An email exchange between Tilda Swinton and Margaret Cho has recently come under public scrutiny. Swinton contacted Cho after facing a backlash for playing a character in Doctor Strange which was of Tibetan origin in the comics. The frustration at Swinton’s casting was based on the idea of “whitewashing” – casting white actors in roles that were originally written as people of colour – which the film industry is undeniably guilty of.
Comedian Margaret Cho revealed last week that Swinton had emailed her back in March and asked Cho to speak on behalf of all Asians everywhere. The two had never talked before, but Swinton wanted Cho to supply a crib sheet explanation as to why Asians were upset that Swinton was cast as “The Ancient One,” a Tibetan sorcerer in the Marvel Comics-based movie “Doctor Strange.”
Cho, who has been outspoken about a lack of Asian representation in the media, told Bobby Lee on his podcast “Tiger Belly” last week that the email made her feel like a “house Asian.” As a result, Swinton released the emails to Jezebel to let the Internet do what it does best: be the arbiter on race relations.
Swinton’s release of the emails has the appearance of perhaps wanting to abscond from the backlash in a scrupulous way. A cursory read through the exchange paints Swinton as responsibly conscious in asking the hard questions about race. And critics have pointed out that white people should, of course, determinedly be talking about these issues. But a white person asking a person of color to do the emotional labor of explaining race relations is inherently problematic and privileged. It shouldn’t be on minority communities to do the work of turning white people into race scholars.
“The diversity debate – ALL STRENGTH to it – has come knocking at the door of Marvel’s new movie DR STRANGE,” Swinton wrote. “I am told that you are aware of this..I would really love to hear your thoughts and have a – private – conversation about it. Are you up for this? Can we e-mail?”
Cho responded that she was happy to engage and explained that Asian sensitivities around representation are running understandably high.
“There’s a frustrated population of Asian Americans who feel the role should have gone to a person of Asian descent,” Cho wrote. “Our stories are told by white actors over and over again and we feel at a loss to know how to cope with it.”
But then instead of acknowledging this struggle within the Asian community, Swinton chose to use feminism to defend the fact she was cast to play “The Ancient One (the wise old Eastern geezer Fu Manchu type)” — as she put it.
“Wanting to switch up the gender (another diversity department) and not wanting to engage with the old “Dragon lady” trope, they chose to write the character as being of (ancient) Celtic origin,” Swinton said.
And Swinton actually tried to silence Asians in two ways — by shifting the focus to feminism and by telling Cho the discussion should be private.
The privacy issue is where the criticism against Cho came in. Etiquette would dictate that yes, Cho probably shouldn’t have talked about the email on Lee’s podcast after she agreed to Swinton that she would keep it private.