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The 'Doctor Strange' Controversy: Is Marvel Whitewashing?

Part of a larger problem, or the best decision in a difficult situation?

By Anne St. MariePublished 7 years ago 5 min read
Does exactly who plays the character matter as much as how effectively the character is played?

With Marvel’s Doctor Strange on the verge of hitting theaters everywhere, the conversation regarding it is only getting louder ---- and, with that, the controversy. Said controversy kicked off the moment the film’s casting was announced, which is when it was revealed that the role of the Ancient One (an elderly Tibetan man in the comics) would be filled by . . . the white British actress Tilda Swinton. Cries of whitewashing were immediately out in full force, especially given the recent protests over Scarlett Johansson’s casting in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell remake. Here in Doctor Strange we have yet another Asian character being played by a white person. Pretty blatant, right?

Whitewashing? Marvel says no.

Tilda Swinton, as the Ancient One, prepares to educate Benedict Cumberbatch's Dr. Strange.

Well, Marvel and its representatives have a few counters to that assumption, though whether or not they’re valid is up to the reader. The first official remark on the situation came from Doctor Strange’s co-writer, C. Robert Cargill, who, in a video interview with Double Toasted, compared the whole Ancient One situation to the Kobayashi Maru (for non-Star-Trek afficionados, this is an unwinnable situation designed to test Starfleet cadets).

“The thing about the Ancient One,” Cargill commented, “is it is Marvel’s Kobayashi Maru. There is no other character in Marvel history that is such a cultural landmine, that is absolutely unwinnable. I’ve been reading a bunch of people talking about it and the really frustrating thing about it this week is that most of the people who have thoughts on it haven’t thought it all the way through and they go, ‘Why didn’t they just do this?’ And it’s like, I could tell you why. I could tell you why every single decision that involves the Ancient One is a bad one, and just like the Kobayashi Maru, it all comes down on which way you’re willing to lose.

“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 who think that that’s bulls**t 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.’ If we decide to go the other way and cater to China in particular and have him be in Tibet… if you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the f**k you’re talking about.”

The best solution?

The Ancient One teaches a lesson.

His words do carry weight. Yes, the original character of the Ancient One was a fairly racist stereotype, very much in the whole ‘magical Asian’ line. In times gone by, who else would instruct your main (white, of course) character in the arts of sorcery but an elderly Asian mystic living atop a mountain? Almost certainly bringing the character to life as he was would’ve created issues, this time with a buzz of ‘racist’ rather than ‘whitewashing’. And yes, having him remain a Tibetan character might indeed have incurred a Chinese boycott. On the other hand, Marvel has been known to work around problems like this in the past, such as their clever twist on the (equally stereotyped, comics-wise) Mandarin in Iron Man 3.

Later, a Marvel studios spokesperson would give a statement to Mashable, also denying any whitewashing ---- though not referencing Cargill’s political comments ---- and further clarifying the changes made: “Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU to life. 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. We are very proud to have the enormously talented Tilda Swinton portray this unique and complex character alongside our richly diverse cast.”

True, Doctor Strange's cast isn't entirely Caucasian, but is that enough?

Swinton's Ancient One stands beside Baron Mordo, as played by Chiwetel Ejiofor.

That brings Cargill’s words into clearer focus. In order to avoid the potential for racial stereotypes, apparently the solution chosen was to eliminate anything Asian altogether . . . a fairly serious alteration to the Sorcerer Supreme’s backstory. Though it absolutely does what it was intended to do, in that the movie’s presumably now free of Asian stereotyping, the price seems to have come at the cost of a pretty big chunk of origin story and the now-lack of Asianness in general. Why couldn’t they have changed it to be Celtic and used an Asian actor? Director Scott Derrickson answered that question in an interview with Variety: “I think diversity is the responsibility of directors and producers. In this case, the stereotype of [the Ancient One] had to be undone. I wanted it to be a woman, a middle-aged woman. Every iteration of that script played by an Asian woman felt like a ‘Dragon Lady.'” (Another exotified stereotype, this of an imperious Asian woman). “I’m very sensitive to the history of ‘Dragon Lady’ representation and Anna May Wong films. I moved away from that. Who’s the magical, mystical, woman with secrets that could work in this role? I thought Tilda Swinton.”

Swinton does indeed near-perfectly embody the character's mystical aura and dramatic presence.

The two Ancient Ones.
On the one hand, in addition to Cargill’s and Marvel’s official comments on the potential racial pitfalls of the character, it’s almost a given that Tilda Swinton will be excellent in her Ancient One role. Not only is she an amazing actress, she’s both remarkably ageless and androgynous, a winning combination for an ancient mystic. In 2013's Only Lovers Left Alive, she was greatly praised for her measured, intense, otherworldly, yet still remarkably human take on a centuries-old vampire woman, and it’s highly likely that she’ll bring the same gravity and power to Doctor Strange. On the other . . . well, even if you feel that Marvel made the right call by changing the mythos of the Doctor Strange story, it’s still resulted in yet another formerly-Asian role being filled with a white actor.

Swinton will almost certainly do well . . . but should she?

In addition to Only Lovers Left Alive and numerous others, Swinton's known for her turn as the eons-old and androgynous Archangel Gabriel in 2005's Constantine.

Whatever your opinion on the matter, the whitewashing controversy surrounding 2016's Doctor Strange is worthy of taking note of. If you’re concerned, you’re likely already keeping tabs on the conflict ---- but, if you’re not, it’s something to keep an eye out for. Though maybe Marvel did do the best they could in an unwinnable situation here, what happens if (or when) this racial replacement occurs yet again?

For that, viewers will have to decide on their own just how many times they’ll accept it.

comicsfeaturehumanityindustrymoviepop culturequotessocial mediasuperheroes

About the Creator

Anne St. Marie

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