Marvel’s DOCTOR STRANGE hasn’t even premiered and it has already caused one of the most divisive scandals in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There have been many accusations of whitewashing for the austere decision of casting Tilda Swinton in the role of the Ancient One, the Tibetan Sorcerer Supreme and the titular character’s mentor in mysticism. Likewise, there are those who view the decision as artistic licensing, as the Ancient One isn’t the only character who shifts race in the movie. Cute argument. However, contrary to belief, it’s quite easy to see the difference between whitewashing, such as casting Swinton in the Ancient One’s role, and racebending, which is evident in DOCTOR STRANGE’s other roles. Just look into how culturally biased the argument for one is compared to the other.

Situations of racebending in the past have been used as to provide a different perspective on a situation, rather than erase someone’s cultural leanings to make someone else feel safe. Many instances of fan art featuring racebending have included thought-provoking points-of-view. This is best explored in the ’90s HBO children’s series HAPPILY EVER AFTER, featuring the racebending of classical fairy tales from their standard European complexion to a wide variety of races and skin tones. In each instance, culture saturated every practice of the story: fairies would be replaced with nature spirits, and beauty that is usually described “as white as snow” was changed to celebrate browner tones.

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Even on the darker, severely problematic side of things, the more genre savvy DC fans will recall a certain issue of SUPERMAN featuring a racebent Lois Lane. Though it was, in my opinion, entirely problematic to the point of hilarity, Lois used the situation to ask thought provoking questions in a “walk-a-mile-in-my-shoes” scenario. Do you understand what it means to live as a black woman? Clark, could you love me as a black woman? How would my life be different if I woke up black and had to deal with the struggles of being black?

To this extent, racebending in comics isn’t anything new. A comic book character will be one race one month and then by some grand declaration of God (or a marketing team trying to be diverse), a character will appear a whole new race with a whole new backstory in the next issue. Kid Flash, Aqualad, Nick Fury, and most infamously, Psylocke have all leapt from one race to another sporadically over the ages. Psylocke’s story, however, is quite complicated; to save time, let’s just say they bring it up in X-MEN Vol. 4 and it’s quite hilarious, especially because Psylocke’s writers sometimes forget that she is currently Japanese.

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When a character is race-bent, more than just their appearance is changed. Their culture is transmogrified. Like a phoenix, one state isn’t the limit of a race-bent individual. Everything is uprooted and a new seed of history is planted.

Whitewashing is everything except that.

Whitewashing is like having an extravagant Vera Wang dress of delicate, inch-long embroidery made from tried and tested thread; it is seamed on the insides with silk and covered in ruby suede on the outside that feels like the soft brush of a rose petal, and covers up the blood of hundreds of thousands with a new age of beauty and wealth. It’s a dress that has a story—which you promptly dump a gallon of Chlorox on top of and run through a cheap, high-heat washer.

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You cannot whitewash characters and run away from the problem by declaring that it’s merely artistic licensing. Whitewashing doesn’t just change the narrative and metonymic devices, as racebending does, but it does so in a way which reflects a millennium of oppression.

Months ago, while browsing Tumblr as I agreed to do in my contract as a semi-conscious millennial and SJW (Social Justice Wizard), I came across a post declaring that Charlize Theron should play Storm in a Marvel reboot. Theron isn’t black, but this poor user made the mistake of saying “Unlike Halle Barry, she’s actually African.” She, of course, was referring to the White population which populates South Africa. It was a nice try, but Storm’s story circulates around her role as a displaced Kenyan princess, a black woman, an African diplomat, and her lethal combination of beauty, brains, and power whilst living as a minority. To negate her status as a quadruple minority (Black, Queer, Woman, Mutant) and turn her into a white woman evaporates all of these things. It destroys her cultural background. Notice how many of her dominant storylines center around her minority status and African culture.

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This is what people who advocate for whitewashing do not seem to understand. Race often plays into how characters view the world and themselves. This might be because of how prevalent western culture is across the world. Because western culture has spread so far, the assumption is that people view themselves and the world through a European lens and act accordingly. Rather than look at themselves through the lens of their own minority culture, these people’s cultures are omitted in the lie of colorblindness—the lie which states that we are all of one culture, western culture, and anything else is just a meaningless ornament. Who cares if an Asian mystic practicing magic powered by Asiatic martial arts and traditions who has a moniker like “the Ancient One” (which implies old age and therefore pre-Western expansion) is actually Asian? The story definitely wouldn’t have a different cultural impact if we just take the martial arts, drown it in Celtic symbolism and race-swap one of the roles to cover up any racially charged suspicions.

Can you detect my sarcasm?

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There is also cause to talk about how whitewashing uniformly steals roles from very deserving, very talented POC, but there are so many think pieces and people of greater esteem than myself who talk about it. For a closer interpretation of such a topic, just check out the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag on twitter, the prominent Asian-American actors who criticized the hashtag for focusing on Black POC, the reasons why a BET network exists, and Viola Davis’ beautiful Emmy acceptance speech. They hit home on almost every point of how whitewashing impacts actors of color.

My feelings as to whether the Ancient One’s role was whitewashed isn’t a secret: the Ancient One is definitely an instance of Hollywood whitewashing. However, even so, the very role of the Ancient One in DOCTOR STRANGE’s lore is heavily problematic in the first place, maybe to the point of being racist.

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Here we have a Tibetan monk who fasts and understands the mystical ways of the universe, who sits upon a tall mountain in the Himalayas waiting to teach an ungrateful white man how to be a better man. Why? Well because the world truly, truly needs him to save it. If your skin isn’t crawling yet, then you might also enjoy IRON FIST’s backstory: it’s like THE LAST SAMURAI starring Tom Cruise meets ARROW. Both IRON FIST and DOCTOR STRANGE seem to have a White Savior complex.

Tilda Swinton’s role was fueled by the racial and political situations surrounding Chinese audiences involving the character, which also involves a discourse on the problematic elements of the original DOCTOR STRANGE story. But rather than Marvel’s creative team transforming the entire narrative of the Ancient One to reflect the culture of a white Ancient One, and therefore begin to address the many criticisms against the movie, the film went ahead with its eastern aesthetics and themes. DOCTOR STRANGE became whitewashed because Marvel’s creative team wanted Chinese themes without Chinese actors.

With the door for criticism open to the original DOCTOR STRANGE concept and story, the case could very definitely be made for a Celtic Sorcerer Supreme. This in fact would still be white washing though, because at the end of the day the Ancient One is an Asian role still being transformed for the audience, even if it was to subvert a very dangerous trope. The best possible alternative would likely be to destroy the themes of the “Tibetan-mystic-hidden in-the-mountains,” stereotype by a complete subversion of age, costume, and gender rather than race.
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Furthermore, the costume design for DOCTOR STRANGE indicates an integral Eastern aesthetic. DOCTOR STRANGE’s Baron Mordo wears an eastern costume equipped with what appears to be a Jian, or a Chinese double-edged straight sword. Multiple henchmen and the alleged movie villain are garbed in Chinese cloth robes. If all of this was not a case of whitewashing, then these eastern costumes should have been changed so that the immediate comparison to eastern culture is not made.
Even C. Robert Cargill, one of the screenwriters for the film, stated that he was choosing his “evils” when casting Tilda Swinton, all but confirming the decision to whitewash the role rather than take an alternative point-of-view for the role. This was a decision that was purely economic, not creative.

Those who agree that this decision is another example of whitewashing have tried to justify it with counterarguments. One argument for the whitewashing of the Ancient One’s role is the racebending of Baron Mordo’s character—who is traditionally a European aristocrat. But the argument stands no ground. True, Chiwetel Ejiofor, a black man, was cast in the role that is allegedly to be an amalgamation of several characters from the DOCTOR STRANGE comic lore. Viewers have no articulation of how the role will be impacted. Many theorize that Ejiofor’s role is a combination of Doctor Voodoo, the Houngan Supreme (like a Sorcerer Supreme, but for Voodoo), and Baron Mordo. Also, Baron Mordo’s aristocratic backgrounds have no holding on his character.

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Further, many incarnations of Baron Mordo play with his background. Baron Mordo’s story isn’t truly relevant outside of his betrayal of the Ancient One and his fall into the clutches of the Dread Dormmamu, an eldritch abomination and Sorcerer Supreme of the Dark Dimension. If you don’t believe it, then why is Baron Mordo’s place of origin so ambiguous? Bending the race of Baron Mordo from white to black also grants a dynamic to his character that wasn’t there before. It allows a perspective that is more alluring than spoiled—random European nobility—and fleshes out his character with a new cultural aspect. Even if he is kept as European nobility, there will always be the question swirling about him like there was for Idris Elba’s Heimdall in THOR: How did a black man come about his place in a predominately European setting?

Besides the disgusting nature of the whitewashing in DOCTOR STRANGE, what truly makes my skin crawl is the use of the “Ethnic Magician” trope. If you’re genre savvy and you know your TV Tropes you recognize that an Ethnic Magician is a POC who’s magical solely for their race or ethnicity. A Haitian man who’s also a Voudahn Bokor (a voodoo sorcerer); the Louisiana Voodoo Queen putting needles in a cloth doll; a wise old Asian man who knows the secrets to the universe whilst living as a hermit; an African Witch Doctor who shrinks heads; a Jewish man practicing Kabbalah and forging Golems.

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The role of the Ethnic Magician often borders on the Magical Negro trope: a black man or woman who mysteriously appears to guide a forlorn lost white person in their hour of need with no motivation or backstory of their own. The only difference is a Magical Negro’s power is more so implied in a non-fantasy setting whereas an Ethnic Magician’s magic is explicit. Also, an Ethnic Magician is not strictly black. The Ethnic Magician is not always an ally, but sometimes a hindrance, challenging white protagonists with his vile and unknown foreign magics, proving to the world that other cultures really are that scary.

In all seriousness though, the Ancient One’s role began as a problem before it debuted as a whitewashed role for Tilda Swinton. It began in a time when Blaxploitation was an acceptable source of inspiration for a hero like Luke Cage, or when it was commonly acceptable for an adventuring protagonist to have a loyal Asian man-servant who followed a hero around simply because an adventurer needs a faithful Asian man-servant, like how a hero needs a cape.

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And yet it happened, and rather than rectifying the issue with this very rare second change, Marvel seems to have decided to undermine their progressive first steps in the right direction. C. Robert Cargill, a screenwriter for DOCTOR STRANGE, reasoned that China’s odd political standing was the call for washing the role.

“He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’ ” Cargill said.

Though this would be a valiant argument, there doesn’t seem to be the change the absolute omission of the role’s ethnic heritage and opportunity for Asian actors. If stating the Ancient One is Tibetan would cause such a dramatic schism, why make the Ancient One white? If saying the Ancient One is Tibetan was the issue, why remove the entire discussion by crossing entire racial boundaries? The Ancient One can be Chinese or Tibetan, and nothing has to be said about it in the film, as film is a predominately visual medium.

This kind of whitewashing in the media is not as rampant as the cases of Egypt in movies such as EXODUS and GODS OF EGYPT, but it is still wrong. Though, as a Marvel fanboy and lover of Doctor Strange’s character, I will be in attendance for this movie… maybe. All Marvel movies are connected after all, so it’s almost as if the studio can compel viewers by ethos alone. In spite of all the problems, the ensemble cast has nothing but talent. But Marvel, and viewers, should heavily scrutinize anyone who uses the tag “All-New, All-Different” or any label of progressive mindsets if they still engage in Hollywood’s stagnant whitewashing culture.

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