The new Doctor Strange movie from Marvel has been the subject of criticism in the media for its depiction of Benedict Cumberbatch as a “white man who saves the world.” Among the issues raised is the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, originally an old Tibetan man.
Margaret Cho, who’s more well known for causing controversy than she is for her stand-up comedy, took issue with the casting on a podcast, where she talked about an argument she had with Swinton over the role. Cho described the conversation in unambiguous terms, calling the conversation, which she indicated to have had over the phone, “so weird” and said she felt like Swinton’s personal maid, a “house Asian—like I’m her servant, like the ones they have like whatever in the Raj or whatever, sort of like your confidant…like I was following her with an umbrella.”
“I had a weird feeling about the entire exchange, especially the part of ‘Don’t tell anybody,’” said Cho, who also recalls that Swinton told her to tell other Asians that she was one of the good guys. “It was like, I don’t have a yellow phone under a cake dome.”
Cho also claims that the conversation ended with Swinton saying that she was producing a movie starring Korean-American actor Steven Yeun. The podcast host interpreted it to mean that Swinton was trying to use the “I have a black friend” defense as a shield against criticism.
In response, Swinton’s publicist released the e-mails to Jezebel, which appears to contain the only correspondence the two of them had. It shows how much of what Swinton said was presented under a negative light by Cho in her interview, completely removed from the context of the actual conversation.
Swinton reached out privately to Margaret Cho to ask for her thoughts on the diversity conversation happening on social media over Doctor Strange, to which Cho responded that people were upset over “whitewashing” and said the role of the Ancient One belonged to an Asian.
In response, Swinton pointed out that the Marvel movie wasn’t a direct adaptation of the comic books, and that its creators made a “conscious effort” to avoid tired stereotypes like “the ‘wise old Eastern geezer’ Fu Manchu type” or engage with the “Dragon Lady” trope by switching up his gender and ethnicity, giving the Ancient One a Celtic origin before offering Swinton the role.
“I accepted happily, impressed that, for once, they aimed to disrupt the ‘wisdom must be male’ never-ending story – and, by the way, for once, wanting to feature a woman who’s a badass, over 26 and not simply bursting out of a bikini,” wrote Swinton.
She added that other characters were also changed—Chiwetel Ejiofor was given the second lead. The character was originally a white Transylvanian in the comics. Benedict Wong was also given a prominent role as Wong, originally a simple manservant in the books but elevated to the status of master.
“A – personal – irony to my being even remotely involved in this controversy is what I stand up for and always have,” wrote Swinton. “Whether it is challenging the idea of what women look like, or how any of us live our lives, or how we educate our children, diversity is pretty much my comfort zone. The idea of being caught on the wrong side of this debate is a bit of a nightmare to me.”
Cho suggested she could produce content for Asian Americans by offering them a platform, to which Swinton replied that she’s already working on a new project for the past two years with Snowpiercer director Bong Joon Ho called Okja, which stars Steven Yeun.
Swinton’s responses should effectively bury the disingenuous claims that were made against her, and Cho has since responded with the following statement to Entertainment Weekly: “Asian actors should play Asian roles. I believe my emails stand on their own and should be taken for the spirit in which they were intended. I am grateful that the debate has now entered the national discussion and remain a huge fan of Tilda’s.”
Of course, none of this will make any difference to the outraged progressives who continue to rag on Tilda Swinton. But as Swinton herself says in one of her e-mails, “I am that extinct beast that does no social media, I am unaware of what exactly anybody has said about any of it.”