Dear Hollywood: Using White Actors as Asian Characters Is Bringing Down Your Ratings

There’s a Problem in Hollywood…

 

Lately, I’ve noticed a problem in Hollywood. This problem affects me personally, which is why it drew my attention so quickly. I don’t think this problem should be ignored because after all, it’s affecting the Hollywood industry whether they see it or not. This problem, you see, is the whitewashing of Asian characters in Hollywood films that should’ve (and maybe even did) smash the box office.

Asians are misrepresented in the media and asians are under-represented in the media. If Asians are represented in media, it’s the stereotypical nerdy-like Asian who is into anime, science, and math. A quick example: In 2009, the movie Up was released, and guess what! A main character that is Asian! But don’t get too excited- he’s fat and nerdy. Asian’s aren’t represented correctly in the media and especially in Hollywood, so when directors see a perfect chance to use an Asian actor/actress as an Asian character- why would they pass that up?

\I’ve noted and researched some of the most prominent examples of whitewashing in Hollywood films. The movie Ghost in The Shell is a movie released in 2017 and based on an anime comic. The main character: Major Motoko Kusanagi (clearly a Japanese character) is played by famous actress Scarlett Johansson. Okay, what about the movie Aloha? Released in 2015, white actress Emma Stone gets to play a main role of a character who is supposedly from the Chinese-Hawaiian descent. And a box office crushing movie: Doctor Strange not only whitewashes an Asian character; they give a white woman the role of an Asian man. Nice job casting diversity, Hollywood.

 

The Culprits:

Ghost in The Shell

Ghost in The Shell is a movie released in 2017, based on an anime comic. It is about a human (Scarlett Johansson) saved from a terrible terrorist attack, who is cyber-enhanced to be a perfect soldier devoted to stopping the world’s most dangerous criminals. It’s audience is all movie goers, comic lovers, and action movie enthusiasts. It was originally published as a Japanese film and then again in 2017. The original film was set in Japan, with most roles filled by Japanese characters.

The first thing I noticed about this movie is the fact that it had come from a comic- specifically a Japanese comic. The main character (Scarlett Johansson) plays Major Motoko Kusanagi, which, let’s be honest, already screams Japanese character. I noticed that other Japanese characters in the movie were accurately casted by Japanese actors, like Takeshi Kitano playing Aramaki- so why couldn’t they cast an Asian actress as the main character? Johansson is a famous action star actress, and plays a lot of inspiring women roles, and I can’t think of ONE famous Asian-American actress that could’ve fit the part to make it the big movie it was. (If Scarlett was replaced by a less famous Asian-American actress, would the movie still be the big motion picture everyone was dying to see?)

Above: Major Motoko Kusanagi in the comic versus in the movie.

Guess what Hollywood: this movie was a bust. The low ratings is definitely interesting (and quite revealing), showing that clearly, fans of Ghost in The Shell noticed the whitewashing of the main character. I think that it definitely makes us look closer in to who the producers and directors were trying to capture as an audience. With that, we can see that maybe the whitewashing of Major Motoko Kusanagi was done for the purpose of income. A lot of movie makers do not consider cultures, do not consider casting roles similar to the characters- they care about money, and doing what will create the most income for the movie. Is this ethically appropriate in the Hollywood industry?

 

Aloha

Aloha is a romantic comedy hitting the big screens back in May of 2015. The movie is about a military contractor on assignment in Oahu, Hawaii, reconnecting with his old love who is now married to an Air Force recruit. He also spends time with Allison Ng (Emma Stone), a fighter pilot, but as they travel throughout the lush terrain, Brian finds himself falling for his feisty guide, while his conversations with Tracy may provide a shocking revelation from their past. The movie, set in Hawaii, portrays not ONE actor or actress from the Hawaiian descent or culture. Instead, this movie is packed with famous actors and actresses like Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, and Rachel McAdams.

Emma Stone was the first casted member in the film, which is interesting to me because the movie was largely criticized for its whitewashing of a part Chinese, part Hawaiian character with a white actress. It makes us look deeper into this detail: why was she the first casted when they could’ve casted her in another part and gave the character to a closer cultured actress? Another detail I noticed was the culture appropriation of the Hawaii culture. As someone from Hawaii, I always get skeptical to watch movies based in Hawaii because of this exact problem. Hollywood has been known to whitewash and culturally disrespect cultures and ethnicities.

Box offices didn’t keep the movie in theaters for very long- within months, the movie was out on DVD, and it hasn’t shown up on streaming apps like Netflix. Aloha was nominated for three awards: The Teen Choice Award in 2015 for Choice Movie: Comedy, Choice Movie Actor: Comedy, and Choice Movie Actress: Comedy, in which all three resulted with the nomination.. This movie that had so much potential to be good, became a bust. Maybe Hollywood’s whitewashing and culture appropriating ways may are catching up to them.

 

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange is a Marvel movie published in 2016. It is a superhero film based on the Doctor Strange comics, with the same characters and same names. It’s audience is predominantly Marvel lovers, which is a lot of America, and probably a lot of the world. It was originally published as the famous comic, with it’s world premier release in Hong Kong in October of 2016, and it’s American premier release in November of 2016.

This movie is the one movie that actually crushed the box office. Everyone, their moms, and their grandmas went to watch the movie. The whitewashing in this movie isn’t as prominent for people who don’t know the Marvel comic- because not only was an asian character whitewashed, but the character is a man in the comic, and a woman in the movie.

Above: The Ancient One: His Character versus Her role

This movie didn’t get much criticism for its whitewashing. With over 20 award nominations, almost half of them were awarded. It makes us think: did the fans ignore the fact because the movie was such a hit, or was it not noticed because of it’s subtleness?

Obviously the two biggest interesting and revealing details is the fact that this movie was an absolute hit in theaters, and that it’s whitewashing aspect was also a gender switch up. Does that make it more or less offensive? With a change in the sex AND ethnicity, it’s really not the same character anymore so the producers honestly could have just created a new one.  It’s interesting to me that this movie didn’t get as much hate for it’s whitewashing aspect, when not only did they use a white character for an Asian-Male role, they used a white female. Sounds both sexist and racist at this point.

I think that the fact that it was such a big movie even with those criticisms is interesting as well because it makes us realize that these problems aren’t as prevalent when the movie is so popular and so well-seen. It’s revealing to me that that’s the way we see these movies. Problems like whitewashing become so little when the movie is so popular and well loved by the critics. It shows a lot about the Hollywood and critic industry- they can project so much criticism to a smaller budget movie that portrays whitewashing, but when the movie is a big hit, whitewashing and even completely changing the sex of the character gets overlooked… interesting.

 

That’s not it: A Look at Statistics…

There is an inequality in films today in every ethnic culture and background- not just Asians are being attacked. Basically, anyone who isn’t white (or male) is being attacked. I won’t bother to focus on the inequality on anything besides what I’m researching, but it’s important to note that the Asian culture is not alone. In this case, maybe it’s not that there is a whitewashing of Asian characters, but it’s also the fact that there aren’t many Asian characters.

In “Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race, & LGBT Status from 2007 to 2014” by Dr. Stacy L Smith et. al, the first thing off the bat is that “… across 100 top films in 2014… 5.3% were Asian”. Let’s compare that to 73.1% that were white and we can widely conclude that this is a distorted demography. In those 100 films, 40+ of those films have no Asian speaking characters.

Even aside from the characters, Asians are underrepresented in films on and off camera. The article states that of seven hundred and seventy seven directors, only nineteen of them were Asian-American; that’s 2.4% of directors being Asian-American. These statistics show that Asians are not only MISrepresented in film, but they are also UNDERrepresented in film.

 

Conclusion

In the end, we can conclude two things from this research.

  1. Asians are misrepresented in film. When presented with an Asian character (which isn’t often), directors and producers choose to cast white actors or actresses in their place. Why? For the box office income: by using more famous and popular actors, it will draw more attention to the film and more people will go to the movie. I’m assuming it’s a common thought that nobody will notice the whitewashing of characters, but sorry to break it to you, Hollywood, but we notice and that’s probably a contributing reason to your low ratings.
  2. Asians are underrepresented in film. Not only are their characters whitewashed in films, but a lot of the time, there are no characters for them to whitewash. Asians are portrayed so little in film, only making up a mere 5% of characters. That’s sad. Even offscreen, Asian directors and producers aren’t common in film. Hollywood rejects Asians in general. Hollywood doesn’t allow for Asians to represent themselves.

 

Learning Moments

There have been an immense amount of learning moments throughout this term. It’s an eye opening aspect to see and read our own research and other’s research. You start to see how much we all have in common within our topics, and even though different, they’re the same. A lot of us talked about mis and underrepresentation of our ethnicities and cultures.

I learned one thing that’s important to note: Although Hollywood is sucking at representing more than just white people, Disney did a fantastic job at Moana. It captured every detail and aspect of the islander’s culture. With it’s recent release, it comes to show that maybe we are making moves towards showing diversity in film.

Works Cited:

Smith, Stacy et al. “Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race, and LGBT Status from 2007 to 2014.” Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative. https://annenberg.usc.edu/sites/default/files/MDSCI_Inequality_in-700_Popular.pdf 

Sanders, Rupert, director. Ghost in the Shell. DreamWorks Studios, 2017.

Crowe, Cameron, director. Aloha. Sony Pictures, 2015.

Derrickson, Scott, director. Doctor Strange. Marvel Studios. 2016.

 

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This entry was posted in Spring 2018 by aremily. Bookmark the permalink.

About aremily

I'm a junior at Portland State University. I plan to be done with my Bachelor's of Art in Philosophy by Spring 2019, and I plan to be in Law school at UH Manoa School of Law by Fall 2019. I'm excited to take Popular Culture with you all this term.

6 thoughts on “Dear Hollywood: Using White Actors as Asian Characters Is Bringing Down Your Ratings

  1. Amberlie,

    I just wanted to say that you did a really good job on your Big Picture Blog Post. I really enjoyed reading it and it was a super interesting topic. I also thought that your primary sources were really interesting and fit in really well with your writing. I’ve seen Doctor Strange a couple times and I never really thought a lot about the misrepresentation of Asian Americans when I watched it. You brought up a lot of really interesting points. Great job on your research and I hope you have a great summer!

    Paddy

  2. Aremily,

    Jacob,

    it was really interesting reading your Big Picture Blog. it was really interesting and I liked reading your paper and how you have your different sources and the reflection that is linked to your personal experience. There were couple of things that I never thought of and I never concentrate on when I used to watch cartoons. You pointed out a lot of good points that were very impressive.
    you did a really good job of analyzing this work and have it all conducted to one thought which part of it was about the depiction of Asians and how they are misrepresented in the media.

    Nice job.

    Ali

  3. Aremily,

    it was really interesting reading your Big Picture Blog. it was really interesting and I liked reading your paper and how you have your different sources and the reflection that is linked to your personal experience. There were couple of things that I never thought of and I never concentrate on when I used to watch cartoons. You pointed out a lot of good points that were very impressive.
    you did a really good job of analyzing this work and have it all conducted to one thought which part of it was about the depiction of Asians and how they are misrepresented in the media.

    Nice job.

    Ali

  4. Hi Aremily,

    I really liked your blog post and thought it brought up really good points. A few other movies that came to mind were the real life remakes of Avatar the Last Airbender and Dragonball Z. When I first watched the remakes, I thought it was so silly that they had non asian actors fulfilling the roles of the main characters. Being an Asian American myself and growing up with those cartoons, it actually made me not want to watch them. I’ve always wondered why the directors of these movies made those creative decisions.

    Reading your blog post, everything kind of came to make sense. Movies will show the majority of people what they want to see, and if they want to see actors they already know, that is what they get. This does create a huge impact on the under representation of Asian culture and is definitely a problem. Hopefully as time passes the representation of Asian culture and Asian actors improves.

  5. Hey Aremily,

    I love this post as someone who cherishes Ghost in the Shell as one of the greatest films of all time and devout lover of many Anime films to see the casting of Scarlett as the Major was deeply dissatisfying. I was dragged by my friend to see it and he actually payed for the ticket cause I denounced that I was not going to financially back something that made such an erroneous mistake. Asian actors are on an uptick lately as more sci fi movies become prominent. The new star wars has a plethora of new asian actors and ideally many more will come to the forefront in star roles. As time goes by and younger more tolerate generations move in I believe we will see a more diverse representation in all minorities. Great post.

  6. Hi Aremily,
    I enjoyed reading your blog post and I’d just say that you have done a very great job of researching and analyzing on a fascinating topic. I totally agree with your point of how whitewashing or misrepresentation of Asian in Hollywood movies decrease their overall quality and attractions. I have seen many Hollywood movies that transferring Japanese comic/anime into live action in which white actors taken roles of Japanese as a main characters, I don’t have any complaint about their performance (to be honest I think they already did their best in their roles), but it‘s just doesn’t make us feel satisfy at all. Perhaps, it’s because white actors can never ever fulfill/replace Asian’s presentations.

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