As you have probably noticed, the United States is more diverse and socially conscious than ever before. Between Black Lives Matter and the women’s marches that have been happening all over the world, social justice movements have been working toward equal rights and opportunities for different races, genders, and other disadvantaged groups, and it’s working! The effects of these movements can be seen in films and mainstream culture. Movies such as Black Panther(2018), Crazy Rich Asians(2018), Wonder Woman(2017), Love Simon(2018), and Coco(2017)are only a few examples of the greater representation of racial minorities, women, and the LGBT community in leading roles.
Despite all of the progress being made, there are still many films receiving criticism for “whitewashing” their casts or choosing actors who are not ethnically or otherwise appropriate to portray the roles of more diverse characters. For instance, if you have not seen the film Aloha(2015), Emma Stone plays the character Allison Ng who is supposed to be of Hawaiian and Chinese descent. Many critics and movie-goers were upset that the filmmakers chose a white actress over an Asian actress to play the role. Other recent works accused of whitewashing include The Great Wall(2015), Pan(2015), and The Lone Ranger(2013).
One specific actress who has become infamous for taking roles away from minorities is Scarlett Johansson. From her role in Ghost in the Shell(2017) to the Rub & Tug (TBD) casting controversy, Johansson has become the face of the representation problem in Hollywood. This issue is and has always been prevalent in the film industry, however, in the age of social media and internet culture, online discussions on platforms such as Twitter allow the issue to be debated publicly and can even influence how movies perform at the box office or determine whether or not actors stay in a role after being cast. The conversation surrounding Johansson and the aftermath of these conversations show the impact that social media has on the film industry.
In early 2015, Scarlett Johansson was cast as Motoko Kusanagi for the movie Ghost in the Shell, which was meant to serve as a live-action adaptation of the anime franchise of the same title. Since the property was originally Japanese and the main character had a Japanese name, the casting announcement quickly began to receive criticism for casting Johansson to play a role that could have been played by a Japanese actress. Because the Asian community is highly underrepresented in American film, Ghost in the Shell could have provided an opportunity for talent who would not have otherwise been cast in a leading role to get the chance to play a character of their own ethnicity. Instead, Paramount Pictures most likely selected an actress like Johansson to portray the character because she is already an established name in Hollywood and would likely attract more movie-goers than a new face.
At first, the negative reactions to this casting were minimal, but, as the premiere date of the movie approached, people became more vocal about their disapproval toward Johansson in the role. In response to an article written about the racial controversy of The Great Wall, Twitter user Carolyn Hinds had this to say:
Carolyn, among many others, chose to use her social media as a way to speak out against what she considers to be social injustice. By saying she will not be seeing the movie, Carolyn is protesting the whitewashing roles and showing support for the Asian community. Her tweet, however, was not met with unanimous agreement. Twitter user Jordan replied tweeting:
Like any other political or social debate, both sides of Johansson’s casting is represented on social media. Jordan’s comment shows that there are people who are defending films accused of whitewashing and that this is not a one-sided conversation. The argument continues with Carolyn responding:
Carolyn is not the only Twitter user to express their distaste for Ghost in the Shell. Joshua Luna created a political cartoon to provide commentary on the issue:
Like Carolyn, Joshua is resisting the film’s choice of Scarlett Johansson as the protagonist and encourages others to boycott the movie. His cartoon also highlights that the issue of whitewashing characters is a recurring trend by featuring other diverse animated characters who have also been portrayed by white actors in live-action adaptations.
Public protest of the film continues on the film’s official Twitter page. The following tweets are just some of the comments that can be found on tweets made by the Ghost in the Shell Twitter account:
The conversation also extends beyond the general public. Verified Twitter user Jen Yamato, a reporter for the LA Times with 34.4 thousand Twitter followers, also addresses the movie’s race problem by tweeting:
Even reputable reporters with large followings are commenting on the issue of diversity. Reactions such as these along with many news outlets covering the controversy lead to the film underperforming at the box office, making roughly $169 million globally despite having a budget of $110 million. While Paramount aimed to appeal to a broader audience by casting Johansson, the company ultimately suffered a loss of profit due to backlash.
A year after the release of Ghost in the Shell, Scarlett Johansson found herself in a similar situation, this time being accused of taking a potential role away from a transgender person. In early 2018, Johansson was up for the role of Tex Gill, a real-life trans man who was involved in several mob-related crimes in the 1970s, in the possible upcoming film Rub & Tug. Much like before, this casting choice sparked outrage in many who cite this as yet another instance of stripping meaningful opportunities away from marginalized groups of people such as the trans community.
Twitter user Chloe provides a link to an article regarding the negative response to Johansson being cast in the film, tweeting:
Chloe and others are showing frustration toward the film industry for insisting on choosing known actors over accurate actors to play dynamic characters. However, like before, others stand beside the actress, including Callum Smith who replies by commenting:
In addition to Chloe, others are also expressing their beliefs on social media. Some feel that a person does not have to fit the gender identity, race, or other specificities of a character in order to portray him or her. Anonymous Twitter user WALES in the MOVIES asks:
While this user does not actively agree with the resentment toward Johansson for taking on the part or toward filmmakers for offering the role to her, they are still willfully engaging in the broader conversation of race and gender representation in film. After debating with several Twitter users, WALES in the MOVIES, while not fully changing their position on the matter, considers and revisits the topic by tweeting:
Steve Allen, another Twitter user, chimes in on the debate, providing his own personal experience. Though he shows no opposition to Johansson playing the trans role, he is interested in being part of the discussion, tweeting:
Situations such as these allow people to participate in a discussion on diversity in which they may not have otherwise participated. Even jokes inspired by this topic brings light to the matter and allow people to better understand the concerns people have in regard to representation in Hollywood. Here’s a joke made by Michael Hernandez-Phillips:
Across social media, people are acknowledging a similar theme in the film industry when it comes to representation. While many people stood alongside Johansson in both cases of Ghost in the Shell and Rub & Tug, the discussion surrounding the issue of diversity in movies directly impacted the film industry. As mentioned, Ghost in the Shell did not make as much money as anticipated partly because of the public and press being wrapped up in the controversial casting. The backlash to the Rub & Tug casting announcement has caused Scarlett Johansson to drop out of the role. Because people are speaking out on issues of representations, Johansson and others, including actor Ed Skrein, who was set to play a character who was originally Asian in the comics for the upcoming 2019 adaptation Hellboy, are removing themselves from projects in order to give more suitable candidates the opportunity to fill the role (even self-preservation is their true motivation). While posting a tweet may seem trivial at first glance, social media and public conversations are bringing awareness to issues of race and gender and influence how films decide to cater to or ignore the demand for diversity.