Yellowface and the Racist Incredulity of White Culture

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When it was announced that Anglo-Scottish actress Tilda Swinton had been cast in Marvel’s next film, Dr. Strange, as The Ancient One, a Tibetan sorcerer who teaches the titular character the mystic arts, there was pushback from many Asian and Pacific Islander (API) American fans fearing that Marvel would perpetuate Hollywood’s storied history of yellowface. Marvel executives assured fans that this would not be the case, and that they were approaching the character’s albeit thorny and problematic history with sensitivity. There was hope that Marvel would deftly thread the needle in adapting the character to screen. Marvel’s largely successful handling of several problematic characters like The Mandarin in Iron Man 3 and Elektra in Netflix’s Daredevil offered glimmers of hope for a respectful reimagination of The Ancient One. However, when Marvel released the first trailer to Dr. Strange, all hope for a respectful adaptation of the character was lost.

Dr. Strange screenwriter C. Robert Cargill went on the podcast Double Toasted to explain the reasoning for not choosing to cast an Asian (or specifically, Tibetan) actor for the role.

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.
[You run the risk of…] 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.’

Cargill also suggested that since The Ancient One was a “no win” scenario for Marvel, they decided to use the opportunity to cast a woman in a male role and to “die on the hill of feminism.” Cargill also attempted counter the popular suggestion from fans that an Asian actress like Michelle Yeoh would have been preferable to Swinton by stating that casting a Chinese actor to play a Tibetan character would be equally insensitive. Stunningly, after strong criticism of the casting surfaced, Marvel executives defended their choice by claiming that this incarnation of the Ancient One was “Celtic.” Beloved Japanese-American actor George Takei issued a biting point-by-point take-down of Marvel’s convoluted logic.

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The casting of The Ancient One is part of a surge of recent stories involving Yellowface and Orientalism in the entertainment industry:

And it’s not just Hollywood that’s guilty of erasing/marginalizing APIs from our own stories. In the theater, productions of much-beloved “classic” but problematic works like The Mikado, The King and I and Miss Saigon more often than not employ yellowface, especially at the non-commercial and regional theatre level. This practice is so widespread it has even inspired memes like this brilliant tumblog, March of the Eye-Shadowed Children. However, the use of yellowface in recent years has been more publicly criticized in the theater community. Several productions of The Mikado around the nation drew very public criticism, even leading to the cancellation and re-imagination of productions in New York City and the Bay Area. And it’s not just “classic” works that are a problem. A production of Lloyd Suh’s Jesus in India at Clarion College drew controversy when the university chose to cast white actors in API roles, resulting in the cancellation of the production.

I mention all of these instances not because they are so shocking, but because they are so common. The practice of pushing APIs out of our own narratives, while simultaneously confining most representation that we do get to stereotypical Orientalist roles, is so ubiquitous that it is almost rendered completely invisible to white audiences and artists. White supremacy culture is so entrenched in our society that it often feels like that in order to even broach the topic of yellowface, I must prove the existence of the very oppression which my community faces.

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I really resonated with some comments that Suh made on the issue of cultural appropriation and yellowface at a convening hosted by a number of arts groups titled Beyond Orientalism (his comments start at the 1:10:00 mark):

I don’t think responsibility and artistic freedom are exclusive. I think that with freedom comes responsibility… I think that this question about what the line is [for] cultural appropriation — it’s not theoretical, it’s not political. It’s [emotionally] painful. It’s humiliating and demeaning and it hurts.

It’s easy to think about it in terms of trying to draw a line — of “what can I get away with?” […] There’s an insidious version of that question that I’ve been asked many times. “How far can I go? How many times can I punch you in the face before I’m not allowed to do that anymore?” That’s something that I’ve felt myself in danger of getting used to… [You have to ask yourself,] who is that for? What conversation are you trying to have in the world, and why does it involve figuring out how much you can take from us?

More often than not, when APIs call out the practice of yellowface or orientalism, the conversation quickly zeroes in on parsing out the minutiae of prosthetics, make-up, accents, or costumes. When we do this we frame the conversation from the white cultural perspective, and therefor inscribe ourselves within the same oppression that we’re trying to overcome. By engaging with the petty argument, we implicitly surrender to the larger notion that is the natural right of white culture to take freely from others. What is even more infuriating is that even in the worlds of theater or comic books, mediums rooted in fantasy, the idea of people who look like me having agency, being desirable or commanding respect is unimaginable.

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Jason Tseng
Jason Tseng makes plays, comics, illustrations, and games -- mostly about queer people and people of color. He splits his time working for Fractured Atlas, a national nonprofit technology organization that helps artists with the business side of their creative work, and as a community organizer with Gay Asian Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY), a 25-year-old organization serving the Queer API community. His work has been featured in GeeksOut’s LGBT comics anthology Power, Sub Rosa magazine, and Nonprofit Quarterly. He produces the podcasts Play x Play -- featuring the best plays you’ve never heard of -- and Queer and Present Danger, a queer nerd pop culture podcast. Find more at JasonTseng.com. *The views and opinions which appear on this blog are his alone and in no way reflect the views and opinions of any organizations he is involved in.
  • Frank Stevens

    I don’t mean to defend the choices that Marvel Studios made in this particular case. But let me point out that you folks are traditionally silent when non-disabled people are cast in roles that require a spinal cord injury, a mental illness, and even a developmental disability. Perhaps if Hollywood was not so dependent upon the color GREEN, meaning casting the most bankable actors they can get away with, is part of the problem. Perhaps the point about the fact that a government of a BILLION people would get offended (China), which is a valid point, should also be considered.
    We’re all in a no-win situation when decisions like this are being made. Here’s some of the issues: Actors and actresses of less renown than others are almost always left out of major commercial productions. I can imagine the reaction if a minor talent like me was cast in a role as a person with Tourette’s (which I have) in a major motion picture. The reactions would run between the demeaning “What a brave cripple to portray his condition” to “who the hell is Frank Stevens? ” and you probably would ignore the whole situation.