Over the past week or so, Marvel has finally been responding to the complaints that their casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange was nothing more than whitewashing. First, screenwriter C. Robert Cargill went on the podcast Double Toasted and explained that a big part of the reasoning behind the casting was to appease the Chinese government. To which, Takei says… huh?
He followed up in the comments with more elaboration:
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 more elaboration, because people still weren’t getting it.
This is a non-issue already. The setting for The Ancient One is Nepal, not Tibet. This is something Marvel already thought about and addressed in their script. The casting was something else entirely, and to conflate the two is revisionist at best.
Takei also pointed out the fact that this is not one single issue of casting, but rather part of a long history of ignoring Asian actors and Asian roles.
To those who say, “She an actress, this is fiction,” remember that Hollywood has been casting white actors in Asian roles for decades now, and we can’t keep pretending there isn’t something deeper at work here. If it were true that actors of Asian descent were being offered choice roles in films, these arguments might prevail. But there has been a long standing practice of taking roles that were originally Asian and rewriting them for white actors to play, leaving Asians invisible on the screen and underemployed as actors. This is a very real problem, not an abstract one. It is not about political correctness, it is about correcting systemic exclusion. Do you see the difference?
Last week, Marvel also released a statement making it clear that Swinton isn’t playing an Asian character, and that “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.” But that doesn’t hold water with Takei.
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.
The go-to argument against Takei’s stance is that Marvel really does seem committed to diversity, and that we can’t be mad about an Asian character being rewritten as white, since that character is now also a woman. But diversity and true representation isn’t a tit-for-tat. “Woman” and “Asian” don’t occupy the same box on your diversity bingo card. It’s not one or the other to please the bleeding hearts. Just because Idris Elba played an Asgardian, that does not mean that Marvel can make a traditionally Asian character white. That two-way street does not have equally paved roads.
I fear you miss my point. I’m not against colorblind casting. That is to say, when there is a role that can be played by a black actor or an Asian one (such as Hermione in the play in London), then I welcome it. But here we are talking about the systematic erasure of Asian faces from film and media. It is so prevalent that even when there IS an Asian role that could be played by an Asian actor, it is given instead to a white actor. Do you not see the issue here? We are talking about systemic exclusion, lack of opportunity, and invisibility of a whole segment of our society, because Hollywood is afraid to take chances with ethnic actors. Instead, we are the butt of jokes (as the Oscars telecast showed) or are cast only in certain roles that continue to marginalize us and send signals to society that we are not leading men and women. I have a real problem with that, and I’m the happy exception to all of this. But I feel for my fellow Asian American actors who cannot find work because what little work there is gets “whitewashed” for others to play.
Given that there were 4.5 thousand comments on Takei’s original post (last I checked), it’s amazing that he even dipped his toe in to respond to specific comments, but it’s important that he did. This is an issue that’s incredibly complex, and ties into a larger history than most of us had ever been aware of. Still, not everyone is going to agree here, or stop wondering aloud what the big deal is, no matter how well Takei laid out his arguments. And to those people: