by Loren Haas
“Doctor Strange.” “Ghost in the Shell.” “Death Note.” “Iron Fist.” All of these have three things in common: they all are inspired by Asian culture and mythos, they all have recently been adapted into movies or TV shows, and they all have had their leads played by white actors despite their cultural origin.
“If you actually see the Asian actors and actresses in Hollywood, you can count them with ten fingers,” said Dr. Frank Chen. “Actually, five fingers, probably.”
Whitewashing is a casting practice in the film industry of the United States in which white actors are cast in historically non-white character roles, according to Wikipedia, and, while this applies to all races, in the past couple of years, it primarily affects Asian characters on the big screen and small. For instance, “Ghost in the Shell,” originally a Japanese manga, only has three Asian or Asian American actors in its leading cast, and only two of those actors are actually Japanese; the other, Ng Chin Han, is from Singapore.
“In today’s society, it should be an Asian actress with an Asian name,” said sophomore Morgan Jones over the decision to change the name “Motoko Kusanagi” to “Mira Killian” to match Scarlett Johansson’s casting in the lead role.
This meant that the reaction to casting decisions like Scarlett Johansson for Major Motoko Kusanagi received less controversy in Japan. In fact, Mamoru Oshii, the director of the original “Ghost in the Shell” film in 1995, said of Johansson’s casting, “The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her.”
However, there is a difference between Japan and the United States. In Japan, media is typically representative of Japanese people and culture, considering that 98.5 percent of all people within the country belong to the Japanese ethnic group. However, in the United States, only one percent of leading roles are played by either Asian or Asian-American actors, not even getting into the individual ethnic groups within this population. This is despite the fact that, according to the Census Bureau, 5.6 percent of Americans identify as Asian alone.
“For the Asian Americans, it’s different,” said Chen. “They don’t have the concept of the identity. A lot of times, they’re in that position, trying to find their identity, because when they were small, they were told they were born American, they are American, but at the same time, the parents are Asia and tell them, ‘No, you were just born here.’ They’re constantly seeking their identities.”
And it is not just that traditionally Asian roles are being cast white; for racially ambiguous roles, white actors typically get cast over actors of other races. Doctor Stephen Strange from “Doctor Strange” had no officially dictated race in Marvel comics canon, but the role went to Benedict Cumberbatch. ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” a show about a Taiwanese immigrant family’s adventures in the United States, was the first show to star a predominantly Asian-American family in 20 years.
“It’s hard. It’s a stereotype,” said Chen. “It’s just how we were raised and how we perceive history… We have to educate different people to embrace different cultures.”
The lack of representation for non-white individuals is startling in Hollywood, and even casting just the Asian American community correctly in movies and television would be an improvement. Whitewashing might be as old as Hollywood itself, but it is about time for it to end.