In an email about her upcoming film role as a mystic Asian character, Tilda Swinton went ahead and unleashed her white feminism powers.
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 other issue is that Swinton said she wanted to listen to Cho, but it appears that she did not. Instead, she took a white feminist approach ― which is not a label that has anything to do with her being a feminist who also happens to be white ― but has everything to do with blatantly leaving out concerns people of color might have.
Her white feminism approach was evident in the way Swinton negated Cho’s concerns about race, asking her to celebrate the gender rights achievements in the movie casting instead.
Her white feminism approach was evident in the way Swinton negated Cho’s concerns about race, asking her to celebrate the gender rights achievements in the movie casting instead. Throughout the email exchange, Swinton declared herself a diversity champion by highlighting her feminist priorities.
To be sure, Swinton began her request to Cho respectfully, highlighting the fact she was trying to be sensitive.
“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.
Viewing representation on solely the white women axis, she didn’t recognize that for Cho and the Asian community, representation isn’t just about gender — but also race.
Of course, replacing the wise old sage archetype with a woman is an encouraging move. And beyond gender, the film’s writers have pointed to cultural and political reasons for casting as they did. But in Swinton’s case, viewing representation on solely the white women axis, she didn’t recognize that for Cho and the Asian community, representation isn’t just about gender — but also race.
Swinton actually attempts to solicit sympathy in the emails about not seeing herself on the screen either, failing to recognize the difference between a lack of representation among white people and minority groups.
“I’m a Scottish woman of 55 who lives in the Highlands,” Swinton wrote. “There’s precious little projected on contemporary cinema screens that means a great deal to my life, if truth be told.”
So Swinton tries to assuage Cho and rationalize that the production company had the best of intentions. Her train of thought seemed to be, “Shouldn’t we all just be glad they chose a woman instead of a man?” The answer is, in fact, no.
What’s more, the very nature of Swinton’s original request to keep the email exchange private was an example of misguided white feminism. Swinton, a white woman, essentially asked for a private tutoring session on race from a woman of color.
Swinton said she wanted to just listen, but then engaged in attempted performative wokeness ― the end result of which was attempting to silence Cho and the Asian community’s concerns.
Swinton actually tried to silence Asians in two ways — by shifting the focus to feminism and by telling Cho the discussion should be private.
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.
But maybe Cho gave it some thought and realized she felt tokenized as Swinton’s sole Asian informant. Maybe Cho realized the bigger issue is why she was told to keep quiet about it in the first place. Maybe she thought about what that says about the idea of who holds power and who, therefore, does not.
It’s telling that Cho appears to try to appease Swinton toward the end of her response by telling her she is not solely culpable. Cho went on to offer another example of Scarlett Johansson being cast in an Asian role in “Ghost in the Shell,” an upcoming film some critics say basically just uses Asian people as props.
Ultimately, Cho handled a difficult racially-charged encounter gracefully, respectfully ― and hilariously. She summed up her reaction to Tiger Belly, and it couldn’t have been more perfect:
“[Swinton] was like, ‘Could you please tell them... I’m like, ‘Bitch, I can’t tell them...I don’t have a yellow phone under a cake dome.’”
Update: This piece has been updated to more accurately reflect Swinton’s sentiments in the email exchange.