Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality


DreamWorks will whitewash “Ghost in the Shell” remake

January 13, 2015

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.

Recently, whitewashing has really worked out well for Hollywood. The Lone Ranger (2013) starring unknown white actor Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp in redface was a huge flop. Swapping out a Japanese teenaged protagonist for Tom Cruise didn’t help Edge of Tomorrow (2014) draw the American audience. Audience members were definitely flocking to the theater for household name Joel Edgerton as Ramses–when they weren’t tweeting #BoycottExodus. Exodus (2014) failed to meet studio expectations at the box office. Everyone went to go see John Hamm last year in Million Dollar Arm

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.


Since the studio was first formed, 73% of DreamWorks Pictures movies have starred white men as the first billed lead annd 86% of movies starred white actors. Even movies you would expect to star people of color–such as The Help and The Mexican–credited white actors before actors of color. Only three women of color have ever been first billed in a DreamWorks movie–Halle Berry, Ziyi Zhang, and Julia Sawalha (who voiced the hen in Chicken Run.)

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

Categories: blog, Campaigns, Featured
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About the Author

Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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  • Billy DaMota

    Marissa. I’m a casting director in Los Angeles and totally agree that there needs to be more opportunity for ethnic actors. We all benefit when we recognize and reward the vast cultural diversity that exists in the entertainment business and cast actors the roles they’re made to play.

    But here’s my question: who would you cast in the part in Ghost in the Shell?

    By the way, Edge of Tomorrow made $364 million at the box-office world wide, so using the cultural argument doesn’t make your case.

    • Raiden

      Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim), Diana Bang (The Interview), Lucy Liu (Kill Bill), Michelle Yeoh (James Bond, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), Samantha Futerman (Memoirs Of A Geisha), Gong Li (Curse of The Golden Flower), Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima (both in The Wolverine)

      Shall I keep going? I got more.

      Kristy Wu (End Of Watch, Legend Of Korra), Brenda Song (Disney Channel), Jamie Chung (Sin City 2, Big Hero 6) Kelly Hu (X-2), Ming Na Wen (Mulan), Maggie Q (Mission Impossible, Divergent), Li BingBing (Transformers 4), Fan BingBing (X-Men: Days Of Future Past), Koyuki Kato (The Last Samurai), Yifei Liu (The Forbidden Kingdom), Keiko Kitagawa (Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift), Doona Bae (Cloud Atlas)

      Not to mention the hundreds of other Asian American actresses dying to break into the mainstream but probably never will because of Hollywood BS like this.

    • SnapIntoASlimJim

      Billy, your reply is disingenuous. You don’t care about people of color and diversity. These words are nothing but lipservice that white liberal hypocrites do all the time as their form of refined white supremacy.

      You gave yourself away by trying to put the author on her backfoot by asking her who would she cast as the lead. Why would you ask such a question to her? Isn’t that a casting director’s job to bust their ass and find one even if it’s an unknown Asian American actress to play the role? Whites don’t have a problem casting unknowns in the lead roles for major movies all the time.

      You then confirmed it by trying to defend Edge of Tomorrow.

      Nonwhites should be on the alert for people like Billy DaMota. It’s these white liberal/Democratic white supremacists that are the most dangerous. Conservative/Republican white supremacists are easy to spot because they do not hide their racism well. White liberal white supremacists however have refined their white supremacist tactics and pretend that they are on the side of people of color which then people of color end up lowering their guard which then leads to them being screwed over again. Look at George Clooney and Ben Affleck who supposedly claim they are on the side of social justice and fight for equal rights but then proceeded to whitewash Argo by having Ben Affleck play the role and not offer that major opportunity to a Latino American to play the lead.

      Do not fall for their tricks.

    • Venom

      That’s still not very good, especially not for a supposed big star like him.

    • Philos

      Some replies:

      “the vast cultural diversity that exists in the entertainment business”:
      Umm… what diversity? That’s the problem: the entertainment business lacks diversity and fails to consistently give proper representation of the diversity that actually exists in America.

      “cast actors the roles they’re made to play”:
      What does that mean? You mean Asian Americans are supposed to play Asian but not *American*? If so, then you and I have a very different view on what constitutes American.

      “Who would you cast in the part in Ghost in the Shell?”
      See the Raiden’s brilliant list in the other reply.

      “Edge of Tomorrow made $364 million at the box-office world wide”:
      Well, the world is gonna watch whatever Hollywood produces. But the problem of fair racial representation here raised is a problem for America. Since Hollywood makes movies primarily for people here at home in America, to say that the movie sells world-wide isn’t engaging with the problem. (It’s hardly a response to social problems to say “well, cocaine sell…” or to say “well, products made through slave labor or means destructive to the environment sell…)

      If American isn’t just white (and it clearly isn’t), then Hollywood has to seriously rethink the way it makes movies – especially when it comes to closely adapting source material with non-American leads. A Japanese or Mexican remake of a Hollywood movie that casts Japanese or Mexican actors is contextualizing well (there is no problem of representaiton there); an AMERICAN adaptation of a Japanese manga that casts a white actor for the Asian lead character isn’t.

  • Hasdi Bravo

    It’s too late for Dreamworks to recast ScarJo. Firing her because she isn’t Japanese is still racial discrimination, hence illegal. I suggest you request Dreamworks to consider PoC actors on the other main characters in GHOST IN THE SHELL (Batou, Togusa and Chief Aramaki) before we are stuck with an all-white cast. My 2 cents.

    • Raiden

      Just say. ‘We’re terminating you because we’re not confident you can handle this role’. Without mentioning race.

      Problem Solved.

      • Hasdi Bravo

        Using a pretext to fire a white actor to get a non-white? What’s stopping studios from doing the same to non-white actors?

        • Venom

          They have. Remember when Batman Forever dumped Williams for Jones?

          As for this, they can always pull an Akira where the whole project is put on indefinite hold and the actors have no choice but to drop out and move on.

          • Raiden

            Sadly that won’t happen barring something serious happening. Scarlett Johansson tweeted that they’re scheduled to begin filming in spring of next year.

          • Venom

            Oh, that blows.

          • Venom

            Oh, well that sucks.

    • SnapIntoASlimJim

      Your “2 cents” has been proven to be worth exactly 2 cents. In other words, nothing. You are horrible at pretending you are not a white supremacist. The fact you chose to argue that it would be racist to fire Johansson laughably proves this yet again. You have been debunked left and right and up and down but still keep coming back for more.

    • Philos

      But they hired her because she is white, right? Isn’t that the problem we are raising? It isn’t too helpful to talk about what’s legal or not in these contexts. Racial discrimination or equal representation is a moral issue primarily and legality is only slowing catching up to it – remember slavery or jim crow?

      It’s not ScarJo’s fault, of course, but the studio’s. Under the process, she is entitled to her role and pay, but we’re raising the issue that the casting process itself is broadly unfair (there’s lack of equal opportunity or proper representation or blatant whitewashing). In an ideal world, might not the studio pay her the entitled sum plus extra for the inconvience but recast through a more fair process, even if that’s the price of rectifying the unfairness?

  • Carlos Modesto Rodriguez

    American remake. AMERICAN REMAKE. No different than Yojimbo into A Fistful of Dollars, Infernal Affairs into The Departed, the Oldboy remake, etc. So long as the movie isn’t set in Japan with an all white cast, I don’t see a problem. Racism witch hunt anyone?

    • Raiden

      Asians can be Americans too, so why can’t an Asian American girl play Motoko?

    • SnapIntoASlimJim

      “American” does not equal “white”. Ever heard of “Asian Americans”?

    • Venom

      Funny how “American remakes” of European properties always keep the same races and often the locations too (see Harry Potter, James Bond, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc). Even Ugly Betty and Jane the Virgin which are based on South American shows managed to get Latina leads. So there is absolutely no good reason why this “American remake” can’t cast properly.

      BTW Fistful is neither American (it’s Italian) nor a remake (ripoff, that’s why it got sued).

  • Blackronin357

    I totally agree with this article. I think it lazy/racist casting and studio politics that keep good movies from getting made in the right way. This movie should have had a japanese woman cast who could do the role justice, and I’m sure there are plenty of them that would jump at the chance and get it right! I hate that hollywierd always wants to keep using the same actors over and over, even for things they have no business doing!

  • Dusty Ayres

    Considering that this movie is being set in the USA, is going to cost millions of dollars to recreate the world of the original game and movie properly, and will most likely need a major star to recoup the cost of making said movie, I don’t see the problem with the casting of ScarJo as an American version of Motoko. Hasdi Bravo is right; most of the other characters can be of other races, so it won’t be a complete failure.

    • SnapIntoASlimJim

      So you posted a comment in the comment section about an article that you did not read. Brilliant.

    • Venom

      Considering that Margot Robbie (who is NOT a major star) was wanted first, you are full of crap.

  • Indigo Blue

    Well… They can “fire”/renegotiate actors’ contracts if the actor doesn’t properly portray the character. Scarlett’s race couldn’t be the only factor, but if you take her age, her height, her previous roles, understanding of the character she’s portraying… It’s not too late.

    Also, to answer Billy DaMota, my immediate thought was Sugimoto Aya. Also, what about Michele Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li, or Lucy Liu?

    Granted, both Lucy Liu and Sugimoto Aya have age working against them. As a fan, I’d still be willing to check out the movie if either of them were chosen. Jolie, Hathaway, and Johansen are IMMEDIATE no-sells to me, in this case and in ANY case of an American studio trying to do an adaptation of a anime/manga. The Major requires strength, but also insecurity and humor. Approachability. Johansen can’t bring that to the table.

  • Spike Valentine

    So, are you putting out an article on “blackwashing” caucasian roles? Nick Fury with Samuel L. Jackson, Kingpin in 2003’s Daredevil, Ben Urich in Netflix’s Daredevil, the new Human Torch, Deadshot, Iris West in the CW Flash show…

    I’m Mexican, born from Mexican parents in Mexico, I’m the only Mexican writer working for Marvel Comics, mind you, and I don’t give two fucks about there not being more Mexicans or any other diversity quota filling any positions. It should always be a meritocracy; the best person for the job. I don’t want comics made by diverse folk, I want them made by brutally awesome artists regardless of ethnic background.

    I like the Ghost in the Shell anime and I don’t mind the role being played by Scarlett Johansson as long as she delivers the performance. She can act, she can do action, and she sells movie tickets. These kinds of roles tend to go to A-list actors for a reason, and as good as Kinko Kikuchi is, her acting range is not well-known and most people don’t even remember her name, even if the saw Pacific Rim, just like no one remembers the cast of Lilyhammer other than Steve Van Zandt even though all of them are from Norway, as white as they get; foreign names are hard to remember if you are not familiar with those cultures.

    Studios make films to sell movie tickets, not to fill quotas.

    • Venom

      “So, are you putting out an article on “blackwashing” caucasian roles? Nick Fury with Samuel L. Jackson, Kingpin in 2003’s Daredevil, Ben Urich in Netflix’s Daredevil, the new Human Torch, Deadshot, Iris West in the CW Flash show…”

      Sorry, that’s wrong. The correct term is TOKENISM.

      Also, you work for Marvel but don’t know that the Jackson Fury came directly from the comics? Seriously?

      “I like the Ghost in the Shell anime and I don’t mind the role being played by Scarlett Johansson as long as she delivers the performance. She can act, she can do action, and she sells movie tickets. These kinds of roles tend to go to A-list actors for a reason”

      She was also NOT the first choice. That would be Margot Robbie, who is not an A-lister who can do action and sell tickets (which Johansson doesn’t do either, or else you guys would be giving us a Black Widow movie).

      “as good as Kinko Kikuchi is, her acting range is not well-known”

      Do you mean Rinko Kikcuhi, who’s been nominated for an Academy Award for acting? (something Johansson has not)

      “Studios make films to sell movie tickets, not to fill quotas.”


    • Raiden

      Yeah. . . here is the thing. When you give a role for an Asian actress to a white girl you are TAKING AWAY one of the few roles they have. When you give a traditionally white role to a non-white you are OPENING AN OPPORTUNITY to showcase their range as an actor and to play a role they otherwise would not have.

      A good metaphor would be a starving kid with a few scraps of food, and a fat kid with lots of food taking the scraps of food he doesn’t need away. It wouldn’t hurt Scarjo’s already successful career if she didn’t play Kusanagi, but it DOES discourage and hinder the careers the Hundreds of Asian and Asian American actors/actresses looking to break into the main stream to play the role of a human being with feelings and emotional range, and not one note stereotypes like they’re typically reduced to playing.

      As a person of color yourself, doesn’t it ever offend you that people who look like you are typically represented as one note stereotypes, as villains, as simpletons with no depth or character? Don’t you ever find it strange that Studio heads and business executives think that white people wont give a work of fiction a chance just because it stars a character of color in a lead role, but never the other way around? Don’t you think it’s strange that only in very rare instances will a white author write a character that isn’t white?

      I understand people want to see and write characters who look like them and represent them in their fiction, but I can only see so many movies starring a thirty-forty something white guy or a Twenty Thirty something white girl before I start to get bored and want something different. Does Hollywood really think I’m so bigoted I can’t relate to a character that looks a little different from me? They think I can relate to CGI Toys and Blue Aliens, but not fellow human beings with a different skin tone or eye color? That really ticks me off.

      You say you are a fan so you should realize that Ghost In The Shell has a lot of rich cultural content in it that is lost when you make Kusanagi white and change the setting to America. The creator of the original manga outright compared the concept of transhumanism to several concepts in Buddhism and Shintoism, and there is even a huge plotpoint in SAC AND Arise that only makes sense in a Japanese setting.

      Yes, I understand filmmaking is a business first, but it’s not like casting Kusanagi with an Asian actress would hurt the films overall profitability, considering over Forty Percent of American moviegoers ARE Non-Whites and over sixty percent of the population globally ARE Asians. People who would pay money for tickets to see an Asian actress in a lead role in a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. Pacific Rim underperformed in the states but it more than made back it’s money thanks to the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese market.

  • Carlos Caro

    Why dont i see this site complaining about Japan making an all Japanese cast for the Attack on Titan movie when the majority of the characters are of European descent?

    • Venom

      Please explain what relevance that has to American society.

    • Raiden

      The difference is. . .
      A) Unlike the USA Japan is pretty much ethnically homogenous, there are no white people to cast. Same thing with Korea and Indian movie industries.

      B) Japan’s Movie industry is usually makes films for a Japanese Audience and not a global market like this live action Ghost In The Shell. So it makes sense they’d cast Japanese Actors to appeal to that market.
      C) You’ll never see an Asian actor in an American made High Fantasy setting like Game of Thrones Or LOTR, so why not cast Japanese actors in AOT? It gives us a chance to see something different from the typical medieval fantasy.

  • Hwang

    “The law… has to be applied equitably to all races or not at all.”

    This hasn’t been true in the United States for most of its history. The attitudes that allowed uneven laws to be applied in the first place didn’t just vanish when the laws did, and neither did their economic impacts. Even if laws in theory are meant to be applied equitably, does not mean it will happen in practice. See for instance the rate of imprisonment for drug use based on race.

    “The reverse is also true, which is why the “Asian” and PoC roles in ATLA/TLoK are mostly voiced by (gasp!) white people.”

    Does knowing that Katara and Sokka were voiced by non-PoC make them less relatable to PoC? Does knowing that Zuko and Iroh were voiced by Asians make them more relatable to Asians? How about Suki – did you even care about the race of her voice actress?

    Does knowing that Bart Simpson is voiced by a white woman make him less relatable to young boys and moreso to adult white women?

    Does knowing that Phil LaMarr voiced Samurai Jack’s titular character, who is Japanese, or the main character from Final Fantasy Tactics, who is light-skinned and blonde-haired, make those characters seem more “black”?

    This is a revealing statement – that you think that casting whites in voice acting roles increases relatability. Are you assuming that only a white person can *sound relatable* to Americans? Are you even assuming that American-born Asians somehow sound *foreign*?

    Look, the premise of this article is simple at its foundations. It’s not a legal matter, and it’s not trying to “force” anything. It’s simply an appeal to diversity. And it matters that diversity exists.

    People have subconscious biases, and many are fed by the media. It allows ignorance and bigotry to fester and grow that much easier. We can ignore it, justify it, or acknowledge the negative impacts it can have and combat it. Bringing diversity to the big screen in a way that more accurately reflects the country’s demographics is a good step forward. And no, there’s no proof that a lead PoC actress cannot bring in the big bucks.

    • Raiden

      Forget it man. I’ve tried meeting Hasdi halfway. You can shove the proof right in his face and he’ll just call you the bigot for even bothering to point it out.

  • SnapIntoASlimJim

    Guys @ Racebending. Why did you post Spike Valentin’s post but not my responses to Raiden’s misinformed stance on “Edge of Tomorrow” and Hasdi Bravo’s nonsense?

    You need to disable that feature you have to approve posts before they can show up. Either let people comment or have no comments. People reading the comments would think Hasdi Bravo got the upper hand with his white supremacist views or that Raiden had a point with his misinformed point of view on giving a pass to Edge of Tomorrow.

    I can easily debunk Valentin’s completely ignorant post but I am afraid that if I spend time writing it out you guys might not want to post it even though you let his ignorance be posted? Why silence your supporters?

    • Raiden

      Post your reply to my opinion here.

  • Venom

    Edge sucked. Totally butchered the book and completely missed the point. It’s like if someone made Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending.

  • Samale Matina

    Stop complaining… so called fans.
    There is NO whitewashing here.

    Go look at the anime of Ghost in the Shell. Mokoto is drawn like a caucasian girl.

    So if the Japanese want to draw their main character as a caucasian girl, then why are you all complaining about casting Scarlett.

    In fact she looks perfect for the role closely resembles the Japanese drawn anime character.

    Get over this silly political correctness bandwagon.