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Friday 28 October 2016

Film on Friday: 'Strange' choices, reacting before the reaction & pinning the blame

Why is Tilda Swinton playing a character, in the forthcoming Doctor Strange, depicted in the comic books as a Tibetan male?

This has been met with cries of 'white washing' that I would consider well-intentioned but incorrect and possibly unhelpful (see postscript). Much like the habit of describing any bigoted hate speech as 'racist' is also unhelpful, as it masks potentially more difficult discussions that should be made instead.

So, perhaps it is just that it's easier to simply label a form of activity in only one manner and, for example, call everything that involves discriminatory speech 'racist' when actually it is more complicated than that.

Now, I'm not going to make the equally misguided and unhelpful argument that only white men make, the dismissive "there is no such thing as race anyway" argument, which is a form of so-called 'colour blindness' both of which are things that only someone that does NOT suffer from any form of racial discrimination can ever have or make.

Also, this is not to say that 'white washing' doesn't happen and isn't a problem in Hollywood films or entertainment in general. However, as I said, it's complicated and I think this particular case (of Tilda Swinton) has to do with more than any of the articles dealing with the subject have considered.

Let's look at the original character first of all.

The Asian One
The Ancient One, Marvels tells us, was born hundreds of years ago ('over five hundred' which is, I suspect, a time beyond knowing for Americans) in the Himalayas in the area now known as Tibet. Of course, for it not to be Tibet, it would have to have been much more than five hundred years, as the Tibetan Empire existed in the 7th century, which then collapsed in the 9th century and had no central rule (but was still, I assume, Tibet) until the 13th century. At which point the Mongols invaded. Anyway, let's not get into too much of a history lesson about Tibet (something evidently the Marvel writers didn't do either) and instead look at the Ancient One's introduction as a comic book character and the context of the time.

The first appearance of the character was as 'the High Lama' in 1961, and as the 'Ancient One' in 1963, with his origin story only being fully described in a 1966 issue of Strange Tales (#148).

With those dates it seems pretty obvious who was the influence on this character. Namely Tenzin Gyatso, who had fled in exile from Tibet in 1959 after the Tibetan Uprising and was, probably, reasonably famous in the US. The use of the Dalai Lama as your mystical magical, might I even say inscrutable, figure would nowadays reek of Orientalism or exoticism, in the sense of cultural (mis-)appropriation. One could say that therefore it was not an attempt at 'white washing' but rather an attempt to create a new character that doesn't have this exoticised past. That would be an overly kind reading and it's the basis that the film's director used as his defense:

Looking at Marvel movies, I think that we're missing a major character that is Tilda's age and has this kind of strength and power. The Ancient One in the comics is a very old American stereotype of what Eastern characters and people are like, and I felt very strongly that we need to avoid those stereotypes at all costs.
 -Scott Derrickson

However, as I don't think this was Marvel Studios and Disney's reasoning behind the choice. Let's look at the new version then and what those reasons might be.

The 'Celtic' One

Tilda Swinton's character is Celtic. Well, that's nice, you can't be accused of exocitising your own culture after all (for 'own culture' also read 'dominant culture'). Here's Marvel's own defense:

Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU to life. The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic. We are very proud to have the enormously talented Tilda Swinton portray this unique and complex character alongside our richly diverse cast. [my emphasis, see below]

So, while I look forward to Tilda's Scottish accent (this is a lie, I'm not going to see the film) you can't help but wonder if the film-makers really did think, "you know there's just not enough female Scottish wizards in their 50's in film these days," which is factually true, but that doesn't make the basis of their initial claim truthful either. [I emphasised the section in the quote, because it is a blatant lie. The Ancient One was always a singular person, so Disney/Marvel can reshape their own MCU whenever it suits them I suppose...]

A simple answer is provided by former Doctor Strange co-writer (each of these Marvel films tends to go through many 'phases' of writing) C. Robert Cargill who states that the new character was created so that the film would still be marketable in China. Of the character he says:

He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullsh*t and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’

Now, we could take this as our answer (like the Independent does) and blame China, but this is also too simplistic. I'm not saying that the Chinese Government don't rigorously censor foreign and domestic films, because it evidently does. So, although I'm distrustful of the Chinese Government, I find this answer simply pins the blame elsewhere. It also doesn't help this particular argument that C. Robert Cargill is such a monumental douchebag either, but one shouldn't allow their personal feelings to influence this sort of investigation. Therefore, I apologise, but he really is...

There’s not a lot of talk about, ‘Oh man, they took away the job from a guy and gave it to a woman.’ Everybody kind of pats us on the back for that and then decides to scold us for her not being Tibetan. We knew that the social justice warriors would be angry either way. [my emphasis]

Whose fault is it then? Western cultural exoticism, Chinese corporate authoritarianism, or social justice warriors? Hey, how about, monumental Hollywood douchebags with no balls or ability to create a unique character that isn't merely a cultural stereotype?

Anyway, it seems that what Marvel Films is attempting to do is pit feminism against anti-racism (or at least, anti-cultural misappropriation, bigotry, lazy stereotyping and etc.) in a distraction tactic. In reacting before the presumed reaction they are making sure that the people who would normally point out the 'white washing' are too busy defending the casting of a woman in 'a man's role'.

The problem then, is the film producer's over-reliance on market research and on playing to their presumed audience demographics. Soul-less and by-the-numbers seem to describe this process, except that it is planned for a distinct purpose. To be as popular and make as much money as possible. I've spoken before about how these films are created as cultural events with more of an emphasis on marketing and merchandise than with creating a worthwhile or interesting story. Conniving and reprehensible might therefore be better terms.

In the end, Tilda Swinton's casting achieves one thing. It provides coverage about their film, even if it is negative in tone, still "there is no such thing as bad publicity" and this is further helped by the general feeling (helped by social media) that it's only someone's opinion when it is actually a valid criticism. The chances are that people have already made up their minds about the film, with those positively inclined to the film seeing detractors or even people trying to think rationally about it as 'bitter whiners' who like C. Robert Cargill suggests, "would be angry either way." It's always easier to dismiss something when it doesn't fit in with your simplistic worldview than try and engage meaningfully.



Having now re-read this and slept on it, something I probably should have done rather just publishing it, I've decided that there's a few things I'd want to add or make clear, but rather than just insert them in the text like it was meant to be there already, I thought it was more honest to add a postscript (although I will change some text based on how it reads and fix grammatical errors).

If it wasn't clear, I'm NOT trying to excuse 'white washing' but detail that more is going on. However, racism with an excuse is still racism, so I'm not saying that Disney/Marvel's corporate 'white washing' is any more excusable than any other straight-forwardly bigoted comment would be.

Indeed, I note the similarities between Cargill's defitantly glib comments with the Disney/Marvel manicured double-speak that both come to similar things. Blaming others or trying to slide out of any personal blame. That the Disney/Marvel executives (who I would suggest they are comprised of 90% white males) claim 'diversity' of casting as an excuse, while all the time probably thinking like Cargill does and trying to second-guess what is popular and what they can get away with.

So, when I said that the cries of 'white washing' were incorrect, I meant that it is too simplistic and that it allows the executives to slide off the hook, when the whole process is much deeper and more entrenched than it might seem. It is made so you have to engage with them on their terms, terms that already have presuppositions built in.

Cargill's claim of, "it's not my fault, the Chinese made me do," is itself obviously baiting. Much like, "we took a guy's job and gave it to a woman." You can't complain, because we gave it to a woman! What are you sexist?

Relates to Disney/Marvel's claim, "we're not racist, we cast a black guy! Why are you complaining about this? What are you racist?"

When they use these accusations against those that would accuse them, one must start already defending their own position. As I said, you're already playing their game.

Anyway, all this will undoubtedly be lost under the positive reviews of the film, which just shows how they get away with it I suppose.