The Ghost in the Shell whitewashing is worse than you think

Hollywood has a fraught relationship with anime. The difficulties of pulling a movie together compound with the slightly boom-and-bust cycle of interest in Japanese animation properties, such that even if a movie gets made, is it in any way relevant to the interest of any potential audience?

A Dragonball movie in 1999 would have been a pretty keen bit of timing. One in 2009 is just asking “why bother?” even before you get to the casting decisions. It’s not that there weren’t Dragonball fans, but many of them were considerably older and had probably moved on to other things. Naruto or something.

So there’s a desire to strike when the iron is hot that’s completely missed. Is there an interest in making a Sailor Moon movie? Probably. Would it be worthwhile to do so? Or is Evangelion still a viable product? It seems that production companies aren’t asking about what’s really big RIGHT NOW that they could get started working on so that it might be relevant to the audience when it hits, but rather are asking about things that were hot five, ten, or twenty years ago, as if that’s the same thing.

But, whatever. Ghost in the Shell is the latest foray, and arguably the most ambitious yet. (The aborted attempts at Akira with Leonardo DiCaprio or whoever might have been bigger, but that pretty much entered development hell from the getgo so here we are.)

To say that GitS has been courting controversy since the initial casting announcement of Scarlett Johansson is to put it lightly. The movie has become something of a flashpoint of the whitewashing nature of Hollywood casting. And that’s perfectly justified criticism. There are a vast number of Asian actresses who could have played the role of Major Kusanagi. It looks especially bad because Johansson already effectively played a role that should have gone to an Asian actress in Lucy.

For a while, I was in the camp that besides the racism of the casting, it was a problem because it undermined the very Japanese-ness of GitS’ story. It was conceived and developed in light of the collapse of the bubble economy in the 80s, and reflects a lot of the economic and political climate of Japan at the time. The strange nature of how Japan had (and has) one of the large military budgets in the world while not, technically speaking, having a military in the sense we’d expect. Or how because of that Japan engaged in militarizing its economy so that it could be a dominant force on the world stage. And further what effects the rapid technological advancement on the Japanese industry had on its culture, with questions of identity and human relationship. While some of these things could be stretched to reflect other societies, taken in whole they are very Japanese at the core. If you start to shift that to another setting, or remove the Japanese people from the story, it doesn’t mean the same thing.

But it’s actually worse than that. Because I didn’t realize until recently what GitS was a literary work. And whitewashing it completely undoes.

I’ve been reading William Gibson recently. Despite being rather into cyberpunk as a genre (Shadowrun has been my RPG jam off and on for 25 years, now), I actually hadn’t sat down and read the godfather of the genre before. So in the past year or so I’ve read Neuromancer, Count Zero, and (just in the past week) Mona Lisa Overdrive, his original Sprawl trilogy that set the stage of almost all our cyberpunk expectations.

And, while I’ve enjoyed all three books, I have some reservations. They’re very well written, no doubt. Gibson has an economy of language that gets across a ton of setting and ideas in a few words, and it’s no surprise that he managed to create a sub-genre with his presentation of the Sprawl. Plus, you know, fun characters and some really neat surprises in plot advancement that would never fly today if you were trying to write a cyberpunk novel.

But at the same time, holy shit is the depiction of Japan really narrow and pretty damn racist. Except for a few scenes here and there, it’s mostly by inference, but you get Japan as this sort of faceless economic superpower that’s a weird conglomeration of business monoliths and yakuza corruption.

In a way, this makes sense. Gibson was writing in the 80s, when Japan’s economy was ascendant. There was a sense that, eventually, everything would be made in Japan. America, at the time, had a sort of love/hate relationship with Japan. There was respect that they managed to make things more efficiently that were cheaper and better than American products of the time, but also this distaste that Japan was going to eventually buy out everything.

This idea that Japan had militarized its economy was inherent in the construction of cyberpunk worlds. So Gibson can be perhaps forgiven for not being precognitive about the eventual bubble crash.

However, the language of the novels is still grating. Several characters, casually refer to Japanese people as “Japs” a cringe-worthy epithet decades before Gibson was writing. (It’s not as bad as Neal Stephenson’s use of Nips in his novels.)

And the use of actual Japanese is of questionable value. At times it feels like Gibson caught on to a few choice Japanese words and decided to run with them as if that gave him complete understanding of the language and people who spoke it. There’s a sequence where one Japanese character recites gomi (trash or garbage) and postulates about how Japan and England differ regarding it. It’s a, frankly, limiting view that doesn’t give the character a sense of being a real person, but rather a caricature, a collection of cultural memes.

So, what does this have to do with Ghost in the Shell?

Well, I think that in terms of cyberpunk, it’s very much an attempt (probably unconscious) to reverse the appropriation of Japanese society that had happened in cyberpunk stories from western writers. By making it a cyberpunk story that is in and about Japan, Shirow (in the manga) and Oshii (in the films) are giving  much more honest and personal take on the concepts of the genre. If the original cyberpunk ideas grew out of this westernized view of Japan’s ascendency, Ghost in the Shell is an attempt to say “hey, now, here’s what you’re really talking about.”

And that’s why the Japan of Ghost in the Shell feels more authentic and real than the Japan of Gibson and so forth: it actually is. It’s not a collection of westernized views on Japanese culture, but a logical projection from people in Japan about how their culture would develop. (Not, perhaps, a correct projection, but a believable one.)

So, the Ghost in the Shell film is pretty much failing on three levels. It took a high profile acting gig away from an Asian woman and gave it to a white woman. By doing so it’s undermined the very nature of the story itself. And it’s subjugated the rather revolutionary cultural reappropriation that happened by Ghost in the Shell’s creation.

So what are we going to get? A nuanced take on Japanese society in an increasingly technical world? Probably not. At best we’re going to get a generic actioner that’s regressed back to the dodgy cultural politics of Gibson’s Sprawl.

If it was 30 years ago, it might be a lot of fun. Today, it just feels tired, lazy, backwards, and racist.

Magic jokes, often not funny

I’m going to meander into Magic: The Gathering territory, right now.

A few months ago, a new website cropped up with an article about Elspeth, Knight Errant. The analysis of the article is rather sound, at least at the time. Elspeth is awesome and I would make the argument that she is the best Planeswalker. (Fans of Jace, The Mind Sculptor may disagree, but invariably, they’re paired at the top of the heap.)

The problem with the article, since corrected, was the opening paragraph, which reduced Elspeth from the awesome, army leading character she is to a supportive housewife. She makes the dude babies and I’m pretty sure there was a line in there about baking him pie. I think he promised that he would explain that so it made sense, but the article never did.

The writer was called out for the blatant sexism, the most offending paragraph was removed, and everyone moved on, right? (The article still has the problematic “My Knight Errant”, which brings up possessiveness and objectification all in one, but it was a drastic improvement.) I’m sure the writer wasn’t too broken up over it, despite the site claiming it was a joke that fell flat, I knew I wasn’t going to keep reading, but I’m one reader and not an influential one. I mostly forgot about it and moved on.

But this past week, something happened. I was at a PTQ making some trades and chatting with a few Elder Dragon Highlander players. I got it in my head that I’d like to build a deck of my own in the format (which is by all accounts incredibly fun) and I happened on Khemba, Kha Regent as the general for the deck. This gave me a couple of easy themes to build on: cats and equipment. Khemba’s ability to generate more creatures can be pretty huge, especially if you can get her with a few pieces of equipment.

Awesome. I trade for one, went home, and started pulling out cards from my meager collection to get a deck together. Then I checked out some forums to get some ideas on where to go from here.

Unfortunately, I ran headlong into more sexism. See, Kemba’s got a rather prominent chest, such that some players have apparently nicknamed her the Titty Kitty. Juvenile, but somewhat apt, given the art for the card. I could have ignored that as yet another vaguely sexist element of gamer society that crosses gender boundaries. It’s not really that bad, in the grand scheme of things and from a lyrical perspective, it’s even kinda funny.

Then I happened upon the following series of comments:
"From a woman's perspective, I'd be interested to hear what you think of the sexual stereotyping on Kemba."

"What sexual stereotype are you referring to?

"Come on, you didn't get the whole social commentary going on with Kemba?

"Add her boobalicious kitty art to her mechanic and she screams "Give me bling: I'll whelp you a new kitten. Give me lots of bling: I'll whelp you lots of kittens." You're pretty much paying her to provide progeniture."


I’m sorry, what? What social commentary? Sexual stereotyping? The art is a bit over the top, yes, but I don’t see anything in the design that screams stereotype. And it can’t be commentary unless Wizards intentionally meant for that interpretation.

They make a fucking card game. They aren’t in the social commentary business, and as intelligent as most players are, given how blind gamers tend to be about social nuances, I doubt they’d expect any reasoned response to any commentary they put in games.

No, the only commentary here is what we can make in response to comments like that.

But now it got me thinking. There are a number of cards that can generate creature tokens. They often do so in different ways, but I wondered how many are like Elspeth and Kemba. I’m looking for something directly comparable: a creature (or card that otherwise has a recognizable “face” whether human or closely anthropomorphized), that can bring multiple tokens into play, either upon entry to the battlefield or gradually over time.

And how many of these could possibly be construed as “making babies” rather than, oh, inspiring troops to follow them?

To save myself from dredging back into the great nether history of Magic, I’m just going to keep this to cards currently in the Extended environment.

Cards that depict a clearly female character:
Captain of the Watch
Dragonmaster Outcast
Elspeth, Knight-Errant
Elspeth Tirel
Emeria Angel
Imperious Perfect
Kazandu Tuskcaller
Kemba, Kha Regent
Oona, Queen of the Fae
Rakka Mar
Sharding Sphinx
Wort, the Raidmother
Wren’s Run Packmaster

Clearly male:

Kalitas, Bloodchief of Ghet
Knight-Captain of Eos
Lich Lord of Unx
Lullmage Mentor
Master of the Wild Hunt
Nath of the Gilt-Leaf

Pawn of Ulamog
Puppet Conjurer
Rhys the Redeemed
Siege-Gang Commander
Stonybrook Schoolmaster

Turntimber Ranger

Boggart Mob
Cemetery Reaper

Cloudgoat Ranger
Grave Titan
Mirror-Sigil Sergeant
Patrol Signaler

Springjack Shepherd
Weirding Shaman

There’s also Ant Queen which isn’t anthropomorphized, but is clearly female.

Okay, that’s a fairly hefty list of cards. A number of them could conditionally be ignored since the creatures generated are sufficiently different than there isn’t a real possibility of assuming the tokens are babies (elves generating wolf tokens, for instance.) Still, from a broad standpoint there are 14 obviously female characters and 12 obviously male. Of the 14 female, 7 generate functionally similar tokens. 8 of the male do the same. I’ve bolded all of these above. Of the 8 ambiguous characters, 5 generate similar tokens.

I’ve also italicized three of the female characters which generate different creature types, but could be construed as a birthing process in some fashion. For instance, Emeria Angel has wings with feathers and generates birds, which also have wings with feathers. Maybe birds are immature angels?

Rakka Mar I probably would have ignored, except I remember a recent comic which seemed to have a character with a volcanic vagina. So Rakka spitting out fire elementals didn’t seem too far gone.

Now, granted, I don’t think Wizards has been deliberate about any of this. Certainly, the breakdown between male and female characters is close enough that I don’t think we can take any trends.

And, even among the playerbase, other than these two instances, I haven’t heard any commentary. Indeed, I don’t think we can draw any positive conclusions that Wizards is intentionally making any sort of correlation between creature creation and having babies. The aforementione Ant Queen is an obvious exception, but it’s also completely without sexual overtones. Unless you go for ants, I suppose.

So the commentary has to come from a subset of the playerbase. As I’ve noted, I’ve only seen two examples, but I’m sure others exist.

Why these two, though?

The Elspeth issue I find easier to explain. The player really likes Elspeth as a card. Indeed, both versions of her are fantastic Planeswalkers. The original, Knight Errant, is one of the best released, and the newer one could be at that level, but hasn’t been broken just yet.

The viewpoint, and joke, that he made about Elspeth being in the kitchen, making him babies and pie, speaks of a sort of 50s-era husband and mindset. His deck is his household, his castle and he is king. Elspeth is his wife, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, supportive and he’s certainly willing to admit making his every success possible. (Jokes about his better half and all.) But she’s still subservient to him.

It’s a bullshit viewpoint. A sexist, bullshit viewpoint. Not only does it undermine what sort of character Elspeth is supposed to be (because she’s fucking awesome), but it really doesn’t speak well of the writer. He said it was a joke. It wasn’t a funny one.

Ironically, it’s because Elspeth is such a strong character that the situation arises. It’s rather similar to any action undermining a woman in a position of power, real or fictional. Invariably, someone will make a comment that she’s only in that position in some fashion related to her sexual or reproductive capabilities. She has sex, then she slept her way there? She doesn’t, and she’s frigid. Able to hold her own, then it’s time she got back home and made her man some babies.

Disgusting, but it doesn’t quite adequately explain Kemba. See, as fun a card she is, Kemba isn’t especially powerful. The desire to subject her subconsciously doesn’t seem to play into it.

The card art is one obvious reason, of course, but I think there’s a deeper issue at play: this is a racist, sexist depiction.

See, Kemba is a cat character. Given her Leonin race, I think we can surmise that she’s supposed to be an anthropomorphized lion. That scans as African, for the most part, which means Kemba can be considered to be black.

She wants bling and she’ll be your baby-mama. Right.

Honestly not sure how you could come up with a more offensive interpretation. A sexist, racist, bullshit viewpoint. It doesn’t matter if it’s a joke or not.

This really highlights one of the major issues with the Magic community. It’s not homogenous, but the strata of people you get by examining it tend strongly toward male and fairly heavily to white or Asian. This sort of geeky, boys club breeds a certain viewpoint, which isn’t healthy and doesn’t engender a welcoming environment.

Recently, Wizards has taken some actions which have been designed to increase the support and presence for the local game stores for players to play at. On one hand, this is a very good thing, because supporting local businesses, even if they’re largely selling a single product for a multi-national corporation, is good for the economy, and it does engender a positive atmosphere for players.

On the other hand, this will probably be ultimately harmful in any effort to spread Magic around to a wider audience. Many (but not all) game stores suffer the same problem as many (but not all) comic stores. It’s the dungeon problem. Now, many of both types of stores are fine. My chosen comic/game store is actually wonderful. But then I’ve also checked out places that make me feel claustrophobic, uncomfortable, and unwelcome.

And I’m a geeky, white dude. I’m about a privileged and into that group as you can get. I’m really wondering what a non-white woman is going to feel. Wizards, by eliminating support for non-game store tournament organizers probably set back some efforts to spread out the game. This, even if only passively, supports the idea that Magic is a game for guys only, and any girls (like Lauren Lee) are going to be seen as anomalies. And thus there’s a vicious cycle to view it as a “boys club” environment where certain things are okay.

When I went to Grand Prix Portland, I met up with a friend in the area for Sunday breakfast. She’s geeky, and really into comics, but I was surprised when she told me that she has played Magic on occasion, mostly because she’d made previous comments that it was something she wanted to avoid. I didn’t press much, mostly because we had many other, wonderful topics of conversation and I’d already spent a day thinking about Magic, but I wondered if it was more then environment and less the game that put her off.

Ideally, there’d be a way to reach out. I’m actually happy when I’m at a tournament and I see women playing, although I’m simultaneously disappointed that they still seem to be at only a few percentage points of the field. I think EDH, with its somewhat enforced casual atmosphere and focus on many things besides outright winning, could be a good stepping stone.

I’m just disappointed that there’s still so much to overcome.