My Korean student, during an afterschool session in South Korea, asked me about popular black superheroes with dreadlocks. It was his way of trying to connect with me during our “superhero” assignment, where I had my Avengers-loving middle school boys create and describe, in English, their idea of an Asian superhero. They expressed their desire to break away from the default human being (the white character) that dominates the canon of classic and contemporary literature and cinema. Most of them were quite puzzled by the Western world’s cognitive dissonance, particularly in the United States—that Americans could love and borrow from Japanese anime and manga, create big budget films based on Asian characters, but made dehumanizing reservations about casting real-life Asian-American actors/actresses, largely due to a false fear of marketability.
I had no answers for a popular dreadlock-wearing superhero, other than to say that black artists have certainly created them– but it didn’t matter. He was quite excited about Black Panther’s future appearance in the Avengers. That casting, for him, was more than enough to connect with me.
The current controversy over Scarlett Johansson’s casting in next year’s Ghost in the Shell, a live-action adaptation of the original Japanese animation, reeks of executives and apathetic fans pushing the idea that white (and international) audiences can’t empathize or connect with a non-white character; they also claim that to not alter the source material would be financially dangerous. There is also a demographic of fans (including the original publisher) who are complicit in the problematic assumption, surprised by the outrage itself, claiming that the casting is necessary to pull in audiences. Whether a fan agrees with this specific casting or not, this story sparks yet another dialogue around the work imbalance and lack of representation in the American film industry.
And when challenged, executives and apathetic fans conveniently ignore the cultural and economic domination of diverse television, or the fact that breakout stars are created by captivating storylines, or that films actually do better when they reflect society—still, the comment sections are littered with deflections and condescending statements about how the film industry works, method acting, and the history of the “white” ambiguity of anime and manga characters. Deflection and historical amnesia, it seems, are tools used to reduce the anger against the cinematic pattern of whitewashing and Asian invisibility as “political correctness.”
Korean students identifying with “Asian” superheroes:
Deflection is perpetually used to thwart any attempts to spark a dialogue around the racial and cultural blind spots within the white dominated film industry. Deflection is what gave Marvel the courage to resort to racebending, casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, a Tibetan Monk in the upcoming “Doctor Strange.” Deflection is what allowed producers/distributors of the eponymous biopic of Nina Simone to use black face on Zoe Saldana, effectively disregarding Simone’s courageous legacy of tackling colorism and black American identity. Deflection, from reality, is what made it difficult for white fans to relate to Rue from Hunger Games, diminishing the importance of her death because she was, unbeknownst to those fans with horrible reading comprehension, a black character. “Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad,” wrote @JashperParas, #ihatemyself.
Deflection, used in this regard, is a form of human, social and cultural erasure. “It’s like way to reduce race to mere (physical) appearance as opposed to say culture, social experience, identity, history,” Fresh Off the Boat actress Constance Wu tweeted, in response to reports of CG being used to make white actors look more Asian.
The anger isn’t against Scarlett Johansson, it’s against the constant denial of disenfranchisement in Hollywood. Why does film matter? Well…like in all art mediums, we’re in an age where every single racial minority is trying to tell their own story and recapture their narrative, which is/was often institutionally controlled by the dominant culture. In an ideal world, it would be great to focus on merit-based casting and creatively challenge adaptation purity, but merit-based casting is rarely upheld in Hollywood. Despite being proven wrong, Hollywood power brokers insist that viewers won’t be drawn to unknown minority actors, but minority actors are given fewer chances to break out of being relegated to tokenism and typist roles. Being pigeonholed is a self-defeating cycle.
“Hollywood doesn’t put minorities in lead roles because our society rarely lets minorities take the lead,” writes RaceBending’s Marissa Lee, in an interview with Complex Magazine. If cinema is indeed a reflection of the human condition, then we’ve been conditioned to blindly accept unfair societal and work practices. That should change. It will change.