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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 the other direction. In spite of not being deeply rooted in these ways of thinking, however, the argument is 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- Continue reading

Asian Comic Book Fan Watches Doctor Strange with Low Expectations of Racial Representation, Is Unsurprised but Writes Blog Post Anyway

This is the second part of a series I began almost exactly three years ago with “Asian Comic Book Fan Watches Thor: The Dark World Expecting Racial Representation, Deals with Crushing Disappointment by Writing Blog Post“. The Marvel sequel in question sidelined Hogun, played by Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano, almost completely, and as the title of the blog post would suggest I had been very excited to see him again.

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I can’t not use this image again, it’s just too perfect. Source: platoapproved.tumblr.com

With Doctor Strange, on the other hand, that anticipation was not present at all. Last June I covered the news that Tilda Swinton was in talks to play the Ancient One, the title character’s mentor, in “Celebrity Blind Spots and Fixing Racist Narratives [By Making Everyone White]“. The gist of that post was how, in an effort to be more “progressive” filmmakers have been choosing to “fix” problematic minority characters by simply casting them with white talent. That’s as opposed to simply amending what made them so racist and stereotypical to begin with.

At that point in 2015 Swinton starring in the film had not yet been confirmed, and absolutely nothing had been mentioned about the character of Wong, Doctor Strange’s manservant in the source material. With Benedict Cumberbatch already locked into the role it was a magical time in which there was still the possibility of Marvel releasing a movie with two prominent Asian characters.

Look, my hopes were never particularly high that Swinton wouldn’t land the part. As soon as it was announced she was in talks for the role support began pouring in. That she was a woman in her 50s in a genre that has helped shine a spotlight on men of all ages and women of a very particular age was laudable to many. The thing is, the optics are so bad.

twowhiteys Continue reading