The Mysterious Case of the White-sheeted Ghost (in the Shell)

We went out to see a movie last weekend. The usual assortment of trailers rolled before our eyes ahead of the featured film. One trailer stood out. It caught me off guard. Then my surprise turned to annoyance and dismay, and I wanted to stop it there, but it kept returning to my thoughts, and now I’m just fed up.

Here’s the thing…

  • There’s a popular manga series (Japanese comics) called Ghost in the Shell.
  • Ghost in the Shell has been adapted to the big screen in a live-action production.
  • The Japanese story is set in Tokyo, Japan.
  • The protagonist is Major Motoko Kusanagi, and she is played by… wait for it… Scarlett Johansson.

Scarlett Johansson isn’t Japanese? No problem! We have CGI (digital special effects), and we can use it to make her look Asian! Because the actress doesn’t have to BE Asian. She just has to LOOK Asian. “Asian” is all about how you look, after all. Japanese are actually bananas… yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Use CGI to turn Scarlett Johansson yellow! Also, we have clever make-up artists. We can do stuff to make Scarlett Johansson look Asian, so there’s no need to cast an actual Asian woman for the lead role. Thank heavens. There’s a billion dollars to be made from this picture, and we need Scarlett Johansson in order to make it.

Except the CGI and make-up didn’t work. It just looks like the crew tried to make Scarlett Johansson look Asian.

 

The many faces of Scarlett JAPANsson

 

Scarlett Johansson thinks she’s turning Japanese/I (don’t) really think so. (If you watched MTV in the 80’s, you can name that song.)

And if you were to insist that the ethnicity of the main character in a manga/anime movie is open to interpretation (to which manga and anime fans would say perish the thought), then at least don’t keep the character’s name “Motoko Kusanagi” when you cast Scarlett Johansson, for crying out loud. Keeping the name “Motoko Kusanagi” obliterates any argument that the character shouldn’t necessarily be of Japanese ethnicity. The old “anime characters’ features are made to look more western, anyway” argument doesn’t work, either. The characters are still Japanese. Major Motoko Kusanagi is Japanese. If artistic liberties had been taken with the character’s ethnicity, then no effort would have been expended to make Scarlett Johansson look the part.

When asked about it, Scarlett Johansson allegedly said that she didn’t mind taking a role that could have been given to an Asian actress because the role “empowers all women.” I’m not kidding.

We need to talk about Hollywood’s apparent problem with ethnic representation and how they’re going to reconcile it with their pride in being the paradigm of societal righteousness. Casting a Caucasian actor to portray an Asian character isn’t new in Hollywood, and Asians aren’t the only ethnic minority group of artists being passed over. Whitewashing is an on-going insult, a symptom of the institutional racism embedded in Hollywood. That racism doesn’t look to be going anywhere. No (privileged white) actor has the right to make sanctimonious speeches about the superiority of diversity and inclusiveness in Hollywood. The hypocrisy here is staggering.

Frankly, it makes my skin crawl, this idea of casting a white actor and then using CGI and/or make-up to adjust the features to match the character’s ethnicity when you could simply cast an actor of that ethnicity.

Ghost in the shell, indeed. One thing’s for sure: they nailed the invisibility part.

You’re American. You Must Be Obese.

We got back from our latest trip to Nice last night. While we were there, we took the time to visit the maison de carnaval (“house of carnival”), the place where the majestic floats for Nice’s annual February carnival are made. We wanted to get a sneak peek at the construction progress because, like last year, several of Callaghan’s drawings were selected to appear as floats.

I have something to get off my chest, so I’m going to go ahead and dump it here.

(By the way: This is not about Callaghan!)

Let’s say you’re an artist. You decide to participate in a contest to come up with a series of original drawings on the theme of “The Five Continents,” depicting your visual interpretation of the corners of the world. (This refers to the non-American version of the world’s continents, hence five rather than seven.)

The competition is intimidating. You know that your drawings have to be absolutely inventive in order for the committee to select one or more of them; a prestigious carnival’s enormous, sophisticated floats will be based on the winning drawings.

So here you are, ready to go! The continent of North America lies before you, challenging you. There are many options, many things about this continent you can take and develop into creative ideas. You sit and think and soon find yourself rolling along an exhilarating wave of inspiration, creative idea after creative idea blooming up from the depths of your imagination. Your mind hums with anticipation; you can already feel the satisfaction of releasing the creative mojo from your brain, taking the images from your mind’s eye and transferring them to paper.

You unsheathe your drawing pencils. You’re inspired. You’re proud of yourself. For North America, you’ve decided, you’re going to focus on the United States. You’ll incorporate various elements into your drawing – elements that will represent America. One of these will be an American woman: She’ll be obese. She’ll be blond. She’ll be naked except for blue star pasties on her nipples and a tiny red and white striped bikini bottom. She’ll wear a gold crown. You’ll put her up on the back of a pink Cadillac. In her upraised hand, you’ll draw in a diet soda. She is a parody of the Statue of Liberty.

At the carnival’s home offices, the selection committee reviews the hundreds of entries submitted by talented artists. Next thing you know, you receive a letter of congratulations. Your drawing was selected! Your idea was so original, it beat out all the others. At the end of February, a pink Cadillac float representing America, complete with the ridiculous half-naked obese woman brandishing her diet soda, will drift along in the parade for all to admire. You’ll receive an award for your clever design at the end of the carnival’s run. Congratulations.

Here are the rhetorical questions this scenario begs in my mind: Is the world really so conditioned to viewing America this way that it can’t see the juvenile cruelty of ridiculing obese Americans? Can there be an acknowledgement of the difference between a successful satire and outright hostile social criticism hiding behind the guise of satire?

Dear Selection Committee: I don’t get it. I don’t get why you would taint the illustrious tradition of your annual carnival by selecting a drawing such as this. Shouldn’t you be setting high standards for carnival parades, rather than lowering them by perpetuating mean stereotypes through the pedantic representation of them in your floats?

Why reduce a country’s identity to a stereotype, anyway? America. Geographical wonders such as redwood forests, the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, the Great Lakes and Niagara falls. Specific, world-wide-recognized characters such as Elvis, Mickey Mouse, the Statue of Liberty and Uncle Sam. Places such as Hollywood and New York City. All of these emblems could be used as the basis of satire. Also worth considering is the tremendous cultural diversity among the American population.

America is nothing if not multi-cultural. The country grew up as a coming-together of people from all over the world, and those people brought their traditions that have both held pure and mixed together with others. It can be said that to be American is to be of mixed ethnicity; most Americans are “mutts.” I’ve known very few Americans who are 100% anything. It’s not like Europe, where it’s more predictable that people in Germany are of German ethnicity, people in France are of French ethnicity, people in Italy are of Italian ethnicity, etc. There is no such thing as an “American” ethnicity. America is unique in that it’s a country in which almost all of its citizens (the exception being Native Americans) can trace their ethnic roots back to their places of origin. “American” is a nationality, not an ethnicity. America is a collection of the world’s people.

How can anyone miss the greatness of this? When you really think about it, isn’t it a stunning concept? Isn’t it great, I mean truly great that a country such as America even exists?

What I’m trying to point out is that it’s kind of gratuitous to draw an obese white person and stick it on a float called “America” to represent its people. Clearly, the intent here is not to satirize. The intent is only to turn the subject into a laughing-stock for the amusement of the parade audience, most of which is not American.

Stereotypes can be negative or positive. Obesity is a negative American stereotype that suggests disapproval of not just a body condition, but a psychological one as well. Often, obesity is perceived as an attitude-oriented issue – one that can easily be changed if the person “really wants to.” It’s a complex stereotype, and it’s hostile: the obese are viewed negatively on different levels. This is why I’m feeling this drawing stretch beyond satire, and I have to wonder what the artist was thinking. Did he choose to portray obesity because it would be the easiest of the negative American stereotypes to draw? Or because it’s perceived to be the funniest? Or because it was just the first thing that occurred to him when he thought about America, so he went with it without bothering to search his mind for alternatives?

I saw this drawing, obviously. In my opinion, it’s not even that good. (I think I’m at least slightly qualified to make this judgment, since I live with Callaghan and I see the results of his considerable talent every day.) Regardless, if the decision to draw an obese person was made in bad taste, the decision to select the drawing out of hundreds was even worse.

I believe it would be possible to come up with ways to visually satirize America with the finesse required to also celebrate it – not just mock it. Intelligent, creative satire. I’m all for it.

We’re aware that obesity is an accelerating medical problem in America. But who is anyone to indict us, as a nation, for being “greedy” or “lazy” or “self-indulgent” (or whatever the perception may be) because of it?

Who is uglier – the obese American, or the person ridiculing him or her?