A couple of weeks ago there was a mini-firestorm when Rush Limbaugh suggested it was stupid to have Idris Elba, a black actor, play James Bond, because James Bond is a white character created by a white Scotsman. Then followed much angst on Twitter and elsewhere, as people by turns denounced Rush for being "racist" and defended Rush for standing up to PC claptrap.
As is usually the case in such situations, I found the actual argument—whether or not a black guy should play James Bond—less interesting than the way the argument was framed. Couching Limbaugh's comment as racist—as if he suggested that black people are, like, genetically incapable of being super-spies—struck me as both unfair and disingenuous. It seems obvious to me that Limbaugh was making a continuity argument, not a racial argument: this character is a white guy from the streets of Glasgow (or wherever), not a black dude from London (or wherever). You saw much the same when people got up in arms over the black stormtrooper "controversy." Nerds argue over continuity. Remember when they cast a blonde guy as Bond and people lost their minds? It's not a race thing: it's a dork thing.
I'm not entirely interested in adjudicating the merits of these arguments. Suffice it to say that I think Elba would be a fine Bond and don't think it would be a huge problem for Bond to be played by a black guy, as the character's skin color isn't really a core part of his character. Nationality, yes. Skin color, no. Indeed, there are probably some pretty interesting storytelling avenues one could go down if he were a black guy. Long Live Black Bond!
Anyway. I bring this up solely because there's sure to be a lot of chinstroking and tongue wagging about the fact that Scarlett Johansson—literally the biggest female action star in the world at this point given the success of Lucy and her supporting turns as the Black Widow—has been cast as the lead in the upcoming live action Ghost in the Shell adaptation. Because, you see, she's white. And the character is Asian.
"But wait, Sonny," I bet you're thinking. "I thought it didn't matter if we changed the race of a character when the character's race isn't terribly important to the content of the character's character. If skin color isn't an essential attribute, then, hey, what's the big deal?"
Allow me to introduce you to the concept of "whitewashing," most recently seen in complaints over the portrayal of Egyptians in the movie Exodus. Whitewashing, you see, is really really bad because it involves changing a character's skin color. But not the way that people dedicated to "progress" want skin color changed. Here's a rather perfect summation of this double standard:
— Aaron Stewart-Ahn (@somebadideas) January 6, 2015
Alternately, you could search "whitewashing" on Twitter. Go ahead, I'll wait, the results are amusing, depressing.
What's fascinating about the whole "whitewashing" thing is that it's not a continuity argument: it's an explicitly racial argument, a fight over skin color and nothing else. Which strikes me as sad. And a bit maddening. I'm sorry, but you can't really have this both ways. If skin color for such roles is a non-essential attribute, then it's a non-essential attribute. Period. We're not talking about casting James Franco as Barack Obama or Wendell Pierce as George Washington or Taylor Kitsch as a slave in the antebellum south or Michael K. Williams as the Highlander.