‘Doctor Strange’ co-writer unintentionally provides further evidence of deep-seated Hollywood racism

One may suppose that it’s fitting, given his job as a screenwriter, that C. Robert Cargill seems to have convinced himself that he’s a hero when it comes to championing the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange movie.

On April 17, Cargill, who co-wrote the film’s script, was the first person attached to the production to provide an in-depth reply to a question asked often by Asian-Americans for a nearly a year but just now breaking into the mainstream: what, exactly, is the argument in favor of casting a white woman to play what is, in the comics, an Asian man?


The question was posed to Cargill during an appearance on the show Double Toasted, which appears to be a podcast that publishes in both video and audio-only formats. Host Korey Coleman begins by distancing himself from listener Van Hong Tran’s question: “I got a question here. Now, you’re going to think this is me. It’s not me.” Coleman proceeds, with an air of disdain and condescension, to read the question.

Cargill’s response strikes me, as an Asian-American, as long-winded prevarication in an effort to control public response, rather than an attempt at a respectful confrontation with the legitimate issues that people of Asian descent have raised.

Major media outlets have largely reported on Cargill’s comments without correcting various misleading statements, inaccuracies, and logical paradoxes. As the discussion over whitewashing- what it is, why it’s harmful, and who is ultimately responsible- continues to gather interest, I think it’s crucial to offer analysis and counterpoint to statements like Cargill’s.


Cargill begins:

“The thing with the Ancient One is that it is Marvel’s Kobayashi Maru. There is no other character in Marvel history that is such a cultural landmine, that is absolutely unwinnable.”
“I’ve been reading a bunch of people talking about it, and the really frustrating thing about it this week is: most of the people who have thoughts on it haven’t thought it all the way through.
And they go, ‘why didn’t they just do this?’ and it’s like, ‘I could tell you why.’ I could tell you why every single decision that involves The Ancient One is a bad one. Just like the Kobayashi Maru, it all comes down onto which way you’re willing to lose.”

Later in the interview, Cargill returns to this point and identifies his opponents in the “unwinnable” battle:

“But the real thing was, it was a landmine. The social justice warriors were going to get mad at us for something this week. They were just going to do it.

If Cargill is worried about response from the internet, he’s correct: in the age of a billion voices, any decision can meet resistance. The argument even holds an air of truth, as nearly all of us can relate to encountering anger online about issues with which we do not identify.

For Cargill to evoke the amorphous internet mob (1), however, rather than the actual human beings affected by whitewashing in Doctor Strange and Hollywood more broadly, is disingenuous at best. Cargill does not name, here or elsewhere in this interview, Asians and Asian-Americans who have voiced their concerns. Rather, he lumps us into a broader category of confused, quixotic internet activists.

In this imaginary, “unwinnable” war, it’s Creators versus The Crowd, and Creators hold that dissenting voices are weapons. Never mind the fact that Creators still hold every bit of leverage: success, wealth, and the opportunity to reach billions of people remains the provenance of a chosen few.

By refusing to acknowledge that Asian and Asian-American voices exist outside of the amorphous “social justice warrior” crowd, and by further casting the battle as unwinnable without describing its terms, Cargill delegitmizes any plea for humane representation and dehumanizes dissent.


A distinction that will become salient as we proceed:

  1. The Ancient One, in the comic books, comes from a village in the Himalayas called Kamar-Taj. It is implied that this fictional village exists in the current, real-world location of Tibet, but Kamar-Taj is presented as separate and apart from Tibet.
  2. Kamar-Taj, a fictional location that is not Tibet, is also home to the Doctor Strange movie’s version of The Ancient One.

Cargill continues:

“The Ancient One was a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place. 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 bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, ‘hey, one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world, we’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’”

From later in the interview:

“I’ve seen a lot of people, and the thing that makes me pull my hair out is, someone people are like, ‘well, why not cast Michelle Yeoh?’ I’m like, well, first of all, Michelle Yeoh is awesome. I would love to make a film with Michelle Yeoh. If you are telling me you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.”

This is the part of Cargill’s argument that most major news outlets have chosen to focus on, providing Marvel and Cargill unearned cover in the name of unhindered capitalism and geopolitical sensitivity.

Lost amidst the oft-repeated invocation of China as a force that must be capitulated to in order for American movies to become profitable is the fact that Cargill’s essential position is fundamentally incorrect.

“Acknowledging that Tibet is a place” is not the same as declaring that Tibet is an independent state. The latter has been a hotly contested political issue for over 50 years, and any property taking a side would certainly risk the film’s chances of distribution in China. The former, however, is simply a fact, not a geopolitical statement. It is possible, in other words, to acknowledge that Tibet is “a place” without taking the further step of declaring its sovereignty.

Furthermore, the Chinese acknowledge the existence of the Tibetan people, because, again, their existence is a fact. In addition to China’s unwillingness to show the film Seven Years in Tibet, Brad Pitt was famously banned from entering China, but the film and actor didn’t face repercussions simply due to acknowledgement of the existence of Tibet and its people. The issue there was that Seven Years in Tibet portrayed the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of free Tibet, in a positive light. No appearance or potential appearance of the Dalai Lama has been discussed in connection with Doctor Strange.

It’s difficult to judge Cargill’s argument here without knowing for sure how well he understands the actual geopolitical issues and sensitivities surrounding China’s relationship with Tibet. At face value, though, it appears that one of Cargill’s arguments against casting an Asian person in a major role is to associate, with China and Tibet, the same kind of mysterious, inscrutable, and ultimately inaccurate traits that we’ve often seen unfairly affixed to Hollywood’s Asian characters.

Again, though, all of this is immaterial, given the fact that Marvel and Cargill have avoided the issue altogether by placing The Ancient One in Kamar-Taj rather than Tibet.

Cargill’s admonishment of those who would rather see a Chinese actress play a Tibetan suggests that the Ancient One must be depicted as Tibetan in the film, rather than as the ethnicity of the actor or actress cast. The fact that, when Doctor Strange releases, we’ll see Tilda Swinton playing a Celtic version of The Ancient One, disproves the writer’s own notion.


At this point in the interview, host Coleman broadcasts a rendition of The Ancient One that Cargill identifies as from the 1980s and 1990s:

Coleman: “And that’s The Ancient One right there, right?”

Cargill: “Yeah, and that’s a more modern, less racist interpretation of The Ancient One.”

Coleman: “People who are listening, we’re looking at a character who has the Fu Manchu grey beard. He’s the evil Asian guy.”

In his rush to back Cargill’s argument that “portraying The Ancient One as Asian is the real racism,” (2) Coleman oversteps by implying that the portrayal of The Ancient One above has been identified as offensive. To my knowledge, that opinion isn’t popularly held.

What most do agree on, however, is what Cargill communicates here: that the comic book treatment of The Ancient One has, over the last 30 years or so, become a far less offensive version. Note an earlier rendition of The Ancient One:

As with many other uncomfortable portrayals of Asian characters, The Ancient One here features eyes so slanted that they appear closed. Note also that this rendition does wear a “Fu Manchu,” recognizable as a comically long, thin mustache. The Ancient One shown by Coleman, which he identifies to his audio-only audience as wearing a Fu Manchu, does, in point of fact, not.

Additionally, Cargill admits something here that he conveniently does not at other times in the interview: that it is, indeed, possible to portray an inoffensive, yet still Asian, version of The Ancient One.


We knew that the social justice warriors would be angry either way. If we just used a Tibetan actor, and it was still an Ancient One, but it was much less racist- or, hopefully, not racist at all- people would still be, like, ‘oh, it’s another white guy goes to the Orient, adopts their ways, and then comes back and is the great white hero story. It’s Avatar all over again. It’s The Last Samurai all over again. So you’re going to get dinged on that.”

Doctor Strange has already taken criticism on this front, and rightfully so, but that heat has nothing to do with the casting of The Ancient One. Discussion of this aspect has been largely dormant since the announcement that Benedict Cumberbatch would be playing the titular Stephen Strange. Invoking it as a defense in this instance serves no purpose other than to build the case that “social justice warriors” will always find something to complain about.

Further, regardless of the ethnic background of The Ancient One herself, the character’s surroundings trade heavily on visual cues and actual objects specific to Chinese and Tibetan culture. As I and others have mentioned elsewhere, definitional to whitewashing and its harm is that it trades on generic, mystical signifiers of our culture while simultaneously deigning to recognize us as actual people.

Cargill seems to agree that the white savior trope is controversial, but one wonders if he understands that it’s harmful as well.


“So what Scott [Derrickson, the director of Doctor Strange] decided to do- and this happened before I came on board, so I wasn’t party to this decision at all, although there’s part of me that wishes I was- was he was just, like, ‘there’s no real way to win this, so let’s use this as an opportunity to cast an amazing actress in a male role. And sure enough, there’s not a lot of talk about, ‘aw man, they took away the job from a guy and gave it to a woman.’”

From elsewhere in the intervew:

“But the real thing was, it was a landmine. The social justice warriors were going to get mad at us for something this week. They were just going to do it. There was no way to avoid it, so the hill Scott decided to die on was the one of feminism, and to give a really great, meaty role to an actress as amazing as Tilda Swinton.”

If Derrickson and Cargill see us as part of a larger monolith made up of marginalized communities, they cannot see as legitimate the issues surrounding the profound lack of Asian representation in popular culture.

My argument, and the argument of many Asians and Asian-Americans, is that we continue to bear the burden of being outsiders to American society-at-large. I attribute much of this to Hollywood’s reluctance to portray us, on-screen, free of false-stereotyping and in the role of heroes. Gender-bending this role does nothing to resolve this issue; in fact, it obfuscates our concerns because it perpetrates erasure in the name of supposed social justice.

It is deeply cynical to assume that human beings, asking to be seen and heard by the country in which they live, can be placated via the inclusion of a different set of society altogether. Stating that any ethnic group should be satisfied with its own erasure because of a nod to another marginalized group is, in the final analysis, deeply and unforgivably racist.


My overall read of Cargill’s interview is that he doesn’t give credence to the human cost of poor or non-existent representation of Asian human beings in American pop culture. None of his arguments confront our stated desire for accurate, humane, and increased representation.

Cargill seems to believe that we’re all here, but that we don’t suffer. Instead, we hide below the surface of culture scanning for our opportunity to pounce on the well-meaning gatekeepers of this country’s shared culture.

He’s wrong, and until he finds the temerity to see our arguments as genuine- in other words, to see us as human beings- he’s likely to continue failing to understand what he’s talking about.


I’ll give the last word here to Double Toasted host Korey Coleman, who addresses the original questioner, Van Hong Tran, in his segue out of the interview. Coleman fully encapsulates what I feel has been Hollywood’s position regarding my concerns as an Asian-American:

Coleman: “All right, well, he just told y’all. Hey, Van Hong? Fuck off.”


Footnotes:

(1) The group that exists in Cargill’s mind surely bears some similarity to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s fictional Asian advocacy group, “Respectful Asian Portrayals in Entertainment,” subtly acronymized as R.A.P.E. I was quoted in this excellent Huffington Post piece on that subject.

(2) The inimitable Keith Chow has written extensively on the misguided idea that casting a person of Asian descent in a martial arts-laden role is, in and of itself, racist. Although his piece “Fear of an Asian Martial Artist” specifically discusses another Marvel character, Iron Fist, his arguments apply to Doctor Strange as well.


Shaun Lau is ethnically 3/4 Japanese and 1/4 Chinese, but he was born and raised in the United States. He is the co-host of the weekly film and social issues show No, Totally! Learn more at nototally.com.