Orientalism and the Ghost in Hollywood’s Shell

I.

The term “ghost in the machine” was coined in 1949 by British philosopher Gilbert Ryle as a critique of Cartesian dualism. Ryle rejected the notion that the body was little more than a ‘machine” operated by the independent “ghost” of the human mind, arguing instead that the two were fundamentally interconnected. Over the ensuing decades, the phrase gained popularity within philosophy, notably with the publication of Arthur Koestler’s 1967 book of the same name, and eventually seeped into popular culture and language.

Ryle’s phrase inspired the title of Shirow Masamune’s Ghost in the Shell, a science fiction manga and anime that imagines a future Japan in which human “ghosts” could be transplanted into biological robot “shells.” Ghost in the Shell questions what happens to the category of human when the physical distinctions between people and machines disappear. It was lauded internationally in literary and artistic circles as a powerful existentialist meditation on transhumanism, and has served as the inspiration for other films of a similar premises and philosophic bent, most notably the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix trilogy.

While Shirow’s classic has become one of the most beloved and respected mangas of all time, it would appear that Rupert Sanders’ Paramount Pictures-backed live-action adaptation fails to measure up. When it was released this past weekend, Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell failed to earn back even half of its $110 million budget, performing so dismally that it inspired Vanity Fair to question whether this was the “nail in the coffin” of Hollywood’s long tradition of whitewashing.

It’s certainly true that Ghost in the Shell is not the only recent film to have its box office performance undercut by whitewashing controversy (Exodus: Gods and Kings, Pan, Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot, The Last Airbender, Aloha). However, the thesis of whitewashing as box office bomb doesn’t hold up when you look at all instances. Despite tremendous controversy, Great Wall, starring Matt Damon, ended up grossing $330 million (only about $50 million was domestically, but still). Marvel’s Doctor Strange raked in $677 million in total, along with a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Kubo and the Two Strings scored two Oscar nominations while earning back its budget with a $15 million profit. Even the much-maligned and critically panned Gods of Egypt didn’t perform too badly at the box office, ultimately bringing in $150 million on a $140 million budget.

Though it may be tempting to declare Ghost in the Shell the swan song of whitewashing in Hollywood, the evidence would suggest such a proclamation is likely premature. While it’s certainly true that no great movie has ever been created because of whitewashing, the success of a few recent titles is likely to buoy the practice’s viability in the boardroom for some time to come. After all, we all still have to watch Death Note, obviously.

II.

            The American entertainment industry serves as a site of production for the mythologies that underpin modernity. The symbols, archetypes, metanarratives, paradigms and values that comprise the constellation of what present-day imperialists refer to as “globalized culture” are propagated and perpetuated through Hollywood’s creations. As such, it is no wonder that Hollywood itself should be so thoroughly steeped in White supremacy, the weakest of teas.

There is a perverse sort of poetry to the fact that Ghost in the Shell should come stumbling and crashing in at the end of a litany of recent films that whitewash Asian characters (Great Wall, Iron Fist, Doctor Strange, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot in the last 12 months alone). After all, what we are dealing with when it comes to whitewashing, representation, and power in Hollywood has less to do with a set of symptomatic attitudes and practices, and much more to do with the industry’s own ghost and shell.

“The ghost in the machine” was always intended as a statement supporting the indivisibility of body and mind. And so, the “ghost” and the “machine” or “shell,” as it were, of Hollywood are similarly inseparable. That is to say, what we are dealing with here is, at once, a question of semiotics, the “ghost,” and of structure, the “shell.”

The Shell

85% of the entire American movie industry is dominated by just six major studios. All but one of these movie studios (Columbia Pictures, owned by Sony) are owned by the six corporations that have an aggregate market share of over 90% of all American media. These media conglomerates have predominantly White cishetero male founders, CEOs, chairpersons and board members (some of whom hold multiple board positions in multiple industries). The vast majority of these media conglomerates’ executives, directors, writers, and producers are White, cishetero men.

It should therefore be no surprise that the entertainment industry routinely white and ciswashes characters, and traffics in stereotypical and degrading portrayals of marginalized peoples. Increasingly harsh criticism and financial consequences might seem like sufficient incentive to open up the Old Boys’ Club. Yet, this ignores that such intentionally segregated enterprises were created for the express purpose of profit and empowerment through exclusion and exploitation. The Old Boys’ Club exists for the sake of self-service; so long as it has stories to tell, those stories will be for and by its historical members. To upend that would be to destroy its very purpose.

The Ghost

The myths of a society reflect its values (which may themselves be distinct from those of the individuals that comprise it). Hollywood’s racism reflects the ubiquitous tropes that inform nearly all dimensions of modernity. The assumed normativity of Whiteness informs the notion that all protagonists must be White. Orientalism informs the notion that all stories originating outside of an imagined White West must be filtered through the lens of a White narrator or creative. To quote Edward Said:

From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of [the Western expert’s] work (Said 283).

One of the starkest things about whitewashing in Hollywood, especially in the past decade but beginning in the early 20th Century, is the disproportionate whitewashing of Orientals (a term I can use, unlike Roy Thomas). This is not to say that whitewashing does not occur with other people of color. However, the specific occurrence of stories and characters being “adapted” to White Western settings and actors does occur with greater frequency when such stories and characters are Oriental.

This results from the position of Orientalized peoples in US and global racial hierarchies. Anti-Blackness organizes the Oriental into a liminal space. Orientals of all perceived geographic and cultural groups (Middle Eastern and North African, South Asian, Southeast Asian, East Asian, Pacific Islander) were/are collectively identified as a discrete category of (almost) people by our alleged (varying degrees of) distinction from Whiteness and Blackness, from humanity and unhumanity.

The liminal position of the Oriental renders our stories and characters more easily “adaptable” into Whiteness. If the Orient is the West’s civilizational opposite, the mirror in which it sees through the Other into its Self, there must be a boundary of “civilization” against which both of these will be defined. The Orient is thus deemed worthier of fetishization because of our supposed distance from Blackness. The notion of a “civilized” Orient being propped up against a supposedly “uncivilized” Blackness reflects the logic of the model minority myth. The fingerprints of both can be observed in the kinds of films made and distributed by Western media entities about Orientals. We are either depicted as compliant and nonpolitical insiders, or as outsiders of some variation—hostile, seductive, wretched, or mystical.

The use of Orientals, of all people of color, and our stories in White Western media is strictly governed by the general precepts which organize our racialization. Yet the entertainment industry is no passive replicator of racist tropes. It has been, for at least the past century, one of the most active and literal designers, authors, producers, and directors of these controlling images. The persistent decision to replace Orientals with the Matt Damons and Scarlett Johannssons of the world is as much the result of “unconscious” bias as it is an active reproduction of colonial paradigms. The people implicated within Hollywood choose racism repeatedly because this aligns with their economic and sociopolitical investments in structures of oppression. The ghost is not separate from its shell.

III.

Hollywood’s racism is a question of both semiotics and structure, the ghost and its shell—both shaped by its investment in the other and by the fundamental antagonisms of global modernity. Rather than seeing the problem as arising from one of a pair of discrete categories, it is necessary to recognize the ways that the ghost remains in dialogue with the shell. It is the semiotics that makes the structure, and vice versa. To address one, then, cannot be accomplished without addressing the other.

Any solution to this issue of whitewashing in Hollywood must go beyond simple, vague, and unenforceable “commitments to diversity” and other such exercises in liberal lip-service. To acknowledge that Hollywood’s problems with racism are inherent is to shift the discourse from one of reforming practices and attitudes to one of dismantling and reconstructing culture, institutions, and indeed, the White West’s very sense of self. This reframing is necessary if we are to redirect our energies away from a nebulous and desultory notion of “diversity” and towards a project of emancipation and justice. For what we are trying to achieve is not just a matter of representation, but of ownership and artistic and political self-determination. We do not need to be brought to the table, or to be magically rendered un-voiceless from on high by the benevolent powers that be. We already have voices; we have always had voices. It is time that we acquired the means to amplify ourselves.

 

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