What Doctor Strange Got Wrong About Asian Representation
And one ironically very right thing.
Major spoilers for Doctor Strange follow.
Doctor Strange is a movie about rules. It’s about people who can and cannot, those who will and will not, and the supposed rigid dichotomy between right and wrong. Rules are presented as moldable, shapeable concepts, and by the end of the movie, they’re shown as something destined to be broken. It’s for this particular reason that I found myself at the end of the movie wondering just why, then, were the minds behind the movie simply unable (or perhaps unwilling) to break the more harmful rules that dominate real world Hollywood?
I write, as I have written before, of the Ancient One. More specifically, I write about how here, at the end of Doctor Strange, I still find myself unsold on their decision to whitewash the role.
Right off the bat here: I love Tilda Swinton. She certainly brings an otherworldly presence to any role she inhabits, which is why I can maybe see just how people stretch justification for her casting so far. Were the world to have an actual Ancient One teaching a school of mystical arts, Swinton seems like she would be a follower well versed in its techniques. But I still do not see nor do I understand what whitewashing the role was supposed to do.
On the one hand, this role was genderswapped. In the comics, the Ancient One was a Tibetan man; here she is a Celtic woman. If the movie was attempting to break Hollywood’s rules as much as its own MCU rules, then Swinton’s casting was a success. In fact, in the scene where Strange meets her for the first time, he greets another older Asian man, believing he is the Ancient One while the real Ancient One pours him tea. It’s a funny moment, one that’s made at the expense of people who happened to be against the genderswap aspect of Swinton’s casting.
However, in addition to genderswapping the role, it was also whitewashed. There’s only one scene in which the Ancient One’s ethnicity is mentioned, a side scene, where Strange wonders at how nobody knows anything about the Ancient One. Mordo replies, effectively, “She’s Celtic, and she’s ancient. Nobody knows much else.” That’s it. I, again, found myself at a loss as to what whitewashing the character was supposed to add to the film. I do not understand what a white Ancient One could do that an Asian Ancient One couldn’t. It felt as if the film didn’t present any compelling argument (or any argument at all) about the decision made by its creators, and that was incredibly disappointing.
In a conversation with IndieWire about the whitewashing backlash, director Scott Derrickson said:
We talked about Asian actors who could do it, as we were working on the script, every iteration of it—including the one that Tilda played—but when I envisioned that character being played by an Asian actress, it was a straight-up Dragon Lady.
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.
Attributing the Dragon Lady trope to an actress’ Asian ethnicity represents a distinct lack of understanding in the reasons why “Dragon Lady” is a racist trope. It’s a trope that’s perpetuated by–and he was right about this–the fact that Asian actresses are almost always cast in such roles. It is, more often than not, what one can expect upon attempting to break into Hollywood as an Asian woman. But the fault for that lies not in her being Asian, but rather writers, producers, and studios’ inabilities to see Asian women as literally anything else.
Rather than spend more energy into writing a character that would have truly subverted cultural norms–much like what the Ancient One and the Kamar-Taj do in the film–Derrickson instead turned to the simpler, easy decision of casting a white woman to take on that role. It’s here that Derrickson and the other minds behind the movie end up failing at what the characters in their own film took great pains in avoiding: they subscribed to some painfully old Hollywood rules colored by prejudices and closed-minded thinking.
Speaking of old Hollywood rules and tropes, Doctor Strange falls victim to the very same trap that befell Daredevil (and the rest of the MCU): with the exception of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and an incredibly scant few movie examples, Asians only exist in the MCU as mystical, ninja-like warriors. That’s it.
Back in April, I wrote about Orientalism and Hollywood’s longstanding problems with Asian representation. About Marvel, I noted Daredevil‘s second season, wherein the villains of that season (aside from the Punisher, for however long that lasted) were a band of mystical Asian ninjas still fighting here in the modern day with bows and arrows and the like. The same trope holds up here, with Asian people serving merely as a backdrop in front of which people of other ethnicities can stand in stark relief.
Doctor Strange rants and rails against the Ancient One’s teachings at first, reductively referring to Eastern practices as gift shop fakes and the like. It’s a scene that adequately shows how far he has yet to go to accept another culture’s beliefs, but the problem lies not in its argument but rather who is presenting it. Leading up to this scene, he’s shown wandering Nepal, looking with skepticism at all the quick-fix “cure-all” offices that seem to pepper this town.
But it’s only when he’s presented a solution by a white woman that he even begins to acquiesce to the thought that maybe there’s something to this. This acquiescence happens before she even rips his spirit out of his body. He rejects everything, but there is still a glimmer of acceptance before that all happens.
Why does it take a white person to get other white people to believe in something that millions upon millions of other Asian people have believed for supposed centuries? This exchange between the Ancient One and Strange carries with it elements of white saviorhood, as if none of the other Asian teachers or Eastern beliefs can possibly be valid unless it’s being presented by a white person.
This, in the end, is exactly what Hollywood’s problem is with Asian people: they continually allow Asian stories, characters, and experiences be reinterpreted by white lenses, then they call that progress. They invalidate our experiences and tell us that they’re only real and worthy of being heard if they’re coming from the mouth of someone outside our own culture.
Now, does all of this make Doctor Strange a bad film? I’m not sure. I don’t think it does–at least, not completely. As I said, there are good things about it that I legitimately enjoyed, and I find myself inspired by more than a few of its themes that revolve around letting go of the ego and death, themes that, in some small way, felt like missed opportunities given the aforementioned problems. It’s a film that I will even say I very much enjoyed seeing in 3D, which is something I’m usually adamantly against.
As well, to its credit, the film does well at breaking the rules when it comes to the rules of its own universe. Whereas many other Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have only skimmed the surface of the proverbial metaversal pool, Doctor Strange dives right in like a fish not realizing how much it needed the water.
Massive chunks of the movie are spent traipsing through different realms, presented in absolutely downright stunning, incredible visual sequences that haven’t bent my mind quite as much as when I saw Inception for the first time. Each of the sequences is memorable, with possibly every frame suitable for, well, framing. The next closest MCU movie to even approach this striking visual style is Guardians of the Galaxy, which spends the entirety of its time far off in deep space, in worlds drastically different from our own.
Doctor Strange, on the other hand, works to bend and break the very world we live in and know so well. Aside from the climax of the movie where its hero finds a strange and yet all-too-appropriate solution to the problem, the movie is spent here, on Earth–at least, in realms that use the backdrop of Earth. Each of the outstanding visual sequences of which I speak use elements from our own world (stop signs, architecture, scaffolding, even window washer baskets) to give us a handle, an anchor point we can hold on to within the otherwise downright incomprehensible metaphysical realm.
But for a film that tries so very hard to stand out, it only does so superficially on an aesthetic, skin-deep level. Digging any deeper reveals problems, which I go into in much more detail in my review: use of tired tropes, strange pacing choices, and even a broken romantic subplot that, despite Rachel McAdams’ best attempts, feels tacked on.
There is, however, one brief shining moment in which the film perfectly, exquisitely, and perhaps ironically captures what it’s like to be Asian and ask for more out of the pop culture we consume.
The climax of the movie sees Doctor Strange entering the Dark Universe to face off against the Big Bad Evil Guy Dormammu, who subjugates and consumes entire worlds. Strange approaches the larger-than-life figure–of whom we only ever see his face–and says, “I’ve come to bargain.” Dormammu threatens Strange and ultimately kills him, only for the movie to seemingly jump back in time to when Strange approaches. He asks once again, “I’ve come to bargain.”
Strange uses the Eye of Agamotto and time manipulation to trap the both of them in a moment of time for eternity. Dormammu continually kills Strange, who has essentially presented the villain with a stalemate; as long as he’s killing Strange, he can’t take over Earth. Dormammu, in his frustration at killing Strange multiple times (of which we see many, and believe me, there’s something odd about seeing someone die so many times on screen in a Marvel movie), finally agrees to a parlay. Strange makes a deal for Earth and saves it from Dormammu–at least for now.
Every time Strange rewound time to ask the all-powerful Dormammu for a bargain, I found myself thinking of every time anybody has ever written about representation and diversity in Hollywood. It feels, as I so often put at the end of such posts, as if I am asking the same question over, and over, and over again: “We can ask for more, can’t we?” And, judging by the often heinous responses received in return, it feels like many people would rather forever silence those voices who dare to ask. The people behind these responses cheer when their hero breaks the rules of the movie, but they ironically work so hard to enforce the real, hurtful, damaging rules that spawn prejudice, racism, and sexism in the industry.
Dormammu isn’t just a metaphysical character in a comic book; he’s the gatekeeper, the insidious prejudices that dominate the industry, he’s the all-seeing, all-knowing monolith that’s often ascribed to Hollywood and its component parts. He’s the faceless void of those within and without the industry that would seek to preserve the status quo that elevates a few while subjugating others. And it is from his grasp–their grasp–that we must find an escape.
Just like Doctor Strange, and just like anybody else who tries to ask for more out of the movies and films we love so dearly, it seems the only solution we’re presented with is to just keep asking. Of course, even Dormammu displayed a sense of self-awareness, in as far as he realized what was going on. He recognized the destructive, damaged loop in which he’s trapped. Many of Hollywood’s biggest players, on the other hand, seem to be blissfully unaware of this, and are set up in a such a way that they don’t need the self-awareness.
Whether that was the true intent of this scene or not, I’m sure I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that once again I am here, trapped in another moment in time, echoing the very same question that has been said so much that it turns to ash on my tongue.
We can ask for more, can’t we?
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