During a luncheon at the Beverly Wilshire on Saturday, Agents of SHIELD‘s Ming-Na Wen and Fresh Off the Boat‘s Constance Wu shared their reactions to the first image of Scarlett Johansson asGhost in the Shell heroine Major Motoko Kusanagi.
“It was particularly heinous because they ran CGI tests to make her look more Asian,” said Wu of the reports (which Paramount has denied) that the studio employed a visual-effects firm to alter Johansson’s appearance. “Some people call it ‘yellowface,’ but I say ‘the practice of blackface employed on Asians’ because that’s more evocative.”
Wu explained that the problem with the reported tests is that “it reduces our race and ethnicity to mere physical appearance, when our race and culture are so much deeper than how we look.”
Wen said that although she had already heard about Johansson’s casting, seeing the image “with her Asian-esque haircut” prompted her to tweet, “Nothing against Scarlett Johansson. In fact, I’m a big fan. But everything against this Whitewashing of Asian role.”
The tweet went somewhat viral, which Wen said made her feel “happy and afraid, because to get back on the soapbox is scary, but I feel I need to. It’s about accepting that part of the job.”
But not everyone on the panel, which was organized by the Chinese-American non-partisan group Committee of 100, saw the casting as controversial. Screen legend Joan Chen (The Last Emperor, Netflix’s Marco Polo) argued that the film’s director (Snow White and the Huntsman‘s Rupert Sanders) should have “creative freedom,” which led to a spirited debate on the panel, which also included actress Lynn Chen and was moderated by producer Teddy Zee (The Pursuit of Happyness, Hitch).
“The Chinese and Japanese have adapted many works from the West,” Joan Chen said, referencing Akira Kurosawa’s Shakespearean adaptations. “I cannot the blame the director. Censorship is terrible for art.”
“Agreed, but many people’s vision of who they see as a hero is rooted in systemic racism,” Wu countered. “It’s not blaming; it’s asking for awareness. It’s good for artists to think outside the box and stretch their imagination…”