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Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The Ghost In The Shell Race-Bending Furore & Are Asian & Asian American Actresses & Actors Really Not That Bankable?

Despite the West's love for Japanese culture and its cultural properties, such as Anime and Manga, this hasn't stopped their attempts in their refusal to cast Asians and Asian- American actors, actresses, presenters and hosts in movies and TV shows. 

The term 'race-bending' refers to situations where the creator of the media content, changes the ethnicity of a character. This practice has been used by Hollywood on countless occasions to discriminate against people of colour. Black-face and yellow-face had been employed by Hollywood to prevent Black and Asian actors from undertaking roles in TV and film. 

It has also been criticized for perpetuating racial and ethnic stereotypes that have long persisted in Western media and entertainment, particularly in America. 

Ghost In The Shell isn't the first Japanese Anime feature where Asian characters have been replaced with White American versions; the live action versions of Dragonball Evolution, Speed Racer, and the infamous Avatar: The Last Airbender all fell victim to race-bending.

The controversy over Scarlett Johansson's casting in the Ghost In The Shell movie that later blew up online via social media this week, doesn't just expose the hypocrisy of Hollywood casting a Caucasian actress in a role of a Japanese character. There is a much bigger problem that lies in the heart of all of this: 

That Asian and Asian- American performers are not as financially bankable as White and Black and African-American actors and actresses. It is an admission of truth, as sad it may be, but also that it's not that Hollywood isn't ready for an Asian- American actor or actress, because they have done so for quite some time.

This is Hollywood saying that Asian faces don't sell movies and help make millions of dollars at the box office. 

It pretty much underlines that we still have a long way to go in ensuring that Asian- American actresses and actors are on the same level of success and wavelength as their Black and white peers. And of whom are treated with as much respect as them as well. 

And if they don't help sell movies, the less likely Asian faces will appear in movies and television. And more worryingly, the less Asian and Asian American celebrities for the Asian and Asian American audiences to look up to as role models and positive representations.  


Above: Ming-Na Wen in Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and Lucy Liu who plays Dr Jane Watson in Elementary

Thankfully, the TV landscape is a lot brighter, to say the least; with Asian American characters as regulars on prime-time television in the US.  

The Elementary situation is interesting - if a little bit baffling and confusing at the same time; Dr. Joan Watson is an Asian- American woman, as opposed to a Caucasian White British man in Dr. John Watson. So not only do we have a case of race-bending, we also have a case of gender-bending as well. The producer of the series did go on record to say that as far as cultural differences and race go, the series wasn't going to play into it, nor will it have much of a bearing. 

The Dr. Joan Watson character is a character that doesn't have an Asian- sounding name, but neither does she strike the odd Kung Fu pose. In fact, she's just a person - not a person of color or of Asian descent, even though her race is different, and people will make a deal about it, this is not the integral part of the show. She's just Watson doing her job.  

Still, people will say this is an example of double standards in race-bending. That it is racist if a Caucasian actor or actress commit acts of race-bending, but when an Asian or Black person does it, they don't get called out for it. 

This is the first time where race-bending, in this instance, has been applied to a fictional character that was and is traditionally male and of White British descent. 

But Lucy has received backlash before over her casting as Dr Joan Watson in ElementaryAnd really, when I think about Elementary, it is not the same show as Sherlock Holmes. I don't think of it that way, well I try not to - it's just a modern twist on an old formula by making it contemporary, but also the casting of Lucy Liu is an example of race-casting done right, without further diluting the character. 

Things such as race-bending, casting non-Asians as characters of Asian origin in movies, generally do a lot of damage control to the Asian and Asian- American community, as well as towards the wider communities, inasmuch as the stereotypical roles and portrayals of Asian characters themselves.  

*above: Rila Fukushima, actress who appeared in The Wolverine with Hugh Jackman

I was watching an interview with George Takei (of Star Trek fame) and he mentioned that the challenge is that whilst on TV, there is an Asian nurse (by that I presume he means Sandra Oh on Grey's Anatomy) and detective (Lucy Liu in Elementary), there isn't an Asian-American actor of the status of Denzel Washington to sell movies. Which is very accurate and true. 

The global society we are living in today such as the US and UK, for example, is made up of various ethnicities, cultures and where the entire populations are not 110% White. One would assume the film and to a lesser extent, TV industry would reflect these populations, but unfortunately, this is not the case when it comes to the lack of representations of ethnic minorities within the media. 

And yet they make up for this by resorting to race-bending by taking a fictional person of colour, keeping their name and turning them White by casting a White actor or actress. 

There are lots of - if not that many East Asian and Asian-American actors and actresses that could play Asian characters on screen, so why try and take that opportunity away from them, and thus, drag their industry further down the ground? 

It's like that other race-bending situation with Michael B. Jordan being cast as Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movie reboot - you can change Johnny Storm's ethnicity, from White to Black, and yet one can still change an Asian character into a White one by casting a White actor or actress? No, absolutely not. It just reeks of double standards. 

The differences between Lucy Liu being cast as Dr. Jane Watson in Elementary and say that disastrous Avatar: The Last Airbender live- action movie is the casting of white actors in Asian roles in Avatar, were used to heavily distort the ethnicity of the characters from the original cartoon series. Jane Watson's ethnicity might have been different, but it wasn't done to offend the original source material of Sherlock Holmes.

Because of the twist of making Watson Asian and as a woman, in addition to moving the location to New York from London, one may argue these changes were made to reflect contemporary American society for the show's benefit. 

The White-washing is worse in movies than it is in TV, and still, Hollywood insists that it happens, because it is a business and that as a business, their aim is to get as many bums on seats as they can and make as much money as they can. 

Well, that answers it then: they don't care about the demographics or ethnographic of the people attending their movies, or about embracing diversity. 

Scarlett Johansson is a good actress - her role in Lost in Translation from 2003 is still her best to date- and whilst she has undertaken action roles before, such as Black Widow in The Avengers, for me, the main character in Ghost In a Shell should be played by a female of Asian descent, preferably Japanese or Japanese-American. 

There have been few occasions where race-bending characters have been utilized to positive effect to add diversity or enhance diversity, or just to change the dynamic of the narrative slightly, such as Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury in The Avengers. And Lucy Liu's Jane Watson in Elementary. But other than that, it further discredits or lessens the actor's contribution, as well as further discriminating against the racial group s/he is supposedly conforming to. 

Yet Hollywood continues to operate in a way that unless you are of the caliber of Will Smith or Denzel Washington, they will continue casting Caucasians, and actors of other ethnicities in race-bending roles.  

I'm all in favour for racial diversity in movies and television.... but at the expense of sacrificing and swapping the character and/or actor's ethnicity, because the colour of someone's skin, in their eyes, doesn't make them marketable? Sorry, but this is messed up. 

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