Hollywood’s Strange Erasure of Asian Characters

Originally posted at Reappropriate

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 Doctor 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 Doctor 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

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 Doctor 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 Whitewashed 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 completely 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 since she is the daughter of the French Ducard/Ghul played by Liam Neesom). Marvel performed a similar bait-and-switch in Iron Man 3 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 Whitewashing 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 Doctor 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 racebend 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.

15 thoughts on “Hollywood’s Strange Erasure of Asian Characters

  1. Indeed!
    I’m baffled as to why a feminist victory for White women always seem to come at the expense of PoC? Is this the only binary Hollywood can seem to think of?
    I understand White women need representation but Hollywood seems to think that once they’ve cast a White woman in anything, that’s it. They’re done.

  2. How do we know they’ll set her in Tibet? Maybe Strange will go to the Caucasus Mountains instead.

  3. It’s a pity… I really do like Swinton’s work, she can project terrifying characters really effectively, but this is an odd choice. Kind of reminds me of those mentions of Scarlett Johansson playing Ghost in the Shell’s Motoko Kusanagi. The last few years have just been a repeated jab in the “What were you thinking?” circuits…

    The only reasoning I can think of is that Hollywood’s upper echelons are a bunch of old white guys funding the movies they want to see. Makes boring cinema, and is proving less viable financially as time goes on…

  4. Thanks for the article. I’ve been having trouble with this ever since I heard about Swintons (who I adore madly) hiring. Its cases like this where you see the wide faults/blockage in the thinking of otherwise genius cats like Lee/Kirby/Ditko etc. And how they relied heavily on racist/sexist trope to build their worlds. Ancient One, Yellow Claw, Sue Storm in the first 100 issues, etc. Etc.

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