It’s a Whitewashing Matter

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By Jeanne Tan (17A01B)

So Doctor Strange hit theatres this week, and while my family was among those who have had the pleasure of viewing it, I decided to give it a miss (great movie fan as I am). Reason being, I was familiar with the cast list.

I’m sure some, if not most, are familiar with the controversy surrounding the casting of Tilda Swinton as the character of the Ancient One, amongst other issues with the casting decisions. There was outrage from when she was first cast, and this debate has carried on until now. The Straits Times even mentioned this in their feature on Doctor Strange’s premiere.

Tilda Swinton portraying the character as a ‘Celtic mystic’. In Nepal. Source:

Some background: Doctor Strange is Marvel’s fourteenth film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Others include Captain America, the Avengers, Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man, etc). The story revolves around Dr. Stephen Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), a doctor who gets into a car accident, and seeks out a magical cure for his injuries, resulting in him gaining incredible powers. Tilda Swinton plays the role of the Ancient One, a mystic from Nepal who mentors Doctor Strange in the ways of magic.

The controversy sprung up due to the original comic-book profile of the Ancient One: a Tibetan man, as opposed to a Caucasian woman based in Nepal. While casting a woman in the role admittedly demonstrates progressiveness in the gender department, more pressing is the other change: the character’s ethnicity.

While the portrayal of the character is now considered outdated and racist, the character’s original ethnicity still stands. Source:


Here’s a brief look at the problems with this setup.

1) Exchanging one Asian country of origin for another.

This was explained by Marvel to be due to the politically sensitive nature of Tibet. China is their biggest market, and setting the story true to its comic origins would have raised the likelihood of it being blocked by China’s censors.

The compromise that Marvel came to was moving the setting from Tibet to Nepal, which is far less offensive to China. But therein raises the question about those who made the decision: did they see Asian countries as that interchangeable? That a character written with Tibetan ethnicity, in a Tibetan context, could so easily be replaced with another country, simply because it is within the same continent?

If you’ve ever had to fill in a form for overseas applications, you would probably have come across a question asking for your race/ethnicity. For those who don’t experience this sort of ‘lumping’ within Singapore (as it most definitely does occur in Singapore: the Others label is just one example), the experience is similar when you look at all the options and have to label yourself as ‘Asian’, as if an entire continent’s worth of cultures and histories can simply be reduced to a single label.

Ah yes. Asian. A single ethnic identity. Source:

In its Western context, this choice speaks of indifference towards the culture around the character, and of the unique identity of the particular Asian ethnicity the character represents. The message it spreads about the respect that moviegoers ought to hold for different Asian identities isn’t promising either.

2) Casting a Caucasian actress in the role, thereby completely changing the character’s race.

Once again, the prospect of profits win the day. This is a common argument in the culture of replacing non-white characters with white actors, that the added box office returns for the ‘big name’ actors justify the change. It stands to reason that casting a better-known actor for a role serves a movie well in gaining attention.

Admittedly, Tilda Swinton is a very famous actress, and putting her name on posters certainly serves as an audience magnet, certainly more than any Tibetan actors that come to mind.

But Doctor Strange marks Marvel’s fourteenth movie, not including the numerous television series that helped build up the world famous cinematic universe. The argument of requiring a famous white actress to promote the movie, in the place of a perhaps lesser-known, ethnically accurate actor, seems moot. After all the promotion that previous movies have lent to this next movie, the dire need for a famous name on a poster seems to just be a feeble excuse.

Another reason that Marvel gave was to avoid Asian stereotypes for the character. The Ancient One in the comics played into many stereotypes of ‘wise Asian man to serve as a spiritual mentor to the hero’, thus portraying the character as existing solely to guide the hero along.

Alternatively, if the gender swap were to be kept, the character could easily fall into the ‘Dragon Lady’ archetype, the ‘badass but conniving Asian lady’. Playing into one or the other would naturally risk entrenching this stereotypical perception of Asian women.

Anna May Wong- the face that (unfortunately) launched a thousand Asian stereotypes.

But Marvel’s solution? Not putting their minds to avoid playing into stereotypes. Not creatively scripting the character to give them a unique portrayal. Instead, they simply changed the character’s ethnicity to Celtic and saved themselves the trouble.

3) Defending their actions as being ultimately progressive rather than the opposite.

The final blow in this entire arrangement is Marvel’s halfhearted attempts to claim progressiveness despite the big white elephant in the room. The casting of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mondo is definitely a good move, as well as the decision to include Benedict Wong as the character Wong. Any racial diversity in media is a step forward, and it’s clear that that was Marvel’s intention. However, the overall relegation of non-white actors to side roles while artificially implanting white actors to main roles nonetheless promotes the belief that white actors are inherently more desirable than non-white actors, and that the latter are insufficient to grab audience attention.

(As a side note, having Rachel McAdams in the role of Night Nurse when there was a perfectly amazing Night Nurse played by Rosario Dawson, an African American Latina actress, in Marvel’s Netflix series’ is a personal disappointment on my part.)

The sad thing is, this practice is clearly not uncommon in Hollywood. Off the top of my head, I can list more than a few examples of movies featuring similar casting choices. Gods of Egypt – Caucasian actors portraying Egyptian heroes and gods. Aloha (2015) – Emma Stone, playing a quarter-Chinese, quarter-Native Hawaiian. The Last Airbender – white actors (with the exception of the villain) within a world created to be entirely Asian in origin. And those are just a few of the most recent examples. This trend stretches way back throughout film history.

A pattern we’ve seen since the dawn of film. Source:

The upside is attitudes are changing. When the news about casting for Doctor Strange dropped, the Asian-American community in the US spoke up. Notable names such as George Takei and Constance Wu voiced their concern on social media, making their indignation clear.

This is true of the other movies as well. For instance, Aloha’s director was driven to apologise for his casting of Emma Stone after the backlash from his movie became overwhelming. The minorities in the audience will no longer stand being marginalised, sidelined and excluded from media that is distributed to them.

With the very deliberate decision on Marvel’s part to include non-white members in the cast, it’s clear that with greater awareness, comes greater representation. But there still seems to be a large portion of White Hollywood (which most likely controls the bulk of our media exposure) that fails to see the damage that racial exclusion in media causes. From the get-go, exposure to racially-biased media can influence the way people perceive themselves and their society. In the long run, this can and does influence the way we interact, and the way we perceive our place in society.

While the specifics of Doctor Strange’s race treatment may not be fully applicable to our Singaporean context, we cannot deny that we too are part of the consumers who subconsciously absorb these messages. While we may not see ourselves fully reflected on screen, we most definitely can draw parallels between our society and theirs: common experiences, common actions, common attitudes.

We too are a society dominated by a majority race, and we need to watch against lapsing into similar attitudes which sideline other groups.

What we consume reflects on us as a society, and affects how we move forward. We can take a good look at what we’re watching, even if we think that the problems of a country on the other side of the world may not be important enough to hinder our enjoyment. Because even on the other side of the world, we’re a part of the target audience that moviemakers are catering to. And it is up to us to decide how to respond.

The media we consume allows us to reflect on and decide our perspectives on what we encounter on a daily basis. Perhaps the fact that we can see ourselves in the same issues of a country on the other side of the world shows that we are, in fact, all human. Our experiences can be shared no matter our context, so maybe having a majority race take the effort to empathise with a member of a minority isn’t that much of a stretch.

For now, I’m deciding not to watch Doctor Strange. If you do decide to go, by all means, have the time of your life, but don’t turn a blind eye to the problems before you.


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3 thoughts on “It’s a Whitewashing Matter”

  1. my 2 cents

    With regards to Point 3:

    Director Derrickson isn’t calling himself progressive for the whitewash – his own words (and acknowledgement): But it also implies racial insensitivity and it implies racist motives and I don’t think I had either. I was really acting out of what I still feel is the best possible choice. But it’s like I chose the lesser evil—and just because you choose the lesser evil it doesn’t mean you’re not choosing an evil.”

    Also, there’s value in noting the change in Wong, from literal man servant to a librarian and mentor of sorts to Dr Strange. For me that sort of confirms that there were attempts to not fall into simple Asian stereotypes just for the sake of having asian representation. That being said I’m not entirely convinced of a ‘Dragon Lady’ stereotype being strong enough a reason to whitewash a character.. but that’s a question for another day.

    As for Point 1: I think it was less of how interchangable countries were, than getting on China’s bad books where their movies have done really really well. Noting Marvel’s long term goal in mind (which stretches up to Phase 4) getting censored by China is not an intelligent move, and why risk it? It is naive to ignore this point. There needs to be consideration on the motivations behind the move, if it is enforced by large external factors beyond the studios control (definitely pissing off an influential country that jeopardises future films vs whitewash to get a familiar name in), then it becomes less ‘did they see Asian countries as that interchangeable? ‘ and more ‘how can we still keep as much of our asian elements etc while not getting ourselves in trouble with China’


  2. Wait how come changing the characters gender is good and progressive but changing their ethnicity is disrespectful and insensitive

  3. “While casting a woman in the role admittedly demonstrates progressiveness in the gender department, more pressing is the other change: the character’s ethnicity.”

    stop assuming gender it should be progressiveness in the sex department

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