Scarlett Johansson has built a name for herself as one of the most successful actresses in American history.
She was the highest paid actress, in terms of nominal dollars, in 2016 and 2017, and has been nominated for 80 awards during her time in Hollywood.
She has drawn considerable attention as of late, and not for her acting chops. The actress has been heavily criticized for her decision to accept roles portraying characters of color, despite being white herself.
In 2017, Johansson was cast as the female protagonist in Paramount’s cinematic adaption of the popular anime series “Ghost in a Shell.” The character Johannsson was cast to play is portrayed in the comics as being of Asian descent.
Critics called this decision by producers a glaring act of whitewashing in Hollywood. Whitewashing is a practice by the film industry, primarily in the United States, when a white actor or actress is cast in a historically non-white role.
This shameful practice stretches back to the earliest years of the film industry. Historically the lack of minority representation in Hollywood meant that roles calling for a minority actor or actress were played by a Caucasian who would attempt to pass as a minority using black-face or yellow-face.
Johansson spoke out about her decision to accept the 2017 role. She attempted to reframe the issue from one of race to one of gender. In an interview with Marie Claire she explained that “diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive.”.
She continued to justify her decision by suggesting it may be more important to increase female representation in films, by saying “having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity.”
Criticism of the film only grew when it became public knowledge that producers of the film had opted to use CGI (computer-generated imagery) to alter the physical appearance of Johansson and other whitewashed characters to make them “appear more Asian.”
This decision draws attention to the true villains of the issue — producers. Although it is certainly the job of actors and actresses to consider their roles in increasing minority representation, whitewashing is primarily perpetuated by producers.
Producers, directors, casting directors and others who choose the direction of film ultimately decide whether the final product will serve to increase minority representation, or maintain the institutionalized inequality experienced by minorities in the industry.
It is certainly within the scope of film executives concerns to produce a film that will be a hit in the box office, this does not mean they must sacrifice representation.
Casting big names like Scarlett Johansson will certainly draw an audience, but it is more important for film executives to acknowledge their roles in media and pop culture in order to use those roles as a tool for advancing societal good.