Hollywood’s most recent racial controversy is rooted in the upcoming film “Ghost in the Shell,” a remake of the 1995 original Japanese film and adaptation of the cyberpunk manga series.
Golden Globe winning actress Scarlett Johansson plays the main character, Major Motoko Kusanagi a Japanese cyborg detective. The misrepresentation of this Japanese heroine has led fans to create a petition for DreamWorks pictures to reconsider pale, pin-up-figured Johansson as the lead role.
As of March 24 at 3:16 p.m., the petition has received 44,044 of its 45,000 signatures quota, according to thepetitionsite.com.
Larry Smith, an accomplished producer, publicist and film professor at California State University, Long Beach, studies the ethnic and gender misrepresentation of indigenous peoples in entertainment.
“You can do what you want; if you own the copyrights, you own the culture,” Smith said, nodding toward the handful of mass media companies that “own American culture” via copyright law. “So if you own the culture and the culture is told from a white, male-dominated perspective or male-centered perspective, then all the narratives are going to get repeated and rooted in this foundation of a white, male-centered perspective.”
Women of color in Hollywood are also victims of discrimination despite having box-office success. According to the Representation Project, an organization dedicated to challenging stereotypes in society through media, out of the 500 top box office films of all time only six feature a protagonist who is a woman of color.
The six films were “Sister Act,” “Pocahontas,” “Mulan,” “Spirited Away,” “Lilo & Stitch” and “The Princess and the Frog.”
“One other dynamic that’s important to look at besides ethnic representations, is gender representations,” Smith said. “There’s vast inequity in terms of gender, from the production side as well as the content side.”
The film, “Sister Act,” starring Whoopi Goldberg who is an African American, is the only live action film out of the six mentioned. The film was also made over 20 years ago.
Despite the fact that women fall into the on-screen, underrepresentation category, Smith mentioned that their dwindling numbers are not comparable to misrepresentation of ethnic groups.
“Women are underrepresented substantially but I think if you’re going to produce a film that’s Japanese in nature, you should hire Japanese actors and actresses,” Smith said. “I think there’s an obligation to the studios and that’s another issue.”
Smith also mentions that Americans are accustomed to simplify the way we categorize ethnic groups for example, Asian Americans. This categorization of ethnic groups benefits the ignorance of Hollywood films when it comes to casting.
“When we say Asian American, what does that mean? We have Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, Cambodian Americans, Vietnamese Americans and the list goes on,” Smith said. “Can you hire Lucy Liu who’s a Chinese American to play a Japanese character? You’re going to say I respect her and the work that she’s done, but she’s not Japanese; there’s a clear, distinct difference.”
According to the 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, in 2012 to 2013 the Asian ethnicity represents 4 percent of the roles in broadcast scripted shows. Minorities altogether represented only 19 percent compared to whites, who represented the remaining 81 percent of roles in broadcasted shows.
Sophomore electronic arts major and president of CSULB’s film club, Fran Portillo, is one of many people laboring for change in ethnic representation in Hollywood entertainment.
“It’s very disappointing as a minority myself, as a Hispanic American. The statistic itself doesn’t surprise me, but how it makes me feel proves to me that there needs to be some sort of action taken towards changing that,” Portillo said. “As a minority myself, it’s almost a responsibility to try and get us more represented out there in mainstream media.”
As Hollywood figures out how to deal with the backlash, advocates for ethnic representation like Smith will continue to stand in the frontlines as he did in the ‘90s, going against Disney’s original release of “Pocahontas” and Fox for their lack of diversity in content.
“There’s always exceptions but the exceptions don’t represent equanimity and diversity,” Smith said. “It’s a drop in the bucket; it’s tokenism at its best—or at its worse if you will.”