EDITOR’S NOTE: We end each year by each taking a look back and picking our five best posts, explaining both their importance to us and to the world we currently live in. Clicking the banner images will link you to each post, so as 2016 comes to a close join us in remembering how far we’ve come, but also how far we still have to go.
To directly quote my co-writer, “**** this year” has been an increasingly common sentiment as the days tick by, but even given the relentless, overwhelming flood of bad news that 2016 has embodied what’s particularly depressing to consider is how little some things have changed. It’s also telling that in spite of us collectively writing more blog posts than last year I’m left feeling like I wrote less, and that what was written is generally of a lower quality as well.
With that in mind and given the handful of bright spots I managed to find I decided to address this year and my coverage of it a little differently by using the “sandwich approach”. Instead of being presented in chronological order below are two positive aspects to 2016 that bookend what amounts to one singular, continuous problem, and one that I take very personally.
There’s something beautiful about the way a team can run like a well-oiled machine, each of its separate components working in unison to efficiently accomplish a shared goal. While not always my experience with Overwatch those moments, especially when with friends, have been highlights of my year.
With this post I took a closer look at Blizzard’s latest FPS that, since the time of this post being written, has grown the number of playable female characters to roughly 50%, and its place as part of a growing push in video games to expand beyond the male-only titles of the past.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was a high point of 2015, a Netflix-exclusive sitcom with an unassailably positive young woman at its core. It even took up one of my slots in my last year in review post, where I praised them for including an Asian love interest while scrutinizing how much they truly valued the verisimilitude needed to portray them correctly.
One tragedy of 2016 is that I was never able to make it past the third episode of its second season, the reason being that Tina Fey et al. created twenty-some minutes of television that dragged those who value Asian American representation before running them over with a steamroller, and then putting it in reverse. Friends assure me that it gets better, but how could it not after falling to such great depths? Continue reading →
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 →
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? Continue reading →
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.
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”.