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.
“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- Continue reading →
When Diversity Means Painting With All the Colour of the Wind
In the months leading up to the release of Doctor Strange the conversation about the Ancient One’s casting began heating up. With mainstream news outlets picking up on the controversy there were many waiting to hear from the creators themselves, which brings us to the episode of theDouble Toasted podcast that guest starred screenwriter C. Robert Cargill.
Now if you don’t want to actually listen to him, which I find perfectly understandable, I’ve also transcribed the relevant quote [emphasis added]:
“But when you start to see this film you’ll see that what we were able to do with Kamar-Taj, we made one of the most multicultural films most people have seen in years. Like this film is [. . .] I’m not certain that there’s a single major race that isn’t represented with a speaking role in this film. It allowed us to bring in, even as small characters to build upon later, a lot of characters from the Doctor Strange universe who come from all over the world. We were able to play with a lot of things and it gave us a lot to work with.”
Kurt Busiek is a writer who has been in the industry for decades, with a four year stint on Avengers being his greatest claim to fame. With an extensive biography that spans the Marvel universe he’s widely regarded in comic book circles as a professional who knows what he’s talking about. Roughly a week ago he began sharing over Twitter about how Doctor Strange was very likely intended to be Asian from the very beginning, or at least depicted in such a fashion. I’ve compiled all relevant tweets below, for your consideration [all tweets not by Busiek were retweeted by him]:
Not only was Dr. Strange originally Asian, but Dr. Droom/Druid _became_ Asian after learning Eastern magic. Physically.
Last week it was announced that Tilda Swinton was in talks to join Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange, specifically in the role of the Ancient One. For those of you who don’t read a lot of comic books [and even those who do] the character in question is Doctor Strange’s teacher, a Tibetan mystic named Yao. If it wasn’t plainly apparent to you, Swinton is about as Tibetan as Emma Stone is Chinese or Native Hawaiian. The numerous comic book news outlets that I frequent have covered this in as much depth as they possibly can seeing as nothing is set in stone at this point, but I’ve noticed a trend in responses to the presumed casting choice. That perspective is what I’ll be covering first, following that up with how “progressive” Swinton playing this role would actually be-
“Meryl Streep could play Batman and be the right choice.”
Look, we’ve all seen at least one episode of Modern Family, and most of us can remember Cam reciting those exact words when lauding the actor’s ability to be perfect in any role. Like most effective jokes it’s funny because it’s a slight exaggeration of how people actually think and feel, in this case about their favourite talent.
Gordon lambasted the blog “Your Fave Is Problematic” last year, and for reasons that I generally agree with given their penchant of going overboard when finding areas in which celebrities and media have screwed up. That being said, at bare minimum the title of the site is effective in that it forces us to realize that nobody is above reproach. No one is so incredible that they should be given carte blanche to do [or be] whatever they want, yet that’s the attitude I’ve seen so many people give this news.
That’s not to say that people aren’t entitled to their own opinions of who can play what character, but that we’ll so quickly make exceptions when they involve people we love to watch perform. After it was announced that Martin Freeman would be appearing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe the number of people who wanted to see Martin Freeman as Wong opposite Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange was staggering. That’s right, Martin Freeman. As a person named “Wong”.