Hollywood’s “Strange” Erasure of Asian Characters | #AStrangeWhitewashing

Marvel's Ancient One
Marvel’s Ancient One

A mere week after I wrote a post swearing off of sharing fan news, the fandom insidiously pulled me back in.

This week, rumours began circulating that Tilda Swinton was in casting negotiations for Marvel’s upcoming Dr. Strange film starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the titular role. Swinton is being considered for the role of the Ancient One, a nearly-immortal Tibetan sorcerer who becomes the young Dr. Strange’s mystic tutor and personal mentor.

That’s right. Tilda Swinton — a British actor whose Wikipedia article notes that she can trace her Anglo-Scot heritage back to the Middle Ages and who is about as far from “Tibetan” as one might get — may be cast to play a racebent and genderbent version of one of the few Asian characters of prominence in the Mystic Marvel world.

Tilda Swinton
Tilda Swinton

Let me first make a confession: I don’t know much about Mystic Marvel in general or the Ancient One in particular. I have no particular love for Dr. Strange or his backstory.

But, already thinkpieces are being written declaring Swinton’s rumoured casting a major feminist victory for the Marvel Universe for its willingness to recast a major male Marvel superhero’s mentor as a strong female character.

The Ancient One is one of many embodiments of the Orientalism pervasive in superhero comics, wherein the mystic arts are inextricably connected with a fantastic and exaggerated imagining of the Far East that exist primarily to imbue Western and White visitors with ancient magic or martial arts skills and elderly East Asian men with long white beards and yellow skin are only too eager to help facilitate that process. The examples abound: Iron Fist’s Yu-Ti of the Tibetan city of K’un-L’unIron Man’s Ho Yinsen, and even the world of Tian that has reappeared with distinctly fetishistic overtones in the most recent season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Popularized at a time when Fu Manchu stereotypes were recreated with frequency in comics, the Ancient One is no socially progressive character.


When Asians are not cast in these Orientalist overtones, we are frequently rendered entirely invisible. In Cameron Crowe’s latest film “Aloha”, the state of Hawaii — where more than 50% of residents identify as Asian American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander — is mysteriously White-washed into an Aryan paradise of palm trees, aviator sunglasses, and sandy beaches. The word “aloha” is appropriated without regard for the word’s weight and history. The actors drape themselves with leis complete devoid of cultural meaning. Emma Stone — another White actor — plays the hapa (a term meaning “half” in Native Hawaiian, used to refer to multiracial Native Hawaiians) and biracial Asian American character, Allison Ng. Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) issued a statement reading in part:

“Aloha” comes in a long line of films (The Descendants, 50 First Dates, Blue Crush, Pearl Harbor) that uses Hawaii for its exotic backdrop but goes out of its way to exclude the very people who live there.  It’s like tourists making a film about their stay in the islands, which is why so many locals hate tourists.  It’s an insult to the diverse culture and fabric of Hawaii…

…Crowe hired at least 30 white actors, 5 actors to play Afghans, and the biggest roles for APIs were ‘Indian pedestrian,’ ‘upscale Japanese tourist,’ and ‘upscale restaurant guests.’  They didn’t even have names.  How can you educate your audience to the ‘rich history’ of Hawaii by using mostly white people and excluding the majority of the people who live there and who helped build that history—AAPIs?””

Both Marvel and DC’s superhero universes are unbearably White, with few characters of colour playing more than secondary or tertiary roles. Where forced to present characters whose comic book counterparts are people of colour, the studios have invoked race-bending as a narrative sleight of hand to distract from the regressive origins of many of their more Orientalist characters. DC cast Ken Watanabe in a Japanese version of Ra’s al Ghul — who in the comics is a stereotype-riddled Middle Eastern caricature inexplicably heading a band of Japanese ninjas. The Batman films later revealed that the mantle of Ghul is adopted by each successive leader of the League of Shadows, and that Watanabe was only a public decoy. This origin story effectively erased any meaningful discussion of race with regard to the Ghul character (later, Talia — originally also of Middle Eastern descent in the comics — was also presented as French since in the mythos of the Nolanverse she is the daughter of the French Ducard/Ghul played by Liam Neesom). Marvel performed a similar bait-and-switch when they cast Ben Kinglsey to play an ambiguously Asian version of the Fu Manchu-knockoff character of the Mandarin, only to reveal in-plot that Kingsley was a penniless actor hired by the film’s main villain to play the caricatured role; the “real” Mandarin was Guy Pearce.

It seems as if Asian-ness can only occupy two poles in Hollywood: extreme fetishism or total invisibility. Yes, the Ancient One is horribly Orientalist: yet, historic racism’s solution can neither be faithful recreation of those offensive stereotypes nor the total erasure of people of colour.

The urge of feminists to celebrate a possible White-washing as some sort of socially progressive victory is disturbing, particularly to those of us who identify as feminists of colour who find ourselves being asked to tolerate the erasure of that which would represent our race in order to justify a representation of our gender.

There have been only a handful of Asian American male actors to land a role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What would be progressive for the filmmakers behind Dr. Strange would be to actually cast an Asian or Asian American (male) actor in the role, while updating the character away from his Orientalist stock origin story — which would be a novelty in the trope-laden world of superhero comics. Alternatively, there’s no need to race-bend the Ancient One in order to gender-bend the character: there are so many talented Asian and Asian American female actors one might choose from.

But, no. We’re looking at Tilda Swinton as a Tibetan sorcerer. Once again, #AStrangeWhitewashing from Hollywood, indeed.

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  • Hank

    Typical knee -jerk reaction. Before people start playing yellow face card, let’s keep an open mind. Just as Iron mans origin was redone and Yinsen became someone of Middle East descent instead of Asian we don’t know if Strange goes to Tibet. Personally if steer away from the mystic east motif and go more Harry Potter it would be a refreshing change.

  • A.Y. Siu

    Whitewashing isn’t a ton better than yellowface.

  • You appear to have missed the point, which is that ‘Orientalist’ or absent are a false dichotomy. There was a way to mess with the origin and remove the Orientalism while keeping it grounded in Tibet. That would be truly creative. Instead, we have yet again the suggestion that our choice as Asians is only stereotype or total invisibility.

  • Brian

    The middle east is in ASIA.

  • Fett

    “There have been only a handful of Asian American male actors to land a role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What would be progressive for the filmmakers behind Dr. Strangewould be to actually cast an Asian or Asian American (male) actor in the role, while updating the character away from his Orientalist stock origin story — which would be a novelty in the trope-laden world of superhero comics. Alternatively, there’s no need to race-bend the Ancient One in order to gender-bend the character: there are so many talented Asian and Asian American female actors one might choose from.”

    Personally I would be more disturbed if they got an Asian/AA female to play the role than a different race/gender.

    Aside from that I’m pretty cool with Tilda. She would look good in the role if she gets it. The Ancient One is not a character I would care to see an Asian male playing anyway.

  • … Because it’s okay with you that a man (of any race) is another man’s mentor and tutor, but it’s too much of a strain on what you can tolerate that a woman could be that male character’s tutor and mentor?

  • Malcolm Shields

    simply whitewashing a movie role just reeks of laziness

  • Fett

    Tilda is female last I checked. And I do believe I said she would be good in that role.

    Did you even make it to the second sentence?

  • Of course I did. I’m trying to reconcile why you would have no issue with the White-washing without gender-bending but couldn’t handle a gender-bending without Wgite-washing. Unless your ultimate point is that you can handle a White woman in a position of authority over a male character, but have difficulty tolerating an Asian American In that kind of empowered role?

  • mudduck9000

    WTF are you even trying to say? Your post makes zero sense. Further explanation would really help.

  • Fett

    So empowered is that role that I don’t even want an Asian male playing it. Yes, the level of it’s empowerment cannot be contained and could possibly lead to world wide catastrophy. No sweety. I just have preferences for who I want in certain roles. You’re an Asian woman. You should know about preferences.

    #misogynist or misogynasian? I have no idea.

  • Fett

    Personally, as in my preference, I don’t mind seeing Tilda Swinton in that role at all. Actually, I don’t give a shit about Doctor Strange whatsoever. There. The cat is out of the bag.

  • JohnnyMangoes

    Asian American “politics” is useless, as is this site.

    You all pretty much goddamn know that you’re cultureless, whitewashed plebeians grasping for straws.

    The minute that Asian women pretty much decided that spreading their legs was the fastest way to survive in America, all Asian “cultural” issues became naught.

    Oh, sorry, let me back that up by saying that I’m a Hapa with a self-hating mother.

    Good luck with your kids.

  • Move Along Cat Dong

    So, when did your mother decide to fuck her way out her third world country?

  • Move Along Cat Dong

    You’re right. Can’t wait for Oprah Winfrey to be cast George Washington. That would be fantastic.

  • RizingZan

    “The world runs on power and sex, not on stupid blogs about meaningless cultural issues like movies.”

    Movies, believe it or not, are pretty darned influential in deciding who has the power in this world… or rather they represent who has power. Who controls Hollywood again?

    I cannot say that Jenn and some others are exactly super knowledgeable of native Asian culture (if that is what you are referring to) as a whole… but the LEAST you can do is call out whiteness. That is what Jenn is doing.

    Although I, as a full blooded Asian American (as if that really matters) male, do still question the disparity in Asian-White relationships between the sexes, I would think there’s a bit more to just “spreading your legs to survive.” Jenn brought up the basic concept of “extreme fetish” or be “invisible” in Hollywood’s context and view of Asian American. Perhaps this concept also applies to the dating and marriage scene, and in this case Asian (American) women are pressured to either “struggle and/or die with us Asian men” or begrudgingly climb the social ladder just to get by. Mix that in with the perceived gender disparities between Asian people and White people, and you get a norm for men, a norm for women, a hyperfeminine entiity, and a desexualized entity.

    Now I think that culture has to be addressed. Asian American men and women are some of the only Americans that can do it at this point (the other being the Latino community). We have something unique in our heritage that is actually pretty special that needs to be talked about.

  • “Catastrophe”.

    Don’t call me “sweety” please, and please refrain from making gross generalizations of any group or resorting to ad hominem attacks. Bothe are violations of this site’s comment policy.

    You also have yet to reconcile why you would tolerate racebending but not genderbending, but would not accept a genderbending without racebending. Rather than to attempt to distract with insults, I’d appreciate a direct response clarifying your position?

  • mudduck9000

    So basically you have nothing of substance to bring to the conversation other than to say that you don’t mind Tilda Swinton in that role. Cool story bro.

  • Fett

    You would appreciate a direct response but you’ve already making insinuations. You’re obviously trying to lead me to where you can start using your favorite words that start with the letter ‘m’.

    Unless your ultimate point is that you can handle a White woman in a position of authority over a male character, but have difficulty tolerating an Asian American woman In that kind of empowered role?

  • Yes, I am asking for clarification, because what you wrote asserts that a White woman is acceptable to you to portray a man’s tutor and mentor, but an Asian American woman is not. I’d like for you to demonstrate the courage of your convictions and take some time to provide some kind of context by which we might understand why this is the case for you.

    Again, attempting to distract by trying to turn this into some sort of flame-war through thinly-veiled provocation is entirely unnecessary, and already reflects rather poorly on your perspective and the degree of substance behind it. So, why is Tilda Swinton acceptable to you as Benedict Cumberbatch’s teacher and mentor, but an Asian American actress is not?

  • Fett

    So you assume that I don’t want an AA woman in the role of a teacher or a tutor because it is empowered? That’s not the case and it’s already not good that you’ve made insinuations about my feelings about power dynamics. And already we’re a step closer to an area where you like to invoke your brand of politics. Instead perhaps you could have simply asked ‘why’. And we could just go from there.

    If I had thought the role was ’empowered’, either literally as a teacher or as a vehicle for advancing gender politics then why would I want Tilda as AO and why would I not want it to go to an Asian male? It just falls to preferences. Tilda has the aura. It’s not because she is a white woman, as you assum, but rather the qualities as an actress that make her fit the role. Would Jennifer Aniston have been as good? No. Sandra Bullock? No. You’ve already turned it into a racial/gender argument.

    Why don’t I want an Asian woman in the role? Maybe I’m not as informed as you about the entertainment business but I can’t think of a single actress who I could see playing that role. And I’m not interested in seeing an Asian actress cast for the sake of diversity.

  • So the entire substance of your contribution to this conversation about Hollywood White-washing is that you think Tilda Swinton is a good actor and don’t like the acting of other actors? As mudduck said: cool story, bro.

    Also, I find this disingenuous. You didn’t say you couldn’t think of an Asian American female actress who had the skills to play the part. You said you would be disturbed if an Asian American woman were cast in the role rather than a person of another race and gender. That emphasizes the race and gender, not the acting chops. To backpedal now is just plain sad, and seems to suggest that those of participating in this conversation are incapable of scrolling up and reading your original comment. We are.

  • Harry_Hogfart

    Saying whitewashing is a clue that someone secretly has a shamefully tiny asian penis

  • Boy, you lost this one embarrassingly bad, Fett, and I have to say your statements really made me cringe at the level of ignorance. That there are people who think like you not just in the audience, but working in Hollywood, is precisely what’s creating glass ceiling job disparity for not just Asians, but all minorities, in the entertainment industry. SMH.

  • mike4ty4

    And why should an _Asian_ _Woman_ not be put in this role?