Why Some Fans Are Upset About Scarlett Johansson’s Upcoming Film

Johansson plays Major Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming ‘Ghost in the Shell.’
Scarlett Johansson. (Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty)
Apr 15, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

With blockbuster hits like Avengers: Age of Ultron and indie gems like Lost in Translation under her belt, Scarlett Johansson has amassed a large number of admirers who will flock to movie theaters to watch the Hollywood starlet on the big screen. But fans of the anime series Ghost in the Shell aren’t too happy to see Johansson take on the role of a beloved Japanese character.

On Thursday, Paramount Pictures tweeted a production photo of Johansson from the upcoming live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, reigniting social media fury about Hollywood’s penchant for whitewashing roles for people of color.

The film is based on Masamune Shirow’s manga of the same name, first printed in 1989, and the subsequent animated film released in 1995. Ghost in the Shell is set in dystopian 21st-century Japan and centers on a dangerous hacker who can alter the minds of cyborgs. Johansson plays cyborg police officer Major Motoko Kusanagi, who hunts down the hacker. In the live-action film, which will be released next March, Johansson’s character is referred to simply as “Major.”

Asian actors are consistently underrepresented in American films, making up approximately 5 percent of speaking roles in the top 100 films from 2014, according to a study from the University of Southern California. That figure drops below 1 percent for leading roles in film, leaving critics to lament a missed opportunity to cast an Asian actor in lieu of Johansson.

Actor Ming-Na Wen, who portrays a superhero on the TV show Agents of SHIELD and voiced Mulan in the 1998 Disney feature, was quick to condemn the casting choice while maintaining her admiration for Johansson.

Upon learning about Johansson’s role in Ghost in the Shell last year, angered fans of the anime series launched a Care2 petition—it has amassed 65,000 signatures—asking the studio to recast the part. Social media users continue to offer some suggestions.

Hollywood has a long history of casting white actors as Asian characters, from Katherine Hepburn’s role as a Chinese woman in 1944’s Dragon Seed, to John Wayne’s portrayal of Genghis Khan in 1956’s The Conqueror, to Mickey Rooney in yellow face with buckteeth as Mr. Yunioshi in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Last year, Cameron Crowe came under fire for casting Emma Stone as a Chinese-Hawaiian woman in the movie Aloha. Just this week, Marvel Entertainment faced backlash because of a teaser for Doctor Strange in which Tilda Swinton takes on the role of the Ancient One, portrayed in the comic series as an elderly Asian man.

With production under way, it seems unlikely that Johannson will get cut from Ghost in the Shell, but the studio has reportedly attempted to ease fans’ fears by digitally altering some white actors’ physical features. Paramount and DreamWorks commissioned computer-generated imagery experts to conduct tests to alter actors’ ethnicities, Screencrush reports. Paramount confirmed with Screencrush that it considered using such effects in one scene but that it has since been removed.