When it was first announced that Doctor Strange was casting the Ancient One as a white woman instead of an Asian man, as the character was originally conceived, Marvel was hit with claims of whitewashing and erasing Asian characters from a beloved property. In an official statement, the studio defended its actions by saying, via People, that the Ancient One is "a title that is not exclusively held by any one character." Meanwhile, the movie's co-writer C. Robert Cargill told Double Toasted podcast that the original Asian Ancient One was a "racist stereotype" that Marvel wanted to avoid, and so the studio reasoned that casting a non-Asian person in the role was the best way to do so. Yet while it's true that the white, female Ancient One seen in the film avoids stereotype, the elimination of a cliched Asian character causes Doctor Strange to reinforce a different stereotype: that of the invisible Asian.
Overall, the film does take great care not to exoticize Asian culture. Kamar-Taj, in Nepal, is depicted as a sort of place outside of the real world. And there is little to no usage of any Asian language or martial arts in Doctor Strange's sorcery lessons, making his magic feel borderless as opposed to of mystical Asian origin (as it is in the comics). Yet when it comes to the Ancient One, there's still a major issue. As a white woman, the Ancient One might not personify an Asian stereotype, but she does help enforce one. In a misguided attempt at humor, Doctor Strange mistakes an old Asian man in Kamar-Taj as the Ancient One when the two first meet. The awkward interaction is, one assumes, supposed to poke fun at Strange's racially tinged expectations. He has traveled across the world to Nepal to meet the Ancient One, and so, when he sees an old, Asian man with a well-groomed beard, he assumes that man is the Ancient One — in other words, he's buying into stereotype.
By showing that Strange expected the Ancient One to fit an Asian stereotype, the filmmakers seem to be making light of the controversy, and expecting praise from viewers for defying that same stereotype. But the scene only goes to show that they're missing the point. The Asian man, revealed to be Master Hamir, a character from the original comics, only appears in one other scene in the film, and has a grand total of zero lines. He's basically a stereotypical Asian character, a silent "other" who exists only so that the film can make a joke about how the Ancient One isn't Asian.
It is true that Master Hamir's absence of dialogue could be attributed to his comic book origin, as he is sometimes referred to as "The Silent One." However, the idea that filmmakers would be willing to change the Ancient One's ethnicity and disregard canon for the sake of busting stereotypes, but not be willing to give an actual Asian character dialogue for the sake of staying true to the comics, is offensive and hypocritical. And regardless of intent, the effect of Master Hamir's role in Doctor Strange is to ensure that the Asian stereotype of the Ancient One lives on, even if it is just for a joke.
This isn't to say that the filmmakers' decision to not cast an Asian person in the role of the Ancient One didn't come from good intentions. At a press conference in Hong Kong prior to the film's release, director Scott Derrickson stated that the Ancient One was always envisioned as a white character in the movie. "The Ancient One in the comics is a very old American stereotype of what Eastern characters and people are like, and I felt very strongly that we need to avoid those stereotypes at all costs," he told reporters, via Vanity Fair . The thought process there seems to have been that if the Ancient One is white, the sorcerer's reliance on Asian culture — the myth of her existence, her Nepalese residence of Kamar-Taj, wardrobe, etc. — would be less offensive. Yet ultimately, this plan backfired, and the film's absence of fully formed Asian characters ends up reinforcing the onscreen Asian stereotype of invisibility.
In 2016, USC Annenberg's Institute for Diversity and Empowerment released a study focused on the films, television shows and online productions of 10 top media companies in Hollywood from September 2014 through August 2015. The study found that at least 50 percent of all media studied did not feature any Asian or Asian American speaking character. And, in all media studied, only 5.1 percent of speaking or named characters were Asian. Asians and Asian Americans (of any specific ethnicity) are one of the most under-represented minorities onscreen. In a majority of Hollywood films, Asians are either nonexistent or nearly silent, hovering in the background. In other words, most stereotypically Asian characters onscreen are some version of Master Hamir.
This is obviously frustrating, and it's clear that Doctor Strange isn't alone in its problematic elements. But the movie does offer a glimmer of hope when it comes to Asian representation, in the character of Master Wong. Upgraded from his role as servant to Strange in the comics, Wong is depicted as Strange's superior in the film. He's funny, smart, and, supposedly skilled. It's disappointing that the character is pushed aside for a majority of the film — audiences don't see Wong fight alongside Strange at all — but that is likely to change in future films. At the end of the movie, it is implied that Wong will be Strange's sidekick going forward, and so one can only hope that any future Doctor Strange sequels follow through on making Wong a fully-formed character.
And if they do? Hopefully filmmakers will also decide to give Hamir a reason for existing other than to be a punchline, and incorporate more Asian characters who avoid cliche instead of making them white. Next time, instead of trying to avoid troubling portrayals by whitewashing, perhaps Doctor Strange's creators will consider tackling these stereotypes head-on.
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