This post is like two posts put into one. A way for me to process my feelings about the election by not talking about current events at all. Part 1 is about news media, Part 2 is about Dr. Strange.
Over the past few months I’ve been getting more and more exhausted with the “OUTRAGEOUS! OUTRAGE!” tone in my usual liberal news-thinkpiece sites (I read a lot of Slate and Jezebel); I think those sites have also started getting sick of being constantly outraged by the latest something that some conservative bigot/racist/misogynist/generally bad person has done. Or maybe they’ve become more leery of the language of outrage since the death of Gawker (covered in Slate with a line that’s stuck with me: “The Internet masses had found a new vice, outrage, to replace our voyeurism.”) Links on this topic: a super long, fairly defensive reflection in NY Magazine by the former editor in chief of Gawker, a surprisingly newsy story on what happened in the Daily Beast, and a slow-to-load but funnily Gawker-like list of responses to Gawker’s death, including this quote: “I think Gawker did for some what Trump does for some. Both let their friends and supporters be comfortable in being terrible people.” (Erick Erickson, noted conservative blogger/radio host).
Anyway, to help combat my liberal outrage-fatigue, I thought I’d try to read some conservative news sites (which I’ve blogged about before, maybe notably in my Yale reflection). So I started with Breitbart and Drudge Report, but the angry rhetoric there mirrored exactly the outraged rhetoric on the liberal sites- those whiny, thin skinned snowflake liberals who don’t believe people can make their own decisions. Then someone turned me on to National Review, which is now my go-to conservative news site. They also make fun of lefties, but they’re less obsessed with it and more focused on how to continue to progress on the conservative agenda. I like it when people think about actions and what to do in the future, even if I disagree with their premises. I just opened the site and a random article, and here’s a line that popped out at me: “Here’s some free advice for all the liberals insisting that Trump was elected by racists: The more you say that, the more you help Trump.” Also, if like me you are a dirty liberal, you’ll be soothed by the way the National Review covers Republican infighting. If you are not like me, you might just like the National Review! They’re thoughtful and logical and much less angry-outrageous-clickbaity than other sites I’ve seen [I am also open to more suggestions! I read the libertarian site Reason Magazine sometimes, but they think we’re all idiots so I get tired of that rhetoric as well].
So my main goal of writing this post was to tell you about the escapism that we did last weekend- we went and saw Dr. Strange at the movie theatre (this is a big deal to us! We very rarely go out to the movies now because of babysitter requirements). I got distracted thinking about the liberal media, which touched on the whitewashing that happens in this movie a few months ago. It first came to my attention on the blog Angry Asian Man, and has been covered in a bunch of other various sites (for instance: cinema blend, variety, fusion-this is my favorite one). Basically, the Ancient One is a main character/jedi master for padawan Dr. Strange, and was created by Lee and Ditko as an ultra-stereotypical mystical Tibetan old dude. Most of the lines that Tilda Swinton says in the movie would be ridiculous if an Asian person said them (they’re already ridiculous, but Tilda Swinton can pull them off just as well as she can pull of her slightly agender character). Lots of stuff that sounds like someone read the Tao Te Ching and imagined Mr. Miyagi.
So, to avoid making a racist and offensive caricature of the character, Marvel decided to change the Ancient One into a Celtic woman. But inexplicably keep the whole Himalayas/white guy travels to the Far East for mystical wisdom and returns to the civilized West to save the world trope. Here are two different reactions to this situation by critics/writers:
While this desire to keep from reinforcing negative Asian stereotypes is commendable, it also created a Catch-22 situation for the director. Does he create a “dragon lady” that causes Asians to protest the perpetuation of a negative Asian stereotype? Or does he remove the Asian aspect of this character, but in doing so, cause Asians to protest the removal of what was supposed to be an iconic Asian character. There is no easy answer either way. So Derrickson decided to take the path that he thought was best.
So before we bring out the pitchforks, it is important to consider intent. If Derrickson was pressured into recasting The Ancient One as a white woman to make the film more commercial, then I’ll be the first one to pick up a torch. But if he made this decision based solely on his own creative vision of the film, then I think it’s fair to withhold judgment on this subject and critique the movie solely on its cinematic merits. Because ultimately, as long as Swinton’s performance improves the film (and in this case, it most definitely does), it’s hard to fault the director for his artistic choice.
I actually think the next pull quote addresses this situation pretty well, but I’ll also make a nod to myself and a past blog post, and say your intentions don’t matter as much as the effects of your work. So if you say you didn’t intend to be racist, that doesn’t alleviate that you hurt someone with a racist action. Plus most people outside the KKK (and maybe also inside) won’t ever say “Oh, I meant to be racist” so saying “I didn’t mean to be racist” is about as deep as saying “the sky is up.” Later in this post I will tell you that I LOVED Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One and I have a solution.
Anti Derrickson/whitewashing: (but they loved the movie, as did I)
Why did Derrickson feel his only options to portray the Ancient One were to either make the character one racist stereotype or another? This wasn’t some Catch 22. You could still write the ancient mystic leader role with nuance. And for the most part, Derrickson and his co-writers succeeded — but with a performer who isn’t Asian….
And they elevated the Wong character (played by Benedict Wong, the film’s only Asian in a speaking role). In the comics, Wong was merely Doctor Strange’s cabana boy (yet another stereotype, the Asian sidekick). But in the film, he is Strange’s philosophical superior. Wong has agency in the plot, answers to almost no one except his own work and also owns the funniest sequence in the film. The director and writers clearly have the talent and imagination to dodge or upend stereotypes.
Other things: I loved the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast on this topic, if you’re more of a listener than a reader. I also like this tweet:
Not a sidekick. Not a sidechick. #whitewashedOUT
— Margaret Cho (@margaretcho) May 3, 2016
Okay, so you’re all caught up on your reading now (I really do like the Fusion article). So here’s my take on what they should have thought about doing instead of what happened. First, here’s a cover of a comic book showing Dr. Strange; image from Wikipedia:
Note that Dr. Strange here is totally red, and has lots of facial hair. So… just looking at this picture, I don’t see it tied to a particular ethnicity. Let’s take a look at the original Ancient One (also from wikipedia):
This dude is Tibetan, but they turned him into a Celtic lady. So there’s no reason to not change the Dr. Strange of ambiguous ethnic background into …
Hear me out (also, this headshot was taken from the inimitable starringjohncho.com). Instead of going to the Himalayas for absolutely no reason, our hero Dr. Strange hears about this Celtic Ancient One and heads to Ireland. This also makes more sense if the Ancient One is Celtic. I’ve read a Wrinkle in Time and the Chronicles of Narnia; I’m pretty sure there’s as much magic in the British Isles as there is in Tibet. Now we haven’t whitewashed out a character because OUR MOVIE HAS AN ASIAN LEADING MAN, and we get to keep Tilda Swinton who really is great in the movie. I have nothing against Benedict Cumberbatch except he’s going the way Jude Law did in 2004, when he appeared in six big movies. Too much Benedict Cumberbatch, not enough John Cho (or other Asian actor).
This is the obvious solution to me, anyway. The reviews of Dr. Strange praise the visual effects, the side characters (POC Mordo and Wong), Tilda Swinton, but I haven’t seen a lot of praise for Benedict Cumberbatch. They just needed a white guy to lead the movie. So why not grab an Asian guy instead? This should be a rule: if you ever whitewash a character of X ethnic background, you should change a white character into that X background.
I think I could just keep writing and thinking about this topic, so I’ll stop here instead. Happy Thanksgiving, reader! Good luck with politics and family.