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The White Washing of the Ancient One – Doctor Strange’s Biggest Failure

Doctor Strange has become a blockbuster, pulling in over $332 million on opening weekend and becoming the top IMAX opening on record. Reviews have been positive with high praises for its visuals and mystical themes that set it apart from other Marvel movies. Even the cast, despite its controversy, has been hailed for their performances.

We’re not here to discuss the positive reviews (again), however, but instead the controversy. Don’t get me wrong; I liked the movie! As an avid Doctor Strange fan, I’ve followed the character from its origins in Strange Tales #110 in 1963. I’ve watched him move from 60s mysticism (and Orientalism) to 70s Lovecraftian villains; from the street mysteries in the 80s to his low points during the 90s . Although I have low standards in movies, this was one of my “sacred cows, ” and I approached it with trepidation. I did not leave the film disappointed and, although I had my critiques, I believe the films was a good one overall.

Now that the film’s been out and most have seen it, it’s time to discuss the elephant in the room. Of all my criticisms, my biggest problem was one casting choice: the Ancient One.

We’ve all heard this before as it was all over every pop culture media source, Reddit subthread, and blog. Somewhere, an executive, producer, or even the director felt the need to change the portrayal of the character. Despite the Ancient One being an elderly Tibetan man, they cast Tilda Swinton… a middle-aged White woman. The outrage was immediate, with cries of white-washing and denouncement from Asian actors throughout the industry. As often, the response was mostly just excuses… and weak ones at that.

“We couldn’t mention Tibet because it would offend China.”

OK, barring the fact that this excuse is about making money and not doing the “right” thing (see below), it’s a weak reason even as is. So, China is offended by anything that presents Tibet as something other than a quiet, subservient province they keep in the back room. Why not set it somewhere else? And they did! The writers put Kamar-Taj in Nepal… so what was the problem? Why not make the actor Nepalese or some other Asian culture? How does this excuse the white-washing of the role?

“We didn’t want to make the character another Asian stereotype.”

Then don’t! Are you telling me that every Asian actor who has stepped into the role of the wise, mystic master is a stereotype? Ignoring the fact that the trope is a staple of Asian cinema and storytelling, there are plenty of actors who have performed similar roles with excellence and variety. Jackie Chan, Sonny Chiba, Choi Min-sik, Chow Yun-fat, Mark Dacascos, Sammo Hung, Jet Li, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, George Takei, Togo Igawa, Ken Watanabe, Donnie Yen, etc. Were none of them available or interested?

One variant of this excuse is they didn’t want to fall victim to the “General Asian” stereotype, assuming anyone could play another culture’s role. Asian actors, however, often cross-culturally portray each other and with praise. Not to mention, that assumes the answer to the dilemma is to white-wash the role completely!

“We gave it to a woman, which was a positive change.”

You are correct in that increasing the positive representation of women in film is a laudable goal. That doesn’t deny the fact, however, that you still chose to white-wash it, instead of casting an Asian woman! Yes, Ming-Na Wen and Wai Ching Ho already have roles in the MCU, but what about Michelle Yeoh? Yuen Qiu? Kim Hye-ja? Gong Li? Takayo Fischer? Maggie Cheung? They could have supported both Asian and women in film; the two aren’t mutually exclusive!

“The character is a mantle and the current one is Celtic.”

This response was often used to placate those who thought they were going to have Swinton play an Asian person, rather than just portray a Caucasian version of the role. While this brought some hope that they’d explain her presence in an Asian setting, the movie proved this was a shallow excuse. Other than a brief mention she was Celtic and an even quicker reference to previous “Ancient Ones,” they never once cover the topic again. In fact, the mention that she’s old (and the entire plot point around her age) made things even more incredulous! How did an ancient Celt (presumably from the Middle Ages or earlier) end up in Nepal? How did she take over an organization of sorcerers that apparently drew much of their knowledge from Asian religions and mysticism?

“Tilda Swinton is a great actress known for her otherworldly portrayals.”

I’m not going to argue, as I love Tilda Swinton. I think she’s a fantastic actor! She deserved every award and nomination for Michael Clayton, she was the only person that could do the White Witch justice in the Narnia movies, and she was the best casting in Constantine (an underrated movie). One of my strong hopes was that she would bring this otherworldliness and androgyny to the Ancient One, giving us something new.

Except, she didn’t. There was nothing new to the character; it was the same trope of the ancient master teaching the student humility through hardship and sarcastic wit. Swinton didn’t do a thing for the role that anyone else (of any ethnicity or gender) couldn’t, and it was disappointing. She was just a white woman dressed as a Buddhist monk, sticking to the stereotype. What was the point of casting her if they weren’t going to do anything different? Why give up not only a pivotal role for Asian actors but also one of the most important roles in Doctor Strange fandom, if anyone could have done the same? This excuse is probably the lamest of them all, as they risked outrage from fans and Asians in the industry for no logical reason.

“It’s not about doing the right thing; it’s about making money.”

I mentioned this earlier when talking about changing the role to appease Chinese audiences. People often bring up that Hollywood is about making money, not social issues. This claim is often backed up by all sorts of poor arguments, like “why would they risk revenue” or “it’s not their concern to change society”; of course, those are weak points that are easily refuted. The point is, movies do affect society and popular media has an ethical responsibility… plus, it’s just good business to cater to an increasingly diverse society!

If that’s the best excuse one can come up with for this casting choice, then just admit the truth: this was done out of laziness, selfishness and ignorance… nothing more. Someone somewhere liked Tilda Swinton, didn’t care about anyone else or how they were affected, and chose their desires over common sense. All of the excuses and reasoning above? Bullshit.

Sadly, that sort of thinking has proven to be all too par for the course in this society.

About Brook H. (63 Articles)
Generalist, polymath, jack-of-all-trades... what hasn't Brook studied. Knowledge is power, which is probably why he ended up with degrees in Human Behavior and Psychology, not to mention majoring in everything from computers to business while working in theater, security, emergency communications, and human services. He currently resides outside Baltimore where he tries to balance his children, local politics, hobbies, and work. Brook is a major Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing advocate (he's HoH himself), lifelong gamer (from table-top to computer), loves everything paranormal, and is a Horror-movie buff.

6 Comments on The White Washing of the Ancient One – Doctor Strange’s Biggest Failure

  1. Reblogged this on belleburr.

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  2. “How did an ancient Celt (presumably from the Middle Ages or earlier) end up in Nepal? How did she take over an organization of sorcerers that apparently drew much of their knowledge from Asian religions and mysticism?”

    Just because I like to play devil’s advocate (no, this isn’t a reference to Constantine, which I agree is an underrated movie), I’ll see what I can come up with off the top of my head.

    Before I do that, I’ll mention that the movie was less than 2 hours long. There were bound to be plot holes miles wide.

    While the Druids were male, there were certainly priestesses in Celt society. There has been evidence of Asian trade with Europe during the middle ages. They traveled over land. We can also throw in here that one of the sanctums was in Britain.

    The Ancient One has great power. He, or one of his disciples, could have located her through the use of magic. Or, she could have used some magic in her homeland that brought her to their attention. There are countless scenarios that could be played here. Example: The people of her tribe thought her weird, and treated her like crap. On one of their missions to battle beings from the dark dimension, acolytes of the Ancient One hide themselves and the monster in a spell so as not to stir up the followers of the White Christ. During the battle she “sees” them and monster through their veils. After the battle they disappear. At this point an invisible acolyte could whisper into her ear the beginning of the path, or she could just feel that it’s her destiny to do what they do – protect people from the monsters, and then sets off on the journey which eventually takes her to Nepal.

    I’ve only had one cup of coffee this morning. Please excuse any grammar, spelling, and other problems in the above.

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    • I’m not disagreeing that there can’t be plenty of reasons, especially when this is a fantasy world. I’m just saying, if we have to come up with complex background to explain the whitewashing… there’s a problem. Especially when said background adds nothing to the film itself (and isn’t even present).

      Keeping it simple (and avoiding controversy) would have been so much better.

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      • I went to the move with low expectations. My youngest daughter went with even lower expectations than I. Neither of us left the movie with an unfavorable view. We were both astonished that it hadn’t gone the way of Iron Man 3, Thor: Dark World, and Captain America: Winter Soldier. (The latter of those three was better than the other two, but the writers just dropped the ball on it.) My daughter, who doesn’t know much about Dr. Strange except the name came away from it actually liking the character, and she doesn’t like Cumberbatch on top of it all. She’s had to change her opinion somewhat. We both came away from the movie saying, “Holy s**t! It was actually a good movie.”

        I’ll admit that I went into the theater fully expecting to hate Swinton’s character. I too grew up with a very different Ancient One. I too thought it silly to cast anyone other than someone of the Asian persuasion. (Of course, we could have gotten a Carradine version of Kung Fu’s Kwai Chang Caine as well.) I came away from the movie loving Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Steven, and had no real thoughts at all about Swinton’s character portrayal. It was almost as if I had blocked her out as unimportant to the story – which she was in the grand scheme. I asked my daughter, and she felt the same. We just didn’t care about her.

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      • I came out of the theater mostly pleased as well. As mentioned in the article, I am a major Strange fan, and I’d approached the entire matter with apathy or trepidation. It was only after the 15-minute preview I saw that I became more optimistic. Overall, I think the movie was solid.

        Sadly, I think their treatment of the Ancient One was uninspired at best, and a black mark on an otherwise good movie. It’s like going to a restaurant and having the best food and service, but your waiter then disappears and doesn’t fill your drinks or bring you the check for an hour.

        What should have been a great night is just good, because of that one downer.

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