The Swinton-Cho Letters, Part 2: Putting Down a Resurrected Argument or: When Isn’t Art Political?

I began the first installment of this two-parter making note of the long and ultimately wearying experience it has been, starting with Doctor Strange going into pre-production and continuing on to the recent exposure of the Swinton-Cho Letters. While I spent time describing the ups and downs of casting news what I neglected to mention, and what I’m going to focus on today, is the outset and ultimate resurgence of an argument in defence of whitewashing.

That’s right, an argument defending what Wikipedia helpfully defines as “a casting practice [. . .] in which white actors are cast in historically non-white character roles.” The very faint silver lining is that the justification here does not revolve around star power and A-list draw, or the idea that “the best person for the role” was hired, the latter of which rarely ever swings in the other direction. In spite of not being deeply rooted in these ways of thinking, however, the argument presented remains deeply flawed.

Before we get into that, however, we should probably get to its origin story.

Like I Said Last Time, “It’s Always Podcasts”

Having to hit all of this again it’s important to be thankful for small blessings, with one being that I don’t need to hear C. Robert Cargill’s voice again due to already having done the research for another post. The person in question was one of the screenwriters for Doctor Strange, and dropped in on the  Double Toasted podcast mid-April to answer a few questions about it.

Eventually, and unsurprisingly, the issue of the Ancient One’s casting was brought up. Cargill’s response, as transcribed by CINEMABLEND’s “The Blunt, Yet Difficult Reason Doctor Strange’s Ancient One Isn’t Asian”, is as follows:

“The Ancient One was a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place. He originates from Tibet. So if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’ If we decide to go the other way and cater to China in particular and have him be in Tibet [. . .] If you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.”

In essence Cargill chalked the reasons for the casting decision up to politics and economics, implying that having the character played by a Tibetan would cause Marvel Studios to lose out on Chinese box office sales. He also suggests quite strongly that, conversely, having a Chinese actor play a Tibetan would cause a large amount of controversy. This was picked up by sites from IndieWire to ScreenRant to The Hollywood Reporter, with several using words like “reveal” in their headlines, as if a longstanding mystery had finally been solved.

The justifications he laid out were to become the go-to response for every commenter looking to defend the Swinton’s casting, and why not? After all, as one of the screenwriters of the film Cargill should be a direct and dependable source. The answer to that hypothetical starts with what happened a few short days later-

Cargill Clarifies [But Few Listen]

On April 25th, shortly after news outlets had reported on what he had said during the podcast, the following tweets were posted online:

To reiterate, Cargill states that “contrary to the headlines , [he] didn’t confirm anything.” Unfortunately what was shared on Twitter gained so little traction, with only the first garnering a little over three dozen retweets at the time of this writing, that he also wrote an email that was shared on the New York Times website:

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but none that I regret as much as choosing to answer a question to which I had no place in speaking. I tried to make it right by clarifying my position on Twitter Monday but unfortunately — perhaps ironically, given that this story gained so much steam on social media — those comments were not picked up by those reporting on my statements from the original podcast. Those original statements were my own personal musings about a character, and although I worked on the film script, I came to the project after the first draft and was not part of any casting discussions or decisions so I had no right or knowledge to speak about them as if I was. It was a moronic decision, and worst of all, I embarrassed my friends and colleagues by coming across as if I were speaking for them. I was not.”

To restate his point: the comments made by Cargill on Double Toasted did not by any means reflect on Marvel Studios and their own choices that led to what actually ended up taking place. They were, to quote him directly, “[his] own personal musings about a character”.

While this has received considerably less coverage than his original statements, which can be laid in part at the feet of the journalists who failed to cover the second part of this story, an additional problem is that Cargill’s rationale wouldn’t hold water even if he was speaking on behalf of the film’s other creators.

“you risk alienating one billion people”

A specific aspect of this entire issue that has worn away at me as the months have gone by is the number of armchair experts that have cropped up due to Cargill’s initial statements. Suddenly everyone and the entirety of their extended family appeared to have received doctorates in both Film and Geopolitical Studies, unveiling an in-depth understanding of China’s censorship laws.

The biggest irony, to pull a phrase from the Swinton-Cho Letters, is that actual knowledge of the debate over Tibetan sovereignty is completely moot because, and get this, there are no references to Tibet in Doctor Strange. Here are the first three words of the Plot section on the Wikipedia page for the film [at the time of this writing]:


After noting that the film does not eventually shift to take place in Tibet, let’s really break it down:

  • Tibet is a politically complex area on the aptly-named Tibetan Plateau, which many Chinese people view as being an autonomous region of their country.
  • Nepal is a Federal Democratic Republic that shares a border with the aforementioned geographical area; Kathmandu is its capital.

To put it more bluntly: Nepal is not Tibet. Asian American actor George Takei shared an article on his Facebook page with the accompanying comment that “Marvel must think we’re all idiots,” which he further elaborates on in the comments below, noting:

“Marvel already addressed the Tibetan question by setting the action and The Ancient One in Kathmandu, Nepal in the film. It wouldn’t have mattered to the Chinese government by that point whether the character was white or Asian, as it was already in another country. So this is a red herring, and it’s insulting that they expect us to buy their explanation.”

Even without his decades of experience within the film industry as a minority it’s impossible to ignore the logic behind this simple observation: without any references to Tibet there wouldn’t have been any issue with the Ancient One being Asian as they would not have ostensibly hailed from that particular region of the world. Having addressed the potential impact the loss of the Chinese box office might have had on Doctor Strange, let’s actually talk about what the film doesn’t-

“if you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character…”

There’s a great deal to unpack in this next section. The first is the idea that they ever had the option of simply casting a Chinese actor in the part, while stating the actual character themselves is Tibetan, as if that would have mollified the world power while offering a concession to the region they claim power over. Cargill saying that supporters of this “have no idea what [they’re] talking about” is entirely accurate, but it’s just throwing out an unrealistic suggestion and then crucifying those who might hold it up as a solution.

What that section does imply, however, is that representation of Tibetan people is something they value, and that there’s a concern that those who call for that representation might be vocal in the event that it’s handled poorly. Which is hilarious to think about, in retrospect.

If representation of Tibetan people was truly of any importance you’d think they might have been included in Doctor Strange. That said, it was actually their complete exclusion which resulted in a group of Tibetans and Tibet supporters silently protesting the film around the time of its release. In charge of gathering the small group of no more than a dozen, Urgyen Badheytsang, campaign director of Students for a Free Tibet, levelled the accusation that:

“They’re doing worse than just whitewashing. Right now they are just completely [sic] mish mashing cultures. They’re making people dumber by placing this white woman in the middle of a monastery in Nepal.”

Any ire or sorrow Badheytsang may have felt over their not casting a Tibetan in the role appears to be amplified by their choice of Tilda Swinton. Not only is a part that could have been Asian given to a white actor, it’s the juxtaposition of the setting which exacerbates how jarring it really is.

Cargill’s rationale has been so closely repeated that this is a point that almost always proceeds the other. Once the Chinese box office and the country’s government have been mentioned the need for Tibetan representation and its accuracy swiftly follows. While I’m dubious in regards to how much those calling for authenticity ever valued it prior to this movie, what I never want to do is downplay the desire for entertainment to better depict minorities, regardless of their actual number.

The truth is that Doctor Strange does not in fact do right by Tibet, and the reason for that is-

“because you decided to get political”

The title of ScreenRant’s write-up really says it all: “Doctor Strange’s Erasure Of Tibet Is A Political Statement”. While the entire thing is worth reading, one section is particularly insightful:

“It scarcely needs to be said, but Marvel’s decision to quietly excise Tibet from Doctor Strange’s origin story is not apolitical. The studio has absolutely taken a side on the issue of the Tibet-China conflict, and it has sided with the Chinese government – an obvious choice, considering that the SAPPRFT [State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television] is the gatekeeper to China’s massive population and substantial Marvel fanbase. But [. . .] the erasure of Tibet from a major Hollywood blockbuster isn’t so easy to just shrug off. At worst, it could be argued that Marvel is being complicit in the oppression of a people whose troubled history has included human rights violations [. . .]. With all that in mind, Marvel’s decision to play along with the Chinese government’s stance on Tibet, even by simply avoiding acknowledgement of its existence, suddenly doesn’t seem so harmless.”

As such Doctor Strange joins a number of other works of art that are straddling the line between being apolitical and communicating a strongly-held stance. Rogue One, which hit theatres last week and was likewise ultimately created by Disney, appears to lean more towards the former. In response to one of the film’s writers tweeting [since deleted] that the “Empire is a white supremacist (human organization)” Disney CEO Bob Iger sought to clear the air, telling The Hollywood Reporter:

“”I have no reaction to [this] story at all. Frankly, this is a film that the world should enjoy. It is not a film that is, in any way, a political film. There are no political statements in it, at all.”

He doubled down on the sentiment, further saying:

“[Rogue One] has one of the greatest and most diverse casts of any film we have ever made and we are very proud of that, and that is not a political statement, at all.”

Only two days ago Blizzard released a comic called “Reflections” for their increasingly popular FPS Overwatch. Taking place within the game’s canon timeline [in a way that actual gameplay doesn’t] the issue revealed a lot about a number of characters, though none more shocking to the internet than the following panel:


Overwatch #10. Written by Michael Chu, Illustrated by Miki Montlló.

Pictured is Tracer, on the left [the actual face of the game as she appears on box and case covers, and most promotional material] being kissed by/kissing Emily, who she appears to be in a romantic relationship with. People reacted exactly as you might expect them to.

After allowing a lot of the initial furor to die down, Blizzard released a statement to IGN which reads:

“Tracer is a lesbian on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. As in real life, having variety in our characters and their identities and backgrounds helps create a richer and deeper overall fictional universe. From the beginning, we’ve wanted the universe of Overwatch to feel welcoming and inclusive, and to reflect the diversity of our players around the world. As with any aspect of our characters’ backgrounds, their sexuality is just one part of what makes our heroes who they are.”

The question is, are these works of art political? Is Rogue One, a film in which a group of rebels battles against a fascist regime political, in a year where “fascist” was the most-searched term on Merriam-Webster and that marks the most contentious election in recent US history? What does it mean for the latest film in the Star Wars franchise to star “one of the greatest and most diverse casts of any film [they] have ever made” or for Overwatch to feature an LGBT hero, in a world where non-white people have had a history of being excluded from military service and where the US Armed Forces’ “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding homosexuals was repealed less than a decade ago?

In the world that we currently live in it has become a matter of politics to state that members of the LGBT community can be heroes, not as mech-pilots or cyborg defenders, or even military personnel, but as school teachers and Boy Scout leaders. It has become a matter of politics to believe that people who don’t look like us can find a place not only in our home countries, but on our TV and movie screens.

Art makes a statement. It speaks volumes even if you won’t, and oftentimes says the opposite even if you do.

What Do We Say to the God of Death People Who Won’t Let This Die?

Cargill describes a worst case scenario as the filmmakers “[deciding] to get political”, yet even their decision to cast an older woman was their own way of resisting a common, unspoken opinion that this demographic has no place in Hollywood blockbusters. In addition to that, as Hannah Shaw-Williams at ScreenRant so eloquently put it, omitting Tibet is firm evidence that “the studio has absolutely taken a side”.

Actual concern about the potential Chinese box office and any perceived concern for actual Tibetans having been eradicated, we are still left with a character commonly depicted as Asian being played by white actor Tilda Swinton. As I mentioned in my takeaway from Doctor Strange the Ancient Once as they appeared on-screen was portrayed, “with nuance and multidimensionality.” Why Asian talent could not have played and redeemed the character can and should be asked of director Scott Derrickson, who is on record as saying Wong, who himself made it into the film with original race intact, “was a worse stereotype than The Ancient One”.

There’s only so much good you can do arguing with people online, but should you come across this same, tired argument I hope you’re now better equipped to respond to it. While China may have resulted in Tibet never even being mentioned, what that country’s government did not contribute to was Swinton landing the part. What’s truly saddening is the inability for what was ostensibly a room full of white men to come up with a creative solution to the problem they were faced with, and that’s all it was.

In his episode of Double Toasted Cargill mentioned that “every single decision that involves the Ancient One is a bad one, and just like the Kobayashi Maru, it all comes down on which way you’re willing to lose.” As Edward Wong of the New York Times points out, the comparison is flawed as it can in fact be beaten. That’s the thing about unwinnable scenarios, referring to them as such is the easiest response.

One response to “The Swinton-Cho Letters, Part 2: Putting Down a Resurrected Argument or: When Isn’t Art Political?

  1. Pingback: Who Did It Better? Coming Out with J.K. Rowling and Overwatch Lead Writer Michael Chu | Culture War Reporters

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