Well, Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson is in movie theaters now. As far as plot goes, it’s effectively a “lite” version of the original animated movie. It slavishly recreates a few of the more iconic scenes from that movie, though saddles it with an “evil corporation cyber-weapon” plot effectively lifted wholesale from Robocop (but without benefit of the biting satire from that movie) and “origin stories” for things that should have been left unexplained the way they were in the original. It’s not really a terrific movie, but at least it’s got pretty eye candy that looks great in 3D IMAX.

But the thing everyone is more likely to remember about the movie is the controversy over the Hollywood “whitewashing” of most of the main cast. While the movie did attempt to make the casting of a white actress to play what was originally a Japanese role into an important plot point, it felt more like an attempt to excuse it after the fact than a legitimate reason. And it’s not the only such case to pop up in recent history. Netflix’s Americanized adaptation of the anime Death Note is coming in for the same kind of complaints. Before that, there was the changed ethnicity of The Ancient in Doctor Strange, and the decision to make the Iron Fist TV series about a Caucasian character the same way its original comic book was. Writer-director John Ridley sees a double standard at work in the way Hollywood wants to keep Iron Fist “faithful to the comic book” but not Ghost in the Shell.

I certainly don’t defend the practice of whitewashing. Avatar: The Last Airbender was one of my favorite cartoons, and we all know what a travesty the casting of that movie was. I would like to see more Asian-American actors playing originally-Asian character roles. But it seems to me there’s another kind of double standard at work here.

What I want to know is, why is it important enough that we cast Asian-American actors in parts that have something to do with Asian culture that we make a fuss when it doesn’t happen…but not important enough that we make a fuss when it doesn’t happen in ordinary every-day movies about generic American cultural matters?

It seems just a little bit patronizing that we’re so anxious to have Asian-Americans playing parts in Asian-themed movies, but you hardly hear anything about not enough Asian-Americans being cast in other sorts of roles.

I know that obviously whitewashed movies provide a convenient target for ire, and it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease and all that. But only making that kind of noise when it’s a role that “should” be cast Asian, rather than when it’s any kind of role period, leads to the same sort of obvious stereotyping recounted in “Nobody’s Asian in the Movies” from the Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog musical commentary.

Without the Asians in the movies
Without Asians on TV
Who’d play the goofy mathematician
The computer technician
A wise old healer from Japan
A short but wealthy businessman
Sell Korean groceries
Do your laundry thank you, prrease
We’re the victims of a crime
We’ll be loving you long time
If your movie is a bore just
Watch the groupie in the chorus
That’s me

We should do better.

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