It can be easy to dismiss issues of representation in the abstract. Casting Scarlett Johansson as the lead in Ghost In The Shell was portrayed as part of the business, and many who criticised it as whitewashing were told they were over-reacting. After all, “it’s just a movie.” But as one video shows, there’s nothing abstract about it.
Chewy May and Jes Tom have released a short video called Ghost In The Shell PSA. The two-minute film centres around a young Asian girl struggling to find characters who look like her in a comic book shop. She’s surrounded by white heroines who she has trouble identifying with, and you can see how uncomfortable and isolated she feels. Then, she finds Ghost In The Shell. Fast forward several years, the young girl is now a strong, confident adult… that is, until the Scarlett Johansson poster brings out the child again.
“People don’t realise how whitewashing affects us as adults, and also our inner child that always wanted to see us represented,” May told io9. “I wanted to put a face and a story behind why people are angry, and to show why this affects us so much.”
In an interview with io9, Tom and May said their video was designed to show the real emotional weight behind whitewashing. They said it’s inspired by their own experiences growing up, as well as those of their friends and community. It’s really effective. It’s one thing to read a blog about why changing the name of the lead character from Mokoto to Mira is a bad thing, especially after promising to keep her as “The Major” to avoid controversy. It’s another to watch a young girl, alone, searching for one thing she can call her own… only to see it stolen away years later by outside forces. It’s an empathetic, real-world examination of what’s sometimes viewed, and dismissed, as a hypothetical problem.
“What we see in that last part of the video is, ‘Here I am, I’m here, it’s my world.’ Then I see this movie poster for Ghost In The Shell and now I’m that child again, and it’s not my world anymore,” Tom, who also played the adult lead, said.
Even though the video is focused on Asian-American whitewashing, it has a universal quality that translates to representation in race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other groups. In fact, Tom, a non-binary trans person, said they were surprised how many of their friends identified with the adult character for their gender identity and expression. It wasn’t intentional, since the wardrobe incorporated Tom’s personal style, but it ended up showing how varied and nuanced issues of representation are, and the importance of intersectionality in feminism. This is something Johansson previously dismissed when addressing the whitewashing controversy, saying her version of the story was more about feminism than race.
“You can’t just say feminism and then expect that, like, an image of a strong or powerful white woman is going to uplift all women,” Tom said. “Feminism is about race, it’s about sexual orientation, it’s about gender identity. That’s actually just erasing the issue and erasing the nuances of the story.”
The Ghost In The Shell PSA takes the issue of representation and makes it real, putting us in the shoes of someone who knows (and feels) the consequences of whitewashing. We may be talking about a fictional movie based on fictional characters, but as Tom and the tagline put it: “Movies aren’t real, but they affect real people.” Stories are a way we connect with the world, each other, and, most importantly, ourselves. Everyone should be a part of that story.