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.

(via I-D)

9 Responses to “Scarlett Johansson Would Do Well to Remember Feminism Includes Race Issues, or It’s Not Feminism”

  1. […] Jill Pantozzi identifies the problems in Scarlett Johannson’s arguments about race and feminism in…. […]

  2. That Which Dreams says:

    “… but she has no shortage of work offers…”
    I disagree with this. I feel that she’s fighting for her life here, professionally speaking. In the last two years she’s had six acting gigs. One of them was a minor character in a mini-series, two of them were voice work, and two of them were in the MCU. She’s getting pretty long in the tooth for a female actor in Hollywood, and her days as being able to play the Black Widow are coming to an end. I feel that Infinity War is the end of that character. Scarlet’s looking for a new IP to attach herself to, and hopefully ride for several years to come such as Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckinsale are doing.

  3. Alexa says:

    Honestly her career is going to suffer from this, I mean it did the minute she took the role. She really should have known better. And yes I am aware that people in Japan are fine with the casting, but here’s the thing Japanese films don’t have the problem of whitewashing, here stateside, we do. Its essentially a non issue there, while many PoC and NBPoC have to deal with all the time. I may be white, but I am so tired of how people of my race feeling like they can make all the decisions and feel like they’re not doing any harm, since I have listened to people who have been marginalized. Honestly just listen and learn and think about how your actions affect those surrounding you, since its something many people are incapable of considering…

  4. kai charles says:

    This is such a great piece and though the two comments above make valid points, I disagree with the concept of not speaking out or being outraged about this casting. Hollywood has had a long time to figure things out and it’s only now with the ability to speak loudly with social media are we getting topics noticed.

    I’m a huge fan on Anime and Manga and it is true across the board that many characters have “western features” however that is not the case with Ghost In the shell and to take the look and style of the character and slap on a different name isn’t acceptable.

    And people either are into anime or they aren’t. Her casting isn’t going to send millions of people to the source material. It hasn’t with any other whitewashed franchise.

  5. Anton Volkov says:

    I hope I’m not gonna cause a stir by being the straight white male that comes in with the first comment which turns out to be a long read but just want to bring this up for discussion because I don’t think people have discussed this point from this POV yet:

    “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.”

    I don’t feel it’s as much about ‘bankability’ – the whole thing about ‘whitewashed’ films like Gods of Egypt flopping and so on are more about the end result – but it’s more about actors like Scarlett being considered ‘insurance’ to get the project off the ground. And without ScarJo or a (yes, unfortunately, white female action movie) actress of her ‘caliber’ in the business sense, Paramount probably wouldn’t have been able to get this project off the ground at this moment in time, at least not to half the budget and scale that’d be required to do GITS in live action. And as for using GITS as a launching pad for a lead actress of colour – while that sentiment is understandable from the perspective of: it’s a Japanese property and one should cast a Japanese actress – it’s sort of the wrong hill to die on because it’s suck between a rock and a hard place as an IP? It has its fans but not so much as audiences will go see a GITS movie because it’s GITS – most outside will probably go see this because of Scarlett – otherwise what’s the hook for the audience (from the powers’ that be perspective). Even if we say the film bombs – you kinda have to give ScarJo credit for this being made *now*.

    Simply put – Paramount probably would’ve been better holding off making this for a few years more, and group efforts should I think be diverted to the films and franchises where people go for the brand and not the stars (i.e. Marvel, Star Wars) to be that ‘launching pad’ – just look at TFA with Daisy Ridley and they’re about to launch an Asian American actress into stardom with TLJ. That’s probably the best way to get minorities out there as Hollywood leads that would then be able to be the selling point for these big budget original/ or not well known IPs.

    (and on the Tilda Swinton point – yeah. Here they changed Motoko to Mira Killian. I saw some spoilers also about how this will play out (the ‘whitewashing *does* in some way come into play in the story it seems) but not sure how much I should say in case people are avoiding spoilers for this)

    • Some good points. There was also this for some context: how do Japanese people feel about ScarJo playing the lead in Ghost in the Shell?

      I still think it’s worth making the effort not to whitewash here in American cinema, but then look at the Great Wall, produced in China, choosing to go with Matt Damon for their star.

      It really does seem to be a question of which hill to die on, to me. I was far more bothered by Emma Stone being cast as a Japanese character than this one. And let’s be real about Japanese Anime and Games… how many of their protagonists are blond-haired, blue-eyed aryan archetypes?

      A new game was just released and I saw the promo image of the main character. Blond hair, blue eyes… he actually looked like freaking Thor!

      Where I come down is, when the whitewashing is blatant, I don’t watch the movie. I decided not to watch Gods of Egypt long before we knew how awful it was going to be any way. I decided not to watch Ridley Scott’s film about Moses and the Pharaoh because I found the casting absurdly whitewashed too.

      I do feel representation is important, so we should strive to push for more, but I think it’s key to approach it as logically and forthright as possible, and to prop up in the public consciousness the benefit of more heroes and characters of diverse upbringings, races, religions and identities.

      I’m burnt out on outrage being the default setting everywhere in culture. I think we can get farther with optimistic encouragement and mobilizing the message in a positive, inclusive light, rather than finger-wagging and breast-beating.