Scarlett Johansson, outside of presidents’ wives, is perhaps one of the most photographed women in the world. The 32-year-old actress appears in high-profile feature films on a regular basis, and has been described as the highest-grossing actress of all time, her films having made almost $5 billion (with two more Avengers films currently in production).
Additionally, Johansson has perhaps graced more magazine covers than any of her contemporaries. She has appeared in ads for Calvin Klein, Louis Vuitton, L’Oréal, and Dolce & Gabbana. She has regularly topped the “Most Beautiful People of All Time” lists, and has been granted the dubious honors of GQ’s Babe of the Year, Playboy’s Sexiest Celebrity, and Esquire’s Sexiest Woman Alive. All of this media attention to Johansson’s body gives the impression that she is being touted, through some sort of de facto consensus, as representing the ideal of (Caucasian) beauty.
Given the sheer volume of Johansson-based media imagery, it’s understandable that the actress – being an intelligent and even-headed human being – should begin to comment on it. With the release of Ghost in the Shell (now in theaters), Johansson has now made her fourth science-fiction film about the way we, the public, regard her body. Her very body has become a commodity unto itself, and Johansson seems to be analyzing the nature of “the product.” Only “the product” is herself. Johansson has reached a point where she’s offering a distant, objective consumer product review. And in playing so many non-humans, it’s possible that she may be attempting to retain her own humanity. The body theme of Ghost in the Shell is, indeed, the only thing making the otherwise dreary and uninspired action flick intriguing.
This wave started, clearly, with 2013’s Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s contemplative sci-fi freakout about a space alien that suddenly found itself living in Scarlett Johansson’s body. In that film, Johansson is constantly stripping, looking at herself, and finding that men are unable to resist her. The film is very much about a crisis of identity, and how Johansson’s own physical appearance seems to be all the identity she may need. Johansson and Glazer are highlighting the divide between her body and her inner identity, and how the two begin to bleed into one another. Under the Skin is one of the best sci-fi films of the decade.
That same year, Johansson made Her with David O. Russell, a film wherein we didn’t see her body at all, yet she was still vaunted as a romantic ideal. In Her, Johansson played the voice of an artificially intelligent SmartPhone operating system who begins having a romance with Joaquin Phoenix. The voice of the OS was originally performed by Samantha Morton, but Russell, significantly, recast Johansson in the role at the last minute. Perhaps because the public is familiar with Johansson’s body as a national commodity, audiences could instantly recognize her, even unseen, as a romantic ideal.
In Luc Besson’s delightfully daffy Lucy, Johansson played an attractive American party girl who, following an accidental overdose of a super-advanced street narcotic, become super-intelligent and super-powered. In that film, Lucy is seen drifting further and further away from humanity, and more and more toward an evolutionary catalyst. The film is outwardly dumb, but one of the more visible themes is the way Lucy, previously regarded for her prettiness, must eventually shed her body and become pure consciousness. The chrysalis imagery is clear.
And now, in Ghost in the Shell, we have the most complex analysis yet. In the film, Johansson plays a woman whose brain has been transplanted into the body of a perfect android. As an android cop, she investigates malfeasance in the tech world, is able to jump off of rooftops, and uses her high-tech ultra-pale skin to turn invisible. The plot is unclear and hastily-written, and the actual denouement is not all that interesting, but throughout, it seems that director Rupert Sanders and Johansson herself are attempting to squeeze in themes of body commodification and the idealized form of Western beauty.
Johansson’s character – named Mira Killian – is losing sight of her humanity. She robotically offers consent to invasive brain operations. She has given herself over to a giant tech machine that only seeks to show her off. She is often told that she is perfect, and that she represents the future of humanity. She also needs to constantly remind herself that she is, somewhere in there, still human. The world is slipping away, and she has begun to view the world – and herself – somewhat objectively; she is hallucinating from time to time, so the bedrock of reality is shifting under her. In one scene Killian visits a prostitute, gently touching her body, exploring just what the heck all this physicality means. What does it feel like when we touch? In a world where my body is literally a product, where does my actual human identity begin?
SPOILERS AHEAD: There is also a plot revelation in Ghost in the Shell that uses Johansson’s well-publicized ideal-of-beauty status as a means of unlocking a small commentary on the cultural re-appropriation of a specific Japanese experience. It’s revealed that Mira Killian – a Western name – was actually born Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese woman, whose brain was removed by callous scientists and placed in an “ideal” Western body. While this is, of course, a clumsy way of explaining the whitewashed casting of the film (Ghost in the Shell is a remake of a Japanese movie, and takes place in Japan), it also, perhaps, speaks to the way Japanese people – particularly those living in the Western society for which this film was made – are encouraged to accept a Western beauty ideal over their own cultural notions. Your body won’t be ideal, the film seems to be declaring, unless you look like Scarlett Johansson.
And, of course, Johansson is a Caucasian. Beauty and the idealized body allegedly come from excising yourself from your native culture, and by surrendering to what the American media has sold us. Ghost in the Shell takes place in Japan but it is saturated with a globalized media, and the images constantly flowing freely from the urban landscape are selling gorgeous Western bodies. This could be seen as a potent metaphor for the way American tries to exert its influence on other cultures and identities, with new, “better” bodies, names and notions. Consider that the film’s protagonist has also been forced to, just as so many immigrants have done over the generations, Westernize her name. Motoko Kusanagi becomes Mira Killian. Just as Lucio Fulci was once credited as Louis Fuller. Just as Siddig El-Fadil became Alexander Siddig. Just as Ilyena Lydia Vasilievna Mironov became Helen Mirren. Just as Ralph Lifshitz became Ralph Lauren. Just as Natalie Herschlag became Natalie Portman.
These themes of cultural body commodification are not gracefully handled by the script of Ghost in the Shell. The film is badly paced, possesses a lot of dumb dialogue, and ends on a truly stupid and unearned “badass” ending. The themes can really only be seen if you analyze Johansson’s recent body of work as a whole. Ghost in the Shell is, in short, simply not that good. But Johansson is clearly working on an extended cinematic project that is far more textured than anything in this one film.
Top Image: Paramount
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, Nerdist, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.