Scarlett Johansson Would Do Well to Remember Feminism Includes Race Issues, or It’s Not Feminism
The press tour for Ghost in the Shell has barely begun for Scarlett Johansson but before she goes any further she should do a lot of research on intersectional feminism.
Coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, intersectional feminism delves deeper. Feminism is working towards equality of the sexes but intersectional feminism says we need to remember our identities overlap, as do the systems of discrimination therein. Things like disability, gender, race, and more need to be part of the conversation to make sure we’re truly working towards equality.
Before diving into the Ghost in the Shell situation, I’d like to discuss some larger context when it comes to white women and feminism. It was devastating to hear 53% of white women in the United States voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. But I wasn’t surprised. “White feminism” tends to forget everyone else or, if they do remember others exist, put themselves first. Sometimes it’s ignorance, sometimes it’s not, but we’re all guilty of it.
White people in general, not only women, have a terrible habit of going on the offensive when intersectional topics are brought up. They don’t want to feel lumped in with a “bad group” but are too quick to say “not it!” instead of listening to different perspectives and learning. Ijeoma Oluo recently wrote “White People: I Don’t Want You To Understand Me Better, I Want You To Understand Yourselves,” which is a great look at this very topic. I recommend reading the whole thing but here’s a segment:
Because we have been trying, very, very hard, to show you. None of this — not a single word I’ve written in this essay or in my entire career — is new. People of color have been begging you to see what you are doing and why. We’ve been begging you to see what you came from and the true legacy you have inherited. We’ve begged you to see your boot on our necks as long as it’s been there.
Many were hoping for (expecting?) a big political statement from Lady Gaga at the Super Bowl half-time show this year. While her performance wasn’t devoid of a message, she didn’t stick her neck out like someone in her position easily could. Beyoncé, in her 2016 halftime performance, had an overt political statement to make and more to lose from it. White women, while still at a disadvantage in some areas, need to remember they hold a great deal of privilege. We need to use our voices to speak up on these issues and raise up marginalized voices.
That brings me to Johansson and her recent interview for the March issue of Marie Claire. The whitewashing conversation in Hollywood is getting louder with each passing day, and yet Hollywood keeps making gross missteps like Gods of Egypt. When Johansson was cast as Japanese character Major Motoko Kusanagi most of us who write about diversity and inclusion in Hollywood rolled our eyes once more. The actor has said in the past she wants people “to keep asking for diversity in Hollywood” but she hasn’t been great discussing it on her own. On the film’s controversy she told Marie Claire:
I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive. Also, having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity. Certainly, I feel the enormous pressure of that—the weight of such a big property on my shoulders.
If that sounds familiar to you, it should. Tilda Swinton said something just like that after Marvel’s Doctor Strange drew critiques over her casting as the Ancient One. “I wasn’t asked to play an Asian character, you can be very well assured of that,” she said. In her answer, Johansson skirts the whitewashing issue by apparently explaining she’s not literally playing another race (something that was allegedly toyed with at one point), she’s just playing whoever they’ve created for this film specifically, and ignores the fact that she took a role that should have gone to a woman of color. Of course the blame for this isn’t squarely on Johansson’s shoulders but also those of the producers and director. They wanted someone they felt was “bankable” and for Hollywood that just happens to always be white actors (go figure!) because those are the ones they consistently push in leading roles. But diversity sells! Female protagonists are not as rare as they used to be but Johansson needs to remember that rarer still are films with women of color in the lead roles.
Some felt it was hypocritical of Johansson to speak on feminism at the Women’s March if she was profiting off a role that should have gone to a WOC. In her speech she focused mostly on Planned Parenthood but said “first I ask that you support me,” of Trump. If the actor wants viewers to support her, perhaps she should remember intersectional feminism. The Women’s March was a great moment in history but it highlighted some of the problems feminism has had from the very beginning. From the Suffragettes fighting for white women to vote (issues recently highlighted thanks to the conversations surrounding the Hollywood film Suffragette), LGBTQ+ individuals being excluded from their role in Stonewall (also recently highlighted in discussions around the Hollywood film Stonewall), or disability issues being an after-thought 99% of the time.
In comparison, Ashley Judd’s speech at the Women’s March used 19-year-old Nina Donovan’s poem “Nasty Woman” which mention the inequalities still very real in our country. But she made a slight alteration considering fellow actor Johansson was also in attendance.
I’m nasty like the fight for wage equality. Scarlett Johansson, why were the female actors paid less than half of what the male actors earned last year? See, even when we do go into higher-paying jobs, our wages are still cut with blades sharpened by testosterone. Why is the work of a black woman and a Hispanic woman worth only 63 and 54 cents of a white man’s privileged daughter? This is not a feminist myth. This is inequality.
It wasn’t meant as a call-out of the actor specifically but in a way it was. In the Marie Clair interview they asked Johansson about how she feels being the highest-grossing women in Hollywood. “Just because I’m the top-grossing actress of all time does not mean I’m the highest paid. I’ve had to fight for everything that I have,” she said. Many may scoff at discussions on the wage gape in Hollywood considering the amount of money at play there in general but it’s a good way to give it attention. Johansson isn’t so sure.
Some people felt I should talk about my personal struggle in order to shed a spotlight on the greater issue. Maybe I’m being presumptuous, but I assumed it was obvious that women in all positions struggle for equality. It’s always an uphill battle and fight. My experience with my close female friends and family is that the struggle is real for everybody. Everyone has been discriminated against or harassed—sexism is real.
While it’s true, all women struggle for equality, she could focus on how all women are not an an equal playing field. It’s what makes her thoughts on using her position to speak politically, in the small way she has, so frustrating. “[I believe] that it is really important to hear people in various positions of power voice their opinions, their story,” she told Marie Claire. “Why not? Why can’t I have the voice? Why can’t I use my platform? What’s the point of having it if you don’t use it?” Indeed.
I know Johansson is in a difficult position but it’s one she willingly walked into. Many will say it’s ridiculous to think she’d turn down a role like this but she has no shortage of work offers, she could have been the one to make a statement by saying no to the role and suggesting one of the many talented Asian actors working today. Ghost in the Shell hits theaters next month but Johansson is going to be getting tough questions about this role for a long time. The best thing she could do now is speak to the feminist issues at play in Hollywood including projects passing over people of color time after time, including the film she’s starring in, and why that’s bad.