When I saw Phil Yu’s article about an Asian character, the Ancient One, being played by British actress Tilda Swinton in the movie adaptation of the Marvel comic “Dr. Strange,” I just sighed.
It’s a sad reaction because it indicates just how prevalent whitewashing has become in mainstream media – it’s not even that surprising anymore. Whether it’s “Gods of Egypt,” where my ancestors (yes, mine!) are being played by a bunch of white men, or Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” swapping out Indian and Korean characters for black and white ones, respectively, Hollywood is constantly beating us over the head with the fact that it just doesn’t understand diversity.
Let me explain this very clearly, since they don’t seem to understand the message: minorities and underrepresented groups are NOT interchangeable. You cannot replace an Asian man with a white woman and call that “representation.” You do not get to replace an Indian character with a black man and call it “diversity.” That is not how this works. When you do this, you are erasing a character’s background and meaning to everyone who will see the movie. This is even more true when you do this with long established characters from comics and books.Minorities and underrepresented groups are NOT interchangeable. Click To Tweet
Women and minorities are shamefully underrepresented in pop culture. When there’s a well-known, exciting, and beloved character who is also part of a minority culture, that’s something for those who share that culture to look at and hold on to. It’s something to connect with, a small way to feel recognized and included in the broader society. When film producers and directors decide to change up the ethnic background of these characters, they’re basically saying, “You thought the identity of this character, that you share and is meaningful to you, was an important part of the story, but it actually isn’t. We can change it to literally anything else and everything about the plot can stay the same, because your identity and your culture add nothing of value to the universe we’ve created.”
At least, nothing of value that can’t also by added by some other brown guy. Because all brown people and people of color are basically the same. Also women. They all do the same thing – let us fill out our diversity quota.It's something to connect with, a small way to feel recognized and included in the broader society. Click To Tweet
Let me say that this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for race-bending and gender-bending in pop culture: that’s something we’ve celebrated here on The Tempest. And it doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t be excited about black Captain America or lady Petra Parker. But there’s a right way to do this and a wrong way, and the way the “Dr. Strange” movie is doing it is absolutely the wrong way. As Phil Yu points out, you cannot replace a male Asian character with a female white character and pretend that isn’t whitewashing. You especially cannot do this if you plan on keeping all the mystical Asian-y elements of the source material.
Do not race-bend or gender-bend (or both) characters just to be “edgy.” Do not do it because you think it would be good publicity for your movie. Do not whitewash your characters because you don’t believe people will go see a movie about a black person or an Indian person or a Korean person or an Arab person. That’s racist, and people who won’t go to see these movies just because of who their main characters are are also being racist, just like people who don’t want female lead characters simply because they’re female (*cough* Star Wars Rogue One *cough*) are being sexist. Do not do it because you’re worried about “stereotypes.” Asian characters being played by Asian people is not a stereotype, it’s accurate. If you’re that worried about it, maybe take a look at how your character is written.Do not race-bend or gender-bend characters just to be 'edgy.' Click To Tweet
Producers, directors, writers, and the entire movie industry need to take a long, hard look at how they create and develop characters and why. This really cannot be that hard – the industry has been called out for this so many times over the years, and we, the audience that buys the tickets that make these movies profitable, are getting sick of it.