Margaret Cho and Tilda Swinton had an email exchange about whitewashing in the movie Doctor Strange and perceived that conversation very differently. Earlier this year, Swinton reached out to Cho to discuss the controversy surrounding her role as the Ancient One, a character who’s Tibetan in the comics. Cho says she felt like Swinton’s “house Asian…like I’m her servant…like I was following her with an umbrella. I had a weird feeling about the entire exchange.” Cho made the remarks on a recently published episode of the Tigerbelly podcast.
If you’re not familiar with the controversy, here’s what you need to know: Swinton’s role is a clear example of Hollywood’s consistent pattern of whitewashing, as Fusion’s Charles Pulliam-Moore wrote about a few months ago.
In an interview with BirthMoviesDeath, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige attempted to justify Swinton’s casting, explaining that this particular incarnation of the character would be distinct from its comic book counterpart.
“There have been multiple [Ancient Ones], even if this one has been around for five hundred years, there were others,” Feige said. “This is a mantle, and therefore felt we had leeway to cast in interesting ways.”
Feige’s explanation did little to assuage early concerns that Doctor Strange might be another example of Marvel whitewashing a traditionally POC character, but it wasn’t until the first set photos and teaser trailer for the movie dropped that people realized just what the studio was working with. The trailer depicts Swinton with a shaved head, dressed in flowing white robes performing magic in a style that looks a hell of a lot like martial arts.
As Jezebel points out, the exchange between Swinton and Cho seems incredibly cordial. (The outlet obtained a copy of the emails and published them in full.) Still, Swinton is reaching out to an Asian person she doesn’t know to have the “white person guilt conversation.” That’s not Cho’s job.
In many ways, Swinton comes off as your typical well-meaning white person. Now, she does seem to be aware of the problematic nature of the whole exchange and says Cho can tell her to “fuck off” if she “feels like it” in the initial email reaching out. Even so, Swinton’s first email acknowledges she hasn’t even made an effort to do her homework:
The diversity debate – ALL STRENGTH to it – has come knocking at the door of Marvel’s new movie DR STRANGE.
I am told that you are aware of this. But since I am that extinct beast that does no social media, I am unaware of what exactly anybody has said about any of it. I believe there are some ironies about this particular film being a target, but I’m frankly much more interested in listening than saying anything much.
Swinton, at the very least, should’ve read up on the controversy about her role in Doctor Strange and not asked Cho to do that work for her. Better yet, the role shouldn’t have been whitewashed in the first place, and an Asian actor should’ve been cast as Doctor Strange himself.