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.