Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
DreamWorks has cast Scarlett Johansson in their adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. The franchise originates from Japan where the protagonist is Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese cyborg. This casting is significant because we’re seeing Hollywood continue the trend of whitewashing roles from source material that features Asian leads–all while failing to provide roles for Asian American actors.
Hollywood has been casting in this fashion since the beginning of the silver screen, whether through deliberate exclusion of actors of color or hand-wringing about “marketing” and “box-office potential.” “Conventional wisdom” argues that DreamWorks needs to whitewash the film and cast a “big name” actor like Scarlett Johansson for the film to succeed. The assumption is that most films star white men because supposedly, most moviegoers are white men. An additional assumption is that these white male moviegoers are less likely to embrace actors of color. This “conventional wisdom” has been used to justify lack of diverse casting in Hollywood and whitewashing in films, but research appears to contradict these assumptions.
A 2011 study published in in the Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business noted that “many of the biggest box office flops in Hollywood had stars, and many successful movies starred people who were relative unknowns.” It found that despite all the talk, producers are more important to a successful movie deal than actors are. A 2006 study from Harvard Business School found that stars do positively affect the revenue of films but “failed to find evidence that would suggest that the participation of stars in movies affects the valuation of studios that produce or distribute those movies.” The study estimates that stars are worth on average “about $3 million in theatrical revenues.” In contrast, Johansson is being offered $10 million dollars to star in Ghost in the Shell (Forbes contributor Ollie Barder estimates that the original anime cost around $5 million to produce, total.) Older studies from Rutgers University and University of California, Irvine have also found “no statistical correlation between stars and success” and that “it is the movie that makes the star.”
Year after year, the Motion Picture Association of America has released statistics showing that the majority of movie goers are not white men. Women have comprised a larger share of moviegoers than men since 2009. In 2013, “Hispanic”, “African American”, and “Other” (including Asian American) moviegoers all had higher annual per-capita movie attendance than white moviegoers. The average “Hispanic” moviegoer went to the movies 6 times and the average African American and Other moviegoers went 4 times, versus “Caucasian” viewers who only went to the movies 3 times.
In 2014, UCLA ran a study that showed more diverse casts in both film and television lead to higher box office returns and ratings. But Hollywood tradition is remarkably entrenched in developing and promoting white leads at the exclusion of other performers, even if that may actually be hurting profits.
Actors of color are already underrepresented, even without whitewashing. When Hollywood studios like DreamWorks Pictures decide to cast white actors in existing properties that originate with characters of color, it only further reinforces the disparity in opportunity for performers of color.
To figure out just how many opportunities DreamWorks Pictures affords actors of color, Racebending.com counted up all of the first-billed actors in DreamWorks Pictures films (1997 to present.) These are the actors listed first in movie credits, posters, and on marketing materials. What we found was pretty consistent with other studies on Hollywood diversity–the studio overwhelmingly prefers to cast white men in lead roles.
Reliance Entertainment bought 50% stake in DreamWorks in 2008, forming DreamWorks Studios. Since then, DreamWorks Studios has made 14 movies and all of them starred white actors. This whitewashed Ghost in the Shell movie is a joint DreamWorks-Reliance project.
DreamWorks has never cast an Asian American lead, though it has made three movies with East Asian actors Jackie Chan, Ziyi Zhang, and Ken Watanabe. When DreamWorks does choose to adapt Asian properties, such as The Ring, The Ring 2, or The Uninvited, white actresses are always cast to “Americanize” the film–even if the actress is British or Australian. When stories with Asian heroes are “Americanized,” the whitewashing is an integral part of the process–reinforcing stereotypes of Asian Americans as inherently less American. The British Journal of Social Psychology published a study in 2008 that found that American media consumers implicitly regarded white European actress Kate Winslet as more American than Asian American actress Lucy Liu. Regardless if the setting or name of the protagonists are Americanized or anglicized, this is a missed opportunity for Dreamworks to diversify. Changing the setting or the name of the character does not preclude the production from casting an Asian or Asian American actor. It’s disingenuous to characterize this casting as Hollywood bravely deviating from source material when it is more a reflection of DreamWorks and Hollywood’s biased casting practices as a whole.
This isn’t the first time that DreamWorks has whitewashed an Asian woman lead. If DreamWorks wants to invest in a cult classic with Asian characters, but minus Asian lead actors, they are actually missing out on a chance to create an Asian American household name.
Studios are not forced to whitewash. If DreamWorks Pictures’s stable of “big name” actors only includes only white actors then that’s certainly a problem for them, but they could have chosen to offer Johansson a different project. Nothing is preventing DreamWorks from working with ScarJo on a different property, without casting that reinforces racial disparities in Hollywood. They could have created an original cyberpunk property and even cited Ghost in the Shell as a source of inspiration. Scarlett Johansson did not become a box office draw or a big name until studios took a chance on her and made her one. It’s unfortunate studios don’t do the same for actors of Asian descent.
Hollywood has been casting in this fashion since the beginning of the silver screen. While it’s important for media consumers to be aware of the overt and subtle ways Hollywood depicts race, ultimately the onus to stop this racist practice falls on the movie studios that choose to whitewash. At this point, movie studios are aware of the backlash that happens when films are whitewashed, the track record of whitewashed movies, and the overall legacy of whitewashed movies. They have to decide whether or not they want to change. We know Hollywood can change when it wants to; for example, blackface and other forms of raceface are far less common now.
Ultimately, Ghost in the Shell is a story about what makes us human. Having access to powerful media representation is key for minorities to be seen as human. As a successful white actress, Scarlett Johansson has been privileged to play powerful women characters in action films. Ghost in the Shell was a chance for an actress of Asian descent to have that same opportunity. Instead of innovating and reimagining Ghost of the Shell in creative and diverse ways, DreamWorks Studios, Reliance Entertainment, and producer Steven Spielberg are making a conscious and deliberate decision to reinforce racist casting practices in Hollywood.
More Articles on the whitewashed casting of Ghost in the Shell
Special thanks to Jonelle D., Sade A. and Michael Le for assistance with this article