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Last week, Margaret Cho revealed on comedian Bobby Lee’s podcast, TigerBelly, that Tilda Swinton reached out to ask her about the whitewashing controversy over Doctor Strange. Cho characterized the conversation as “a long kind of a fight” and told Lee that she felt like “a house Asian.”
When asked for comment, Swinton (via her reps) released the full email exchange between the two actresses. The “entire unedited and only conversation [Tilda] has ever had with Margaret” (according to Swinton’s team), which took place on May 13, 2016, can be read in full here and is referenced below.
Dear Tilda Swinton,
You emailed Margaret Cho seeking understanding about the “diversity debate” surrounding your latest movie, Doctor Strange. I know you didn’t ask me, but since I wrote a few of the stories surrounding said debate, I’d like to respond to some of the questions and points you raised, especially since the original subject — how can established actors respond to Hollywood’s inclusion problems? — has somewhat turned into a tabloid story about a fresh celebrity beef.
First, some useful context on the state of Asian representation onscreen. Among the 100 top-grossing movies released last year, just 3.9 percent of characters who had lines or even names were Asian. Forty-nine (in other words, basically half) of those films had no named or speaking Asian characters at all. It should go without saying that not one lead or co-lead in 2015 was played by an Asian actor. (That’s not to say there were no Asian characters. The 100th-highest-grossing film in 2015 featured a female love interest who was a quarter Chinese and a quarter Polynesian. Her name was Captain Allison Ng, the movie was Aloha, and she was played by Emma Stone.)
These statistics come from the latest study, released in September, from USC’s Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative. You wrote to Margaret that diversity is your “comfort zone,” i.e., a dearly held value. I highly recommend that you keep an eye out each year for USC’s comprehensive reports on gender, race/ethnicity, LGBT and disability inclusivity in film. It’s an excellent resource!
As you stated, the original comics incarnation of your character, the Ancient One, is nowadays considered an offensive “wise old Eastern geezer”/Fu Manchu cliché. In your telling, Marvel wanted to avoid that trope and be gender-inclusive at the same time, but in so doing ran the risk of engaging with another racist Asian trope: the Dragon Lady. Therefore, the filmmakers switched the character’s ethnic background to Celtic.
The problem is that this solution essentially throws the baby (Asian actors) out with the bathwater (racist Asian stereotypes). Skilled filmmakers rewrite characterizations, not characters. The problem with a sexy damsel in distress is not that she’s a woman; it’s that she is sexualized and rendered powerless. King Kong’s Ann Darrow went from a terrorized Fay Wray in 1933 to a more empowered Naomi Watts in 2005 (and, presumably, an even stronger Brie Larson next year). It’s hard to imagine any studio deciding to “solve” Ann Darrow by removing a woman from the story. You understand that “a woman who’s a badass, over 26 and not simply bursting out of a bikini” is a rare sight at the movies — how much more so are Asians of any stripe, given the statistics above?
And yet, Hollywood continually abstains from opportunities to put Asians onscreen, none more egregiously than when the source material calls for them. Margaret referenced Scarlett Johansson’s upcoming movie Ghost in the Shell in one of her emails to you. It’s based on a very popular Japanese manga series, centered around a strong, action-oriented female cyborg named Major Motoko Kusanagi in all its previous incarnations. Paramount’s version has cast Scarlett in the role but, as you can see from the trailer, has retained all of the “exotic” signifiers of the original’s cyberpunk Tokyo setting.
You told Margaret that there is “precious little projected on contemporary cinema screens that means a great deal to [your] life.” I don’t know if you meant that little of what you see reflects your experience, but if so, that is exactly the sentiment that so many Asians can relate to. When we look at Ghost in the Shell or Doctor Strange, we see cinematic universes that appropriate Asian cultural elements as literal set dressing, but do not allow Asian people themselves to be seen, much less to tell the stories.
Finally, you asked how to move things forward. Supporting content that boosts Asian American voices, as Margaret suggested, is one excellent way, and I am excited that you are continuing your collaboration with Bong Joon-ho with Okja. Please keep in mind that Asian nationals may have a different experience or perspective than Asian Americans or British Asians. I’m sure your co-star Steven Yeun has many enlightening stories about the challenges facing Asian actors in English-language cinema, if he chooses to share them.
Although you were unwittingly thrust into this controversy, perhaps this will become a pivotal opportunity for you to become an even more informed ally of the diversity you champion. Whether speaking publicly from the platform that you have or privately within the artistic circles you inhabit, please share the facts about underrepresentation. Ask your agents if they represent any Asian talent, and if they know where to find some. Ask your directors if there is a role that can be filled by an Asian actor (and for the love of God, if it’s an adaptation, if there were any Asians in the original source material!).
So much of our decision making is driven not by intentional prejudice, but by unconscious exclusion. So here’s a cliché that is true: Awareness really is the first step.
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