“Doctor Strange” is not the first instance of Hollywood whitewashing, nor will it be the last. You may recall the #OscarsSoWhite backlash from February of this year after the Academy Awards nominees were revealed. Despite sparking a massive resurgence of discourse on the lack of diversity in Hollywood, it seems nothing has been learned. “Doctor Strange” is not just an isolated incident but a reflection of much broader insensitivity within Hollywood and our culture.
The film is based on a comic series in which American neurosurgeon Stephen Strange embarks on a magical journey of healing and self-discovery in Asia. Mentored by the Ancient One, a Tibetan sorcerer, Strange ultimately becomes a superhero of sorts who must defend the world from evil powers. This original Doctor Strange narrative follows the white savior trope — white man goes to Asia, learns Asian culture and uses his newfound skills to save the Asian people because they weren’t capable of saving themselves. These 1960s-era comics are heavily grounded in racist stereotypes, reflecting outdated beliefs. The 2016 remake should reflect the progress we’ve made on these issues and portray these cultures in an accurate, anti-racist way.
Instead, the Hollywood producers recast the Ancient One as a Celtic woman, played by Tilda Swinton, an already prominent white actress. Doctor Strange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, another prominent white actor. They filmed in Nepal, a country in Southeast Asia, but erased the Tibetan origins of the narrative entirely.
In part, the casting decision was for political and economic reasons. The producers didn’t want to risk alienating a good portion of the Chinese market because of the highly controversial Tibetan sovereignty issue. China and Tibet’s relationship is, to put it lightly, tense. A movie that included prominent Tibetan elements had the potential to be censored in China, and a lot of money would have been lost. So for the sake of profit, the producers removed all mention of Tibet from the movie and claimed that they were avoiding taking a political stance on the matter.
I would argue that the erasure of Tibet and the refusal to engage with this issue is a political statement in and of itself. Marvel is not avoiding politics through their effort to appease Chinese political sensitivities. By avoiding Tibetan discourse, Marvel aids China in denying the oppression of the Tibetan people. By refusing to acknowledge Tibet’s existence in the movie, Marvel is sacrificing ethics for profit.
Yet this political issue was only one aspect of the casting decision. Marvel tried to justify casting Swinton in the role of the Ancient One by claiming that they were trying to avoid racist stereotypes. Read that again. They tried to avoid a racist stereotype by not casting an Asian person for an Asian role! While the producers did subvert gender roles by casting a woman in a male role, they didn’t consider the issue of Asian representation important enough to do it justice. Rather than rework the narrative or the character, they cast a white person. I expected better from Marvel.
If the movie really wanted to be subversive in its casting, why not cast Doctor Strange himself as a non-white person? The white savior racist stereotype could have been subverted had Doctor Strange not been white. In this case, many of the tropes the producers were worried about would have been much less relevant. There is no dearth of ways in which the producers could have avoided and even negated the problematic construction of the comic.
Asians are already underrepresented in media. There are barely any Asian characters onscreen. With this movie, we’ve lost yet another opportunity for inclusion and diversity. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that undermines any chance of progress. Producers and directors are economically driven, so they need prominent actors and actresses to film big movies, and those actors and actresses need to have gotten parts in other big movies already to be prominent. And since we rarely have any Asian characters in big movies or any substantial, non-stereotypical representation, it’s difficult to find Asian actors with enough star power to fit the role. If this pattern persists, it’ll be more and more difficult for any Asians to make it big and give us the representation we need.
You can’t separate the politics from the arts, as much as some people might try. What we see onscreen reflects our social values and culture. When only white people are visible, it creates a perception that other groups are not welcome or worthwhile. When we don’t bother to flesh out onscreen characters, we reinforce stereotypes pertinent to how people of color are perceived and treated in everyday life. As an Asian person, when I don’t see honest Asian representation in media, it feels as if I am not relevant to American movies and consequently American culture. It feels as if I must either be a collection of one-dimensional stereotypes or rendered entirely invisible. Either way, it’s demoralizing and diminishing.
So don’t go see “Doctor Strange.” Tell your friends not to see “Doctor Strange.” We need to call out racism when we see it because it’s always relevant — not just during Oscar season. Every dollar we spend is support for the racist and economically driven casting decision and implies that we, the moviegoers, are apathetic to the filmmakers’ insensitive productions. The directors have made their stand, and it’s loud and clear: They don’t care about fair and honest representation. And as long as the money comes rolling in, they will never care. We need to make our stand, too, loud and clear: We cannot support Hollywood whitewashing anymore.
Cindy Zeng ’20 doesn’t think Asian representation should be this hard and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this op-ed to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.