Doctor Strangely White

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Awesome effects. Frustrating casting.

White washing is one of those nasty cultural illnesses we are only grudgingly coming to acknowledge in today’s media. Paired with white washing, of course, is the pervasive theme of yellow face. While black face has been relegated to history and Halloween costumes for the casual racist, yellow face is still a widely ignored issue.

Examples of this dual problem range from Aloha, a romance flick, to a film much closer to the geek community’s heart, the upcoming Doctor Strange. The casting stirred up controversy the moment the studio announced Tilda Swinton had been cast as the Ancient One. In the comics, and previous animated renditions, the Ancient One is not only Asian (ostensibly Tibetan), but also male. On the one hand, this was a victory for feminists who spend the vast majority their time in theaters watching movies about male superheroes trained by men, directed and produced by men, while the studios make excuses for the starkly limited role of women in any/all series. Marvel has used secondary characters in recent films to slowly toe open the door for established female heroes (such as Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Agent 13, and Agent Peggy Carter). Swinton, one of the greatest actresses of our time, would have made an amazing addition to this push for diversity – if only she hadn’t been cast in a quasi-white washed role with a sour, yellow face overtone.

White washing/yellow face vs. white washing with an animated excuse

While the Ancient One is not an overt case of yellow face, Swinton’s angular features have been accented by makeup and her shaved head and clothing have a distinctly kung-fu flavor. This is, at best, white washing. But it would feel more like white washing and less like yellow face if the Ancient One’s home was not set in Tibet. Why? Because in the comics, the Ancient One came from the Himalayas, and setting his palace there was like coming home after years of battling evil around the globe. That’s why Doctor Strange’s origin story takes place there. It isn’t because all things mystic come from the Far East. Without the logical connection of birthplace and origin, the Ancient One’s home becomes a throbbing mass of Orientalism. If you need more context, consider the fact that Doctor Strange builds the Sanctum Santorum in New York City once he becomes the Sorcerer Supreme (with a side of fries). The Ancient One’s School for Blossoming Magicians wasn’t in Tibet/the Himalayas because the setting felt appropriately mystical. It was set there because it was home.

Here’s why this is a problem: people claim awards like the Oscars are so full of white people because there are no roles out there for actors of color. It’s true that there should be more roles for diverse cast members. We need more diversity on screen of all kinds, because we live in a diverse world, and it’s easy to believe in lies about “the other” when you rarely see them as part of your world. White washing and yellow face are both steps backwards. They take away roles literally made for people of color.

I don’t support boycotts, because it removes important voices willing to ask questions. It’s important to keep this problem in mind when you watch the film, though. Learn the names of Tibetan/Tibetan American actresses and bring them up in debates. Mention Lhakpa Tsamchoe. Ask why Dichen Lachman can have a role in Agents of SHIELD, but not Doctor Strange. It seems odd that Marvel has more diversity in their television series than their big budget films, doesn’t it?

What do you think about the Ancient One’s race swap?


M. Leigh Hood is a rare beast of the Cincinnati wilderness typically preoccupied with writing, nerding, and filming The Spittoon List. For more articles and stories by M. Leigh Hood, look HERE.

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