Understanding the controversy of Scarlett Johansson’s ‘Ghost in the Shell’

by KC


The original Ghost in the Shell film is one of my favorite films of all time, and certainly my favorite anime. Needless to say, I was extremely happy to hear that the film would be adapted in live-action. When I learned that a Caucasian woman would be playing the lead role? I didn’t really have a reaction, which says a lot about how this culture of whitewashing in Hollywood has become the norm and how it has become ingrained in my head. In the meantime, I’ve read a lot on the topic of sociology and watched as the world has changed and understood the value of representation in media. Regardless of the lore in the series, with AI and artificial bodies, I am extremely disheartened that this role has been passed to a white woman. But I understand why, and I think you all should too.

Ghost in the Shell isn’t a romcom, or some crime film set in New York. It is a story involving robots and artificial intelligence set in Japan in a dystopian future. It asks philosophical questions with themes including gender identity and sexuality. Even in our day where superhero films with Norse gods and raccoons make the most bank, Ghost in the Shell is still a hard-sell to film studios. Especially when the lead character is a woman. If you were a film producer with this film pitched to you, how willing would you be to splash out a ton of money to make a CGI-laden film based on a cult-film that can’t even sell toys to kids (a massive revenue stream for the likes of Disney-Marvel)?

So, thankfully, somebody said yes, and production was set to begin. Now, and this is where the trouble arises, casting begins. Again, stepping into the shoes of a producer, I want to stay faithful to the material by casting an Asian woman that will be able to sell this hard concept. Unfortunately, there is none. In fact, there are so few women in Hollywood who can sell a film anymore. Remember when Kill Bill came out? Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu, two of the biggest stars of the day battling it out on the big screen in a big action double-feature. Those were the days. Uma Thurman’s recent appearance in film, in ‘Burnt’, severely under-performed, even with Bradley Cooper starring. There’s maybe one woman who can sell an action movie and that’s Scarlett Johannson, with her recent film ‘Lucy’ doing very well at the box office.

You can argue that minorities could become A-list celebs that can sell movies if people actually took the chance to put them in leading roles. But studios don’t want to take that chance, especially with an expensive property like Ghost in the Shell. So now, maybe you want to argue that the fact that the producers wanted to use CGI to make Scarlett look Asian in the film. Well, you know what? It might sound insulting, but at least they tried. At least they tried to make the lead character look Asian to be faithful to the comics and pleasing to the fans.

I’m extremely disappointed that this is the way Hollywood has become (or, to some extent, always has been). I want to see women and all minorities represented on film. I want diverse stories to be told. Now, this year we have Ghost in the Shell and Wonder Woman leading the charge in 2017 with female-led stories. As for Ghost in the Shell? It didn’t do well at the box office at all. Maybe because movie-goers aren’t familiar with the film, or because of all the controversy surrounding the film. But if people actually went out to see the film, and gave them their cash, then maybe we’d see more female-led action films and even movies with minorities in them. But nobody wanted to take the chance with this film. Now, we’ll have to see how June’s Wonder Woman performs to guess how Hollywood wants to move forward.