Doctor Strange and the tricky topic of whitewashing
Okay, let’s first address the yellow elephant in the room. From all the negative buzz surrounding Asian portrayals (or lack thereof) in Doctor Strange, you’d have thought that director Scott Derrickson all but included Mr. Yunioshi in his entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Of course, the backlash to Derrickson’s decision to recast the mythical Ancient One in the comics from an Asian master to a Celtic one (in the form of the follically challenged Tilda Swinton) should not come completely by surprise. Asians have had to endure a number of instances of “yellow washing” this past year, from casting Scarlett Johansson in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell film to Emma Stone’s role as a half-Asian naval officer in the film Aloha. It reached a point where the outrage over this Doctor Strange casting threatened to overshadow the film itself.
Now after having seen the film, the question remains: was the director right to recast one of the primary Asian roles in the film as a white female? That answer, like so many things that involve race, is not nearly so clear cut. The first scene where Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) meets The Ancient One is ripped straight out of tvtropes.org (“Mistaken Identity”). Strange approaches the wise old Asian master with the Fu Manchu mustache seated at a table, believing him to be the Ancient One. However, moments later he discovers (shocked surprise) that the Ancient One is, in fact, the bald woman that enters the room shortly after. This meta-wink at the controversy surrounding the casting might have sounded good on paper, but it only served to highlight just how odd the decision was in the first place.
But ultimately, the only question that really matters is this: Was Swinton’s portrayal of The Ancient One good? Or perhaps more specifically, was it better than any performance that could have been turned in by an Asian actor. The answer to the first part is emphatically, yes. While we may never know how a different actor (Asian or otherwise) would have played this pivotal role, Swinton is excellent in her depiction of the mentor to Strange. Swinton has had a knack for playing some off-kilter characters in her films (Snowpiercer comes immediately to mind), but she also lends a unique gravitas to her roles, regardless of how odd they might seem, that makes nearly all of her characters memorable.
It was also quite refreshing to see a strong female take center stage in the training of someone who will eventually become the most powerful sorcerer on earth. Marvel has not had a strong track record of female leads in the MCU, instead relegating most females to the role of damsel in distress. So showcasing Swinton’s Ancient One as the de facto head of this group of powerful mystics was a well-crafted modification to the original comic. Swinton is clearly credible as a mentor that demands Strange’s respect, as well as someone’s whose depth of knowledge and power far exceeds what is presented on the surface. There is an inner strength that Swinton conveys that makes her character feel even more powerful that what we see on screen.
Derrickson always envisioned The Ancient One as a female in his story and explained his rationale for Swinton’s casting in a recent interview with The Daily Beast, saying, “I know the history of cinema and the portrayal of the Dragon Lady in Anna May Wong films, and the continued stereotype throughout film history and even more in television. I just didn’t feel like there was any way to get around that because the Dragon Lady, by definition, is a domineering, powerful, secretive, mysterious, Asian woman of age with duplicitous motives—and I just described Tilda’s character. I really felt like I was going to be contributing to a bad stereotype.”
While this desire to keep from reinforcing negative Asian stereotypes is commendable, it also created a Catch-22 situation for the director. Does he create a “dragon lady” that causes Asians to protest the perpetuation of a negative Asian stereotype? Or does he remove the Asian aspect of this character, but in doing so, cause Asians to protest the removal of what was supposed to be an iconic Asian character. There is no easy answer either way. So Derrickson decided to take the path that he thought was best.
So before we bring out the pitchforks, it is important to consider intent. If Derrickson was pressured into recasting The Ancient One as a white woman to make the film more commercial, then I’ll be the first one to pick up a torch. But if he made this decision based solely on his own creative vision of the film, then I think it’s fair to withhold judgment on this subject and critique the movie solely on its cinematic merits. Because ultimately, as long as Swinton’s performance improves the film (and in this case, it most definitely does), it’s hard to fault the director for his artistic choice.