Why Karlie Kloss, Scarlett Johansson playing Japanese is a problem

Whitewashing is part of a bigger problem of Asian entertainers not being cast in film and television.
By Annie Martin  |  Feb. 23, 2017 at 11:43 AM
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Feb. 23 (UPI) -- Karlie Kloss posing as a geisha is just the latest instance of white celebrities replacing Asian entertainers in print, film and television.

The 24-year-old model's Japanese-themed photo shoot in Vogue and actress Scarlett Johansson's casting in Ghost in the Shell demonstrate that whitewashing remains a serious issue in American media.

Kloss apologized last week after appearing in a geisha-inspired spread in the March issue of Vogue. She was photographed in kimono-like dresses, pale face makeup and a traditionally-styled wig, and even posed next to a sumo wrestler for one shot.

"These images appropriate a culture that is not my own, and I am truly sorry for participating in a shoot that was not culturally sensitive," the model tweeted to her 2.1 million followers. "My goal is, and will always be, to empower and inspire women. I will ensure my future shoots and projects reflect that mission. Sincerely, Karlie."

Many called out Kloss and Vogue for cultural appropriation -- using elements from a culture that is not one's own -- and yellowface -- using makeup or other props to present as Asian. Some were especially offended given it was the magazine's self-proclaimed diversity issue.

"Apparently no Japanese models were available for Vogue's 'diversity' issue. Thank god Karlie Kloss could fill in," one person tweeted in response.

"Apparently nobody sent the 'yellow face is in fact racism' memo to Vogue," another added.

As someone of Asian heritage, I was upset but not surprised by Vogue picking Kloss over a Japanese model for the photo shoot. Accusations of cultural appropriation are important and valid, but I also consider the magazine's choice an example of whitewashing -- the practice of casting white entertainers in historically non-white roles.

Vogue botched an opportunity to celebrate diversity and spotlight Japanese culture by starring a white woman in a spread inspired by traditional Japan. The magazine could have further improved the feature by shedding the obvious link between Japan, geishas and sumo wrestlers, and choosing a fresh and innovative theme.

Unfortunately, Kloss' photo shoot is not the first time an Asian entertainer has been passed over for a white performer. Scarlett Johansson appeared in a first full-length trailer for Ghost in the Shell last week after being cast in a live-action adaptation of the Japanese manga.

The 32-year-old actress will star as The Major -- an Americanized version of Major Motoko Kusanagi -- in the new Paramount Pictures movie. The film is based on the Masamune Shirow manga series, which was previously adapted as a 1995 animated feature in Japan.

Disappointed fans have questioned why Johansson, whose casting was first announced in 2014, was chosen for the role over a Japanese actress. The star herself addressed the controversy for the first time in the March issue of Marie Claire.

"I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive," she said.

The new Ghost in the Shell will feature just one Asian actor in a leading role -- Singaporean star Chin Han. The 47-year-old actor will play Togusa, with white actors Michael Pitt and Pilou Asbaek to play Kuze and Batou, respectively.

"#GhostInTheShell was developed in JAPAN. The characters are JAPANESE. Being a cyborg doesn't make Motoko Kusanagi not JAPANESE," one fan tweeted in April.

Johansson's casting was upsetting because it took away an opportunity for an Asian actress to step into the spotlight. Ghost in the Shell is one of the most well-known mangas of all time, and a high-budget, live-action adaptation was sure to generate interest, even without Johansson's name recognition.

Many Japanese actresses -- including Rinko Kikuchi, Tao Okamoto, Karen Fukuhara and Kiki Sukezane -- would have been a better choice to play The Major, a Japanese character. Whitewashing is harmful because it erases Asian identities from the screen, as previously seen with actress Tilda Swinton.

The 56-year-old British star faced backlash similar to Johansson after she was cast as The Ancient One in the Marvel movie Doctor Strange, which opened in November. The character is a Tibetan man in the original comic series, but was rewritten as a Celtic woman for the actress.

"The script that I was presented with did not feature an Asian man for me to play, so that was never a question when I was being asked to do it," Swinton said at a roundtable interview in April.

Marvel missed a chance to introduce more diversity into its films by changing The Ancient One's background to accommodate a white actress. Star Trek actor George Takei, who is of Japanese heritage, was among those to criticize Swinton's casting online.

"They cast Tilda because they believe white audiences want to see white faces," he wrote on Facebook the same month. "Hollywood has been casting white actors in Asian roles for decades now, and we can't keep pretending there isn't something deeper at work here."

"There has been a long standing practice of taking roles that were originally Asian and rewriting them for white actors to play, leaving Asians invisible on the screen and underemployed as actors," the star added.

Swinton playing The Ancient One and Johansson portraying The Major seems especially egregious given the underrepresentation of Asians in media in general. Whitewashing is part of a bigger problem of Asian entertainers not being cast in film and television.

Of the nine films nominated for Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards, only one features an Asian actor in a top-billed role -- Lion with Dev Patel -- who is also the only Asian actor nominated for Best Actor/Actress. Merle Oberon and Ben Kingsley, both of Indian descent, are the only other Asian actors to have ever been nominated in the category.

A lack of Asian nominees may not come as a surprise, given the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism reported in September that none of the 100 top-grossing films of 2015 featured a lead or co-lead played by an Asian actor. In addition, 49 of those 100 movies featured no Asian characters.

Similarly, Fusion reported in April 2015 that just 3 of 100 network television series in the 2014-2015 season featured a main character played by an Asian actor. Moreover, Asian actors accounted for just 6.6 percent of series regulars on network TV.

This shortage of Asian faces in print, film and television is detrimental to Asian youth, who grow up in our media-driven society without seeing strong, dynamic and inspiring Asian characters. The dearth is also alienating to Asian adults, whose experiences and humor don't always fit the white norm depicted on screen.

I personally would have loved to have seen more Asian models and actors in the spotlight when I was younger. Most Asian entertainers appeared in supporting roles -- and often in uninspired and stereotypical parts -- leaving me hungry for positive and fulfilling representations of my own race.

As an adult, I find myself drawn to series such as The Mindy Project, and to foreign films like The Assassin and The Handmaiden because I identify with the Asian faces on screen. It is empowering to see Asian women like Mindy Kaling, Shu Qi and Kim Min-Hee in starring roles where their stories are the focus -- not absent or taking a backseat to white characters.

Series with Asian leads, such as The Mindy Project, Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken, are a step forward for Asian representation in media, but the change cannot stop at just a few shows. The public needs to keep calling on publications and studios to eradicate whitewashing and increase diversity, and to keep white performers accountable for the roles they take on.

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