Orientalism, Whitewashing, and the Failure of Imagination in Doctor Strange

by Dawn Xiana Moon and Michi Trota

“Every writer on the Orient (and this is true even of Homer) assumes some Oriental precedent, some previous knowledge of the Orient, to which he refers and on which he relies. Additionally, each work on the Orient affiliates itself with other works, with audiences, with institutions, with the Orient itself. The ensemble of relationships between works, audiences, and some particular aspects of the Orient therefore constitutes an analyzable formation.”

―Edward W. Said, Orientalism

This review of Doctor Strange by two Asian-American women focuses on imagination and the problematic reality it creates. It feels more urgent than ever to encourage art that shows how people of color are human, not Other; we bleed and hope and dream, too. As a reader and viewer, know that the issues we bring up aren’t abstractions; whitewashing, White Savior tropes, and Orientalist stereotypes lead to treating real people as less than equal, as less than human. It leads to minorities thinking of ourselves as less than equal, less than human. And that’s why this matters so much.

As fans who share an Asian-American/Pacific Islander heritage, it’d been next to impossible for us to ignore the discussions that sprang up around Doctor Strange, particularly following the news that Tilda Swinton, a white woman, had been cast as the Ancient One, a polarizing choice for a character who had originally been Asian in the comics. Both of us unapologetically brought our own experiences and perspectives to this film: Dawn is Chinese by way of Singapore and moved to the US at the age of five; though a well-versed geek, she came to Doctor Strange fresh. Michi, a US-born and raised Filipina, knew Strange’s story from almost two decades of reading the comics.

Like several of its predecessors in the MCU, most particularly Iron Man, Doctor Strange gives us an origin story of a rule-breaking, entitled, arrogant, rich white man who realizes he’s been selfishly squandering his true talents. He becomes a hero thanks to the insights and literal sacrifice of a wise teacher. Only this time instead of Robert Downey, Jr. being kidnapped by scary brown terrorists in the Middle Eastern desert, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch journeying to the mysterious East – but only after Western medicine has failed him.

The story of a lost white man traveling to the East to “find his true self” is one we’ve seen before, even outside of the Marvel universe (see: Batman Begins) and unfortunately a story we’re going to be subjected to again (see: The Great Wall); the Mighty Whitey savior journeying to an exotic pastiche of Asian cultural cliches is a well-worn trope, and in these stories only white men are allowed to break the rules, which they do with impunity.

Let’s get the million dollar question out of the way first: Did we enjoy Doctor Strange?

Actually, yes, for the most part we did, as it is entirely possible to both enjoy a film and find aspects of its execution to be distressingly problematic. As an introduction to a new corner of the MCU, Doctor Strange successfully piques interest about what mysticism in the Marvel universe looks like. While visits to the “multiverse” feel like a bad 70’s acid trip, the reality-bending cityscapes are stunning MC Escher-style creations that make Inception seem tame by comparison. Marvel’s trademark, snarky humor is used to entertaining (if somewhat predictable) effect. Strange’s Cloak of Levitation turns out to be the JARVIS to his Stark, with a distinctive personality that comes through without a single line of dialogue. If Marvel has any sense, it’ll run a Pixar-style short starring that cloak at the start of the next MCU movie.

By now it’s fairly easy to predict what you’re getting with an MCU movie, and while that formula has been generally successful, its execution in Doctor Strange is what ultimately weakens the film. For all its visual flash and strong performances, Doctor Strange makes perplexing choices that purport to tackle complex questions of ego, mortality, choice, and consequences, but end up timidly skimming the surface of those issues while asking us to believe it’s gone as deep as it can. Even more frustrating is the film’s unwillingness to attempt anything more than a cursory acknowledgement of the problematic Eastern Exoticism underpinnings to Strange’s story. The result is mixture of shallow characterization, missed opportunities, and the unshakeable feeling that we’ve already been on this exact same ride. It also contributes to the missteps Doctor Strange makes attempting to avoid the comic’s problematic origins and characterization.

For a movie that wants to impart a message about how binaries can be deceptive because life is full of gray areas and moral complexities, the filmmakers’ approach to addressing Doctor Strange’s complicated history with Eastern Exoticism and White Savior tropes is disappointingly simplistic, particularly regarding their approach to the role of the Ancient One. Either the Ancient One is Asian and thus the stereotypical wise martial arts master, or he’s recast as a white woman, adding “diversity” on one axis at the expense of erasing a marginalized group that already lacks representation. It’s an erasure that’s especially stinging, coming swiftly on the heels of other casting decisions that placed white women in the roles of Asian characters: Scarlett Johanssen in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell and Emma Stone in Aloha.

It’s a shame the filmmakers apparently couldn’t conceive of the possibility that the Ancient One could be an Asian woman without falling into the dreaded Dragon Lady mold, particularly given the appallingly short shrift Asian women (not to mention women of color in general) are currently getting in the MCU and media at large. In Western culture, Asian women are hypersexualized, portrayed as fragile submissives or exotic seductresses; neither can resist their white male saviors. It’s a story with deep white colonialist roots that’s been sold to audiences since 1904’s Madama Butterfly and so embedded in our culture that almost every Asian-American woman could share personal experiences about encounters with “yellow fever.”

How refreshing it could’ve been then, to see an Asian woman as the Ancient One, a wise mystic and deadly warrior in a position demanding authority over and respect from someone like Doctor Strange. How reaffirming it would have been to see an Asian woman imparting wisdom and experience to him without falling for his white male charms (even though she had taken lovers from among her fellow sorcerers before). Having the Ancient One played by an Asian woman might not have helped Doctor Strange pass the Bechdel Test, but at least it would have expanded an area of representation desperately lacking in the MCU and provided an opportunity for more interesting characterization.

As it is, Mordo, one of the Ancient One’s most loyal sorcerers (in a solid performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor), explains in passing why a white woman is leading a group of warrior sorcerer monks based in Kathmandu, Nepal: She’s old (no one knows how old) and she’s Celtic. But there’s nothing about the Ancient One reflecting a Celtic heritage besides that single throw away line – everything else about her, from the robes she wears to the form of martial arts fans her magic takes when she manifests it as weaponry, is unmistakably derived from Asian cultures. Frankly, it’s sloppy world-building: If your character is going to be Celtic, make her Celtic. The filmmakers don’t, clearly believing that a few words of dialogue absolve them of the basic writers’ axiom, “Show, don’t tell.” The result is that Swinton’s admittedly nuanced and subtle performance is unavoidably wrapped in the trappings of Orientalism while simultaneously whitewashing an Asian face from a major role in a film that’s already overwhelmingly white in spite of its global setting.

On the surface, the film wants to have a global feel: Our heroes are charged with protecting sanctums in London, New York, and Hong Kong, with the sorcerers’ base of Kamar-Taj located in Nepal; besides the obvious omission of locations in South America and Africa, collectively home to nearly a quarter of the world’s population, there’s a failure of imagination in that every sanctum feels like an Asian pastiche, the terminology to describe magic relies on concepts lifted from different Asian cultural philosophies, and every follower of magic wears clothing reminiscent of Buddhist monks. If the main sanctums are primarily connected to the UK and US, where are the British influences in their clothes? Where are the American influences in their mannerisms? If the monks come from cultures all over the world (and the monks are by no means ethnically monolithic), where are the reflections of their own heritages in what is ostensibly a centuries-old organization? There is no indication at all, in setting, clothing, fighting styles, or philosophy, that the mystic arts span multiple cultures and traditions. The film wants to go further than its source material but stops short of actually doing all the creative work it needs to do. The richness and complexity of multiple cultures all over Asia (lest we forget, Asia is not a monolith) are reduced to pretty but generic accessories.

Strange himself is another missed opportunity. For all intents and purposes, Strange is Tony Stark with magic instead of machines. That similarity doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem, but despite how Cumberbatch’s performance lends some much-needed depth to the sorcerer-in-training, Doctor Strange makes little effort to delve into what makes Strange tick beyond a few lines of dialogue about his need for control and perfectionism. It’s as if the script assumes since we’ve seen this character before there’s no need to delve into what motivates Strange beyond making it apparent he’s a ridiculously talented but  egotistical jerk.

While much of the discussion about Asian representation has centered on Swinton’s casting as the Ancient One, many fans were just as passionate about the possibility of Strange being portrayed by an Asian actor. Fans pointed out how Strange’s defining traits – he’s a perfectionist doctor with control issues – didn’t require Strange to be white. If he were Asian or biracial, the reasons for those characteristics had the potential for introducing a new take on the Sorcerer Supreme through the lens of a struggle familiar to many who share Asian American identities: Internalized expectations of excellence and the push-and-pull between assimilation and ethnic heritage.

Casting a man of Asian heritage as Strange could have pushed the character beyond a mere combination of Tony Stark and Sherlock (Cumberbatch’s breakout role) into a hero we rarely see in American produced media, and haven’t yet seen in the MCU: A successful, truly American, Asian man with struggles and a vivid inner life who gets to be the Chosen One and the center of his own story. Suddenly the reasons for Strange’s arrogance, his prickliness, his desperation to regain his lost status as a surgeon, take on additional dimensions when seen through the lens of a man who has also navigated prejudices and stereotypes about “over-achieving Asians.” Instead of Strange’s story being about a white man learning “Eastern mysteries” to become a hero, it could have been a story twining Strange’s discovery of his capacity for true selfless heroism with rediscovering and reconciling multiple aspects of his heritage. As one of the movie’s central themes goes: Power comes with accepting yourself as you truly are, the whole of you, not just the parts you think (because that’s what the world has told you) have value. None of this would have diluted the essence of Strange’s personality, motivation, and evolution as a hero, and it could have given Asian/Asian American fans a story they could particularly relate to.

One of the frustrating things about Doctor Strange is that the film did get some things right – it offers tantalizing glimpses of the story that could have been. The filmmakers were clearly aware that they needed to address issues with the source material: Wong (played with gruff humor by Benedict Wong) is still a source of knowledge and support for Strange – but instead of being his manservant from the comics, Wong’s switch to librarian made him Strange’s mentor, making their positions much more equitable. Similarly, Mordo still becomes Strange’s eventual adversary, but instead of being motivated by jealousy and greed over Strange being given what Mordo felt was his due, his break is now caused by what he sees as a breach of trust by both his teacher and his new friend in their irresponsible flouting of rules. (Frankly, there’s something to be said for sympathizing with Mordo’s frustration over a cocky white rookie breaking rules that Mordo spent a lifetime upholding. Especially when the white dude gets kudos and the blessing of his mentor for it.)

In the end, Doctor Strange claims to push the boundaries of the Marvel universe, but falls disappointingly short in truly evolving its narrative for modern audiences: Where we could have gotten a rich, imaginative universe and characters with depth and development, we got stunning visuals without true world-building and actors who had to save their characters from sloppy writing. Where we could have seen realistic, complex Asian characters, we got whitewashing, Orientalism, and White Savior tropes. When a film is able to treat an inanimate object like the Cloak of Levitation with more thought and consideration than actual Asian people who are still affected by Hollywood’s long history of subjecting Asians/Asian Americans to stereotypes, erasure, and objectification, it’s not just a failure of imagination, it’s a reflection of who and what the film has actually taken into consideration.

Even mass-market, pop art like Doctor Strange serves to teach us about who we are as a society. It tells us what we should value, what behavior is acceptable, what we believe about ourselves as a people. It’s no coincidence that a culture that produces film after film with White Savior tropes finds itself electing an inexperienced, arrogant white man to its highest office. It’s no coincidence that a culture that treats Asians as set decoration, characterizing them with heavy accents or “exotic” clothing and behavior, finds itself asking American-born citizens what country they’re “from.” Yet concerns about stereotyping, Orientalism, and whitewashing are often either dismissed or outright mocked because “it was a fun movie and aren’t there more important things to worry about?”

Stories matter because they not only tell us who we are and who we can be: They also tell us how to see each other. And we deserve better than what Doctor Strange delivered, for all our sakes.

Dawn Xiana Moon is the Founder and Director of Raks Geek, a geek-themed bellydance and fire performance company that has garnered acclaim from MSN, The Daily Mail, UK Channel 4 TV, and the Chicago Tribune. She is also a singer-songwriter who has toured 10 states and released two albums (find her on iTunes), a UX designer and web developer, and dancer who performs 100 shows a year throughout the US and Canada. RaksGeek.com / @raksgeek / DawnXianaMoon.com / @dawnxianamoon

Michi Trota is the Managing Editor of the Hugo Award-winning and World Fantasy Award finalist Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the first Filipina Hugo Award winner. She is an essayist, public speaker, a community organizer, and serves as President of the Chicago Nerd Social Club. She is also a fire performance and object manipulation artist, appearing as part of Raks Geek and the Chicago Full Moon Jam. GeekMelange.com / @geekmelange

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