‘Battle Angel Alita’ learns nothing, casts non-Asian actress as the lead

With 8 million Avatar sequels on his plate, one might think James Cameron would let go of his attempt to make Battle Angel Alita. But the thing about passion projects is their champions are pretty passionate. Back in April, Cameron handed off the directorial reins to Robert Rodriguez (Sin City: A Dame To Kill For). Now the first actor has been cast.

As first reported by Collider, Rosa Salazar (Insurgent) has been cast as the title character of Alita. Not a complete surprise as she was on the shortlist with Zendaya and Maika Monroe. But considering we”re still in the throes of finally dealing with the erasure of Asian actors in Hollywood, a disappointing result nonetheless.

If you missed the many kerfuffles, a bit of a recap. First, there was the attempt to get #AsianAmericanIronFist going. While I doubt many folks expected it to happen, it did open the door to a conversation about how Asian actors are treated in Hollywood. Then the Oscars made several off-color jokes about Asian stereotypes. Then Daredevil had a hard time treating their Asian characters like people and not faceless ninjas. Then Doctor Strange recast the Ancient One as a white woman living in Asia. Then Scarlett Johansson was cast as the lead in Ghost In The Shell. Along the way, we also got a great essay on the frustrating career of John Cho and a social media campaign – WhiteWashedOUT – that brought awareness to Asian erasure in Hollywood. All of these things happened BEFORE the casting of Salazar as Alita, but the result is exasperatingly the same.

Now Battle Angel Alita takes place in a 26th-century dystopian future. Alita herself is an amnesiac cyborg missing most of her body at the outset. Anyone with only a passing knowledge of manga could believe the characters are coded as Caucasian. But they”re not. As explained by Julian Abagond:

If I draw a stick figure, most Americans will assume that it is a white man. Because to them that is the Default Human Being. For them to think it is a woman I have to add a dress or long hair; for Asian, I have to add slanted eyes; for black, I add kinky hair or brown skin. Etc.

The Other has to be marked. If there are no stereotyped markings of otherness, then white is assumed.

Americans apply this thinking to Japanese drawings. But to the Japanese the Default Human Being is Japanese! So they feel no need to make their characters “look Asian”. They just have to make them look like people and everyone in Japan will assume they are Japanese – no matter how improbable their physical appearance.

You see the same thing in America: After all, why do people think Marge Simpson is white? Look at her skin: it is yellow. Look at her hair: it is a blue Afro. But the Default Human Being thing is so strong that lacking other clear, stereotyped signs of being either black or Asian she defaults to white.

This still wouldn”t be AS BIG of a deal if Asian erasure weren't so prominent in Hollywood. But even with manga and anime experiencing a bit of a renaissance right now, very few Asian or Asian-American actors are being cast in major roles. Right now Ghost in the Shell is in production. Death Note and Akira are kicking around in various stages of production limbo. And now Battle Angel Alita. If movie studios want to make anime part of their “cartoons to live-action remake” plan, huzzah! There are so many good manga just waiting for adaptation. It”d just be nice to see some of the original culture survive the process.