Seven Years in Tibet was a film about a white guy going to an Asian country to find enlightenment. It was supposedly revolutionary and touching, a message about what the East had to offer Western culture in our decadent twilight years (or something). The Last Samurai was pretty much the same movie but with swords and Tom Cruise and it was supposedly a sign of a “problem” where white people go and save people who aren’t white. Apparently wanting to save people isn’t a good instinct in our politically correct climate. Who knew?
Now we have The Great Wall and people have lost it. If you haven’t seen the American Great Wall trailer yet here it is:
I stress this is the American trailer because I’m sure the one they release in China is going to be a fair bit different. And not just because it’s being released in China but because this film is the result of a collaboration between a Chinese studio and an American one and so there are a couple of big name Chinese stars in this film, along with that other guy, who will probably get top billing in their home market.
Question is, why are people upset? Because it looks silly? Because we learn nothing about the story or plot? No, apparently it’s because of Matt Damon. Not that he got top billing in his home market. He just Doesn’t Belong There. When studios collaborate Social Justice seems to think that means Studio A hands over a huge chunk of cash and a little technical advice and lets Studio B do whatever they want regardless of Studio A’s wants and needs.
Pro Tip: That’s not a collaboration. That’s more like a hostile takeover.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Step back with me and let’s look at the bigger picture.
A lot of people seem to have their knickers twisted over how Damon’s character is just another white man saving a bunch of non-white people. But if you actually watch the trailer instead of stroking out as soon as Matt’s face shows up on screen (and yes, the typical Matt Aflecaprio flavor actor has that effect on me, too, but for different reasons) the truth sounds a lot different. He talks about being a mercenary and fighting wars for money. Fair enough. That happened plenty in the time period the film portrays. What rarely happened was that the mercenary found a war that brought about a spiritual awakening rooted in the justness of the cause. But Damon’s character has found a war worth fighting for.
Again, white guy goes to Asia and has a spiritual awakening. Tale as old as time. (Not necessarily a good tale, mind you. That depends on the execution, but no one’s talking about that, are they?)
Tell me, in that kind of a story line, who exactly is saving who? I’d say it’s the guy who suddenly finds meaning in his life. Is it such a bad thing to have a man go into a totally foreign environment and have his eyes opened? Isn’t that the primary reason so many Social Justice types bang on about going away from home and experiencing other cultures?
I grant you, China doesn’t have the world’s most admirable culture so maybe it’s not the best example for the film to hold up. For one thing, social pressures towards conformity in China is immense (although perhaps not as great as it is a short swim away in Japan). The tendency to fall in line with the culture as a whole may be one reason China produces so few actors who make it on the world stage. Creativity isn’t just undervalued in that kind of culture, it can pose an active threat to the status quo that conforming cultures demand. Of course, creativity can thrive in even the most hostile environment, it’s just rare.
But the glorification of Chinese culture and the Great Wall (the building, not the film) is not at issue here, in spite of the tyrannical culture and horrible slave labor that brought them about. No the average Social Justice stance demands social conformity to ideas about ethnicity, gender and ect, so long as those views are “progressive” so maybe these aspects of Chinese culture is not a negative from the SocJus point of view…
Normally when Social Justice starts hyperventilating about the cultural offense of the week is I look it over and parse whether there is a legitimate gripe at hand. If there is, I ask whether the proposed solution is worthwhile. Have a problem with the way police actions can unfold in our country? Sure, who doesn’t. Want to fix it by rioting in a poor community, stealing a bunch of stuff from said poor people and starting fires in their streets? Not interested in that kind of solution. When I don’t agree with the SocJus solution I try and formulate one of my own and practice it when needed. I have yet to agree with a SocJus solution so I’m not sure what happens in that case.
But if there’s nothing legitimate in their gripes I tend to tune out because I just don’t care. Epics could be written about the extent of my apathy. The lack of significance this little point of casting has on me reaches mythic proportions. In an effort to help you understand how little it means to me I’ve prepared a handy visual guide to my uninterest:
Normally I’d lump this Matt Damon mess into category two and just ignore it. That’s what I did with when Scarlett Johansson was cast as Motoko Kusanagi in the Ghost in the Shell live action movie. (For pity’s sake, the franchise is about transhumanism, the woman can quite literally change between bodies like a pair of pants. What does it matter what her primary body looks like?) That’s what I did when Tilda Swinton was cast as The Ancient One in Dr. Strange. But at this point, I’ve had enough.
If you read my blog and Social Justice is your thing we need to have a serious talk. If you can’t tell from my last name I’m of Chinese descent (my father emigrated from Taiwan) and by the weird logic you guys operate under that gives me some kind of authority to speak from. I don’t like that point of view but I understand it’s part of how you think and I’m appealing to it in the hopes you can at least come to have understanding of my point of view.
There are basically three modes of behavior I see from people wrapped up in the Social Justice side of the “whitewashing” frenzy and they serve as pretty good parallels to the movement as a whole. I’m going to address each of these behavior patterns with no snide remarks, no funny pictures, just honest thoughts. They’re harsh. That’s intentional.
I’ve watched SocJus outrage culture snowball over the past few years from something fun to watch, in the manner of a train wreck, to something truly disturbing. I’ve known since my friend Mike Hudson’s pen name put him in the middle of a McCarthy style witch hunt that Chinese people aren’t exempted from the mindset in spite of the remarkable success they’ve had finding a place in American society. (Not surprising, people are people, but still somehow disappointing.) Maybe one man’s two cents make no different to people who can only rave about systems and cultures but those systems and cultures seem to exist mostly in your head and if I can pull you out of there it’s worth a try.
First I want a word with those of you who really, truly feel that they come from a culture of “whiteness” that’s poisoned the world and that they need to feel guilty about it. These are the people that will tell me that just because I’m not offended by Matt Damon being in The Great Wall that doesn’t mean it’s right. That there’s still a horrible wrong here and they have to fix it.
To these people: Your guilt over “whiteness” has driven you to act like the great white savior you claim to hate Matt Damon representing. You are telling me that you, knowing the horrible nature of your whiteness as well as you do, in full knowledge of what I think, are willing to ignore me and do “what’s right”. Again, you are trying to save me from you whether I want it or not. If this isn’t being a white savior I don’t know what is. You literally demand that I sit back and let you handle this situation because I’m too backwards and ignorant to make my own judgement on it.
Your guilt has blinded you and made it impossible for you to act in concert with your own beliefs. Why should I respect them? And it’s not healthy to try and carry that, either.
I am here to tell you that your whiteness is not that powerful. Not that horrible. Not even something worth feeling guilty about. Assuming whiteness were even a thing that could be properly measured it’s not a corrupting, racializing force that makes the meeting of China and America on even terms impossible. I know because my mother is American – qualifies for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution in fact – so my family is living proof. If the fact that I’m “part white” bothers you, maybe you need to seriously consider whether you understand anything about the behavior of racists at all.
Look, Chinese culture survived three Kung Fu Panda movies and the Great Wall survived two white guys hauling a grand piano and a cello on top of it and remixing said film franchises soundtrack there. I don’t think it’s going to crumble from Matt Damon showing up to shoot a movie.
In short, your whiteness is not a threat to me, you or anyone’s culture anywhere. Please stop feeling guilty about it.
Now as for those of you going around and telling people to be ashamed of their culture? All those critics, editors and other self appointed cultural gatekeepers who have been wringing their hands nonstop over this kind of nonissue for years? Sit. Listen, if your haven’t deafened yourself with your own insistent prattle.
There are only so many kinds of people in the world. The modern trend in politics and culture is to call people like you “authoritarians” in acknowledgement of the way you find a position of authority and then try to bully people into doing whatever you like. However I have a much more specific term for you: Pharisee.
In the New Testament Pharisees tended to have two notable characteristics: 1. They made rules for other people to keep. 2. They preached those rules only to gain status, without any interest in keeping them themselves. In your response to Matt Damon and The Great Wall you’ve complained about what you expect to be a Great White Savior. Then you’ve turned around and posed as the Great White Savior for all of Chinese cinema and pulled all those guilt ridden people who can’t keep all the rules you make into doing the same. And you expect them all to praise you for it.
It’s like you vomited, shoved a man’s face into it and expected him to praise you. I see you for what you are. And I hold you in contempt.
Finally, a word for those Asian American actors who have been complaining once again that this was a rare role could have gone to one of them. I know the frustration – I do theater after all! – but let me make a suggestion. Rather than waiting for a project that could use Asian American actors, try starting one yourself. I’d suggest looking at a live action adaptation of Mob Psycho 100. You could play the part of Reigen Arakawa. You’ve already got his signature move down.
Okay there was one snide remark and funny picture in there. I regret nothing.