Into every generation, an “it girl” is born.
One girl in all the world, the chosen one—at least, that is, for a little while. She’s unconventional, but something about her won’t allow Hollywood to dismiss her right off the bat. For a short time she’s even able to defy the box that actresses are often lumped into for their age. But eventually, one way or another, all “it girls” come and go, cycled out by the public, the press, or the studio system as a whole.
Scarlett Johansson, who went from up-and-comer, to Hollywood it-girl, to sultry muse, to sci-fi action heroine, was one such girl. Looking at her, it’s clear why. Watching her act, it’s clear how. But seeing the roles she picks carries a method to it; a distinct and developing consciousness about her femininity and how it’s wielded in the world. And luckily for her, genre films were picking up what she was putting down. In many ways, her latest film, Ghost in the Shell, is a further extension of what Johansson’s career has long been veering towards all these years. But, in one whopping way, it is not.
Part of the Johansson career trajectory for years has been as a girl with a certain quality that sets her apart from the crowd, while still managing to remain conventionally attractive. She could be wistful, sardonic, yearning, or curious, but she would always be beautiful—even as far back as her “breakout” role in 2001’s Ghost World. As one half of the frosty, holier-than-thou duo killing time during the summer after high school, Johansson’s Rebecca is a girl too smart (or at least too detached) to really meld with her high school’s social scene.
It was a delicate balance for her to strike; Rebecca was the more approachable, conventionally attractive of the Ghost World duo, something Enid (the other half) notes. The role required Johansson to be sardonic, but also a bit open. Even as Enid (and the narrative of Ghost World) call for it to be clear that Rebecca has good looks that at least conceal her laconic nature, Johansson also has to play it with the aloofness of someone blind to what she’s lived with her whole life.
It’s here, then, that Johansson started showing herself as the sort of person who could do just that, getting reviews that pegged her as an actress to watch, one whose “sensitivity and talent belie her age.” And very quickly she was able to parlay that into two key roles that would take her from teenager to young woman, focusing a film's entire narrative around her: Lost in Translation and Girl With the Pearl Earring.
Both of these roles required Johansson to communicate a lot with very little; she stares pensively past the camera, towards action she is excluded from. Each requires her to be muted, almost plain, but still exude an ineffable, alluring quality.
Lost in Translation, in particular, struck the cultural zeitgeist. Though it's clear that Johansson isn’t yet radiating at the same wattage as co-star Bill Murray, her youth allows her access to a quieter perspective—not confident, but certainly curious. And while the cultural narrative around Johansson would continue to shine ever brighter from this point on, highlighting her sex appeal, Lost in Translation remains mostly detached from that. She works, in the movie, as a woman who is not yet quite aware of her place in the world.
But, of course, that doesn’t mean the world was unaware of her. The Johansson femininity, especially in those early years—with her deep, Bacall-like voice; the figure; the face—was inextricable from its effect on men. It happened platonically for Murray in Lost in Translation, romantically for Topher Grace (In Good Company) and Bradley Cooper (He’s Just Not That Into You) later on, and artistically in The Girl with the Pearl Earring.
In 2005, the narrative evolved. Johansson started working with Woody Allen, and the characters she played for him often had a new sense of self-awareness about their looks, and the effect of those looks. Allen and Johansson only worked together on three films in as many years—and it’s arguably not the best Johansson has ever been—but their collaborations would leave an indelible mark on her career. Perhaps it was working with an auteur like Allen, who has elevated so many stars to “legit” actors over the years. Or perhaps it was in the way Allen’s roles for her—and comments about her, calling her witty while still being “sexually overwhelming”—played up the notion of Johansson as a sensual star.
Match Point, Scoop, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona each pull at Johansson’s womanly allure in different ways, but perhaps the most overt is her first Allen film, Match Point, in which Johansson plays a woman who drives Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) crazy, even as he can’t fully give himself to her. Johansson’s Nola bemoans that she’s the sort of girl men lust after wildly, but never love. She’s not classically beautiful like her sister, Nola tells Chris over drinks. “What I am is sexy.” The entire narrative of Match Point—all the Allenesque curlicues, antics, and nihilism—hinge on Chris finding Nola exactly that. She needs to have the power to allure and ensnare, but not to keep.
It was the first role Johansson would take that would not just call upon her increasingly minted sultry image, but would also transition her into someone who was (at least somewhat) aware of its effect. Her characters were no longer women whose sexuality could be ignored by anyone, including herself.
"As I get older, I feel like just by nature I have a more colorful array of opportunities to choose from. As I grow more confident as an actor and a person, I feel more confident in stretching myself as an artist and working on things that are challenging and I haven’t done before, and taking risks and being sort of content with the outcome, no matter what, just knowing I took a risk."
Match Point marked the beginning of a new chapter for Scarlett. Suddenly the archetypal Johansson role veered closer and closer to some sort of incarnation of the femme fatale. Her roles in The Spirit, He’s Just Not That Into You, Don Jon—even her introduction into the Marvel Universe in Iron Man 2—all traded on her sex appeal. Though critics would note that Johansson seemed to alternate between roles that asked everything of her and almost nothing (her gum-smacking transformation as Don Jon’s New Jersey siren compared to the relative fluffiness of The Nanny Diaries), the women she portrayed were always conscious of the world.
Even Marvel’s Cinematic Universe complicated the narrative a bit: Though Black Widow’s skin-tight outfits caused a ruckus, Black Widow’s place within the MCU offered Johansson the opportunity to wrestle with femininity and power, “playing against type” as an ass-kicker who looked like eye-candy. She also embraced doing her own stunts as part of her role, adding action star to her resume in the process.
Although Johansson would continue this duality of light roles intermingled with more serious work (as well as fulfilling her Marvel obligations, sprinkled out over a 20-year schedule), the women she portrayed began to get further and further away from women at all. Suddenly, Johansson seemed far less interested in being female than in asking complicated questions about femininity, the kinds of questions that only sci-fi could answer.
Lucy takes a normal woman and turns her into an omnipotent being (but not before giving Johansson the opportunity to showcase her action prowess), gaining powers from the drugs left in her body against her will. Her uses only Johansson’s trademark voice, casting her as an all-powerful AI program that starts up a relationship with a man who ultimately feels threatened by all that she can accomplish without him. Under the Skin recruits Johansson to play an alien whose human form is used to seduce men into the void, flipping the script on rape culture.
It’s a far cry from the terse teenagers or yearning young women of Johansson’s early work. But as Johansson’s career has progressed, she’s matured from meek, conventionally attractive girl to sultry seductress. Though the mileage on her roles varies, she seems to return to roles which more closely scrutinizing what it means to be a woman in a man’s world. And over the years she’s moved from being the subject of men’s lust beyond being an active party in it. She owns the power her sexuality holds, harnessing it for herself and her own needs.
Under the Skin called for her to be full frontal, and yet it barely made headlines. Her body had been of much scrutiny and discussion for the bulk of her professional career (not to mention drawing the attention of malicious hackers who released private cell phone pictures only two years prior), but the level of detachment and confidence she displays in Under the Skin removes any sexuality from the scene. Her seduction has transcended just her beauty; it’s intelligent and mysterious.
As Johansson’s gotten older, and moved to a stage in her career where she can afford to take a few more risks, she’s done so in a way that increasingly seems to detach her from the confines of a normal human being. As she twists and examines her own body, its power over others, and its reflection of who she really is, she seems to move closer to using her body as a tool—disassociating with it entirely in order to examine its power.
It’s the perfect mental framework for tackling a character like Major Kusanagi—except for one very important, very key fact: Major is Japanese.
The concept of a cyborg has been present in fiction for centuries. We can see the roots of it in the gothic genre, with the “automatons” (typically some sort of supernatural homunculus) of the nineteenth century, transgressing bodily boundaries in ways that would later become key to cyborgs, AI, and their ilk. Their very existences wrestled with rebellion against pure humanity, eventually giving way to the disruption we nknow in more modern examples of cyborgs in the 1900s.
These androids—in programs such as Metropolis or Astro Boy—would advance these figures relatively quickly. Almost overnight the concept of augmented humans went from ab-human to evolved human, with monstrosity traded in for (or in tandem with) cyborg powers that go well beyond the human. They would expand their scope in many ways over the latter half of the 20th century, crossing genres, politics, and movements. But at their core they remained a cipher for the fluctuating relationships between humanity, technology, and politics.
It was onto this stage that Major Motoko Kusanagi stepped all those years ago. Ghost in the Shell—first a manga in 1989, then an anime and TV show—would use the cyberpunk genre to explore the intersection of gender politics and cybernetics. From the very first scene (“There’s static in your brain.” “Must be my time of the month.”) Major is set up as a sort of post-human woman, challenging and advancing our concept of humanity.
Though plots vary from adaptation to adaptation, the basic setup of Ghost in the Shell follows the members of a special operations task force that delves into corrupt officials, companies, and cyber-criminals in a cyberized, near-future. Major, the woman who heads up the organization, is in fact a human brain in a cyborg body.
Much like Jessica Rabbit, Major’s not an actual anime pin-up figure, she’s just drawn that way. In fact, her disassociation with her own body and its humanity is an undercurrent of the series. Unlike many of her colleagues (and all of her readers), Major’s body is all robot. The only thing human about her is her brain—the soul or “ghost” in the cybernetic shell—but even that she can’t be certain about. That spirit is what is said to be the true source of her personhood, and yet Major expresses doubt that she can ever be certain that part of her is human as well.
Ghost in the Shell director Mamoru Oshii holds the viewer’s gaze over and over again with Major’s body. She frequently disrobes in front of others, and expresses no shame around it. Like Johansson in Under the Skin, she projects an almost clinical sense of her body. She removes the illicitness of the gaze on her, instead eschewing modesty for a body she feels no ownership over.
Whether the anime delves too deep into sexualization is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s certainly implied that Major has no problem with it, even as it disquiets those around her. In the end, as her dilapidated cybernetic body lays next to the female cybernetic body of “The Puppet Master,” Major’s partner Batou takes care to cover Major’s bare chest but not the Puppet Master’s. There’s nothing on the outside that separates one pair of cybernetic breasts from the other; it’s Major’s “ghost” that makes her a person, and thus, deserving of human decency, at least, in Batou’s eyes. Though Major sees very little difference between her own body and other cyborgs, her friends clearly project Major as a “her” and not an “it.”
In many ways, that sort of transcendence is what many feminists fight for. Major is a living embodiment of the possibilities of cybernetics: Her shell goes beyond bodily limitations, rewriting and reworking the potential of her life. She shrugs off the social requirements of her body.
Who hasn’t dreamt of something like that?
To women the possibility of not feeling wholly responsible for their body is a fantasy unto itself. Before we get to our jobs, before we walk out our front door—hell, before we even leave our beds—our bodies are subjected to all kinds of scrutiny and expectations. The tendrils of those expectations wind their way around a life in ways you would never expect. Every woman I’ve met knows she wields power. All of us are just filtering it through the eyes of those around us.
The work of Ghost in the Shell, as well as Johansson’s body of work, often forces the viewer to confront what they are projecting onto women’s bodies. Both Major and Johansson have deliberately constructed images, but they also both play with and destroy that very construction. Cyborgs afford the possibility to take all the militarism and patriarchy that’s been shoved down our throats and truly subvert it. Their very existence transgresses all the established boundaries we have for human nature, and yet their consciousness defines it. And Johansson has similarly proved herself as an actress capable of loosening the grips of reality and society in order to expose them.
The problem is, that’s not all there is to Major’s story. That same allure of cyborgs and their promise to free (or at least complicate) our social norms don’t remove the social norms we’re currently living in. More specifically, it doesn’t remove the context of when a (white) studio system mines a narrative for its gems. Ghost in the Shell’s aesthetic is more than cyberpunk—it’s rooted in Japanese culture.
Ghost in the Shell’s live action adaptation is so tangled up it seems hard to believe it came out on the other side. Johansson’s Major is ultimately revealed to be truly Japanese, having the ghost of a young runaway being forcibly implanted into a shell for the sake of scientific development. It reaches for the lowest hanging philosophical fruit in the Ghost in the Shell franchise and literally appropriates the soul of another culture to justify Scarlett Johansson’s presence (left unspoken: how a white woman was supposed to blend as a member of a covert police force in the heart of Tokyo).
Had the movie seemed to have the wherewithal of life in any other respect it could almost be read as an intentional commentary on whitewashing beauty standards, but there’s nothing nearly so complicated about Hollywood’s version of Ghost in the Shell. There’s no reason for Johansson to be the star of this vehicle. With almost every speaking role given to a white person in the heart of Tokyo, the story has been morphed into a futuristic American society that borrows heavily from Japanese aesthetics. That is to say, it posits that a Japanese-dominated future is cold, clinical, and foreign, catering to Western superiority (as social scientists have framed the mentality in the past: “‘they’ are barbaric and ‘we’ are civilized; ‘they’ are robots while ‘we’ remain human”). What’s worse, it does all this under the guise of a social victory, for “women.”
But Scarlett Johansson is not all women. In fact, most of us are not Scarlett Johansson. Having a franchise with a female protagonist is rare, but having a franchise with a Japanese female protagonist is even rarer. To say that Johansson is the only one who could’ve played this role is a farce; there are plenty of Asian American actresses who could have lent their considerable talents to this role, with or without a resume like Johansson’s. She may be “one of the best actresses of her generation,” adept at pushing the boundaries of womanhood, but she is not in a position to push the boundaries of race.
Scarlett Johansson clearly has more interesting things on her agenda than being a sex symbol. But it’s important that her advancement is not seen as the only way forward; it is just one brand of feminism among a thousand. Feminism’s victories—at the box office or elsewhere—should not and cannot come at the expense of other marginalized people. Anything else is just hollow—a shell.
As for Scarlett, she’ll no doubt get another chance to prove herself. Though she doesn’t have another starring role on the books yet, Marvel’s vast and seemingly infinite schedule should afford her the chance to wipe the slate clean and find a new vehicle. The live action Ghost in the Shell misstep notwithstanding, she’s certainly found a pathway out of the cycle of the “it girl.”
As for Major, well, she’ll always have Tokyo.