online commenters have trumpeted Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi as the ideal live-action Kusanagi — no one has come closer than her to doing it already, as robot pilot Mako Mori in Pacific Rim. Many other actresses of Asian descent have been mentioned as well, but the harsh truth is that their combined star wattage doesn't even come close to touching Johansson's.

And therein lies the problem: A Kikuchi (who is four years older than Johansson) — or a similar Asian-American actress — couldn't have debuted as the daughter of John Ritter and Sean Connery, as Johansson did in her early films. She likely wouldn't have gotten her big break as an equestrian-loving teen in Montana opposite Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer. (She might have made a good Rebecca in Ghost World.) She couldn't have effectively played an outsider in Tokyo in Lost in Translation, which catapulted her to stardom, or a Dutch painter's muse in Girl With a Pearl Earring, or Woody Allen's muse in Match Point, Scoop or Vicky Cristina Barcelona. She couldn't have played a London magician's assistant in The Prestige or Mary Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl. And most of all, she never, ever would have been cast as the Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

So how does an Asian actor become famous enough to play an Asian character? Judging by Speed Racer (starring Emile Hirsch), Dragonball Evolution (starring Shameless' Justin Chatwin), Ghost in the Shell and the upcoming Death Note (starring Nat Wolff), Hollywood has yet to answer the question.

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