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The Whitewashing Controversy Around Marvel’s Doctor Strange Gets Even Stranger

Actress Tilda Swinton responds the outcry over her playing an Asian character in a new blockbuster

So, the Marvel whitewashing issue got extra weird in the past two weeks.


At the end of last year we brought you a thorough explainer on Hollywood’s long and shameful history of both not casting Asian actors and casting white actors to play Asian characters—a practice known as yellowface. That article revolved around the casting of Scarlett Johansson to play the lead role in the seminal anime film turned live action spectacle, Ghost In The Shell, but it also touched on the bubbling frustration regarding Tilda Swinton being cast to play The Ancient One in Marvel’s upcoming film, Doctor Strange.

While initially praised for casting a woman to play a character traditionally written as male, that good will ran out after the movie’s first official trailer debuted at the start of April. Seeing Swinton as The Ancient One, an incredibly powerful sorcerer typically presented as Tibetan, elicited cries of “Whitewashing!” and the actress herself responded by telling The Hollywood Reporter that her role is not yellowfacing because her character is not Tibetan, “Well, it's not actually an Asian character — that's what I need to tell you about it. I wasn't asked to play an Asian character, you can be very well assured of that."

She then told reporters at a New York press day the same thing, “The script that I was presented with did not feature an Asian man for me to play, so that was never a question when I was being asked to do it."

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]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 you are talking about.[/quote]

Props to Swinton for addressing the issue head-on, being consistent and speaking about the parts of the creative process she could control. Doctor Strange’s screenwriter didn’t take the same pragmatic approach. In an understandable attempt to defend his art, Cargill went weirdly off book last Monday on the podcast Double Toasted and defended his project by basically blaming haters and China. Some of his greatest hits are:

Cargill on why The Ancient One being rooted in Asian stereotypes makes it impossible to cast anyway: “Ever single decision that involves the Ancient One is a bad one… It all comes down on which way you’re willing to lose.”

Cargill on why you should blame China’s relationship with Tibet for the whole mess: “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 bullsh*t 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.'" (The bonus of this statement is how Cargill is saying Hollywood builds movies around Chinese box office and makes creative decisions based on that market. Score!)

But he wasn’t even done with the international relations screed! “If we decide to go the other way and cater to China in particular—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 are talking about.” It should be noted that Cargill was not involved in the decision to cast Swinton.

Marvel, surely irate at non-studio sanctioned comments, put out a statement of its own the next day in the form of a letter to Mashable:

“Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU to life. The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic. We are very proud to have the enormously talented Tilda Swinton portray this unique and complex character alongside our richly diverse cast.”

It was a well-crafted corporate response that amounts to, “We’re trying over here. Isn’t it enough that we made this powerful character a woman, and can we please get past this now?” But then this week, beloved actor and internet personality George Takei dismantled Marvel’s letter on his Facebook page. Takei posted an article about the hinky logic presented by Cargill (which we’re sure he got a strong talking to for), and came out swinging in comment thread.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Casting an Asian actor in an Asian role that was once stereotypical but is now nuanced and developed—now that would be a welcome development.[/quote]

“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. They cast Tilda because they believe white audiences want to see white faces. Audiences, too, should be aware of how dumb and out of touch the studios think we are.”

And then he went through the comments and directly responded to several people counter-arguing for Marvel’s position. For example:

“All the arguments in the world don't change the fact that Hollywood offers very few roles to Asian actors, and when one comes along, they hire a white actor to do it, for whatever the reasons. Until that mindset can change, and the studios do something to stop this practice (Remember The Last Airbender? Aloha?) I will continue to speak out. And incidentally, there are many ways to write non-stereotypical roles these days, even out of existing portrayals. Casting an Asian actor in an Asian role that was once stereotypical but is now nuanced and developed--now that would be a welcome development.”

It should be noted that each of the people who challenged Takei that he responded to are, by their profile pictures, white men. Raise your hands if you’re surprised, Internet. No one? Okay let’s move on to yesterday, when Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson said basically the only thing he could by tweeting out the he is “listening and learning.”

This was a similar sentiment to the one expressed by Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow when he was taken to task for saying part of why women aren’t directing big blockbusters movies is because, “Many of the top female directors in our industry are not interested in doing a piece of studio business for its own sake,” adding that “Maybe this opinion makes me naïve, but as an employee of two companies run by brilliant women, I don’t think I am.” Which is exactly what naïve people say!

After being taken to the woodshed, Trevorrow wrote a long response letter to /Film expressing his desire to correct the gender imbalance among directors and to be a bigger part of the solution going forward. Hopefully all of this touchy feely listening and learning can lead to tangible change, but in the meantime, at least the conversation is getting louder—and angrier.

As for Doctor Strange, we’ve now had the studio, the star, the director, and the writer weigh in on the unfolding saga of whitewashing in Hollywood, and specifically the MCU. But what can we expect next? Will a foley artists give their two cents? Or perhaps a gaffer with a heart of gold and strong sense of social justice? Only time will tell, but no matter what voice we hear next there’s a 90 percent chance it will be from someone who’s white.

Let’s just hope Jon M. Chu brings some much-needed perspective to his newly minted next project, a screen adaptation of the book Crazy Rich Asians. Because it would be super awkward if everyone in that story ends up being Celtic…

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