Let’s jump straight to the truth about why Tilda Swinton was cast as the Tibetan character known as ‘The Ancient One’ in Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange. Marvel specifically didn’t want to cast a Tibetan actor because Disney didn’t want to piss off China. It’s really that simple.
At the time, the decision to cast a white actress in the role was hailed as groundbreaking and something to be praised. As Bustle reported at the time (2015):
The role of The Ancient One in Doctor Strange will be played by Tilda Swinton. ICYMI, this is pretty huge: Marvel and Doctor Strange director Kevin Feige have made the decision to make the character of The Ancient One — always portrayed as a male in the Doctor Strange comics — a woman in the film. And Feige is defending the decision with enthusiasm: In an exclusive interview with Entertainment Weekly, Feige said the switch “doesn’t matter” because the role is incredibly androgynous, and because Marvel is apparently never afraid to change. Well, if that’s the case, then bring on the gender-swapping, because I think that changing up the gender of other characters in the Marvel world could be a very good thing.
…Instead of playing into gender stereotypes, Marvel is making moves with these gender-swapping casting decisions to show that women can be just as powerful as their hyper-masculine male counterparts.
Even Tilda Swinton herself, in a published exchange with actress Margaret Cho (to whom she had reached out to try to get an understanding of the backlash at the time), used the same excuse, explaining that:
Marvel changed certain characters because the comic books, which have been on the market for decades, include stereotypes which may be offensive by today’s standards. In an effort to avoid offending audiences, Marvel and Walt Disney Studios made changes to certain characters.
It was a clever decision by the studio, albeit disgusting. The issue wasn’t so much about the gender-swapping of an established character. The truth of the matter is that Disney and Marvel Studios are so beholden to China that they were too scared to include a Tibetan character in the film. It wasn’t audiences they were afraid to offend., it was Chinese censors. Allow me to explain.
There’s a quota system in China, The CCP only allows a certain amount of foreign films. And if your studio is lucky enough for your movies to have been chosen, then the studio has to submit their script beforehand to Chinese censors. Chinese censors can and will and have done so, change the script, and change the movie in order to portray China favorably, rather than as the dictatorship that it is.
Mark Gonzalez explained the process to Tim Doescher on a Heritage podcast:
GONZALEZ: Well, a Hollywood studio will have a script. They will send it to the Chinese censor, and say, “This is a movie we might like to see play in China at some point.” The Chinese censor will go through it, and then say that there is a Tibetan character. This happened in a movie, I believe it was “Red Dawn,” in which there was a … No, it wasn’t “Red Dawn,” sorry. It was “Doctor Strange.” “Doctor Strange” had a Tibetan character, and the studio that was making “Doctor Strange” changed it to a Celtic character, in order not to acknowledge that such a thing as a Tibetan exists, that there is such an identity and a group of people called Tibetans.
DOESCHER: So, what is China looking for when they’re reviewing films?
GONZALEZ: Well, you know China has very famously, the three T’s. That is Tiananmen, Tibet, and Taiwan. Tiananmen is a proxy for human rights. Very famously China crushed a student-led protest in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, killing thousands of people of peaceful demonstrators. Trampled or shot or run over by tanks. So, China does not want anything to do with the June 4th, 1989 Tiananmen event, or anything to do with any criticism of human rights which are massive.
GONZALEZ: China does not want any mention of the fact that Taiwan is a separate island, even though it technically is still a part of China, but they’re a Democratic capitalism free, none of which China is.
Thankfully a few directors still refuse to bend the knee to China. America director Quentin Tarantino refused to cut a scene featuring Bruce Lee from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But most studios have no such compulsion. Take Mission: Impossible III for instance, where the studio cut a scene where tattered clothes hung from a clothesline in Shanghai. Or how Paramount changed the invaders in a remake of Red Dawn from Chinese to North Korean.
Beijing can actually delay the release date of a movie or demand that a scene be reshot, and studios don’t want to deal with the uncertainty, Hollywood preemptively accedes to Beijing’s wishes too. Again, Paramount removed patches with the Japanese and Taiwanese flags from Tom Cruise’s bomber jacket in the sequel to Top Gun and used non-offensive replacement patches for the forthcoming sequel, Maverick. The changes had already been made when the trailer was released, meaning Paramount didn’t even wait for Chinese censors to object.
And Disney has a pretty obvious history of kowtowing to Beijing. Their live-action remake of the animated movie from the 1990s, Mulan, based on Chinese folklore about a girl enlisting in the army was filmed in China and in its credits, actually thanks the Chinese propaganda departments as well as a public-security bureau in the province of Xinjiang, where Beijing is still to this day carrying out a hideous campaign against the Muslim Uyghurs. This campaign has been labeled “genocide” by the US government and includes the arbitrary imprisonment of more than one million civilians, forced sterilization, rape, torture, forced labor and “draconian restrictions” on freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom of movement. Doesn’t exactly sound like a magic kingdom to me.
But have you seen any of those very vocal Captain Marvel fans protesting Disney’s support of genocide? Of course not. And if you think Disney should be sensitive about associating itself with an ongoing atrocity, you haven’t paid much attention to its priorities lately, which are all about pleasing Beijing. In fact, Hollywood hasn’t dared to make movies offensive to Beijing in more than two decades. A trilogy of such movies came out in 1997, most famously Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt. Ever since, Hollywood has considered kowtowing to Beijing the better part of valor.
In fact, shortly after the release of their 1997 movie Kundun, also about Tibet, the then-CEO of Disney hastened to make amends. “We made a stupid mistake in releasing Kundun,” Michael Eisner told China’s premier at the time, Zhu Rongji. “Here I want to apologize, and in the future we should prevent this sort of thing, which insults our friends, from happening.”
These revelations may shed new light on John Cena’s embarrassing apology last week. As Colby Covington recently professed, these guys are all Chinese finger puppets now. Rich Lowry of NRO surmises that there is likely even a Beijing blacklist:
To stay off it requires being hyperaware of any misstep or association unwelcome to Beijing. Everyone must be prepared to answer the question: Are you now or have you ever been a sympathizer with Tibet?
The director of Seven Years in Tibet, Jean-Jacques Annaud, subsequently released a letter expressing slavish regret. He “solemnly declared” that he never supported Tibetan independence and never had contact with the Dalai Lama. “Moreover,” he added, “becoming friends with him is out of the question.”
The upshot is that Hollywood is much more comfortable criticizing the United States than criticizing one of the most reprehensible regimes on the planet. The repression of the Uyghurs? As far as Hollywood is concerned, it doesn’t exist and, at this rate, never will.
In current year, Kevin Feige is suddenly, publicly expressing regret about the Tilda Swinton casting – but not for it’s obvious white-washing of a traditionally Tibetan character with a white actress (which could have easily been labeled as white supremacy). No, the regret he emotes now is beneficial for pandering to the Asian audience he hopes will pay to see Marvel’s next two film projects, The Eternals and Shang Chi. Here’s what Feige had to say to the media:
“We thought we were being so smart, and so cutting-edge,” Feige told Men’s Health in a cover story about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings star Simu Liu. “We’re not going to do the cliché of the wizened, old, wise Asian man. But it was a wake-up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliché and still cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that was, of course, is yes.”
But it should be noted that Marvel Studios’ official statement at the time also echoed director Scott Derrickson’s sentiments, explaining that the decision to cast Swinton was a matter of reinventing The Ancient One.
“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,” Marvel wrote in its official statement.
Hah! Of course today, now that Marvel is promoting a decidedly Asian-centric film, it’s politically helpful to promote their embrace of Asian culture and Asian characters. Notice that there is still no admission that it was China, not Marvel or Disney , who actually had the final say in the character’s alteration. What’s even more baffling has been the heaping of more praise on Marvel for now admitting they should have cast an Asian. The super-fan adherents to all things Disney and Marvel seemingly weren’t bothered back in 2015 when they whitewashed and gender swapped an established Asian character in Doctor Strange, and yet they are now applauding this fake mea culpa.
And it’s hard to miss that this is generally the same crowd that labels those who complain about white characters being altered to a POC, a man to a woman, or a man to a transgender, as “toxic”. They’ll proudly tell you they could care less if they race swap a fictional character, or change a straight character to gay. But now, when Marvel says they “messed up”, those same people applaud and defend that decision too. It’s almost like they applaud anything as long as it “owns the fan-boys”.
But these social justice minded geeks are actually missing the larger picture.
Marvel and Disney are so beholden to China that they’re only compelled to make these changes in order to please their Communist dictatorship overlords. Then they make up convenient excuses that are designed appease the SJWs. The pre-production planning meeting probably went something like this:
Exec #1 “Uh-oh. We can’t have a Tibetan character called the Ancient One in our Doctor Strange movie.”
Exec #2 “Why not? The Ancient One is literally Strange’s mentor. Sure, there’s a lot of Orientalism in the origin, but let’s be true to the material and handle it maturely.”
Exec #1 “China doesn’t recognize Tibet. Race bend and gender swap the character into a white, female, androgynous-leaning Celtic. China won’t pushback on that and SJWs will love it.”
Exec #2 “Yes!! We’ll say it’s about female empowerment!
Exec #1 “Perfect. Email that to Feige!”
And now 6 years later, as the studio is gearing up to promote the already troubled Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and The Eternals?
Exec #1 “We have to appeal to Asian moviegoers. The actor playing Shang-Chi is an unknown and our director for The Eternals has a thin resume.”
Exec #2 “But Chloé Zhao won an Oscar!”
Exec #1 “Yes, but China blacked out the Oscars because she has been outspoken about their brutal dictatorship.”
Exec #2 “WTF?! How did that happen??”
Exec #1 “It’s much too late for that. We’ve got to get Asian movie goers engaged with this one.”
Exec #2 “Could we earn a little rehab by apologizing for race/gender swapping the Ancient One in Doctor Strange?”
Exec #1 “Perfect. Email Feige and tell him to get on the #StopAsianHate trend now!”
And just like that, Disney can appease their unprincipled, ignorant sycophants who don’t care about honor, only about consuming more Disney/Marvel/Lucasfilm product. All the while not realizing this is just about money, making more of it, and not giving a rip about the source material or the fans. They will monetize the “outrage” while the “access media” breathlessly praises the stunning and brave decisions of studios that willingly sell-out America for a few extra yuan.
Of course it makes sense in a shrewd way, because in an increasingly globalized world, Hollywood studios are eager to please everyone. They want to have their cake and eat it too by appealing to Chinese audiences without alienating Americans…or visa versa. It’s surely a challenge to simultaneously try to navigate diversity, tokenism and whitewashing without treading on anyone’s toes, an act that’s proving increasingly impossible when every casting decision or set location is examined under a microscope.
China’s growth almost guarantees Hollywood studios will continue to bow to Beijing’s censors, while censorship encourages China’s best to reach for Western audiences. But now we’re hearing more reporting that China’s love affair with Hollywood may be coming to an end. So where the industry goes next will surely continue to raise eyebrows and pose question marks, especially as audiences become increasingly aware of their attempts to find a perfect middle ground.
How long before people start to see through the pandering façade?