#whitewashedOUT of Entertainment Coverage: a ‘Strange’ Case Study
Somewhere between April 17 and April 26, 2016, media coverage of C. Robert Cargill’s defense of whitewashing in the upcoming Marvel Studios film Doctor Strange shifted.
It was on April 17 that co-writer Cargill became the first person involved in Doctor Strange’s production to address the reasoning behind the racebent casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, speaking on the Double Toasted podcast. Nine days later, on April 26, reports on Cargill’s interview had reached critical mass such that Marvel, notoriously tight-lipped prior to their films’ releases, released a statement seeking to explain their casting choice .
During those nine days, major news outlets decided, with near-unanimity, that the most reportable portion of Cargill’s argument was his deference to China and its massive box office potential. Analysis of this shift provides an interesting case study of the erasure of the Asian and Asian-American community’s concerns regarding representation in United States pop culture.
Note: In case you missed it, I contended, a day after Marvel’s statement, that Cargill’s arguments against casting an Asian actor or actress for The Ancient One can only be constructed from a point of view that dismisses the humanity of Asians and Asian-Americans asking for more and better cultural representation. Some of the arguments I made in that piece provide context necessary to this one.
Due likely to Cargill’s numerous and wide-ranging arguments in defense of Marvel’s casting decision, news outlets early in the cycle found different angles from which to approach the story. The earliest story I can find was posted on April 20 by CINEMABLEND, but it focused solely on Cargill’s comments regarding Doctor Strange’s teaser trailer.
Three days later, on April 23, Indiewire became the first major outlet to cover Cargill’s thoughts on the casting of The Ancient One, highlighting his comments regarding “social justice warriors” and his belief that the situation was “unwinnable.”
On the next day, April 24, other cinema-centric began to publish stories of their own. A sampling of headlines to this point:
- The Doctor Strange Trailer Only Scratched The Surface, According To The Movie’s Writer (CINEMABLEND, 4/20/16)
- ‘Doctor Strange’ news, spoilers: Controversy behind casting of The Ancient One (Christian Today, 4/22/16)
- ‘Doctor Strange’ Screenwriter Reveals His Justification Of ‘Unwinnable’ Whitewashing Scandal (Indiewire, 4/23/16)
- ‘Doctor Strange’ Screenwriter Discusses Changes For The Ancient One (mxdwn.com, 4/24/16)
- Doctor Strange Writer Reveals Why Ancient One Isn’t Chinese (MovieWeb, 4/24/16)
- Doctor Strange Writer Says Ancient One Was Changed To Avoid Upsetting China (Screen Rant, 4/24/16)
All of these pieces are similar in one frustrating way: they cover Cargill’s interview by repeating the writer’s arguments as credulous, largely lacking context or analysis. The piece published on April 24 by Screen Rant isn’t any different in that regard, but it distinguishes itself in an important way nonetheless: it is the only piece here with coverage and a headline centered around Cargill’s evocation of the Chinese government.
A singular focus on any one part of Cargill’s comments is, in my opinion, unfairly myopic on one hand and actively dismissive of the harmful effects of poor or nonexistent representation of Asians and Asian-Americans on the other. For reasons I’ll explain, however, I am particularly bothered by reporting that chose to elevate Cargill’s China excuse as the only, or most important, argument presented.
Unfortunately, it turned out that Screen Rant would be far from the last to take this approach.
By April 25, China had become major outlets’ news hook du jour. The International Business Times, for example, decided not to mention anything else:
…Cargill said the decision of casting Swinton as the mentor of Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) was carefully planned in order to avoid political clashes with China. He added Marvel Studios was well aware of its fanbase in China and did not want to create a controversy with any reference to Tibetan and Chinese relations.
Other headlines from the same day and the next show this narrative not only picking up steam, but becoming the most acceptable “big picture” argument for casting The Ancient One as white (emphasis added) :
- Chinese Market Concerns Led To “Doctor Strange’s” Ancient One Changes (Comic Book Resources, 4/25/16)
- ‘Doctor Strange’ Writer Says The Ancient One Is White Because Of China (UPROXX, 4/25/16)
- ‘Doctor Strange’ writer blames China for whitewashing (Mashable, 4/25/16)
- ‘Doctor Strange’ Writer Says China Is the Reason Ancient One Is White (Complex, 4/25/16)
- The Bigger Reason Why Doctor Strange’s the Ancient One Isn’t Asian, According to Film Co-Writer (Epicstream, 4/25/16)
- Tilda Swinton cast as Tibetan to placate China, says Doctor Strange writer (The Guardian, 4/26/16)
- Doctor Strange writer says whitewashing Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One was a ‘political move’ to please China (The Independent, 4/26/16)
- Tilda Swinton cast as Tibetan character to avoid offending Chinese (The Telegraph, 4/26/16)
The faith and certitude of these news outlets, undeserved based on the totality of Cargill’s comments, went unrewarded when Cargill himself sought to clarify his statements on Twitter, funnily enough, the day before three of the pieces above were posted:
Confirmation of Cargill’s non-confirmation was later provided by Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios and the man understood by most to be the single most important figure in determining the direction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as elaborated upon in a conversation with Deadline.
When asked about the “ulterior motive not to offend China,” Feige replied:
We make all of our decisions on all of our films, and certainly on Doctor Strange, for creative reasons and not political reasons.
Deadline’s reporter prompted more strongly, asking, “It sounds like you deny any suggestion that Marvel or Disney didn’t want to offend China?” Feige responded unequivocally:
That story was completely erroneous.
This timeline, from Cargill’s interview to Feige’s rebuttal, gives us a lot to unpack.
It is true that Asian-American activism has, very recently, gained some ground in terms of visibility, due in no small part to recent, Twitter-based movements like #whitewashedOUT and #starringjohncho. Visibility, however, is just a part of the process, and many of my fellow Asian-American activists would probably agree that sympathetic retweets from allies have been offered much more easily than engagement with some of the more nuanced points we are eager to tackle.
Thus, the following arguments, which constitute my analysis as to why China was so easily accepted as a scapegoat, and how this misleading coverage actively harmed Asian and Asian-American efforts, may be unfamiliar to many. As always, reasonable people can and do disagree on points of analysis, but a note here: my hope is that readers, especially if only recently aware of Asian-American activism, avoid mistaking immediate unfamiliarity for inherent imprecision.
Why Is The “But China” Argument So Attractive?
I think there are two very clear reasons for major news outlets to perceive China and its box office as the “real” reason behind Marvel’s decision on The Ancient One.
The first, simpler, reason has little to do with race and everything to do with the United States’ historical willingness to forgive the relentless pursuit of capital. Mind-boggling dollar amounts are often the spoonfuls of sugar helping the medicine go down.
Marvel’s significance in pop culture, in fact, encourages this forgiveness. It exists as a juggernaut in the world of entertainment, where success is gauged purely on profit, rather than, say, in the arthouse world, where discussions of financial success are typically discarded in favor of qualitative analysis.
Marvel’s in-medium competition with DC Comics, the world’s second most successful producer of comic book-related culture, further progresses the idea of profit denoting success. As fans line up to defend their side of a false dichotomy, box office receipts are recognized as important not only to their direct beneficiaries, but to members of the consuming audience looking to declare their side victorious.
Given the subjectivity of traditional critical grades, box office numbers represent a rarity in film discussion: a functionally quantified and, to some, satisfyingly irrefutable narrative to explain or defend the widespread acceptance of films in an age where provable opinions are conflated with intellectual standing and therefore cultural currency.
In this context, the ludicrous, fan-led sentiment that Marvel is paying outlets to review DC movies poorly while praising Marvel films is entirely understandable as a phenomenon. This view simultaneously acknowledges the power of money to influence entertainment while discrediting critical opinions as embedded properties of the business.
Financial justifications for decisions like curious casting in Doctor Strange, then, make inherent sense to a media and populace already primed to value the unfettered pursuit of profit.
The second reason, in my opinion, for the easy acceptance of China as the most plausible gatekeeping enemy here, is rooted historically in the age of “yellow peril.”
Depictions of people of Asian descent in United States popular culture tend to communicate a narrow set of traits, including inscrutability and unknowable, inhuman power. These depictions, never quite extinguished, continue to feed a general sense of Asian-Americans as “other,” locking much of the country today into the kind of mindset that eventually culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Add to these perceived traits the fact that many Americans do not distinguish between Asians and Asian-Americans, plus China’s status as the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt, and Americans’ overall negative opinions of China become unsurprising.
None of this means to excuse China’s abhorrent record on a litany of important issues, including human rights, health and safety regulation, and government corruption. China is most certainly not a model state, but the perennial fear that another country is going to “eat our lunch” historically applies only to inscrutable, powerful East Asian nations.
It also, incidentally, aligns with my and other Asian-Americans’ experiences, where we are often perceived as suspicious, calculating characters based solely on our looks.
How Does The “But China” Argument Erase Legitimate Tibetan and Asian-American Concerns?
The most harmful result, in my opinion, of China-obsessed coverage of Doctor Strange is the relegation of Tibet and its people to the background. In rendering reasonable Marvel’s perceived deference to the Chinese government vis á vis Tibet, nearly every news outlet ended up implicitly dismissing the very real history of an ongoing human rights crisis that has cost innumerable Tibetan lives. 
Many of the pieces linked above decline to expand beyond’s Cargill’s clumsy and oversimplified (to the point of being inaccurate) description of China’s history with Tibet. The pieces that do are strikingly one-sided, referring vaguely to “conflict” or neglecting Tibet’s sovereignty movement altogether, as in this excerpt from the Comic Book Resources piece, which contains its only mention of Tibet outside of Cargill’s quotes:
China is a major part of Marvel’s international plan, as it is for ever [sic] major Hollywood studio. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” earned $240 million in the country last year, and even the more modestly-budgeted “Ant-Man” raked in over $100 in China. The decision to cast Swinton in the role may be an example of whitewashing, but Cargill’s reasoning posits that that was the only way to adapt Doctor Strange’s origin and keep it set in Tibet. 
Screen Rant, in its piece, briefly acknowledges the existence of the Free Tibet movement, but its mention centers China and then quickly segues to a validation of Cargill’s argument:
Tibet is indeed a very hot-button issue in China, and the Chinese government has been quick to ban artists or art that display any sympathy for the Free Tibet movement. This could have been a serious blow for Marvel given the size of the market (in the case of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, for example, China accounted for over $115 million in ticket sales — a quarter of the total international box office).
China’s oppression of and atrocities against the Tibetan people are inseparably tied to Chinese censors’ sensitivity regarding the portrayal of Tibet and its people, in that both are political actions aimed at erasing the notion of Tibetan sovereignty. Cargill’s dramatically Sinocentric mischaracterization of the conflict- that the result of mishandled casting would simply be “alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit”- mixed with news outlets’ willingness to provide him cover, paints a picture of Chinese capriciousness, rather than sober acknowledgement of the seriousness of Tibet’s reality.
In Cargill’s world, and the world of these pieces, Chinese oppression of Tibet is so absent that China is not even evoked as a figure of necessary evil. Rather, it’s a market partner so essential that its sins, far from being reckoned with, are forgotten long before the conversation even begins. 
As to the erasure of specifically Asian-American dissent: it’s odd, given that Cargill’s statements would never have been newsworthy if Asian-Americans hadn’t voiced our concerns in the first place.
In the course of this piece, I’ve cited 15 stories about Doctor Strange specifically. The words “controversy” and “criticism” show up 23 times in these pieces, but the term “Asian-American” does not appear at all. This is disappointing, but not surprising, given the general notion, aided by the model minority myth, that Asian-Americans are not inherently activists.
Only four of the 15 pieces even associated human beings with the “controversy.” Here are the vague and occasionally snarky descriptors used in those pieces:
- “the fans” (Uproxx)
- “Some armchair casting directors” (Mashable)
- “those against the casting of Swinton.” (Complex)
- “fans up-in-arms” (The Independent)
Additionally, the tail end of this story’s life cycle was marked by yet another round of condescension, reminiscent of Max Landis’s video contribution to the Ghost in the Shell conversation, “If You're Mad About Ghost In The Shell You Don't Know How The Movie Industry Works”. This time, patronization took the form of a Washington Post opinion piece published on April 28 entitled ‘Doctor Strange’ shows why diversity advocates should take Chinese censorship seriously.
Neither Landis nor the Washington Post’s pleas for “sanity” from the activist community acknowledge any of the harm claimed by Asian-Americans when it comes to poor or nonexistent representation. Both, however, rely on the assumption that we lack understanding of some very basic terms: notably, that movie studios like money, and that China is a place with money.
In these ways, coverage of Cargill’s comments repeatedly returned to the scene of the crime, painting, as Cargill did, Asian-American opposition to Doctor Strange’s casting choice as an amorphous, dehumanized cloud of dust within the larger context of an imagined war against “social justice warriors” and their ilk.
As many have pointed out before me, the ongoing failures of Hollywood in all areas of inclusivity are systemic, and cannot be resolved until they are recognized as such. It is important, however, to note that Hollywood creates culture as part of a larger feedback loop that includes coverage of its activity.
It is my belief that, in order for our voices to be heard, we must actively and aggressively oppose erasure not only by the industries that create representation, but by the organizations that shape our understanding of those industries as well. Keeping an eye on why and how the media decide to cover Asian-Americans and our activism is an exhausting, infuriating, and essential function in this fight.
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! Support his writing and other work at patreon.com/nototally.
- Marvel’s statement, which revolves around the announcement of new information marking The Ancient One as Celtic in the world of the film, is remarkably oblivious of the issues being discussed, and in fact opened up an entirely new line of argument decrying their creative decisions. My thoughts on the statement, however, aren’t fully relevant to this piece.
- Note that this argument necessitates an internalized understanding of white as default, both by Marvel and the outlets who chose to cover the story in this fashion. For those unfamiliar with the concept of “default whiteness,” this essay from 1990 by Peggy McIntosh is a straightforward read on the subject. More recently, Noah Berlatsky’s Quartz piece about default whiteness in the superheroic context is also a great read.
- One of the reasons that China is responsible for the loss of “innumerable” Tibetan lives is that China, unsurprisingly, disputes nearly every account of mass violence against Tibetans. Thus, facts and figures are considered “disputed,” and very often impossible to gather in the first place.
- As I discussed in a previous piece, there is no indication that the real-life location of Tibet appears in Doctor Strange, contrary to what CBR suggests here. In the comics, The Ancient One resides in a fictional location called Kamar-Taj, and Marvel already has a history of using fictional locations in its cinematic universe. See Avengers: Age of Ultron’s Sokovia.
- For my money, the most responsible version of “but China” would describe Chinese sensitivity regarding the portrayal of Tibet, its people, and its culture, for what it is: a campaign of silence intent on concealing the Chinese government’s criminal activities. Active and accurate representation of Tibetans would surely go a long way towards raising Western awareness of China’s brutality.