Tilda Swinton Teaches Doctor Strange the Mystical Asian Stuff

by Phil Yu | Originally posted at Angry Asian Man

Marvel just dropped the first teaser trailer for Doctor Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange, who journeys to mystical Asia to learn Mystical Asian Stuff. The trailer also gives us our first glimpse of Tilda Swinton as the Sorcerer Supreme’s mystical mentor, The Ancient One.

Racebent! In typical Hollywood fashion. Many of us were wondering how the movie would handle whitest actress Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, who has been traditionally depicted in the comic books as an old-ass mystical Asian man. Now we have our answer: she is bald.

I wouldn’t call this is straight-up yellowface, but it appears they’re going for the next best thing.

Based on her brief scenes in the trailer, Swinton bears a strong resemblance to David Carradine in the Shaolin monastery flashback sequences from Kung Fu — with a touch of Persis Khambatta from Star Trek: The Motion Picture — dropped into one of those training programs from The Matrix.

The trailer ends with Strange begging The Ancient One to instruct him in the Mystical Asian Stuff. “Teach me,” he pleads. As far as I can tell, the Mystical Asian Stuff includes out-of-body karate (hey, that rhymes), in which you can hit someone so hard, your body farts out a glowing version of yourself.

The Mystical Asian Stuff also seems to involve the ability to bend and fold entire blocks of skyscrapers, which would be really impressive if we all hadn’t already seen two-plus hours of that happening in Inception.

Look, as we’ve noted before, yes, the origins of Doctor Strange are steeped in a lot of old-school exotic, Orientalist stereotypes. Washing out the Asian-ness of The Ancient One appears to be an attempt to sidestep some of the character’s more racist undertones for a contemporary audience.

But putting a bald white lady in the role doesn’t fix much. It’s still whitewashing. Yes, it’s a two-minute trailer that doesn’t reveal a whole lot, but it reveals enough.

Plot summary: Bearded White Guy journeys to Asia, where a bald white lady teaches him Mystical Asian Stuff. White Guy masters said Mystical Asian Stuff. Then White Guy uses the Mystical Asian Stuff to fight bad guys.

The end.

Doctor Strange opens in theaters on November 4.

Phil Yu is the founder, editor, and primary blogger behind Angry Asian Man, the web’s foremost destination for all things Asian American. He also co-hosts the YouTube series Angry Asian America for ISAtv.

32 thoughts on “Tilda Swinton Teaches Doctor Strange the Mystical Asian Stuff

  1. This is the problem with Hollywood creating so many stereotypes and stupid tropes in films. In trying to step out of the way of one nasty stereotype (The Mystical Asian Guy) they run right smack into the next one (whitewashing).

    And the sad part is, I can’t think of any way they could have gotten around any tropes at all. Casting any PoC creates the same stereotype as an Asian person. Casting a Tilda leads to Asian erasure (in Tibet, no less) and Whitewashing.

    The creators would have been better off casting a hot Asian dude (which is what I prefer, (*cough*) Daniel Dae Kim) and just taking the criticism for that.

  2. Reblogged this on Live Your Dreams and commented:
    “Plot summary: Bearded White Guy journeys to Asia, where a bald white lady teaches him Mystical Asian Stuff. White Guy masters said Mystical Asian Stuff. Then White Guy uses the Mystical Asian Stuff to fight bad guys.

    The end.”

  3. My o, my! LOL No we have Mystical/Magical Caucasians proficient in the the Far Eastern Arts.

  4. Honestly, does it matter what race or gender the ancient one is in this movie? It doesnt have to be a perfect iteration of the comic book. Some were happy that Nick Fury is a black guy in the MCU instead of a white guy. White women are probably excited to see the ancient one played by a female too.. we can’t get perfect iterations guys and its great to switch things up. Marvel is certainly not racist, look what they are doing in Marvel Now. Captain Marvel is a muslim girl! Reply to this comment if I am misunderstanding the frustration here.

    1. Honestly, does it matter what race or gender the ancient one is in this movie?

      My understanding of it is that Dr. Strange is a character rooted in a form of cultural appropriation. Western (and white) creators came up with a white character who ventured to Asia and mastered arts associated with an East Asian society. It’s one thing to become skilled in those arts. It’s another thing to be better at them than anyone native to that culture. It’s a case of white people can do this better than anyone else, which has infected a lot of Western society. When it comes to the Ancient One, the character was created as a stereotype of the wise, mystical guru. Casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One is, on the one hand good, bc hey gender bending (there are plenty of male roles throughout Hollywood), but OTOH? You have a white person again having mastered another culture and passing her knowledge off to another white person.The basic concept of Dr. Strange is steeped in too much white people are the most super special people of all time, above and beyond all other cultures. They could have broken away from this by casting an Asian Dr. Strange (here’s a nice idea for that, btw). And while casting an Asian in the role of the Ancient One would have not been problematic from a racial aspect, it still would have been problematic bc of Hollywood stereotypes of Asian culture.

      Captain Marvel is a muslim girl!

      This is not correct. Captain Marvel is Carol Danvers, a white US citizen.
      Ms Marvel is Pakistani-American Kamala Khan, who is Muslim.

      Reply to this comment if I am misunderstanding the frustration here.

      You are misunderstanding it. I think that’s in part bc you’re trying to comprehend the problem through the lens of your personal experience and understanding, which is not likely to work. You have to put aside everything you think you know on this subject and listen to people who are more personally affected here. Decenter yourself and read what people of Asian descent have to say on the matter. You have to reframe your thinking.

    2. The problem with your point is that it does not take into consideration how Asian characters (particularly male) are disregarded in general in Marvel movies/TV shows. So why take away one o the few prominent Asian male characters and make him into a white woman? I mean its bad enough that Dr Strange, like Iron Fist, is another example of the white savior mastering ancient Asian arts better than Asian characters. But can we at least keep the handful of Asian male characters from Marvel comics as actual Asian males when their stories hit the big or small screen?

      1. “I mean its bad enough that Dr Strange, like Iron Fist, is another example of the white savior mastering ancient Asian arts better than Asian characters.”

        So is the problem that another ethnicity is shown to learn, expand, master, and surpass the origin’s ethnicity- or is it because it’s white people doing it?

        I’m pretty sure Geo Omori and Mistuyo Meada could attest that the B in BJJ isn’t because Asian men and women are the dominant practitioners of Jiu Jitsu. This isn’t to say white washing isn’t a real thing (and is irritating prevalent in society), but simply lambasting people for experimenting with a role assignment simply because the person is white is honestly narrow minded.

        From Miles Morales as Spider-Man, Sam Wilson as Captain America, Sam Jackson as Nick Fury, even Jane Foster as Thor, people are beginning to play with the fabric of comic books and explore the possibilities. Limiting that drive to simply race relations robs these artists and writers of the true pioneering effort to find something new and innovative. It’s not always about PR solutions, it’s an art form.

  5. In online discussions on this film, I have not seen anybody consider the possibility that the filmmakers may have wanted to avoid having a Tibetan character because it would have been politically sensitive in Mainland China, a growing market for Hollywood films nowadays.

    If they had simply replaced the Tibetan Ancient One with a Chinese Ancient One, or am unspecified-Asian Ancient One, they might have been accused of openly pandering to PRC censors.

    By casting a white woman, they’ve sidestepped such accusations, and can claim that they’re doing something progressive by gender-switching the role, albeit at the cost of incurring criticisms of whitewashing.

    Given that the character from the comic, an “Ancient Asian martial arts guru”, is something of a tired stereotype, I’d be interested in people’s suggestions for how they could have done better in the movie adaptation.

    1. To piggyback on your point – do you think the filmmakers are going to substitute a fictional country or region for where Strange pursues his studies? That seems like a way to avoid the PROC/Tibet problem, but I can’t tell if that would be better or worse.

      I’m not Asian but I wanted to understand this controversy.

    2. So far, mainlanders really dig Iron Man and what not, and frankly I don’t think they give a good goddamn anyhow. Frankly, I don’t think Mainland audiences will really dig this to begin with. I can see the possibility of Marvel doing this to pander to PRC censors, but they did a shitty and almost patronizing job at trying to force Wang Xueli and Fan Bing Bing into Iron Man 3, which really didn’t do much in China.

      If Marvel wants to stop pandering to stereotypes while catering itself to the mainland Chinese market, go look at Stephen Chow’s “Mermaid”, then you’ll find out what they REALLY have to do, and Hollywood won’t do that (i.e., stop make a da movies wit da white gai!).

    3. well obviously they dont care about him being from tibet so…..he could be japanese, thai, or anything else. what makes your point invalid is that they are still in tibet, wearing tibetan monk robes. main stream people would not only not know that the ancient one isnt asian if they cast lets say a chinese actor like chow yun fat no one would accuse them of pandering. chow yun fat is well known in the states and has had a successful career here. a chinese actor only known china could possibly bring up the problem you mentioned but again majority of people would not think like that, i know i wouldnt. would just be happy that finally they are moving from whites only as they began in the mcu to multicultural. say what you will about dc but at least they are STARTING with being diverse and not doing this bogus

  6. I didn’t know anything about the upcoming Doctor Strange film until reading this and… Oh God! Come on Marvel! You’re supposed to be better than this!

  7. If you cast an Asian as a mystical asian type, it’s stereotyping. If you replace him with a white woman, it’s whitewashing. If you do nothing, Doctor Strange is cultural appropriation anyway because he learned sorcery from Asians (umm, since when is Sorcery actually East Asian in origin anyway? Technically, Doctor Strange came from Chandu the magician, who is ethnically Hindu, so the first sin was making a Hindu into a Tibetan) If you look up the societies which believed most strongly in witchcraft style magic, they are predominantly native American, African, or Pagan European, so isn’t this virtual-cultural-appropriation?)

    If the Ancient One had been Russian instead, or Lovecraftian, would it have mattered?

    The whole concept of cultural appropriation is both dangerous and misplaced. The whole point of having an multicultural open society, with free exchange of information, is so cultures can mix, not so every group can remain ethnically and racially “siloed” in protected bubbles which they lay ownership too. You can’t “own” ideas or information, since the copying them does not deprive the original owner of their use. Moreover, most of the things for which people think are culturally owned by their group, were in fact, remixed from previous tribes and foreign influences. The idea of maintaining cultural purity is scary and dangerous, and ideologically conservative.

    Many of the uniquely American art forms were created by African Americans: jazz, blues, hiphop. Of course, these came from mixing influences from African with European influences to create something new. These art forms have been exported and have been appreciated globally all over the world. People from Europe to Japan are learning to play jazz, rap, or wear hip-hop clothing.

    This is a testament to the value that African Americans have created for American society. It is not that other people have adopted these cultural artifacts that is the problem, it’s that they adopt them, without respecting those who created them. In short, the problem is objectification of culture. People can appreciate black culture, while still being racist and dispectful, and that’s why it seems wrong. But it won’t be solved by telling people they can’t wear dreadlocks, or learn Kung Fu.

    It can only be solved by treating the underlying inequalities in society. Trying to silo your cultural artifacts will only lead to less acceptance, not more.

    The way this discussion unfolds is typical of the kind of hyperbole and catastrophizing behavior you see in progressive discourse. If Marvel changes the race or ethnicity of any character, someone will be upset. If they don’t change it, someone will be upset. If they don’t adhere to the source material someone will be upset.

    As I see it, the issue with Hollywood movies isn’t making sure Asians fill Asian roles. It’s in letting Asians and other minorities fill roles without defining who can play the character. But because of the paltry few leading roles available to Asians, African Americans, or Women, changing a character from one minority group to another feels like a huge loss, while making a previously white character a minority character isn’t.

    We need to solve the problem of “cultural appropriation” by restoring respect, and decreasing scarcity of these roles, not by whining that one minority was substituted for another. Begging for the Ancient One to be an Asian male is like enjoying bread crumbs falling from the table. Instead, pick a leading role and make him Asian. There’s no reason Cyclops can’t be Asian, or Aquaman. I can think of a number of Asian male actors who could fill the super hero role.

    Or more generally, anytime Hollywood is casting a movie for which they’re going to accept new talent, instead of established stars, they should leave the racial makeup of the character open.

    1. Spoken like someone who doesn’t understand cultural appropriation or just how harmful it can be. Please don’t speak on the matter.

  8. We can’t win one way or another. Our country will become more multiracial in the years to come I say that as someone who is multiracial we should accept these roles not criticize when Hollywood does ”cultural appropriation”. I’m a proponent of making Superman Hispanic or part white I loved what they did with the Gods and Monsters Superman he doesn’t have to be Clark Kent to be Superman anyone can be Superman the only rule I have is that he’s Kryptonian and plenty of POC Kryptonians in the comics.

  9. So agree with you and the problem is white folks don’t see it as a problem. They love our (all people of color) culture but don’t love us. They want to have a themselves in those roles so not only will these types of films continue to be made but will make money

  10. why would i want a white person to do anything for me? that’s part of yall problems. you created this image of superiority and you all believe that fiction to be reality. dont buy into the hype. i only love my men of color, especially my asian kings. you “people” are non factors in my life. have several seats

    1. You people? This is the same controversy that surrounded the casting of Idris Elba as a god from Norse mythology and I enjoyed his role immensely. Someone will always be upset whether changing the race of said character, or whether said character should of a certain race all in the name of “diversity” Diversity does not always mean better.

  11. I remember the comic book and the animation from my younger days. I realize looking at it now just how bad it looks, the whole character is problematic. I feel the only way to make the studios listen is by hitting them where they really take notice the pocket book.
    The Last Airbender tanked and justly so, it looks like the Gods of Egypt is on a similar trajectory. Ghost in the Shell is facing the same problem (one they easily could have avoided by casting the major role differently) For me its hard as i have friends building this work and I want to see what they have created but I also have fellow artist fighting to get cast and when the go to an audition the role is a screaming stereotype.
    The other problem is the smart casting of Cumberbatch he has an incredible following thanks to his earlier work so they are banking on his draw and that we will not mind as much. I am a huge fan of Tilda but it looks like this will be one performance of hers I won’t be watching.

  12. The Mystical ‘Asian’ Stuff is magic. And when Marvel created Doctor Strange they set that destination to learn ‘Magic’ in an Asian place. Tibet to be exact. I didn’t know Asia and all the ‘angry Asians’ had exclusive ‘dibs’ on magic. I’m not a fan of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. True, they can explain it away as simply a different Ancient One, but I want Yao. But I am simply not a fan for the same reason I didn’t like the idea of and Asian Iron Fist. It’s simple: Daniel Rand is White, and the Ancient One we know and love is an Asian man. And really all the levels and rules to this race bending/gender swapping gimmick just constantly display how ridiculous it all is. By they way we jump for joy for this version of ‘diversity’ aren’t we supposed to shout to the roof tops because they casted a woman in a man’s role? white WOMAN trumps asian MAN in this case. And what if they casted an Asian woman? Would those outraged on an ‘erasure/racism level even care? What if it was an Indian actor? India is in Asia right? Will we ever be satisfied? This is why I scoff at the whole gimmick to begin with. This is the same crap that wants me to jump for joy for a black Captain America when all I see is an historic black superhero stripped of his identity to become the 20th version of a famous white hero…

  13. yawn. Either it’s whitewashing or an Asian stereotype. Heads you win, tails I lose.

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