Sweet and Sour Tilda Swinton
or: Yellow face again?
I was holding open the door for some customers walking into the Asian fusion restaurant I work at when I find myself thinking about Tilda Swinton. I walk a very nice couple to their seats and when I put their menu’s down I knock over one of the chopsticks resting on a very classy stone in front of their very classy probably $50+ a pop stoneware plates. As I walk away, a waiter whizzes by getting ready to serve a variety of very nice fish about to be garnished and drizzled as another couple sits about to dumbfounded at how many waiters are gonna help present their very expensive meal.
As I get ready to open the door again, I keep thinking of that preview. The Benedict “Cheekbones” Cumberbatch walking through some rural asian town, the pagoda like architecture and the still intense Swinton a la Aang: the Last Airbender. I find myself thinking of her as a Chicken breast thrown into a Wok by one of the chefs in the back of the kitchen. I know in the back of my mind, when she is brought out and the sauce is poured and the garnishes come to life and a beautiful and dainty plop of rice is laid next to her…I know she will be amazing. I’ll take a bite and the performance will be so tender, so rich and so full of nuance. But I’ll put my fork down. My stomach will drop. I’m about to be a difficult customer.
I’ll have to say
“I’m sorry. This is amazing but I ordered Tibetan.”
In case you missed it, Marvel took a wild choice in their casting of ‘The Ancient One’ in the forthcoming Doctor Strange. Instead of an older tibetan man, they took the choice of casting everyone’s favorite strange female character actress, Tilda Swinton. That, plus the news of Scarlett Johansson playing the lead in Ghost in the Shell, they kind of broke the internet (Well they did if you follow a lot of Asian-American actors on social media).
This is how Marvel chose to respond to criticism on casting Tilda Swinton as ‘The Ancient One’ in the forthcoming Dr. Strange:
“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”
They don’t stop there though,
Though the casting choice has remained controversial since its announcement, the issue gained traction after “Doctor Strange” writer C. Robert Cargill made a recent comment suggesting that casting a Tibetan for the role would have been risky due to the nature of the character, which he described as a “racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in [a] very weird political place.”
Cargill continued, “He [the Ancient One] 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 bulls — 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.’” He later clarified on Twitter that Marvel did not speak with him about China and that the opinions he expressed on the issue were his own, not the studios.’
And yet, Marvel chose to still keep the supposed stereotypes about the character even though the studio apparently “regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU to life”. Apparently, Tibetan viewers would take less offense to a white actor playing a racial stereotype.
As David Henry Hwang wrote in M. Butterfly,
“Why, in the Peking Opera, are women’s roles played by men?…Because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act”
In Western Film, apparently only a white woman could play an Asian man and not offend anyone.
Jokes aside, it’s a thing- Honkies love Asian stuff.
Asian Woman everywhere get harassed on OkCupid by men that apparently have “Yellow Fever”.
It’s not even just film from ‘another time’. I’m not talking about Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or the racist Chinese gambling subplot in Anything Goes. It’s the fact that Batman in Batman Begins and the Bride in Kill Bill have to go get trained in dojos and learn from the ‘ancient ones’ because when you’re white and use Asian culture you’re the hero. You’re Gwen Stefani’s line of Harujuku inspired clothing, purses and perfumes. It’s you eating an amazing ‘chicken and waffles’ at an Asian Fusion restaurant (hint: there’s rice and bok choy involved).
It’s a lot like Chinese Take Out.
If you’ve spent anytime watching documentaries on the Food Network, you’ve heard the Gospel of Alton Brown and know that Chinese take out is about as Chinese as Emma Stone. If you haven’t, Chinese take out adapted to serve and sell to American tastes, and one of the greatest examples of that is General Tso’s Chicken. As it is described by Clarissa Wei in her history of Americanized Chinese Food at First we Feast,
“The story of General Tso’s Chicken is a classic example. According to Jennifer 8. Lee (who recently produced a documentary named after the dish), the dish as we know it first came into existence in 1974 at a restaurant named Hunam in New York. The chef, who came to the States by way of Taiwan, was inspired by a dish from Taipei named Geojeol Tso’s Chicken, which was invented around 1955…
For her research, Lee traveled to Taipei to track down the original version. It was markedly different from its American counterpart. Kailan was used in place of broccoli, and instead of being sweet and crusty, the chicken (skin still on!) was covered in soy sauce, garlic, and chilies. “The American versions are sweet,” she explained to the original chef. He responded, incredulously: “The taste of Hunan cuisine is not sweet.” Search for any General Tso’s recipe online and you’ll likely find a note in there for a cornstarch slurry, with at least a couple tablespoons of sugar. America’s soda-drinking habits conditioned palates to seek out extra-sweet flavors — even in their Chinese food.”
Though, tastes are changing. In cuisine, even though people still go to take out restaurants, people are craving more authentic experiences with their food.
Wei points out that,
“classic Americanized Chinese dishes are falling out of vogue these days thanks to a much more worldly food culture. Though they’re still a source of comfort food for Americans across the nation, dishes like chop suey and moo goo gai seem provincial compared to mapo tofu or delicately wrapped xiaolongbao.”
People are trying to have authentic sushi, ramen, pho, and Szechuan cuisine and willing to splurge on that. Willing to spend money to try something that isn’t pandering to them and what they think that ‘Americans won’t get freaked out by’. Why is it still happening in film?
It’s not like early Chow Chow Chinese restaurants that just had to use the resources they had, movies that can pull names like Tilda Swinton or even Scarlett Johansson have money. Why not use that level of financial resources to try and tell an authentic and nuanced story that actually includes an Asian actor?
Sure, ‘The Ancient One’, is a character type and concept that’s a group of 13 year old boys pulling their eyes back to slits and shoving chop sticks up their nose waiting to happen. It’s a character created by two white men, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. It’s a stereotype. Thinking back about it, what Asian man would actually take this role and feel good about it? And would an actual Tibetan play it? Even more, would it be okay if a mixed actor played the role?
One of the most profound things I’ve ever seen was in Kill Bill: Part One, was with the mixed ancestry of Lucy Liu.
I criticized the narrative earlier, but what I loved was a director taking the time to say, “We all know Lucy Liu is mixed…and that adds to the character”. So he took a real actress, with real mixed heritage, in the always confusing Western-cowboy-movie-but-I-like-other-cultures-too vibe Quentin Tarantino movies seem to have and gave an honest look at what is happening.You know, this is a character that doesn’t belong, but I casted her because she’s a badass and I want to make room for her in my story telling.
I wish that’s what Marvel said. That,
“We really liked her and we wanted to make it work. We’re sorry if it hurt you. But trust us. We’ll make this right”
And maybe Dr. Strange is going to change my mind.
Maybe they’re going to Asian Fusion style it and fold in that celtic heritage with someone that wanted to study something they cared about. It will have this crazy celtic-asian fusion taste and I’m going to love it. Maybe it’s not cheap, maybe they’re not trying to serve me the General Tso garbage Mickey Rooney was serving in Breakfast at Tiffanys. Or maybe it’ll be like all the N-bombs dropped in Django Unchained, where it felt like they were just saying it because they could. Because yellow face is still something people think they can do, so they didn’t bat an eye when they cast her. They didn’t bat an eye when they did CGI tests on actors in Ghost in a Shell to make them look more Asian. So let’s call it like it is. As Constance Wu said to The Hollywood Reporter,
“Some people call it ‘yellowface,’ but I say ‘the practice of blackface employed on Asians’ because that’s more evocative…many people’s vision of who they see as a hero is rooted in systemic racism. It’s not blaming; it’s asking for awareness. It’s good for artists to think outside the box and stretch their imagination.”
This isn’t what we ordered. Send it back to the kitchen.