Margaret Cho has been an outspoken critic of Hollywood’s whitewashing of Asian characters and the industry’s general lack of Asian representation. Margaret starred in the first Asian-American sitcom over 20 years ago. The show lasted a single season. And, sure, it wasn’t great. But, as we’ve seen over and over again, in Hollywood, some stories get a single shot while other stories have the luxury of limitless chances – and failures.
Last week Margaret was on the TigerBelly podcast with Bobby Lee and talked about Hollywood’s habit of turning Asian characters into white ones. And then she told Bobby about how Tilda Swinton reached out to her earlier this year to discuss the problem. Tilda was cast as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange, a character that was originally Asian. Per Jezebel:
“She said she didn’t understand why people were so mad about Doctor Strange and she wanted to talk about it, and wanted to get my take on why all the Asian people were mad,” recalls Cho, who said a preliminary email from Swinton led to a long conversation that was “so weird.”
“[She] was like, ‘Could you please tell them...’” says Cho. “I’m like, ‘Bitch, I can’t tell them...I don’t have a yellow phone under a cake dome.’”
Cho describes their ensuing conversation “kind of a fight about why the part should not have gone to her.”
“Basically, it ended with her saying, ‘Well, I’m producing a movie with Steven Yeun starring.”
“Oh, like I have a black friend, I can do this...” is how Lee interpreted that.
Cho says she ended up feeling like Swinton’s “house Asian...like I’m her servant...like I was following her with an umbrella. I had a weird feeling about the entire exchange, especially the part of, ‘Don’t tell anybody.’”
Jezebel reported on this on Friday afternoon, just after 2pm ET. Three hours later they followed with a response from Tilda’s publicist who released, evidently with Tilda’s blessing, the emails that Tilda exchanged with Margaret in May. Have a close read of those emails here.
What’s clear now about these emails is that both women came away from them feeling differently. Let’s get into those emails now because I’m probably reading them differently than you are. Tilda reaches out to Margaret about the Doctor Strange controversy. They don’t know each other. But Margaret is Asian and she’s been critical of the Doctor Strange casting process so Tilda’s like, let’s talk. Then she asks Margaret to keep it a secret. They go back and forth, in “private”, and while Tilda claims to be more interested in “listening”, she ends up actually doing a lot more explaining and rationalising – about Marvel’s dilemma, about all the “pains” Marvel took to address the dilemma, and, frankly, in the end, there’s not much here to acknowledge Margaret’s position that Asian Americans have been ignored/and or disrespected for so long in entertainment that that frustration is what was at the root of why there was such disappointment in how the Ancient One was handled. In short, it feels, to me, like what Tilda was seeking here was not understanding but rather, as Matthew Dessem writes in Slate, “some sort of racial absolution”, with a justification at the end that her next film is with being made with Asians which means she’s not racist. And, really, wasn’t that the whole point of this? To prove that Tilda herself isn’t racist – and not necessarily to address the problem of racial inequality in entertainment?
As for Margaret talking on the podcast about their exchange even though she was asked to keep it private and Margaret initially agreed, it’s not impossible to see why she would wonder later, after she’d had some time to process what went down, why it had to be kept a secret in the first place. Is it fair or unfair that Tilda asked to keep it a secret? If they were doing a good thing, if they were both trying to better understand one another, why should it be a secret? As a person of colour myself, what makes me uncomfortable here is the idea of a white woman asking a woman of colour to keep a secret, to keep her silence. What does that say about power? And who holds the power? Does that explain why Margaret, in hindsight, after she’d processed the situation, told Bobby Lee that she felt like Tilda’s “house Asian… like I’m her servant…like I was following her with an umbrella. I had a weird feeling about the entire exchange, especially the part of, ‘Don’t tell anybody’”? And why she decided to not do Tilda’s bidding? To walk away from the “house Asian’s” contract? I’m not keeping your secret.
So Tilda dropped the receipts. The immediate reaction was like, OH! Tilda dropped the receipts! Tilda claps back! Cho got pwned! Team Tilda!
We are typically super pro-Tilda here at LaineyGossip but in this case, I’m not sure I can step in her corner. This is not a Kim Kardashian/Taylor Swift situation. And the subject matter here isn’t awesome and petty high school drama either. When Kim Kardashian dropped the receipts on Taylor Swift this past summer, it was a face-off, at the very least, between two evenly matched adversaries. Or, you might say, the reason it was so satisfying was because Taylor, up until then, occupied a higher position on the fame hierarchy than Kim did. Taylor Swift is the girl all the moms approve of. The mean girl who pretends to be the best friend. The prom queen on a pedestal. Kim could only take her down because she was punching UP.
Was Tilda Swinton punching up though? Or… was she punching down? Margaret Cho isn’t let into the same rooms Tilda Swinton has access to. Tilda Swinton went to school WITH PRINCESS DIANA. So when she writes to Margaret in these emails, describing herself as a “Scottish woman of 55 who lives in the Highlands” and that “there’s precious little projected on contemporary cinema screens that means a great deal to my life”, it’s said from a position of great privilege, the same privilege that has shaped the myopia reflected not only in this exchange but in how Tilda decided to react to Margaret’s characterisation of their exchange.
In just three hours, Tilda decided to self-righteously authorise the publication of their messages in defence of herself. Like, HA! GOTCHA!
OK, fine. But to what end?
How does this move the conversation forward? Tilda Swinton, the Oscar-winner, the fashion icon, so cool, so popular, so edgy, “exposes” Margaret Cho, the Asian-American comic actress who’s crusading for representation and inclusion in Hollywood. And…what has that accomplished? What has been advanced?
On Friday night, Margaret responded to Tilda’s release of the emails and issued a statement to Entertainment Weekly:
“Asian actors should play Asian roles. I believe my emails stand on their own and should be taken for the spirit in which they were intended. I am grateful that the debate has now entered the national discussion and remain a huge fan of Tilda’s.”