Two NYC Comics Breakdown the Whitewashing of the Ghost In The Shell Movie
On March 31st the internationally celebrated media franchise known as Mobile Armored Riot Police in Japan, finally makes it’s big screen debut in the states.
If you love anime or manga you already knew the name and probably, the story. In the book, author Masamune Shirow explores the possible consequence of technological advances on the nature of human consciousness and identity with the story of fictional counter-cyberterrorist organization Public Security 9. Leading Public Security 9 is the fearless and inimitable hero Major Motoko Kusanagi.
As far as comic books and manga in general go, Motoko is arguably one of the strongest female protagonists to date.
First published in 1989, Major Motoko quickly became an icon. She’s everything a female superhero should be. She’s strong, takes no shit, kicks ass at her job, and never lets men walk all over her. So what’s the problem?
So what’s the problem? The film adaptation is being accused of whitewashing.
While the series is set in 21st century Japan, Scarlett Johansson was cast as Major Motoko. Some may argue that Major Motoko is a cyborg but she’s also a cyborg meant to blend in with Tokyo’s other citizens. The more likely reason is that white lead actors and actresses tend to bring in bigger box office earnings. Once again, we’ve put profit over people and authenticity.
The film comes at a time when the internet is finally providing a much-needed voice for the Asian American community. With viral hashtags like #NotYourAsianSidekick, Asian American’s from all walks of life are finally getting the chance to be heard.
Two NYC comedians Chewy May and Jes Tom recently spoke out about this latest example of whitewashing with a touching video that illustrates just how lasting the affects can be. The sketch went viral with close to 200,000 views on the original YouTube link alone; not including the views from write ups on high profile publications like Buzzfeed and Perez Hilton.
Not only is Broke-Ass Stuart debuting the brand new comic seen above by artist David Chiu; commissioned and written by Chewy May; we also got to catch up with the two performers to get a more personal view of their powerful short.
As people who work in the NYC performance arts scene is whitewashing something you’ve experienced firsthand?
Jes Tom – This is not exactly whitewashing, but related: one of the first acting jobs I ever did, I signed on before I saw the script, because it sounded like a cool project with a lot of other Asian actors. I got on set and realized too late that it was one of those scenes where a white-passing action hero slaughters like 20 Asian people (& I was one of them). That day I learned a real lesson about how people will misuse Asian actors if we’re not careful.
Chewy May – I think that the whitewashing and yellow facing of Asian Americans goes hand in hand. It‘s so common to see white comics make fun of Asians using some hacky accent. It makes me feel like my opinions and perspectives are not valid to them. I remember when I first started performing one comic even flat out told me, “Asians aren’t really successful in comedy.”
Do you find your ethnicity makes it harder to get booked on non-niche shows?
JT– As a Non-binary Trans-Asian American comic I get a lot more work on “niche”/queer/community shows (where I perform among musicians, poets, drag acts) than I do in the comedy circuit. They’re just two different scenes with really different people in them. I will be real though and say I experience tokenism even within niche comedy shows — like being the only Asian comic on an LGBTQ-themed show that has booked multiple white, Black, & Latino comics.
CM– I don’t think it’s necessarily harder to get booked, but I do feel it’s harder to get as much respect as other performers. As an Asian American comic it feels like people are expecting me to do accents or make fun of the fact I’m Asian instead of just giving the audience a unique perspective on common issues.
How did this project come to fruition?
JT – Chewy approached me with the original idea for the video after reading a rant I wrote on Facebook about the whitewashed cast of Ghost in the Shell and then we worked together to fine tune the concept. As far how I got cast, it’s kinda funny: Part of it was that we wanted to give the narrative a sense of temporality, to show that Asian American people experience erasure at every point of our lives, and that this is a thing that has been happening for years. So when we determined we’d need an adult version of the protagonist– well, I’m a diva, so I was like, “I’ll do it!”
CM – Yup, Jes wrote a facebook post about Scarlett Johannson being cast as Major Motoko and it gave me the idea of coming up with a video illustrating the affects that whitewashing has and will continue to have on little girls. I brought a rough outline of the concept to Jes and right then and there we began collaborating on the final script and started planning the shoot. Jes came up with the idea of the little girl growing up and so we just used her as the older version — no need to put out a casting call.
Do either of you have any experiences from your own childhood that reflect the same message as the video?
JT – The thing that sucks is that I’ve had so many of these moments that it’s hard to choose which one to mention. The first that comes to my mind is finding out when I was 17 that the movie 21 (about MIT students counting cards in Vegas) was based on a true story about an Asian professor and Asian students. The people who made 21 justified whitewashing the story by saying they included an Asian character — a side character named “Choi,” – he doesn’t even have a full name. In that moment I fully realized how far American mainstream media will go to erase us even if it’s out of our own history.
CM – Yea, I don’t think there’s one particular instance. You just don’t see Asians in the forefront of American stories. We’re always pushed into the background with the least lines and half the time, they’re simply portraying stereotypes anyway.
I know that you’ve gotten allot of attention for the video, and with success comes haters. What do you find is the most common online troll sentiment?
JT – That Motoko’s body is canonically European which completely misses the point of the video. We’re not talking ABOUT Ghost in the Shell specifically; we’re simply using it as one example in a long history of whitewashing. Maybe if whitewashing Asian characters & stories wasn’t the status quo, it would be okay (or at least less bad) that ScarJo is playing Motoko. But it is the status quo, so it’s not okay.
CM – What really surprised me is that the video is being called racist or even ‘anti-white propaganda.’ People can be oblivious to the identity issues of people of color. They may not have even noticed that Asians are usually cast in supporting roles if any so how can they empathize with how that might make someone of our ethnicity feel? Hollywood subliminally uplifts white people and downplays people of color so now that we are speaking out about it, I guess it‘s suddenly some new ‘anti-white propaganda’ or something, which is just ridiculous.