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On the Whitewashing of Asian Stories in Hollywood

By Yuma Terada

Why is the film industry suddenly concerned about the whitewashing of Asian stories? In this essay, Yuma Terada, the cofounder of Tokyo- and New York-based literary agency and production company CTB Inc., reflects on the probable cause of Hollywood's newfound interest in fidelity to Asian source texts.

At the interview’s conclusion, the journalist asks abruptly what I think about the “problem of whitewashing of Asian stories” in Hollywood. The topic being incongruous with the rest of the interview, I suggest we address it separately, on a more befitting occasion. She insists, not in a spirit of journalistic inquiry, but because in her view, it would be remiss of her not to pose the question to me, a Japanese literary agent and film producer. To this end, I am offered the option to respond with a “no comment.” The point, then, is not to investigate the problem—if such a problem in fact exists—but to demonstrate the journalist’s performance of her perceived duty by solemnly recording the fact of inquiry.

The inanity of the exchange is not recounted in ridicule. Such encounters are in fact quotidian in Hollywood, as studio executives, producers, and agents feel compelled to perfunctorily reference the phenomenon, presumably to afford me the opportunity to file my grievances. The “problem of whitewashing” in Hollywood today is therefore understood generally, rather than specifically. It is no longer about the individual producer who casts a role according to its ethnicity as written in the book, believing that such decisions remedy racial inequality by creating opportunities for minority actors or inspiring minority youths in the audience. Nor is this essay about that specific producer. Rather, it is concerned with the general and habitual manner in which the “problem of whitewashing” is referenced by everyone else in Hollywood. Their mechanical language functions as an apparatus through which they dissociate themselves from the problem and secure their own alibis.

The poster child of the “problem of whitewashing” today is Paramount Pictures’ Ghost in the Shell (2017). Many in Hollywood readily argue that the role of Major should have been played not by Scarlett Johansson, but by—depending on the individual—an Asian American, Asian, or a Japanese actress because the source material originates in Japan. A counterargument defends Johansson’s casting by pointing out that Motoko Kusanagi, Major’s analogue in the Japanese original, is a cyborg and therefore constitutionally lacks ethnicity. What interests me about this debate is not at all the ethics of Paramount’s casting decision, but the shocking assumption underlying both sides of the argument: that a movie should somehow be faithful to its source material.

“The act of denouncing whitewashing is today neither radical nor brave but perfectly profitable.”

Since when does Hollywood care how far its movies stray from the books on which they are based? The predictable protests from readers of The Great Gatsby or the Harry Potter books have never stopped Hollywood from violently altering elements of the book to suit its cinematic purposes. Indeed, it is my contention that such violence has served the American film industry well; this lack of reverence toward the original has allowed it to adroitly translate the literary vocabulary of texts into the cinematic vocabulary of shots. Conversely, a reverence toward the source material—or rather, the absence of cinematic imagination camouflaged as a devotional posture—has caused Japanese film studios in recent years to produce an abundance of forgettable movies that necessarily amount to inferior copies of the original, rather than works of ambitious translation.

Translation is here evoked not metaphorically but specifically. The translation of literature from one language to another is never a mechanical process in which different yet equivalent signs are assigned to the original signified. Instead, translation engenders a radical negotiation between two distinct and often irreconcilable systems of signification. Insofar as translation is understood as such an ambitious and even violent act that traverses two conflicting systems, the conversion from literary to cinematic language precisely fits that description. Hollywood’s success is inseparable from its attitude as an ambitious translator who resists a devotional relationship to the original.

This identity of the ambitious translator is entirely disharmonious with Hollywood’s eagerness to problematize whitewashing. Indeed, while many in the film industry are quick to question Johansson’s casting by pointing to the provenance of Ghost in the Shell, no serious Hollywood producer criticizes Paramount for changing other significant elements of the source material, including the plot. This schizophrenic attitude suggests that the current vogue for denouncing whitewashing is not a reflection of any real desire to intellectually engage with “Asian stories,” which are presumed to be embedded within the original.

The philistinism of the problematizing attitude is in fact patent in the Ghost in the Shell debate, which, for all its purported attention to the source material, never clarifies whether the “Japanese original” to which it habitually refers is Shirow Masamune’s manga (1989–2001), one of the two animated features directed by Mamoru Oshii (1995 and 2004), the animated television series (2002–2003), or any one of the many Japanese renditions of Ghost in the Shell, whose portrayal of Motoko Kusanagi is anything but consistent, and which together elude Hollywood’s myopic understanding of legal chain of title. Equally inane is the inconsistency among the proposed solutions to cast an Asian, Asian American, or a Japanese actress in the role of Major. The failure to distinguish between these classifications reveals not only intellectual negligence but, more interestingly, the true motive behind the problematizing attitude: the acceptable degree of correspondence between the ethnicities of the actress and the character correlates with the degree of precision required to mitigate the individual’s guilty conscience. What the general critic of whitewashing covets, therefore, is an alibi against potential accusations of insensitivity.

“Such empty language is perilously vulnerable to exploitation.”

Saying nothing of the specific producer who makes casting decisions based on his or her individual convictions about racial inequality, the widespread enthusiasm observed in Hollywood today to denounce whitewashing is not about the desire to hear “Asian stories,” a translator’s devotional relationship to the original, or even about cinema. Rather, it is about the desire of the problematizing subject to be in loose alliance with—or at least to be perceived to be in loose alliance with—a language that enjoys a certain currency in the United States today, and which includes the habitual and unthinking repetition of phrases such as “inclusion” and “fair representation.” In Hollywood, this language parades the commercial success of movies like Black Panther (2018) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018) as a sign of progress by pointing to the racial compositions of their leading casts. It is doubtful, however, and certainly far from obvious, that the favorable box office results of these movies are reflective of an ethical reckoning, on the part of either the producers or the moviegoing public, with regard to racial inequality. What they do unmistakably illustrate is the seamlessness with which the problematization of whitewashing harmonizes with commercial pragmatism. Hollywood may or may not have been late in recognizing the commercial potential of movies that feature minorities in leading roles, but it certainly understands it today. Lucrative deals recently secured by production companies like Imminent Collision and A-Major Media, which specifically propose to tell “Asian stories,” make it clear that the act of denouncing whitewashing is today neither radical nor brave but perfectly profitable. Declaring an alliance with the language of progress comes at no cost to the declarant, and alibis can be had for free.

In itself, the philistine nature of Hollywood’s desire to problematize whitewashing is—while certainly jejune—not obviously harmful. What is insidious, however, is the smooth and habitual exchange of language that relegates this problematizing attitude to the realm of a generally accepted discourse to which no individual using that language is accountable. If a journalist asks a question about the “problem of whitewashing,” unthinkingly expecting to hear a hackneyed answer, and I respond by using such stock phrases as “inclusion” and “fair representation”—which today have entered the latest edition of Dictionnaire des idées reçues—then we are both participating as accomplices in the fortification of this language, whose function is not to intellectually engage with the underlying phenomenon, but instead to relieve us of that responsibility. Such empty language is perilously vulnerable to exploitation by those who would argue—to give but one recent example—that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat on the American Supreme Court should be “saved” for Amy Coney Barrett, a woman. Barrett’s appointment shrewdly satisfies the unthinking demands made by the language of “fair representation” while irreversibly compromising the so-called progressive agenda of those who insist upon that language. Once it becomes sufficiently pervasive as a result of uncritical repetition, language starts to function as a proxy for engagement with that which it is supposed to signify. Such language mutes intellectual discourse with its sheer verboseness.

If we abstain from this language and instead fix our gaze upon the phenomenon underlying the “problem of whitewashing,” what immediately emerges is the white subject implied by “whitewashing.” Assuming itself to be intractable, the white subject extends an invitation to everyone else in the name of “inclusion” and “fair representation,” but its own subjectivity is to remain intact, unthreatened. Any engagement with “Asian stories” occurs at a safe distance, and the white subject never relinquishes its option to terminate that engagement at its pleasure. The line demarcating the white/non-white divide is assumed to be natural, when it is in fact productive; the very act of demarcation engenders both the white and the non-white subjects, rendering them relative to and contingent upon each other. To truly listen to “Asian stories” would therefore require not the crossing of that demarcation line but its dissolution. It is not a progression toward “inclusion” and “fair representation,” but rather a regression toward what Michel Foucault calls “degree zero of history,” a time preceding the divide. This is a decisive and costly move in which the white subject risks losing its own subjectivity in a milieu where “Asian stories” may no longer be “Asian.” An intellectual desire to listen to “Asian stories,” then, is one that consents to incur this immeasurable cost. It must not be confused with the philistine verboseness of those in Hollywood who problematize whitewashing for their own exoneration, tirelessly denouncing the sinister regime of demarcations even as their language reinforces it.


Related Reading:

Against the "Good" Translation: The Power of Disobedience

Discovering Murakami

Disoriented: Creating a Platform for Lives in Transit

Published Jan 12, 2021   Copyright 2021 Yuma Terada

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