Space racism: on Hollywood actors & their whitewashing

Stills for the Hollywood version of Ghost in the Shell were released last week. In the film version, Scarlett Johansson stars as Motoko Kusanagi, squad leader in a division of the Japanese National Public Safety Commission. It’s ‘inherently a Japanese story‘, in both its history and its culture, but has also come to be an image of our techno future.

GITS is a Japanese story, so of course Scarlett Johansson is the perfect choice to play the lead – right? Producers tested CGI to make Johansson look ‘more Asian’ in post-production, and some commenters have said that this is totally fine, because the ‘very Japanese future’ illustrated in Ghost in the Shell isn’t very Japanese at all.

Ultimately, though, Johansson was the best person for the job because she’s very bankable. Bankable, here, is code for ‘marketable in the West’ and leads us to the question: When the only audience seen as worthy is a white, Western one, why is it that the white Western gaze is so fascinated by our Asian Other Future?

Science Fiction and Fantasy has always been a thing we use to mirror socio-political concerns – but that means they have a real world context. They’re called aliens for a reason: to demonstrate Otherness. But it’s more meaningful when aliens are created using signifiers from existing cultures.

Hollywood has long borrowed future from Asia. GITS isn’t the first anime to be whitewashed in its transition to Hollywood live action. The last decade has seen Speed Racer, The Last Airbender and Dragon Ball Z all cast with white actors from Hollywood, often accompanied by a suggestion that characters in the original anime weren’t actually Japanese. In many ways, this is a fundamental selfishness – a Hollywood/Western need to see every story as belonging to the West.

Firefly, for example, is set in space in 2517 in some sort of fusion Chinese and American future. But for all that fusion gives us are the trappings of what a white man thinks of as Chinese: Chinese lanterns, simplified Chinese on signs, poorly enunciated Mandarin spoken by white people, chopsticks and baozi. Alongside the space ships, these are the signifiers of a future that is Other. Bladerunner does the same thing, implying a disassociated future through Asian characteristics, without actually showing any Asian people.

This is how the future looks through Hollywood’s eyes: Asian trappings, but minimal Asian people. Our real future will probably not look like that: with the likelihood of China continuing to dominate economically and scientifically, the points of difference between Earth now and our space-faring future aren’t going to be white people in Chinoiserie; it’s going to be brown people in modern Chinoiserie. And it’s going to be people speaking Japanese and getting to space on Japanese tech and actually being Japanese. Even the future of the box office won’t be white: Rinko Kikuchi and Fan Bingbing are bigger box-office draws than Hollywood is ready to admit.

There’s a flatness to these two-dimensional signifiers of the future. To fabricate tomorrow from our existing world, banking on an Asian future to other us, issues are translated. Ostensibly, discussing real issues is not what science fiction is for. But when the story is in English, and set in New Asian City, a real-world context comes into play. When you name a place and there is nothing similar between the place you describe and the place you have named, what connotations are being conjured? Filmmakers are using that real-world culture as shorthand for an exotic Other – which means they assume the audience is Western and will see that Asianness as exotic and will see those trappings as shorthand for an exotic distant future other.

In some of these exotic futures, Asia exists, but so do Aliens, somehow still based on the exotic, non-Western other. Star Trek did great things for its time, introducing us to Sulu and Uhura and visualising the concept of the hyphenated American; at the same time, it reinforced defining other cultures as monocultures. Vulcans suggest a Japanese trope: stern and logical, with bowl haircuts and slanted eyebrows, and they study a lot. Ferengi are obsessed with money, conjuring racist Jewish stereotypes. Lagonians are portrayed in TNG entirely by Black actors who wear ambiguously ‘African’ coded clothing and are proud of their primitive technology and culture. Klingons are the USSR.

In Star Wars we again find familiar aliens. The Sand People are ‘vicious brutes’ who live in the desert, wear long robes, keep their faces covered. The Neimoidians talk with a heavy accent, mix up their l and r. But who are the Jedi – and all the other humans? They’re so white, and coded as familiar. Even the clothes are familiar. Padme’s clothes in particular are a timeline of wealth and excess, but they’re a shorthand, too, lifted without change from the court attire of Mongolian royalty.

There’s an arrogance in Hollywood that assumes all stories are universal, and that only those told by white actors can be understood by the Western gaze; that a non-Asian woman can wear a black wig and be made to ‘look Asian’ in the editing room, and that doing so makes a story more palatable to an audience. To use real-world cultures to create the alien as other and the future as other is to do us all a disservice.

These examples reinforce the idea of white as normal and everyday and relatable, and of countries and cultures that aren’t white as the other. They contribute to the idea that all stories are universal, so long as they’re Western stories. The Western gaze tells us that white people can wear those attributes and have those things because they don’t belong to a specific narrative.

And sometimes, the only way to sell an idea or a project, or to even stay employed, is to buy into Western expectations. One such example is Shen Yun, a New York-based traditional Chinese dance company that toured Australia earlier this year. Shen Yun proffers a concept of what it means to be Chinese – a version of being Chinese that’s banned on the Mainland. Their performances present a stylised, mystical image of China, specifically for consumption by English-speaking audiences, as evidence by the differences between their Mandarin explanations and English ‘translations’. One song about the Monkey King was described in English with an effusive, evocative introduction at least twenty seconds long. In Mandarin, a simple ‘The Monkey King visits the sea’ showed an assumption about which audience was already familiar with the narrative. In English, the beauty and mysticism of the Other; in Mandarin, a statement of fact.

Of course, this further complicates the idea of whose gaze is valid. For a Chinese performance troupe to assume a shared, familiar mythology is one thing. It’s the same intra-cultural conversation for Japanese cyberpunk to ask if technology is the path to redemption in a future Japan. But Shen Yun isn’t making art within a Chinese context; it’s playing up a ‘mystic China’ to a Western audience. And when such portrayals come from Hollywood, using white actors? Questions and signifiers become, quite literally, lost in translation.

Hollywood’s got plenty of precedent here. Motoko Kusanagi is not Johansson’s first foray into the centre of an Asian story; she was previously Lucy, a white woman who is forced by Korean gangsters to become a drug mule, and then gets super powers. (Lucy included a torture scene where Chinese characters were written in blood. ‘Ginger’, ‘apple’, ‘tomato’ and ‘keep clean’ – a perfect example of our nonsense Asian Other Future.) Benedict Cumberbatch has played whitewashed villain Khan in Star Trek into Darkness, and is repeating the gesture this year as Dr Strange. In the comic book adaptation we have Tilda Swinton playing an un-Tibetanised Ancient One, hanging out in the Himalayas teaching Cumberbatch’s Dr Strange the mystical knowledge of the East. The setting and the connotations give Swinton an otherworldly otherness based on the appropriation of non-Western traditions. Such racism isn’t limited to future projecting either. Before these we had Liam Neeson as the traditionally and clearly of Arab-descent Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins and Jake Gyllenhaal as Persian in Prince of Thieves. Biblical stories have repeatedly been whitewashed, with figures of Middle-Eastern descent being played by Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Christian Bale, Richard Gere and Willem Dafoe.

It’s a myopic vision Hollywood of the world – and it’s concerning. There’s a real-world context for envisioning a future without a certain race of person, and it’s not one we should be tolerating.

Ghost in the Shell, for instance, is the story of post-Second World War Japan, developed and produced in a time when Japan was the world leader in technology – a legacy of the aftermath of the war, when Japan was no longer allowed to defend itself. GITS is the story of what Japan was forced to become, in large part by white Western powers, and at the heart of the story is a Japanese-specific question: in this Japan, can technology redeem you?

Despite this, commenters have – unsurprisingly – felt able to claim it’s a non-Japanese world. It’s a logical claim if your world is shaped by a science fiction where humans go to space surrounded by Chinoiserie but no actual Chinese people, and when the aliens you meet are monocultures. It’s not that ridiculous if the things that indicate alien in your world are the things that indicate family in mine.

To make a movie of non-white characters and cast only white actors is to make a movie racist. To be a white actor taking the role of a non-white character is a racist act. In the cases of most of these actors, they’re well-known, and not hurting for work. Moreover, they’re limiting us all: as audiences; as thinking, feeling people; as artists and actors. Stephanie Beatriz, on comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, assumed she wasn’t getting her ongoing role when she discovered Melissa Fumero, also Latina, had already been cast in the show. ‘[T]hat’s it then,’ she said. ‘There’s no way in hell a major network is gonna cast two Latina actresses in such a tight ensemble show I AM SCREWED.’ It’s a reality of a non-white actors life: Charlotte Nicdao’s recent Daily Life article mentions how Jordan Rodrigues is waiting to hear back on a role he auditioned for – pending the casting of another Asian actor in another role.

To whitewash roles, to talk about ‘the best actor’ when the reality is ‘the whitest actor’, to allow white actors to steal jobs from brown actors creates a sameness to media that can only be addressed by those privileged by the Hollywood system. Don’t say, ‘I don’t blame Johansson, I blame the studio.’ Instead, say: I blame the studio and I blame repeat offender Johansson. Say, We deserve better than this bland, unrealistic representation of the world that’s stifling us.

All of us will be the aliens in our future. We will all of us feature in our future. It’s time Hollywood stopped looking East, and started actually looking ahead, or it will find a future in which it’s completely irrelevant.



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Stephanie Lai

Stephanie Lai is an Australian of Chinese descent, and a left-handed archer. She is paid to train people in surviving our oncoming climate change dystopia. She likes penguins, infrastructure and Asian steampunk. She has had fiction and nonfiction published in The Lifted Brow, The Toast and Peril. She hates everything you love. You can find her at @yiduiqie and, and talking about drop bears and popular culture at No Award.

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  1. The Japanese weren’t interested in redoing Ghost-in-the-Shell so Hollywood took over. I agree with the way they market their stuff. As for Star Wars that got boring by movie #2. Too black & white, too one dimensional in character and 0 for plot line. Star Treck went irrelevant the moment Babylon 5 arrived. As for being politically correct that doesn’t work either. Science Fiction is not about being correct it is about being bent as much as possible in as many ways without going ludicrous – except for ‘Mars Attacks’.

  2. This is the most intelligent and meaningful piece I have read so far on Hollywood whitewashing. It really got me thinking and I feel much more informed as a result. Thanks Stephanie Lai for writing this bold and well argued piece. You’ve convinced me.

  3. Yes, Hollywood needs to open the door Latino and Asian actors. Latinos and Asian audiences also need to go watch movies starring Latino and Asian actors so they will be considered bankable. However, the same Latino actors and actresses should keep an open mind and take projects directed by women specifically Latina women.

    I’m a female award winning writer/director/producer with an amazing feature project (as producers have related) with a Latina as lead, but name Latina actresses will not give me a chance or the project a chance. There’s the rub.

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