I’m just so tired.
I was tired when I wrote, last June, about how Tilda Swinton was in talks to play the Ancient One in the then-upcoming Doctor Strange, because it was just one of several announcements where a role that could have gone to an Asian person didn’t. And it made me weary to have to read comments like “if any young white woman can pull off an old Asian man, it’d be Tilda Swinton,” and “PLEASE TELL ME HES PLAYING WONG!” after it was revealed Martin Freeman would be appearing in Captain America: Civil War.
Swinton ultimately being cast as the Ancient One, a Tibetan man in the comics, was never far from my mind moving forward. I would inevitably bring it up when discussing whitewashing and racebending in The Martian that very same year, and in many ways it made Doctor Strange a film that loomed in the impending future, a comic book movie I would need to see for myself in order to determine whether or not they did right by the groups they were trying not to offend.
Just to be clear, I can’t honestly say that I was angry when finally watching the movie. Like the title of my write-up plainly states I was left feeling disappointed. It also notes that my expectations were never particularly high, and how could they be when the filmmakers rewrote the character of Wong back into Doctor Strange upon finding that casting Swinton left them without any prominent Asian roles [in a movie that is set in Asia roughly half the time].
It was over a year of waiting for a film whose creators touted the representation of an older white woman to offset what was, without argument, whitewashing. It’s a defence that implies that in some cases the choices are feminism/anti-ageism and racial diversity, and that the two are mutually exclusive. It was, to put it more strongly, exhausting. And it’s easy to say that I should just care about this less and not let it affect me so much, but Asian representation is an issue that directly affects me, and one that will affect my children if and when I have any.
I was already so tired of all of this, and was looking forward to being able to stop thinking about Tilda Swinton and Doctor Strange and enjoy the few moments before we get any closer to Ghost in the Shell being released [difficult as a teaser aired before the Marvel film being discussed]. And what should I find this past week but an email conversation between Tilda Swinton and Korean American comedian Margaret Cho, which I have dubbed the Swinton-Cho Letters, and the internet’s response to the whole thing.
When I first started putting my fingers to the keyboard this was meant to be a single blog post split into two parts, but over a thousand words in and I thought two separate posts might be more efficient. And what better way to end a horrible year than to devote so much time and effort towards such a truly draining topic?
It’s Always Podcasts, For Some Reason
It happened exactly a week ago on the 71st episode of Tiger Belly, a podcast hosted by fellow Korean American comedian Bobby Lee. As a guest star Cho revealed to Lee that Swinton had reached out to her some time ago via email, about why her casting in the latest Marvel film was so controversial.
Cho said that her and Swinton had “had a fight about [the casting]”, and later described their conversation using what has become a pull quote for journalists both online and offline, saying:
“It was weird because I felt like a house Asian, like I’m her servant.”
She elaborated, explaining that the reference was to “the house servant who was sort of like your confidante [. . .] the sort of servant that was close to you.” After additional comments about how uncomfortable the exchange made her feel Cho also shared how Swinton mentioned that she was producing a movie starring Korean American actor Stephen Yeun, ostensibly as a way of communicating that she was trying to do her part. Lee quips in response, “Oh like, I have a black friend, I can do this.”
Any usage of the term “servant” in regards to race relations in America is automatically a volatile one, and it didn’t take long for people across the internet to take a side against Swinton, seeing the actor as a well-meaning yet ultimately problematic individual looking for her most recent role to get the stamp of approval from an Asian person.
Numerous outlets, including Vulture, reached out to Swinton’s rep Brian Swardstrom, who responded this past Friday by sending them “the entire unedited and only conversation [Swinton] has ever had with Margaret.” Upon release the emails very abruptly reversed the tide of support that had once been Cho’s.
The Backlash, and Where Cho Went Wrong
The most damning point against her, at least from my point of view, is that Swinton asks if they can have a private correspondence, to which Cho enthusiastically agrees [” We can totally email and we can be private!”]. Worse still is that she even mentions on Tigerbelly that the news she’s sharing was meant to be kept confidential:
“But we had a long discussion, and she also wanted me not to tell anybody — so don’t tell anybody. (laughter) She said don’t tell anybody”
What many others have focused on, and equally pertinent, is the observation that Swinton is very cordial from beginning to end. That isn’t to say that one cannot put on a veneer of politeness while being offensive, but by most perspectives the British actor was more than polite. This also doesn’t appear to have been a “fight” of any kind, and in fact the fifth email ends with Cho’s final response, with both appearing to be on good terms.
In light of the contentious and awkward scenario that Cho alluded to it was painfully easy for the internet as a whole to feel like they had been duped. This wasn’t the snapshot of clumsily handled race relations they expected. By and large commenters lashed out for being so easily deceived, holding Swinton up as an example of how be an ally while at the same time denigrating Cho for being a thin-skinned activist. There’s so little nuance in the pendulumlike online public opinion, and if people had managed to keep from swinging back so strongly they might have seen that…
Swinton Didn’t Handle Things Flawlessly
I initially painted the actor with the words “well-meaning yet ultimately problematic”, which I felt puts it graciously. The fact is that Swinton opens up by mentioning that she isn’t on social media, and as a result is “unaware of what exactly anybody has said about [the diversity debate regarding Doctor Strange]”. Not only that, but she and Cho were not acquainted prior to this exchange, and it appears that she opted not to do any research before reaching out. To put that into context, that’s a near stranger contacting you out of the blue, asking you to weigh in on a subject they know nothing about. Having that come across as off-putting is an understatement.
A little later she toes the company line, parroting the filmmakers’ reasons for why the casting decision was made [in order to offset portraying offensive stereotypes], which is to be expected and not a huge mark against her [besides not having a second opinion due to not doing any research of her own]. What rankles is the defensiveness in statements like:
“A – personal – irony to my being even remotely involved in this controversy is what I stand up for and always have[i.e. widespread diversity in film].”
In other words, it’s particularly shocking that this could have happened to her of all people.
Her comments extend beyond merely rankling when she finally mentions that:
“I’m a Scottish woman of 55 who lives in the Highlands. There’s precious little projected on contemporary cinema screens that means a great deal to my life, if truth be told.”
While I won’t say that a great deal of what’s projected on contemporary cinema screens does or could mean a great deal to a Scottish woman of 55 who lives in the Highlands, the comparison is a bad one. Cho is referring to a harmful Hollywood practice that spans decades and affects millions of Asian-Americans and Swinton appears to believe that, as a white woman, the discussion they’re having takes place on a level playing field.
Swinton later claims that “ducking the issue is not what [she is] about” and then almost immediately afterwards states that “so far I have attempted to correct the notion that I accepted an offer to play an Asian.. (!!) the most significant and damaging misunderstanding out there, it seems.” To clarify, since the role she signed on for was not originally Asian there’s a misunderstanding as to what actually took place and any interpreted wrongdoing she may have committed herself.
Being able to say that the role commonly and most widely known to be an Asian man [as the Ancient One is a title in the comic books] was rewritten so that they were white instead is hardly a defence. Granted, any actor who auditioned could say that they did not directly attempt to land a role that would have gone to a non-white actor, but just how plausible that deniability may be is open to contention.
As an addendum to her final email to Cho Swinton reveals that she is producing a film with Korean director Bong Joon-ho. This upcoming project, Okja, is described by her as:
“to my knowledge the first ever half Korean/half English speaking film, which we are making with Plan B and Netflix, in which the lead is a 14 year old girl from Korea and which stars Steven Yeun, amongst others.. fingers crossed it will be a big deal and help the landscape somewhat.. I hope and believe it will..”
What she neglects to mention is that Yeun does not appear to be the actual star of the film, with that distinction being reserved, from what I can tell, for Ahn Seo-hyun, who plays the protagonist Mija. One article on the film announces that it will be starring “Tilda Swinton (Hail, Caesar!, Moonrise Kingdom), Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler, Everest) and Paul Dano (Love & Mercy, 12 Years a Slave) in a bold, global adventure.” Another source notes that ” Lily Collins has landed one of the lead roles alongside Jake Gyllenhaal”. While Korean actors are mentioned as well they are said to be “joining the cast”. At the time of this writing the first look at the film, and the first image search result on Google, is actually the following image:
At this point, with it being slated for a 2017 release, it’s entirely possible that Okja may actually heavily favour its Korean-speaking cast, relegating its American stars to bit parts. Given how Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, his previous project with Swinton, turned out, however, it’s just as likely that the opposite will in fact be the case. I think it’s important for me to clearly state that this kind of joint bilingual production is a net positive for representation in film, but that the actor framing it as a Stephen Yeun vehicle, and obscuring the A-list white talent starring, in turn feels somewhat deceptive.
Okay, So Neither Came Out Unscathed, So What?
The biggest irony involving the Swinton-Cho Letters is not the collective backlash Cho faced, whether out of outright anger over being lied to or mere disappointment that she didn’t do a better job. The biggest irony is that, from beginning to end, this has all been about Tilda Swinton.
After the Tigerbelly episode dropped the conversation was about how Swinton could have been so insensitive, searching for affirmation and support while making Cho uncomfortable. Then, after the emails were released, she was praised for handling herself with such poise and class; any sentiments regarding Cho were overwhelmingly negative. Throughout this entire process of back and forth what wasn’t heard were the words the Korean American comedian had to share in response.
For many comic book fans she was dismissed entirely for prefacing her comments with “I’m totally unfamiliar with all the comic books so I can’t speak on anything about that”, which assumes that Cho would have supported a version of Doctor Strange that portrayed the Ancient One as an offensive Asian stereotype. How much does someone need to know in order to express that when a Hollywood role can go to an Asian actor it should, and portrayed in the best way [and this doesn’t exclude villains] possible.
It was very easy for me personally to overlook what she had to say, because after all, isn’t it also what I’ve been writing about on this site for the past several years? Hearing that-
“The larger part of the debate has to do with the ‘whitewashing’ of Asian and Asian Americans in film. Our stories are told by white actors over and over again and we feel at a loss to know how to cope with it.”
-is not news to me. When Cho tells Swinton that-
“It’s hard I know – people get very angry and it’s difficult to know what to do to get around that anger. But you should know that it’s anger built up over many many years of invisibility within film/tv/media that’s just exploded now with this film. And it’s not just you – It’s also directed at Scarlett Johanssen for Ghost in the Shell.”
-it’s not only a conversation I’m familiar with, it’s an anger that has since transformed into weariness that I felt and still feel. Yet in spite of speaking the truth in these emails every one of her sentiments has been washed away by the fallout from the Swinton-Cho Letters. Yes, she made a mistake, but it doesn’t invalidate any of the points she made.
It’s not a perfect conversation by any means, and I will not defend Margaret Cho’s decision to disclose what was understood to be a private dialogue between two parties. That being said I think it’s time that we take a closer look at the actor who commands significantly less star power between the two and really read and listen to what she’ s already said, instead of the actor who shared that she was “much more interested in listening than saying anything much” and then went on to dominate the conversation with explanations of what was already done.
In a statement made to Entertainment Weekly last Friday Cho opts to have the last word, and I believe it’s one worth taking at face value:
“Asian actors should play Asian roles. I believe my emails stand on their own and should be taken for the spirit in which they were intended. I am grateful that the debate has now entered the national discussion and remain a huge fan of Tilda’s.”