The Kids Aren’t All-White: How Whitewashing Plays a Major Role in Doctor Strange


Image courtesy of Variety Film, 2016.

Image courtesy of Variety Film, 2016.

On November 4th, the release of Marvel’s newest film, Doctor Strange, took movie theaters by storm. With a score of 90% on film rating site Rotten Tomatoes, the film has impressed critics and comic fans alike, but has left many wondering about the blindingly obvious whitewashed casting.

For a film mainly set in Asia, Doctor Strange has only one main Asian character, Wong, played by Benedict Wong. Despite being portrayed as an Asian man in the comics, another character, The Ancient One, is played by Tilda Swinton. This is a perfect example of filling a potential role for a person of color with a white actor, known as whitewashing.

Scott Derrickson, the director of the film, claimed in an interview with Variety that he found the character of the Ancient One to be very stereotypical, and that it would have been offensive to cast an Asian woman in the role. Jon Spaihts, a writer for the film, noted in the same interview that casting a woman in the role was a priority for the film, which is lacking in female roles.

Despite these comments on attempts to diversify the film without supporting stereotypes, backlash for the film’s whitewashing has been notable. In a time where the casting of white actors in Asian roles has been a common practice (Emma Stone as a Chinese/Hawai’ian woman in Aloha, Scarlett Johanssen as a Japanese woman in Ghost in the Shell, Elizabeth Banks as villain Rita Repulsa in the Power Rangers reboot), the lack of representation has sparked heated conversations about the problems this poses for the Asian-American community.

One study reveals that only 4.4% of speaking roles in films are Asian characters, while a whopping 74.1% of speaking roles are white characters. Even then, many Asian characters are portrayed as tropes or stereotypes.

Since I am not a person of color, I can’t relate to the lack of representation and whitewashing that affects others. I am, however, able to see the effects that positive representation has on people in the community. Award-winning Netflix original Master of None comes to mind -Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, both Asian-Americans, focus on not only telling a great story with their writing and directing, but also unmask some of the stereotypes found in TV shows and movies. The show serves as a perfect example of how comedy can be genuine without relying on racist tropes as a crutch.

In my opinion, I don’t see why a white person would ever be considered to fill the role of a person of color. Here’s the thing: we get it. White people can be powerful sorcerers and daring heroines. White people can be astronauts and apocalypse survivors. White people can be superheroes. We haven’t seen multitudes of positive portrayals of people of color in these powerful roles in recent years, but I have hope that that 74.1% of white roles will shrink to make room for a diverse cast of characters that represent what the world really looks like.