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“Ghost in the Shell” and a Brief Herstory of Whitewashing

Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell

During its opening weekend, the anticipated yet controversial film “Ghost in the Shell” took home a measly $19 million at the domestic box office. Both domestically and abroad, it’s expected to lose over $60 million total, and that’s got to hurt.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the whitewashing controversy that has followed the film since its casting choices were first announced. Perhaps, by now, you’ve even heard of its bizarre narrative ending that, as The New York Times puts it, “isn’t just appropriation, but obliteration.” That said, we imagine you, too, may have the same question that family and friends have constantly asked us: Why does Hollywood continue to miscast race — and what makes studios think they can successfully get away with it?

The “easy” answer is that, historically, they always have — we don’t need to tell you about Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” or Katharine Hepburn in the Oscar-nominated “Dragon Seed.” What’s more difficult is understanding when (and why) yellow face and whitewashing became synonymous with, as Paramount domestic distribution chief Kyle Davies less-than-tactfully just put it, finding a balance between “honoring source material and [making] a movie for a mass audience.” And, just like all matters in Hollywood, this becomes even more complicated when one considers where female stars, female autonomy, and racial tropes specifically fit into this conversation.

Yellow Face: Romance, Desire, and Fear

Mary Pickford in “Madame Butterfly

Though the western image of the Asian woman on the screen may have shifted across spectrums of time, its historical construction has assured its perpetual relationship with the notion of yellow peril. In her book “Romance and the ‘Yellow Peril,’” Gina Marchetti historically traces yellow peril as a 19th-century European concept that, according to Marchetti, “combines racist terror of alien cultures, sexual anxieties, and the belief that the West will be overpowered and enveloped by the irresistible, dark, occult forces of the East.”

In early Hollywood, this was best represented by cinematic romances between the “moral white man” and the “eroticized native woman.” The only way to “properly” reconstruct taboo interracial romances on the screen was through — you’ve guessed it — yellow face. With a little makeup and prosthetics, Caucasian actresses could transform into Asian characters who, more often then not, embodied the supposed seductiveness of the East.

Ironically, Paramount Pictures adopted this tactic as early as 1915 by casting Mary Pickford in “Madame Butterfly.” Pickford’s Japanese character falls in love with a westernized man, and their “racially forbidden” love ends in tragedy. The application of yellow face acts as a reassurance to western ideals: Though, narratively, The Butterfly may obtain the affections of the westernized man, the audience needs not distance itself from this taboo. In reality, it is a love between a Caucasian man and a Caucasian woman, rather than a “true” mixing of the West with the “alien cultures” of the East.

Myrna Loy in “The Mask of Fu Manchu

Yellow face is also arguably responsible for the now-infamous Hollywood image of the erotic Asian woman. Amidst an Asian persona, actresses were able to embrace and reveal a sexual identity that would otherwise be deemed immoral. In a way, some saw this as a rare career opportunity to show something different — and doesn’t that remind you of Johansson’s contemporary comments regarding her own casting?

Before she was the beloved Mrs. Charles of “The Thin Man” series, Myrna Loy embraced this “opportunity” throughout many of her silent films, including “The Crimson City” (in which she was chosen over Anna May Wong), “Thirteen Women,” and “The Mask of Fu Manchu.” Opposite a yellow faced Boris Karloff in “The Mask of Fu Manchu,” Loy plays a “half-naked nymphomaniacal sadist who reaches orgasmic heights when torturing white males.” Thus, in Loy’s case, an “Asian mask” is used to explore both racial stereotypes and female sexual desire — but at a distance guaranteed and controlled by whiteness itself.

Gale Sondergaard and Bette Davis in “The Letter

The 1940s was also full of “rare opportunity” — not for artistry, but rather for country. William Wyler’s “The Letter” stands as one of the first filmic examples of “reaffirmed” yellow peril that persisted throughout World War II. This is seen through deliberate ramifications related to both the script and whitewashed casting — interestingly enough, in the 1929 original, the lead Asian protagonist is actually played by an Asian actress.

Gale Sondergaard’s role as a sinister wife (to Bette Davis’ “other woman”) is far from Pickford’s Butterfly or the overly sexualized Loy — she is truly a figure to be feared and despised, as opposed to conquered or desired. Sondergaard’s character is described as an “oriental villainous snake” deliberately juxtaposed against Davis’ “westernized and pure” feminine woman. Not only is the trope of the “bad Asian” employed and intensified, but the choice to hire a Caucasian actress is directly tied to the the anti-Asian sentiment of the Second World War. Sadly, this 1940s need for audience “familiarity and comfort” speaks volumes to where we still are today.

It’s 2017… We’re Still Talking About This?

Credit: Mdsc

For better or worse, this early industrial history offers a brief glimpse of understanding into this, frankly, screwed up Hollywood mentality.

Just last year, the Media, Diversity, and Social Change (Mdsc) Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that “at least half or more of all cinematic, television, or streaming stories fail to portray one speaking or named Asian or Asian American on screen.” Over 17 million people in the United States identify as Asian or Asian American. That’s over five percent of the country’s population!

The idea that actually casting Asian characters in Asian roles would repel a mass audience is a dated, Euro-centric cop-out. Newsflash: we don’t always need a Swinton or Stone.

Ghost in the Shell

As for Johansson, The Mary Sue said it best: “she’s one of those few female stars who can open a film, make a huge paycheck, and has a certain level of decision-making power.” Now, let us start by saying that, obviously, we at Women and Hollywood love nothing more than watching other women succeed.

That said, like her predecessors before her, the color of Johansson’s skin grants her a level of star power and opportunity that few others could access or afford. The mere fact that she even can consider her “Ghost in the Shell” character “identity-less” speaks to her racial privilege. Her comments related to this film have consistently (and frustratingly) proven that this history—that whitewashing enables actresses to safely explore personas or opportunities they wouldn’t seek otherwise — is very much ingrained into the media’s industrial mindset.

If producers and studio executives refuse to evolve their ways, then it is up to those of us who have power (like Johansson) to fight for greater intersectionality. Women must lift other women up, and white actresses, in particular, must learn to see past personal opportunity and instead acknowledge that some “unique experiences” simply do not belong to them.

Ghost in the Shell” and a Brief Herstory of Whitewashing was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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'If Ever I Would Leave You,' List-Making... It wouldn't be in November

On this day in history as it relates to the movies...

1859 Billy the Kid, future legendary outlaw, is born. He's been played in movies and TV by actors like Buster Crabbe, Hugh O'Brian, Paul Newman, Clu Galager, Val Kilmer, and perhaps most famously by Kris Kristofferson, BAFTA nominated for Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973)

1887 Boris Karloff, villainous movie icon (Frankenstein, The Mask of Fu Manchu, Scarface, etcetera) is born

1888 Harpo Marx is born
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Chandu the Magician

Hissable villain Bela Lugosi is in denial --- no, it's actually star Edmund Lowe who is in the Nile, deep-sixed in a sunken sarcophagus. Lugosi's up top trying to get his art deco death ray in running order -- opposed only by some nubile babes and a Great White Hypnotist from the Swami school of mind control. Chandu the Magician Blu-ray Kl Studio Classics 1932 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 71 min. / Street Date August 23, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95 Starring Edmund Lowe, Irene Ware, Bela Lugosi, Herbert Mundin, Henry B. Walthall, Weldon Heyburn, June Lang, Michael Stuart, Virginia Hammond. Cinematography James Wong Howe Art Direction Max Parker Written by Barry Conners, Philip Klein, Guy Bolton, Bradley King, Harry Segall from a radio drama by Harry A. Earnshaw, Vera M. Oldham, R.R. Morgan Directed by William Cameron Menzies, Marcel Varnel

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Around 2008 Fox Home Video made a last big push with genre releases on DVD,
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Luise Rainer as O-Lan in The Good Earth This Weekend at Webster University

“Hunger makes men mad.”

The Good Earth (1937) screen this Friday through Sunday (May 13th-15th) at Webster University’s Moore Auditorium (470 E. Lockwood, Webster Groves, Mo 63119). The film begins each evening at 8:00.

They just don’t cast enough Caucasian actresses in yellow-face drag anymore! Katherine Hepburn in Dragon Seed, Myrna Loy in The Mask Of Fu Manchu, and (my favorite) French Hammer starlet Yvonne Monlaur in The Terror Of The Tongs all proved that a little scotch tape behind the eyes is all it takes to change one’s ethnicity! German-born actress Luise Rainer won her second consecutive Oscar (her first was for The Great Ziegfeld) in 1937 for playing O-Lan in The Good Earth opposite Paul Muni as her husband Wang Lung. Producer Irving Thalberg had originally planned on casting Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong as O-Lan but once Muni was hired, he knew the Hays Office would not
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Karloff Enters! The Black Cat (1934)

By 1934 Boris Karloff was certainly no stranger to great movie entrances. In 1931, under the direction of James Whale, he seared his image, and that of the monstrous creation of Dr. Henry Frankenstein, into the collective consciousness by shuffling on screen and staring down his creator, and of course the terrified audience, embodying and fulfilling unspeakable nightmares. Frankenstein, an instant phenomenon, was one of 16 pictures Karloff made that were released in 1931.

And in the following year, 1932, in addition of Howard HawksScarface, Whale’s The Old Dark House and Charles Brabin’s The Mask of Fu Manchu, Karloff had another terrifying entrance in cinematographer-turned-director Karl Freund’s horror landmark The Mummy. As the title fiend, Imhotep, Karloff is first glimpsed in full bandage, sarcophagus laid open behind an unfortunate archaeologist who, engrossed in the parchments he’s discovered, doesn’t notice the mummy’s arm slide down from its bound position.
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Today is Boris Karloff’s Birthday – Here Are His Ten Best Films

Article by Jim Batts, Dana Jung, and Tom Stockman

No other actor in the long history of horror has been so closely identified with the genre as Boris Karloff, yet he was as famous for his gentle heart and kindness as he was for his screen persona. William Henry Pratt was born on November 23, 1887, in Camberwell, London, England. He studied at London University in anticipation of a diplomatic career; however, he moved to Canada in 1909 and joined a theater company where he was bit by the acting bug. It was there that he adopted the stage name of “Boris Karloff.” He toured back and forth across the USA for over ten years in a variety of low-budget Theater shows and eventually ended up in Hollywood. Needing cash to support himself, Karloff landed roles in silent films making his on-screen debut in Chapter 2 of the 1919 serial The Masked Rider. His big
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Send in the Clouds: James Benning's "Farocki"

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"Charlie Brackett summed it up beautifully, I think, when he said that in Europe you could open a picture with clouds, dissolve slowly to clouds, and dissolve again to more clouds. In America, though, he said, you open with clouds, you then dissolve to an airplane, and in the next shot the airplane's gotta explode." —John Sturges

“The black sky was underpinned with long silver streaks that looked like scaffolding and depth on depth behind it were thousands of stars that all seemed to be moving very slowly as if they were about some vast construction work that involved the whole universe and would take all time to complete. No one was paying attention to the sky.” —Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood

Who'd be a haruspex? In ancient Rome, members of this holy profession pored over the entrails of freshly slaughtered animals, seeking portents among blood and guts. Divination as a
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Top Ten Tuesday – The Best of Boris Karloff

Article by Jim Batts, Dana Jung, and Tom Stockman

No other actor in the long history of horror has been so closely identified with the genre as Boris Karloff, yet he was as famous for his gentle heart and kindness as he was for his screen persona. William Henry Pratt was born on November 23, 1887, in Camberwell, London, England. He studied at London University in anticipation of a diplomatic career; however, he moved to Canada in 1909 and joined a theater company where he was bit by the acting bug. It was there that he adopted the stage name of “Boris Karloff.” He toured back and forth across the USA for over ten years in a variety of low-budget Theater shows and eventually ended up in Hollywood. Needing cash to support himself, Karloff landed roles in silent films making his on-screen debut in Chapter 2 of the 1919 serial The Masked Rider. His big
See full article at WeAreMovieGeeks.com »

Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: "The Shanghai Gesture" (von Sternberg, 1941)

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Robert Benayoun, in his essay "Zaroff, or, The Prosperities of Vice:""Authentic sadistic cinema is not that which, through a vulgar display of brutality solicits the sadism of the spectator. It is a cinema in which discomfort, vague misgivings, a fascinated paralysis of mind and a twitching of the limbs exceed the frontiers of expectation, a cinema whose elective, even ceremonious climate remains, venomous and intoxicating, that of total perdition."

The essay's title is from the name of the lead villain in Cooper/Schoedsack's The Most Dangerous Game. The genre films Benayoun cites throughout the essay are among the choicest slices of surreal atmosphere-benders one could hope to have evoked. Game, Ulmer's The Black Cat, Brabin's The Mask of Fu Manchu, and more. And, of course, this film, a von Sternberg vision of unusual ferocity and oddness. The simple tale of a powerful man (Walter Huston), his spoiled, petulant, gorgeous daughter Victoria,
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