Was 'Doctor Strange's' Ancient One Casting Really a No-Win Situation?
Last week, the majority of the internet’s ire was focused squarely on the announcement of Scarlett Johansson having been cast as the lead in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell movie. However, there was another item that came up right around the same time, that now seems to have finally caught up. Another item involving a property with a strong geek fandom, and a caucasian actress being cast in a role originally developed as an Asian character. Man, it would be really nice if we didn’t have two of these stories happening in on month, but here we are.
The news that Tilda Swinton would play The Ancient One in Marvel’s Doctor Strange movie broke nearly a full year ago. But it was the first trailer earlier this month that has opened many people’s eyes to what this decision actually means: that a major blockbuster has, in typical major blockbuster style, turned an Asian character with a white one. Then today, this conversation’s fire got fanned once again when screenwriter C. Robert Cargill defended the casting decision on the podcast Double Toasted. If you’re curious about what he said, I’d recommend listening for yourself, starting around the 2:15:00 mark.
Here’s the gist, though. Cargill didn’t make the casting decision; he came onboard after they’d already cast the role. But he does defend it, vehemently, by saying that there was really no good way forward here. He calls it “Marvel’s ‘Kobayashi Maru,’ saying “There is no other other character in Marvel history that is such a cultural land mine. [It] is absolutely unwinnable.”
Most of the people who have thoughts [on the casting of Tilda Swinton] haven’t thought it all the way through. They go ‘Why didn’t they just do this?’ I could tell you why. I could tell you why every single decision that involves the Ancient One is a bad one. And just like the Kobayashi Maru, it all comes down on which way you’re willing to lose.
He goes on to say that the people who think an Asian actor should have been cast instead just don’t get it. That, first of all, The Ancient One is originally written as a racial stereotype, and that on top of that, there’s a political context that’s impossible to navigate. Because the character is Tibetan, and China doesn’t recognize Tibet’s independence, they run the risk of China refusing to screen the movie if a Tibetan actor is cast. But if a Chinese actor is cast (Michelle Yeoh is the example he uses), then that’s treating all Asian people as interchangeable. So there was no winning. Instead, they went outside of the box, hired an actress everyone loves, and made the character a woman.
So is Cargill right? Was this a no-win situation? Well, sort of. I agree with all of those things that Cargill said there. (I do NOT agree with him that “social justice warriors” were going to be mad no matter what, or that casting a woman— cool as that was— should have bought them enough good favor to not be criticized for the race issue at hand.) However, we are entering a time when a dangerous argument seems to be coming up more and more: the justification of “that’s just the way things are.” Because yes, I understand that this was a tricky situation, but all too often, tricky situations are bowed out of with half-assed solutions and mumblings of “well, what else could we have done?” And that needs to be curtailed right the hell now, because it’s just fucking lazy.
When the Ghost in the Shell casting broke, along with the story that Marvel played around with CGI “yellowface,” a lot of people, whether they claimed to understand the outrage or not, still played the A-lister card: the idea that the movie couldn’t have gotten made without Scarlett Johansson. Max Landis posted a video on his Facebook wherein he “professionalsplains” (by the way, literally no one has ever said “I’m not whitesplaining…” and then gone on to do anything other than that exact thing. That’s what this is, Landis. Accept it.) the fact that “the only reason to be upset about Scarlett Johansson being cast in Ghost In the Shell, is if you don’t know how the film industry works.” He goes on to say, basically, that we should be mad, but that we’re mad at all the wrong people. That anyone who was mad at the studio, or the director, or Johansson herself, are all wrong. So who SHOULD we be mad at?
There’s no real answer for that. He argues that these things are “cultural,” and we’re to blame, and the (I suppose lack of a) studio system, but also, you know, the system. Which is the longwinded whitesplaining equivalent of a shrug and a “Whatcha gonna do?” And to an extent, he’s right. A lot of people were yelling at Scarlett Johansson the day that that CGI story was going around, which was totally reminiscent of what happened to Rooney Mara for her role in Pan. And that’s pretty shitty, because these women didn’t write the roles or cast themselves. And sure, maybe we shouldn’t blame the directors or casting directors of these blockbusters, because they’re tasked with creating a movie that will make back a small country’s GDP in box office numbers. Maybe we really can’t blame anyone. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there was no way to cast The Ancient One. Because a Chinese or Tibetan man, or a white woman, or any other option would have made a huge percentage of their audience angry. If that’s true— and maybe it is— then it’s easy to let them off the hook for this and every instance of whitewashed casting.
But the only way that acceptance of what we’ve declared inevitable actually works if you simply refuse to acknowledge that this one casting decision has context. It’s easy to say they couldn’t cast a Japanese actress in Ghost In the Shell because there isn’t a Japanese actress who is right for the role AND a big enough star to attract an audience. (You know, like Ryan Reynolds big.) And that may actually be true. I don’t think it is, because as Dustin so beautifully laid out last week, we’ve reached a point where movie stars don’t make franchises popular, franchises make movie stars. We didn’t see Deadpool, Guardians of the Galaxy, or The Force Awakens for their stars.
Still, maybe in certain cases, it is true. Does that mean these studios can shrug off the criticism? Absolutely not. Because these are not individual situations. They are linked, and while there may not be solutions yet, these films and the people behind them at the very least have to acknowledge that they are the problem. And while this may not be Tilda Swinton or Scarlett Johansson or Rooney Mara’s fault, they are also part of the problem. If a studio and its supporters tell us to back off because Ghost In the Shell wouldn’t have gotten made without someone with as much power and sway as Johansson, then why shouldn’t we hold that powerful a person accountable for contributing to continuing this trend of whitewashing minority roles?
It’s really easy to say that these movies have to have white A-listers attached. It’s easy to say there’s no way around it because this is just the way things work. But why does everyone seem so incapable of acknowledging that every movie made in this vein isn’t the victim of its industry— it’s a part of it? Are we mad at the wrong people here? Absolutely not. Because if we’re waiting to be mad at the person who can actually fix the problem, that’s never going to happen. That person doesn’t exist. So we’re mad at everyone, and no one, and an intangible context. And that’s better than shrugging it off as just one more isolated example of an industry too far up its own ass to know that it’s not a lone exception, it is the problem.