Last week it was announced that Tilda Swinton was in talks to join Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange, specifically in the role of the Ancient One. For those of you who don’t read a lot of comic books [and even those who do] the character in question is Doctor Strange’s teacher, a Tibetan mystic named Yao. If it wasn’t plainly apparent to you, Swinton is about as Tibetan as Emma Stone is Chinese or Native Hawaiian. The numerous comic book news outlets that I frequent have covered this in as much depth as they possibly can seeing as nothing is set in stone at this point, but I’ve noticed a trend in responses to the presumed casting choice. That perspective is what I’ll be covering first, following that up with how “progressive” Swinton playing this role would actually be-
“Meryl Streep could play Batman and be the right choice.”
Look, we’ve all seen at least one episode of Modern Family, and most of us can remember Cam reciting those exact words when lauding the actor’s ability to be perfect in any role. Like most effective jokes it’s funny because it’s a slight exaggeration of how people actually think and feel, in this case about their favourite talent.
Gordon lambasted the blog “Your Fave Is Problematic” last year, and for reasons that I generally agree with given their penchant of going overboard when finding areas in which celebrities and media have screwed up. That being said, at bare minimum the title of the site is effective in that it forces us to realize that nobody is above reproach. No one is so incredible that they should be given carte blanche to do [or be] whatever they want, yet that’s the attitude I’ve seen so many people give this news.
That’s not to say that people aren’t entitled to their own opinions of who can play what character, but that we’ll so quickly make exceptions when they involve people we love to watch perform. After it was announced that Martin Freeman would be appearing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe the number of people who wanted to see Martin Freeman as Wong opposite Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange was staggering. That’s right, Martin Freeman. As a person named “Wong”.
ComicsAlliance is hands-down one of my favourite places on the internet when it comes to covering comic book culture; I mean, they created the Renee/Harvey Index, a means of gauging a piece of art’s diversity and one that I personally used in a blog post when discussing Brooklyn Nine-Nine. They’ve done a great deal when it comes to touting the need for media to represent the world at large, yet in their article on Swinton’s casting they merely state that the Ancient One was “a role originally written for a male.”
They praise the studio ostensibly bringing in a woman to play a character that would have otherwise gone to a man, cementing the fact that this is exciting with the following paragraph:
“Another [reason] is that Swinton is just a fantastic actor and Marvel would be lucky to have her in any role in any film. She’s the type of actor who makes any movie she’s in that much better, just with her mere presence (see: Snowpiercer). Even better, her ethereal presence makes her an almost perfect fit for someone with mystical powers. She already feels pretty mystical as it is.”
In their reporting on the news i09 mentions it as being merely unfortunate, and in as offhand a manner as possible:
“It’s cool to see Marvel changing it up for a bit more diversity (but also a slight bummer that the actress being considered isn’t Tibetan, as the Ancient One is), but also wow, Tilda Swinton in a Marvel movie! That could be great.”
If you are looking for someone to tell you that Swinton is not a delight on the big screen you need to move on. She is great at what she does, but again I don’t see why that greatness has seemingly brushed aside the fact that this would be whitewashing a person of colour. Having more women in movies, especially the male-dominated super hero genre, is 100% a good thing, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of a non-White role.
The issue I’m seeing crop up again and again is people saying that this is progressive in every sense of the word. On top of the Ancient One being gender-swapped we have the added benefit of not perpetuating a number of very harmful and outdated tropes. At this point in comic book movies’ cinematic history, however, would this really be a continuation? Wouldn’t this actually be the beginning?
How to Tear Down Racist Tropes [According to Hollywood]
Ra’s Al Ghul, whose name translates to “Demon’s Head” in Arabic, is a longstanding antagonist of DC’s most profitable superhero. According to Wikipedia, which cites the graphic novel Batman: Birth of the Demon:
“Ra’s al Ghul was born over 600 years before his first appearance in Batman comics, to a tribe of nomads in a desert somewhere in Arabia, near a city whose inhabitants’ ancestors had journeyed to the Arabian Peninsula from China.”
Try to imagine the fictional character in your mind based on what you just read. What kind of face are you seeing? Does it look anything like Liam Neeson or Matthew Nable, the only two actors to portray the live action Ra’s Al Ghul to date?
Both Neeson and Nable, as they appear in Batman Begins and Arrow respectively, serve similar roles as they train their respective protegees/eventual adversaries. They both play a part in a popular trope which goes as far back as 1930s character The Shadow, in which our young White hero travels to the East and learns various skills and abilities from a wise and venerable master. In order to dismantle that problematic narrative the master in question is now White in both cases, problem solved!
Another trope is that of the “yellow peril” villain, one who represents all the nefarious mystery of the East. I covered in a blog post from 2012 how Marvel villain the Mandarin was seen as a “racist caricature” by filmmakers, a perpetuation of yet another outdated idea from the 1900s. In order to counteract this the role was given to half-British half-Indian actor Ben Kingsley, which completely removed the character from his Chinese roots. That’s the second trope that won’t attribute its survival to the silver screen. Great job, Hollywood!
To be upfront I’m not particularly enamoured with either trope. I’m so, so tired of seeing White heroes learn eastern magic or martial arts, more often than not besting the Asian locals in whatever skill they pick up. You also won’t find me defending Asians being villainized as an invasive, “other” force like in the Red Dawn remake, a film that did vastly more harm than good, if it did the latter at all. Both of these stories are antiquated and should be steered away from, but why is this the way we’re choosing to do it?
The most damning evidence that Hollywood sees this sort of whitewashing as being ultimately beneficial is a forum post by someone claiming to be Star Trek: Into Darkness screenwriter Bob Orci. Addressing the decision to cast Benedict Cumberbatch, a White actor, as Khan Noonien Singh, a person of colour, he said:
“Basically, as we went the casting process and we began honing in on the themes of the movie, it became uncomfortable for me to support demonizing anyone of color, particularly any one of middle eastern descent or anyone evoking that. One of the points of the movie is that we must be careful about the villain within US, not some other race.”
Yes, Swinton could absolutely be amazing as the Ancient One, that I won’t contest. What I do want to challenge is the idea that we can keep from preserving these harmful tropes by simply whitewashing everyone instead of tweaking the narrative itself. I mentioned Wong earlier, and the truth is that in the comics he acts as Doctor Strange’s manservant. Just reading that word is uncomfortable, let alone imagining a movie that features a non-White man waiting hand and foot on his White master. Does that mean we eliminate the character completely, or have him played by yet another White actor?
I feel like I’ve said this a lot, but it all comes down to writing. Don’t want the Mandarin to come off as a gross racist caricature? Put him in a suit instead of flowing oriental robes, go light on the accent and make him villainous due to his motivations and not his country of origin. It never solely comes down to what the character was or even is, but how you personally choose to present that character. The Ancient One is trickier than Wong because they do still act as this person of otherworldly abilities, with those powers firmly tied to the East. That being said, with the way Ra’s Al Ghul has been treated, isn’t it time? If Thor can gain his powers from Odin then can’t an Asian person be a source of magical energies? The fact that the person they’re training in the mystic arts is White is still a bit of an issue, but again that can be amended [or worsened] by the writing. Given that Stephen Strange and Daniel Rand [star of the upcoming Iron Fist series on Netflix] both become heroes in such similar fashion may be another reason to change things up as much as possible.
At this point in time Hollywood has sought to not offend Asian audiences by not casting Asian characters with ethnically appropriate talent, a practice that is somehow logical in its own twisted way. It’s also lazy in that writers have been choosing to eliminate that aspect of these men [and it’s only been men up to this point] instead of altering their stories and removing what specifically made them so problematic to begin with. Doctor Strange is a film that could have had two Asian stars in it, and still might. It remains to be seen how Marvel Studios will proceed given the tropes the character is built on and whether or not they’ll embrace every aspect of his origin wholeheartedly.