Scarlett Johansson as the titular character in the film Ghost in the Shell. Photo: Paramount Pictures /  Dreamworks
Scarlett Johansson as the titular character in the film Ghost in the Shell. Photo: Paramount Pictures / Dreamworks

Zhang Yimou’s  The Great Wall bombed both critically and commercially in mid-January, and a large part of that can be placed at the feet of Matt Damon. Not for any standard reason like a shoddy performance or weak acting, though.

No, his “white man saves China” shtick brought together the wide spectrum of film critics, respected historians and the internet’s most thin-skinned trolls, in an outpouring of sheer outrage against blatant Hollywood whitewashing.

They shouldn’t have been all that surprised, though: whitewashing is nothing new in the cinematic world, with everyone from bucktoothed neighbors to transplanted sci-fi heroes getting the racially dividing treatment.

Here, we present what we like to call “a short history of cinematic whitewashing” – which sounds boring, but is really the five most obvious examples of Asian characters being given the concealer treatment.

An oriental looking Katherine Hepburn in Dragon Seed.

Dragon Seed (1944)

Back in the good old early 20th century, an anything-goes attitude meant Asia’s “exotic” flavor could be easily channeled by anyone with a keen mind, a bit of imagination, and uh, a lot of scotch-tape. A well-to-do white author writing best-sellers about interracial couples living in China? Sure, par for the course.

And so was adapting her books, into a movie where Katharine Hepburn tapes her eyes sideways to play a cheongsam-wearing local. It’d be atrocious, if half the cast didn’t get in on the game, veterans like Walter Huston and Akim Tamiroff capping it off with Fu Manchu-moustaches and funny little oriental hats.

The Conqueror (1956)

John Wayne as Genghis Khan. That’s all we really need to say, isn’t it? OK, maybe a little more. By the 1950s, historical epics were all the rage – Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis – and cowboy standard Wayne, wanted to get in on the game, fighting for and surprisingly winning the role of the notorious Mongolian leader.

The only problem was, he proceeded to play the role exactly as he did every other: southern drawl, rancher gait and absolutely zero Asian qualities. The film is probably more infamous for its tragic circumstances – filmed on a nuclear test site and eventually giving nearly all its crew cancer – but that still doesn’t excuse Wayne’s atrocious turn, nor the awful race-based casting.

Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

Cinematic whitewashing isn’t really ever aiming for prejudice. It’s mostly subtle, with characters delicately re-appropriated for a Caucasian-centric public. But sometimes, just sometimes, it’s full on racist.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s all but defined the ’60s – pop-art on-screen, with a timeless romance and an iconic lead character with Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly.

But the World War II propaganda aspects of its source novel were hemmed a little too closely, and Mickey Rooney as the bucktoothed, slant-eyed, half-blind, broken-English Japanese neighbor not only feels scandalous, but downright offensive. It’s the only obvious dark spot on an otherwise classic.

The cast of Short Circuit 2: Jack Weston (left), Cynthia Gibb, Johnny Five, Michael McKean and Fisher Stevens. Photo: TriStar Pictures

Short Circuit (1986)/Short Circuit 2 (1988)

As the progressive ’70s rolled round, whitewashing began to creep back into its dark hole. Movies got gritty, casting actual Asians in roles made for them. But the greed-is-good ’80s soon saw weaker minds once again prevail, and the worst offender by far (in this South Asian writer’s opinion): Fisher Stevens in the Short Circuit movies.

The bias isn’t just based on personal ethnicity, but on their child-friendly aspects. Indian tykes everywhere no doubt, fell into the trap of thinking one of their kind could actually star in a cool robot movie.

It was only when the bad accent-mask was painfully ripped off, to reveal nothing more than a short man in brown-face, did everything change. Not for the greater public, mind you, just me, really.

A very un-Asian Scarlett Johannson in Ghost in the Shell.

Ghost In The Shell (2017)

The 21st century has been especially disgraceful for whitewashing, and one would almost think we’d become a little racist, what with our immigrant-hating kingdoms and White House dictators. Damon’s Great Wall, Tilda Swinton as the Himalayan Ancient One in Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch as Sikh-born Kahn in Star Trek Into Darkness, Max Minghella as a real-life Indian developer in The Social Network – the list goes on.

Ghost In The Shell is coming this year, but it’s already facing the whitewashed wrath. The original is about as Asian as things get: Japanese cult manga, ground-breaking anime, Hong Kong-inspired locations, Eastern philosophy-based story. Most of that’s been downright ignored with its big-screen adaptation, and Scarlett Johansson’s casting as the dark-haired, obviously originally Asian lead sent netizens into a rage.

And it only gets worse, with Michael Pitt and Juliette Binoche as her Japanese-moniker colleagues. It’s almost as if we’ve gone back 100 years – which is to say, history often repeats itself.

15 replies on “A short history of cinematic whitewashing”

Comments are closed.