Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and How Hollywood Keeps Giving Asian Roles to White Actors

The Hollywood problem that just won't quit.

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Complex Original

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I'm bored. I'm bored of always having to talk about how unbearably white Hollywood is. Are you bored? Like, we've been there... We've really been there. Last summer, we had to put up with Emma Stone—a woman of Swedish, German, English, Scottish and Irish descent—playing an Asian woman named Allison Ng. Hollywood! Think outside your blindingly white box! I don't want to have to talk about #OscarsSoWhite anymore.

And yet. This week, Hollywood refused to surprise us by once again letting us down in the diversity department. DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures released the first image of the live-action adaptation of the popular 1989 manga Ghost in the Shell (see above), which shows a very white Scarlett Johansson playing a Japanese cyborg named Major Motoko Kusanagi. This casting news was a long time ago, and rabid fans of the manga, which follows a cyber crime-fighting cyborg policewoman, wanted Johansson removed from the project. Unfortunately, it's probably her attachment to the project (to be directed by Snow White and the Huntsman's Rupert Sanders) that got the DreamWorks picture greenlit.

Ridley Scott put it bluntly with the sad truth about his whitewashing of Exodus: Gods and Kings. “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed," he said. Yikes. It just goes to show how deeply rooted the issue lies, beyond just actors accepting roles, and directors and casting directors picking them.

That might explain why an Asian actor wasn't even considered for the role, which is especially frustrating. Early on in the casting process, it was down to two actors: Johansson and the equally white Margot Robbie. Her name is MOTOKO KUSANAGI, but sure, dye Scarlett Johansson's hair jet black and she looks Japanese-y enough.

In unfortunate timing, the Ghost in the Shell news follows yesterday's latest Marvel excitement, the Doctor Strange trailer, which shows a bald Tilda Swinton alongside Benedict Cumberbatch's titular character. Trust me, I'm always here for a bald Tilda Swinton. I'm here for Tilda Swinton in any form and shape, with any hairdo. Unfortunately, her baldness in this case happens to be another case of yellowfacing, as Swinton portrays The Ancient One, who, in the comic books, is an Asian man. Dr. Strange's storyline involves him traveling to Asia and meeting a Tibetan mystic, so why a bald British woman is there to greet him perplexes me. 

When asked about the casting choice a few months ago, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige told EW, "We are always looking for ways to change. I think if you look at some of the early incarnations of the Ancient One in the comics, they are what we would consider today to be quite, sort of, stereotypical. They don’t hold up to what would work today. Also, within the storyline of the comics, and our movie, ‘the Ancient One’ is a title that many people have had. We hit very early on on, What if the Ancient One was a woman? What if the title had been passed and the current Ancient One is a woman? Oh, that’s an interesting idea. [Clicks fingers.] Tilda Swinton! Whoah! And it just hit."

While it's commendable to create more big roles for women, it was at the expense of whitewashing a heavily underrepresented minority group, which doesn't do anything for diversity. If black characters are tokenized and hard to come by, Asian characters on the big screen are near invisible. Plus, going by Fiege's logic, Marvel could have cast an Asian woman to play a traditionally male role. That would have been cool! A game-changer, even! What's even more curious is that The Ancient One's servant, Wong, has been kept Asian, portrayed by Benedict Wong. It seems too stereotypical that they'd leave the subordinate Asian character as is. I can't wait for all the whitesplaining Tilda will do to teach Benedict Cumberbatch all those mysterious Asian ways. 

Feige said it himself: they're "always looking for ways to change." Well, I have an idea how they can do that. Marvel and DreamWorks can pull the Ridley Scott card and say Johansson and Swinton are the "big names" they need to make their movies successful, but is that even the case? Both franchises and studios already have such an inherent fanbase, don't they have the room to experiment with lesser known actors, actors who are loyal to the source material and will diversify a vanilla lineup? Aren't they in the perfect position to break the tired, disgusting mold? When it comes to white superheroes, Marvel hasn't shied away from casting completely unknowns (cough, Tom Holland, cough). So why don't we try that for a character of color? 

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