A little buzz is being kicked up now about Netflix’s new Marvel series. Iron Fist. People are calling the casting decision racist, as Iron Fist is played by Finn Jones – a white man. People are calling this racist, as the comic is vaguely about Asian culture and mysticism. There’s also a little buzz being kicked up about Ghost in The Shell and the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as The Major.
I’ll be honest, I have never interacted with either of these media forms before, so I have little to no idea what The Major is or what Iron Fist is really about. However I still think there are some things that need to be discussed about the western media industry. So we shall do it!
First of all, lets take Iron Fist. People are crying out “but why you no cast Asian!?” in response to the casting of Finn Jones, however even a cursory glance at Iron Fist on Google will tell you something really important. Iron Fist is, and always has been, a lineage, or title. It’s bestowed upon people – in this case – ones whose parents died in a plane crash and became orphaned in Asia. This is Daniel Rand, his friends call him Danny – as does most everyone else too.
Danny is one of many people who have been given the Iron Fist title. Other Iron Fists include Quan Yaozu, Li Park, Bei Ming-Tian, Wu Ao-Shi, Bei Bang-Wen, Kwai Jun-Fan, Fongji, and Orson Randall who was Danny’s immediate predecessor as Iron Fist and Wah Sing-Rand, a descendant of Danny from the year 3099. However Danny was the first and is white. Why? Because of the audience he would predominately be sold to during the year of 1974.
Is it racist whitewashing to cast a white person as a white character? Is it racist for Marvel to have made this character white in the first place? Absolutely not on both counts. Well, unless you want to victim blame a fictional orphan for his parents dying in a mysterious city that only appears every so many years in the Himalayas somewhere. You gonna victim blame bro?
Next up is Ghost in the Shell. ScarJo’s “The Major” character, again, from cursory glances at Google, is a Japanese woman. She is one Motoko Kusanagi and is drawn in an Anime style, for a Japanese audience. Ghost in the Shell, being released in 1989 – pre-internet, making the international media industry barely existent. To get something like this in Europe you would have to first find some way to translate it – either dubs or subs – then ship physical copies out. This is pretty costly and risky for a really uncertain market, especially given the bad quality of both dubs and subs back then.
ScarJo was likely picked because of her, and I can’t believe I have to type this unironically, star power. She’s a huge name in Hollywood right now, and that’s a really big deal for movie producers. Why? Well think about it… What was the last film you watched? Describe it to me? Yeah, I know you can’t actually do that, but chances are one of the first few things you thought about was who was in it. I recently watched Doctor Strange – as soon as I think about it I also think about Benedict Cumberbatch. I think about Tilda Swinton. I think about Mads Mikkelsen. I think about Ch…Ch….the black guy. Chiwetel Ejiofor – a name I only know how to pronounce because of YouTube videos.
These are pretty big selling points to films, and its pretty usual for Hollywood to cast big names in obscure films to attract more people. Ghost in The Shell is very much obscure for the western world, the vast majority of people will never have heard of it. However, they will go and watch it because ScarJo is in it. You can even see this in film posters, its called the “billing order” and also movie posters are called “one sheets”.
See all of those names? They’re in that order for a reason – its not just random. Check it out with almost any poster ever, you’ll see the same kind of ‘media language’ used. A pattern will emerge, right down to the typeface used. Letters tend to be longer than they are wide at the bottom of the poster.
Would I call casting ScarJo as racist? Nope. It’s a film for a western audience, an obscure film that people likely wouldn’t have seen had it been a wholly Asian cast. Off the top of my head I can only think of a handful of films I’ve seen that were wholly Asian – they really don’t seem to do that well in the western world. Though do check out Kung-Fu Hustle and House of Flying Daggers sometime. Pretty amazing stuff. With the consideration that the film is intended for Western viewers – I don’t think the decision to cast ScarJo is really about being prejudice against a race. It’s just about trying to get the biggest name to carry the film.
On the flipside actually, I think both of these films are important gateways into Asian culture for non-asian people. Its totally the opposite of racist if its handled well and isn’t just making a mockery of their culture. If its handled well, people might want to experience more of Asian culture in the media, someone might watch Ghost in the Shell and think “that was cool, I might give the anime a try!” – I wouldn’t even be surprised if it was already having a positive effect on their sales. Isn’t that amazing? Why are you all trying to hate on a good thing here?
As the old adage goes, any publicity is good publicity, and until we live in a world where everyone is already totally aware of all international media – which is unlikely as heck. We’re just going to have to deal with people using big celebrities to carry obscure films and hope for the best that it helps people get more involved with other culture’s media. Personally I think that’s a net gain for everyone involved and whining about it isn’t going to make it go away.
Lets just hope its a good film/series eh?