We’re in an exciting time right now, when representation is finally being discussed loudly, constantly, and on all levels, from conversations between individual humans to behind the scenes of huge studio blockbusters. Although, not everyone finds this exciting. Many find it tiring, or demanding, or overly PC, and wonder why this is important all of a sudden. Of course, the people who talk that way are mostly those who have always seen versions of themselves onscreen, and have no idea that that’s not a universal experience.
For everyone else, the sudden discussion around where the female, or LGBTQ, or racially diverse characters are— and which characters they are— have always been happening. It’s just that now, people have to listen. (Thanks, The Internet!)
A huge impediment to these conversations, though, is the idea that diversity is a tit-for-tat, tallyable scorecard. Take, for example, the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in the upcoming Doctor Strange. Now, I hate to say Swinton shouldn’t be cast in any (or maybe literally every) role, and I am sure she will absolutely slay in this movie, but this decision played a huge part in pushing the whitewashing and general lack of Asian characters in Hollywood productions into the spotlight. Thanks to the Ancient One backlash, along with some really notable pushes from shows like Master of None and online campaigns like #StarringJohnCho (just to name two of many), the underrepresentation of Asian characters is part of a larger conversation about diversity in a way that it hasn’t been until very recently.
A common argument against the criticisms that came up with Swinton’s casting was that changing a historically Tibetan male character to a white woman made the movie diversity-neutral. But the only way that works is if we still view White Dudes and Everyone Else as the only two camps to choose from.
And that’s what makes Swinton’s most recent response to questions about this controversy so disappointing. Because while there have been some total bullshit answers to these questions from others involved— and this is DEFINITELY a step in a promising direction— it still comes up short.
“Anybody calling for more accurate representation of the diverse world we live in has got me standing right beside them,” says Swinton. “I think when people see this film, they’re going to see that it comes from a very diverse place, in all sorts of ways. Maybe this misunderstanding around this film has been an opportunity for that voice to be heard, and I’m not against that at all. But I do think that when people see the film, they’ll see that it’s not necessarily a target for that voice.”
The problem with that response is that it doesn’t actually matter if this individual instance turns out to be a fine showing of diversity. The real problem is a refusal to see Asian men and white women as different entities, rather than interchangeable diversity tokens you cash in for a gold PC star. And, again, no movie made in Hollywood— especially when we’re talking representation— is an island. Sure, maybe the decision to cast Tilda will pay off HUGELY (as casting Tilda usually does), and it’s worth noting that the short list for this role was truly colorblind. But no matter how the movie works out, the criticism is not based around a “misunderstanding,” but on a long history of whitewashing Asian roles.
If you missed this video when it was going around earlier this year, it lays out this point better than I ever could.
I know it’s started to feel in recent years like we’re constantly on the hunt for the Perfect Celebrity Apology, and I also know that thing doesn’t exist. But while we’re talking Doctor Strange responses, this simple tweet from the movie’s director, Scott Derrickson, is pretty much all we’re asking for.
Raw anger/hurt from Asian-Americans over Hollywood whitewashing, stereotyping & erasure of Asians in cInema.— Scott Derrickson (@scottderrickson) May 4, 2016
I am listening and learning.
I can’t fault Swinton for standing by her role. But it’s that “I’m listening” part that was missing. Instead of always insisting that THIS one is the one that is the exception, that our feelings are a “misunderstanding,” it would be nice if more people at the top, at the very least, opened up to the possibility of listening and learning.