Day 101: Why the Ghost in the Shell controversy reminds me of OJ Simpson

Now that the dust has settled a bit, I feel like it’s the right time to express my thoughts on this matter. I’ve heard perspectives from multiple angles, and they’re all intelligent yet partial. The main variable that distinguishes one from the other — race.

Specifically, whether or not you grew up an Asian minority.

That’s why this entire debate reminds me of the OJ Simpson trial of the early 90’s. Yep, I’m going there. Bear with me — it will make sense.

Let’s start with one of the most contentious questions from nearly a quarter of a century ago…

Did O.J. Simpson murder Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman?

Your response to this question may depend on how you look at the situation. Do you prioritize the technical, or do you think more about the contextual?

Technical: the trail of blood, the history of domestic abuse, the bizarre white Ford Bronco chase up the 405— the facts strongly suggest that Simpson was involved in a brutal crime.

Contextual: there is an extensive history of lynching in this country. If a racist cop and some shaky evidence could bring down a football superstar, then the system is truly fixed against the black man.

When we are personally removed from a situation, we focus on the technical. When we are personally invested in a situation, we focus on the contextual.

I’m not here to provide an answer to that question, but I’ll say this much:

As a young Asian-American kid growing up in Oregon and not an African-American kid growing up in southern California, I did not have any access to the context. I opted to look at the situation in technical terms.

Should the filmmakers of ‘Ghost in the Shell’ have chosen Scarlett Johannson as Major Motoko Kusanagi?

The debate plays out in similar ways:

Technical: well, she’s a cyborg, and it seems that her features are largely Caucasian in design. It’s not exactly wrong to cast someone who physically looks like an anime character. (Check out the discussion on Quora here.) Furthermore, international audiences don’t seem to care about this issue.

Contextual: The whitewashing of Asian roles in Hollywood is so prevalent that it goes beyond the obscene. The fact that she was renamed to “The Major” is blatant enough. This is just one more role taken away from a talented Asian actor — one more move to make Asians feel more invisible.

Again, I’m still not going to provide a definite answer to that question. I can only say this:

As a young Asian-American kid growing up in Oregon, I am neck-deep in the context. I know what it’s like to be marginalized. I know what it feels like to be invisible. I know what it’s like to be better, smarter, and louder than everyone else around you, only to find the fruits of your labor go elsewhere.
I don’t care if it’s technically right — it’s still wrong to me.

In the end, films like this and other projects involving appropriation are proving to be failures. Might this be a sign that we want to see Asian faces in Asian stories, or could this hurt the ability for these stories to see the light of day?

That’s a post for another time.

— Lee

Update: My good friend and occasional bane of my existence Daniel Pehush informed me that the point I made in “the contextual” isn’t quite right. For those who have seen the film (I haven’t), The Major’s name is actually Mira Killian. To which I say ….