Opinion - I'll See Your "Whitewashing" and Raise You an Archetype and a Monomyth
With the first picture from the live-action adaptation of Ghost In The Shell having hit the Internet, the nerd community, as usual, is in an uproar regarding the supposed ‘whitewashing’ of casting Scarlett Johansson as The Major (long form: Major Motoko Kusunagi)…and as such nearly every nerd website has some blurb generally condemning this. Since we here at The Cat like to pretend to live up to the (current) subtitle for the site, “Last Refuge of the Sensible Nerd”, we felt it necessary to give a more reasoned approach.
Now before you get all butt-hurt thinking that I’m going to defend the casting [And we are. – Ed.], I want to state that yeah, I can see where most everyone is coming from. With the recent Oscars debacle clearly highlighting that there’s an increasing lack of diversity in Hollywood, I think it’s fair to say that maybe everyone’s already pre-disposed to pick up on this, a white girl being cast in an Asian role. And if we tug further on this string, we find ourselves wrapped in the web that is Hollywood: there’s no Asian star with the kind of drawing power needed in a lead role like this…yeah, but that’s because Hollywood hasn’t given an Asian actress a vehicle to reach the heights needed to attain that drawing power…so on and so forth ad nauseum. If we continue down that road…heads would explode and no one would be satisfied and the endless internet bitching would continue because…hello…internet.
But…that’s kinda the point…isn’t it? That there IS such a heightened scrutiny of such things thanks to the recent Oscars. What if we pull ourselves away from that…outside of that “can’t see the forest for the trees” sort of mentality? Would we be more prone to get a better perspective on things…on the reality of this situation? Would we be able to see that maybe this isn’t necessarily the bad or evil thing that most internet nerds claim it to be? I think so. And to sell you my point, I’m going to invoke the martyred spirit of the saint of minority fandom: Dwayne McDuffie.
For those of you unfamiliar with McDuffie’s work…get the hell out of here. Seriously. Like…holy shit, you’re completely missing out on some of the best stuff the superhero and animation genres have to offer. I’m completely serious when I say that if you haven’t encountered Dwayne McDuffie’s work at at least one point in your nerd-dom, you fail at nerding. Go back to school, son [or missy – Ed.]…more training do you require. To give a short list of his works/accomplishments, he was the creator of Marvel’s Damage Control, wrote probably the definitive arc of their character Deathlok in the 90s, worked as a story editor and writer on the animated Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, had a stint as a writer on the main Justice League book for DC, wrote a few of the DC Universe direct to video animated movies (Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, All Star Superman and Justice League: Doom are the ones I can remember off the top of my head), helped in the creation of Ben-10 for Cartoon Network, and, probably most importantly, was one of the founders of Milestone Media, a branch of DC Comics that focused on minority superheroes…which led to his creation of the standout character from that line, Static Shock. And that leads us to my story…
At a comic book convention, as writer Jim Krieg tells the story, he and McDuffie spot an African-American kid dressed as McDuffie’s creation, Static. Krieg makes the comment “Isn’t it great to have that effect on people?” McDuffie responds “You know, what I’d really like to see is a white kid dressed as Static. I want to get to the point where characters are just characters and it’s not about what color they are, they’re just characters that you love and everything else is invisible.”
Why is that words of wisdom seemingly always come from those who’ve left us too soon?
Sit and bask in that for a moment. Do you think we’ll ever reach that point…where characters are simply characters and we love them no matter how they’re embodied or portrayed?
Well, in a way we have and in a way we haven’t.
I say that we have because we have such things as monomyth and archetypes. Monomyth, or the Hero’s Journey, is a story structure that spans the globe and is as old as human storytelling. According to Joseph Campbell and other scholars who have looked into this…the Hero’s Journey is at the core of many of our tales of myth and legend…and probably even at the core of stories from most major religions. Campbell’s most well-known work, ‘The Hero of a Thousand Faces’, goes to great lengths to show that the heroes that capture our interest now have their roots in a rich tradition…and will serve as the roots or rich tradition for future heroes to spring forth from. And while the story is indeed, at its core, recycled over and over again, it never dies, never grows old…due to the new experiences of humanity and of those telling the updated versions of these stories.
If monomyth is the repeating story…then archetypes are the repeating characters. Campbell was not alone in believing that our heroes and their foes, supporting cast, et cetera, repeated themselves. Carl Jung championed them in his studies into psychology in the early 20th century…but the idea itself far predates him. In fact, you can go back to Plato and his Theory of Forms. He felt that “ideas were pure mental forms that were imprinted in the soul before it was born into the world. They were collective in the sense that they embodied the fundamental characteristics of a thing rather than its specific peculiarities.” [Thank you Wikipedia. – Ed.] These ‘forms’ could be as broad as ideas, like in the above quote, or the character archetypes of Jung and Campbell.
Obviously, a full blown discussion on these things would take us a very long time…and I have a point to make. [That’s never really stopped you before. – Ed.] So, I’ll post a link here and here and here where you can look further into archetypes and monomyth.
Switching gears, let’s take another overly harsh accusation of “whitewashing”, the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange film, and show how it displays that we clearly haven’t met McDuffie’s vision yet.
In the Marvel Universe, comics that is, the Ancient One is a long-lived Tibetan mystic…and by long-lived we’re talking in excess of 500 years here. A teacher of the mystic arts, with Stephen Strange and Baron Karl Mordo as notable apprentices, he was Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme before the mantle passed to Strange upon the Ancient One’s passing (of which I think there are several different accounts…you know how it is with comics). While the Ancient One’s physical form is dead, he continues to live as an astral form, coming to Stephen in times of need…and narrative convenience because…again…comics.
In casting Swinton in the role, as the internet would have you believe, Hollywood has once again given an opportunity for an Asian actor to a white person. But let’s step back a bit and take a better look here. [Yes, I know, he’s switched focuses here…I’m hoping he gets back to Scarlett Johansson too. – Ed.] Yes, yes, all right…let me finish my point here and then I’ll circle back. As I was saying, let’s step back and take a look at the origin of the actual character first and see if maybe we’re just being a little bit unfair in our condemnation. It’s safe to say that upon their inception…and really stretching into, well, the 80s actually…comic books weren’t exactly the nuanced storytelling that we know them to be today. Like any literary form, it took some time to evolve. In its earliest day, comics were simple stories with simple characters. Most ethnicities were played as caricature and stereotype. Will Eisner’s Ebony White, found in the pages of The Spirit, is probably the most egregious example of this. Take a minute to do the Google image search to see what I mean. As comics would move into the Silver Age, we’d see a slow developing of maturity in this regard…but it was still present, take the nickname of Hal Jordan’s friend in the Silver Age Green Lantern books, Pieface…playing on the character’s Alaskan/Inuit background. So we still find ourselves in this sort of cultural racism when Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others bring about the creation of what we’d know to become the Marvel Universe. Add to that the fact that both Lee and Kirby had been in the business since the 40s and it’s actually safe to say that this sort of cultural racism was present within them as well. That’s not to say they had white bedsheets and hoods in their closets for social occasions and gatherings…but instead to say that is simply the way it was back then. In fact, you could certainly make the argument that even including the aforementioned caricatures and stereotypes was in and of itself progressive, even though our overly politically correct culture might look down its collective nose at it now. With this mindset in place, coupled with the perception of Tibetan monks in western culture to be this embodiment of supreme spiritual wisdom, [A wink and a nod to Neuhaus’ Tibet in the Western Imagination. – Ed.], the fact that the Ancient One was specifically created as Tibetan could be a further example of the kind of caricatures we’ve already taken a look at and thus, an expression of what many would today call racism. Following that logic, we come to finding ourselves in a tangled philosophical web. If the original creation has hints of racism to it, and yet we scream racism when that creation is then changed…well…is there ANY way out of this?
Yes. Yes there is…and we’ve already covered it. Take a look at the story and the story’s need. If we assume Doctor Strange is to be our hero (he is), and we know his master to be the Ancient One, let’s go back to our archetypes and monomyth. The Hero’s Journey dictates that after ‘The Call to Adventure’ and the ‘Refusal to the Call’ we find ourselves at ‘Supernatural Aid’…which is just before the ‘Crossing the Threshold’ moment where the hero begins his journey. In this ‘Supernatural Aid’ segment, this is where we’re introduced to the Mentor archetype, usually providing a supernatural talisman to aid the hero and ancient wisdom to serve as a guide. The equivalent might be a Guardian-type…or if we enter into Jungian archetypes, then we’re looking at either The Sage or The Magician. Now, go back up a bit to the links I provided and read the descriptions for these roles…you see a list of attributes and characteristics. Know what you don’t see? Race or gender...or much of what society defines as ‘defining characteristics’ these days. But that’s a separate rant for another time. Here, in these archetypes, we’re only concerned with…well…the character of the character.
And that brings us back to Dwayne McDuffie. Good characters are able to shed their skins and drift toward the archetype. Let’s be literal here…does Hamlet HAVE to be played by a Dane? What about Macbeth…must ONLY a Scotsman play the role? Look, Americans have played Sherlock Holmes just as Brits have played Batman and Superman, each of those heroes being part of the core of their native countries’ identity. Sure, those examples are those of nationalities, not races, and that’s a fair criticism. I guess my counter to that is that a tribe is a tribe is a tribe…meaning that whether we divide ourselves by race, creed or nationality, there’s no shortage of ways to divide ourselves…and that’s kind of what’s happening here. [Next Day Edit: a good thing to point out is the casting of Elodie Yung as Elektra in Daredevil Season 2. Here, a Greek character was played by an actress of mixed French and Cambodian heritage. Where was the nerd rage then? - Ed.] Look, I’m not going to argue that Hollywood has made these decisions out of some great altruism…thinking so much of these characters that they’re allowing them to drift into the archetypal. Of course not. Their decisions stop and start at money…always have, always will. Scarlett Johansson is a bankable, well-known name that simply has the star power to drive a Ghost in the Shell adaptation to a general audience that has never heard of it. But in doing that, Hollywood has actually given this little known character (outside of nerd circles that is…and in case you need reminding, the world is indeed much bigger than our little alcove) a chance to reach toward that archetype…to be elevated into monomyth…and thus, reaching Dwayne McDuffie’s ideal…where only the character matters.
Sadly, dear nerds, I don’t think it’s Hollywood being racist. If this is the sort of thing you’re running to the Internet message boards with the equivalent of torches and pitchforks, I’m afraid to say that the racist…the one so fixated on the color of the character’s skin and thinking nothing of what's within…is you.