‘Annihilation’ and Hollywood’s Erasure of Asians

The creatives behind ‘Annihilation’ can explain why two characters were cast as white women. But the time for excusing Hollywood’s continued erasure of Asians must end.

Paramount Pictures

Last year, actor Ed Skrein exited the upcoming Hellboy reboot after it came to light that the character he was meant to play was of Asian heritage in the original comics. This was seen as a long overdue tipping point for the whitewashing and erasure of East Asian characters, especially after the controversy stirred up by Ghost in the Shell and Death Note. Jon M. Chu, director of the upcoming Crazy Rich Asians, was among those who praised Skrein’s decision, saying that he risked “the blowback of a giant studio saying, ‘You’re screwing us by admitting we were naive or wrong in doing this.’”

Chu is right on two counts. First, yes, it was the right move on Skrein’s part. Second, studios (and audiences) are still reluctant to admit to how common such erasure is, and to accept any culpability.

The proof lies in the discussion around Alex Garland’s Annihilation. The film, adapted from author Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, has drawn some criticism for the casting of Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh as characters who are, in the books, described as Asian and half-Indian, respectively.

Myriad reasons have been cited as to how this happened: The characters’ ethnicities are not explicitly stated until the second book; Garland began working on the adaptation before he was officially attached to the project and therefore before the second book was published. Etcetera. The bottom line seems to be ignorance, as Garland, Portman, and Leigh have all stated that they simply didn’t know. It’s not difficult to believe there was no malicious intent in the casting. But the statements still read like apologies that somehow lack the word “sorry,” and shuck responsibility for what happened onto a nonexistent second party.

The instinct to excuse whitewashing by examining the logic behind casting a white person is concerning, to say the least, even more so as it seems to be a common thread in wider discussions about Annihilation. In most of what I’ve read and in conversations I’ve had, the word “whitewashing” is almost always immediately followed by a qualifier. Yes, it’s whitewashing, but Garland didn’t know. Yes, it’s whitewashing, but the first book is vague. Yes, it’s whitewashing, but there are other people of color in the movie. Yes, it’s whitewashing, but—on and on.

These arguments are born from good intentions. But they’re ultimately not helpful, and are typical of the arguments made when the topic in question doesn’t affect the person speaking. They are dismissals, suggestions that the issue is not such a big deal—which, in turn, reinforces how Asians are made almost completely invisible in film.

Naturally, the recent adaptations of Ghost in the Shell, Death Note, and Altered Carbon have all become part of the conversation, though likely not in the way that you’d think. They’re points of comparison, yes, but not as other instances of whitewashing—they’re instead used as examples of offenses “worse” than Annihilation’s, as if quantifying how “good” or “bad” a result of systemic racism is could somehow excuse one but not the other.

Even if there were an applicable metric, there’s nothing comforting about how those properties were received. Ghost in the Shell kicked up a stink for casting Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese woman (and for subsequently trying to sidestep the issue by saying that a Japanese woman’s psyche had been transferred into a white woman’s body), as well as, incredibly, being rumored to have used CGI in an attempt to make some characters look more Asian. But the outrage was short-lived, and the film garnered some positive reviews, even ending up in some critics’ top 10 lists despite how blatantly offensive it is. It feels like a cultural joke now more than an object of concern. (The deliberate whitewashing of the Ancient One in Marvel’s Doctor Strange has also been all but forgotten.)

Altered Carbon does something similar in placing an Asian man into a white man’s body. That plot point is part of the source material, but the show handles it poorly, offering absolutely no insight as to the character’s experience despite using voiceover narration, and further allowing the character to be seen simply as white. More than that, it has gone almost completely unaddressed in most critical analysis.

Neither Ghost in the Shell nor Altered Carbon bother to explore what such a transfer of consciousness would mean. It’s a bizarre reversal of body-snatching, especially given the history of Western influence on East Asian culture (so often tied to war) and how common plastic surgery is (especially in South Korea) that emulates Western beauty standards.

Notably, Ghost in the Shell also spurred scattered attempts at justification. In Japan, the reaction to the whitewashing was nearly nonexistent, a fact some used to try to downplay Johansson’s casting. But there’s no equivalency—what that argument tells us is that if you want to see an actor of Asian heritage, watch an Asian production. And that leaves no ground for the millions of Asian Americans.

Hollywood renders Asians invisible, despite stripping Asian culture for background dressing and prop material. Many futuristic visions—Blade Runner, for instance—are packed with visual references to East Asian cities like Hong Kong and Tokyo, but lack any East Asian characters whatsoever. When there are exceptions to the rule, it’s not always a blessing: The sole character of East Asian descent in Blade Runner 2049, insanely enough, is a nameless nail technician.

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Asian Americans are virtually a non-presence in Western media except in films made by Asian Americans (Columbus, Gook, and to a degree, Okja), and dismissal of that fact is symptomatic of the larger, liminal space that Asian Americans occupy. New York Times editor Bari Weiss felt it was fine to tweet “Immigrants: they get it done” about Mirai Nagasu after she became the first American woman to land a triple axel at the Olympics. In other words, despite having been born in America, Nagasu was still “other” in her mind.

It’s the same kind of thinking behind arguing that since Japanese audiences didn’t care about whitewashing in Ghost in the Shell, Americans of Japanese heritage should be just as ambivalent, i.e., Asian Americans still aren’t an “American” audience. It’s also the idea behind questions like “where are you really from,” which insinuate that looking a certain way disqualifies someone from being American. (The question is especially insulting given how most East Asian cultures are still conflated with one another. Japanese, Chinese, and Korean cultures in particular are often treated as interchangeable despite how different they are.)

It feels telling that, in all but one of these instances, the erasure of East Asians has been somehow excused and then easily forgotten. That people are more inclined to downplay what happened than to listen indicates to me that, for all the progress we may think we’ve made, most still perceive erasure to be “OK,” which is disheartening beyond words. How long will it be until whitewashing is no longer deemed acceptable? How long will it be until Asian Americans are represented in film?