The Amazing Whitewashing Adventures of Doctor Strange

In the immortal words of Mr. Poopybutthole, OOOOOO, WHEEEEEE: Being allowed to attend a press screening earlier this month for the upcoming Marvel film Doctor Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular character, was an interesting experience. Me and a fellow BNP staff writer had great seats to watch a 20-minute extended trailer, essentially hyping us up for when the film drops later this Fall. It was also pretty cool that Sebastian Stan, AKA Winter Soldier, dropped by the theater, IN THE FLESH, with a weird-ass anecdote about Cumberbatch and a million-dollar smile.

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I’ll admit, I am not a fan of the film. Understanding that comic books, and specifically the background of Doctor Strange, has a history of racism, didn’t help with my opinion overall with the premise of this movie. Quick background: Stephen Strange, a famous yet arrogant doctor, becomes a victim of a horrible car accident which destroys his career as a surgeon. Overhearing a tale of someone known as The Ancient One, Strange travels to the Himalayas to learn from the Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme. Eventually, this mystic introduces Strange to this new world of magic and mystery, and of a reality beyond what we know.

Now, we’ve heard this story before: Drop a white person in a “exotic, mystical land,” have them trained by an all-knowing, usually person of color, and have this magical being’s only role to enhance the characterization of the white main character. What this does is erase and decentralize a narrative that could focus on an Asian character. It further dehumanizes aspects of East Asian culture, waters it down, and puts a white face on it to make it more palatable to white audiences. It’s cliche, unoriginal, and racist as fuck. It “others” people of color, in this case, East Asian people and culture. Historically, in media, Asians have been portrayed as cunning, conniving, untrustworthy, and an enemy of Western powers. Some of the only “positive portrayals” of Asians in media, has been emphasized on various spiritual practices and martial arts, which over time, have been appropriated and retooled as devices for majority white characters to come in and “master.” (The Last Samurai anyone?)

Now for the film, Tilda Swinton was cast as The Ancient One. The character has been “reworked” to be some kind of Celtic being; however, this truly does little in excusing the fact that the Ancient One was originally created as Asian, Tibetan, in past works, effectively erasing Asian people from their own history, culture, and land. Parts of this movie was filmed in South Asia for Groot’s sake! Of course, the writers of Strange were quick to yell out that The Ancient One is a character steeped in racist history; many characters in comic book universes are. Instead of keeping racist tropes in the film, they could have hired an Asian actor and WROTE the character in a non-stereotypical way, giving depth, cultural sensitivity, and accuracy to an Asian character. They chose a shitty, tired, basic-ass approach to this film, and to be honest, I am not entirely surprised. But moving on.

Cumberbatch seems decent in this. His lines seem funny. Whether or not audiences will be able to empathize with this character (because Cumberbatch does play the arrogant playboy pretty well) remains to be seen. The visuals in this turned my mind into mush. The colors, the sounds, the symbolism, the whole she-bang was quite a display, there is no denying that. Did it give me something I’ve never seen before? Not really. To be quite honest, the “out of this world” scenes reminded me of Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man (which is quite fitting, actually. I wonder if they did that on purpose?). Rachel McAdams, who is playing Dr. Christine Palmer, may or may not be the shallow, one-dimensional, obligatory white woman love interest for the main white man in, again, the obligatory heterosexual couple in the film.

This would be a shame if Marvel choose this path, especially after rumors about why Natalie Portman has chosen not to return to the MCU; however it was a bit difficult to tell since McAdams was not in the screening for too long. Overall, the film looks like it will be a blockbuster hit, mainly due to the charisma of Cumberbatch and the eye-bleeding visuals. I can only hope that Marvel chooses to not be racist assholes when the next film comes around. Dare to dream.

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  • Oona Sura is a cosplay enthusiast with an appreciation for Framboise Lambic, Haruki Murakami, and cats. Catch her at the next anime convention on the East Coast!

  • Show Comments

  • Christopher Ryan

    So it is racist to use the stereotypical Asian characterization for the Ancient One AND it is racist to remove that racist stereotype in favor of another culture steeped in mysticism so Strange would not be stealing from other races?
    Got it.
    And having a same race heterosexual couple is “tired ass”?
    Got it.

  • Marcus

    The assertions regarding the Ancient One really do present something of a double bind within the context of a film focused on the titular character. In order to develop the Ancient One with cultural depth, sensitivity, and accuracy you must necessarily split your narrative focus, and I believe that task a somewhat lofty goal for a film meant to introduce a new protagonist.

    • SunlessNick

      Another aspect to this is that the magic in Dr Strange has little or nothing to do with Tibetan culture, as far as I know, has never been meant to in and out of setting. I’d rather the Ancient One had still be Tibetan or another Himalayan ethnicity, but it doesn’t seem like *cultural* disrespect, because there was no Tibetan culture in the role to begin with,

  • Zeropede

    Yeah, in response to Chris and agreeing with Marcus, it’s only a catch 22 if the writers don’t put serious thought into subverting tropes. The problem here is that doing so might require serious changes to the source material which, being from the 60s, is pretty tropey to begin with. They’d have to do something like keep several of the Asian characters as more than the white guy’s supporting character, giving them more screen time rather than once again having the white guy out-ethnic-skill-ing the ethnic characters. That would require some seriously good writing though, and might be a bigger risk than the studio would be willing to take when they’re trying for a blockbuster and not high art. That said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Monica’s review pointing out that the film ended up as a somewhat cookie cutter blockbuster and not high art.

  • traumermarchen

    Or Doctor Strange could have been cast an written as someone with Asian heritage (http://fox-bright.tumblr.com/post/142753234725/so-the-doctor-strange-trailer-is-out).

    • voltorocks

      THIS. Ever since this movie has been announced I’ve been saying this. Make the doctor Asian/American and treat him well as a character (I.e. don’t also turn him into a stereotype) and you solve do many of the problems with the source material in one fell swoop *and* freshen up a stale character in a hurry.

  • Vim

    This particular case gets a bit more messy. It came out a few months ago that the decision to make The Ancient One white was directly related to demands from the Chinese government to allow it to get distribution there: http://screenrant.com/doctor-strange-ancient-one-whitewash-china/

    Note that I’m not posting this as an excuse or a defense. If anything, willfully colluding with explicitly genocidal state policies for profit is a shift in the wrong direction compared to the previous trend in whitewashing and appropriation.

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