There have been a lot of movies recently that whitewash experiences and narratives belonging to Asian women. It’s not cool and that shit has to stop.
The recent Ghost In The Shell movie is a very fitting example of this since Scarlett Johansson was swapped in to play the Japanese robo-female protagonist Motoko Kusanagi, synthetic human law enforcer. This move was bizarre for multiple reasons since it was a pointless rewriting of a very well known story but it also suggests an uncomfortable disposability of the Asian woman.
This is something we keep seeing in popular culture, a fact that suggests that women from Asian aren’t “a people” but are something that is “put on” or performed. This is clearly an issue since, well, Asian women are very obviously people. Princeton English and American Studies professor Anne Anlin Cheng has noticed this and has analyzed the problem in a recent Los Angeles Review Of Books story (that my friend Lindsay pointed out to me).
“The peculiar thing about ‘Asiatic femininity’ in the Western racial imagination,” Anlin Cheng writes. “Is that it has never needed the biological or the natural to achieve a full, sensorial, agile, and vivid presence.” She points out that this is a distinctly American construction of neo-orientalism that is the repeated storyline for the Asian female. It’s quite uncomfortable.
Anlin Cheng provides a specific instance of this from the Ghost In The Shell film, where the lead character’s existence is called into question by the presence of a fully robotic female.
When the Major looks into the face of a geisha-robot-assassin in a barely disguised mirror scene, her comrade Batou (Pilou Asbæk) is quick to assure her of a distinction, “You are not like that.” But we suspect that what is being disavowed here is precisely the complex and messy interpenetrations of race, gender, and machine. Being a cyborg and a hybrid being, the Major is exactly like the robot: Asiatic, other, alien. And this condition of otherness is, paradoxically, the alibi for, and the residue of, her humanity. Race and femininity are the supplements that enable this toggle between the human and the inhuman to emerge.
In effect, this moment sees a character having a moment of realization that extends beyond the film to point out that, yes, this is personhood is a guise that extends beyond performance. Coupled with this role being played by Scarlett Johansson and you can see why this is a huge problem.
It’s a fascinating read (Or theory?) that can be widened to a lot of society’s handling of women. Depictions of a person as such (fake, less-than, performed by an interloper) suggests a larger context of women in our culture: they are objects that can be toyed around with, that aren’t actually human.