Marvel’s Asian Problem

Since the new trailer of Doctor Strange is making the rounds, I wanted to share my thoughts on whitewashing, more specifically Asian whitewashing, in the Marvel Cinematic and TV universe. But before I go on any further, here are a few things you should know: as an Asian woman, I wanted to weigh in on this issue, but of course I can’t and don’t speak for all women nor am I the authority on all things Asian. I am Filipino, which is considered by some ignorant people as the whitest of all Asians, whatever the hell that means. Yes, we were colonized by the Spanish and occupied by the US, but that does not make us any less Asian. I also am aware and acknowledge that some Asians are guilty of racism, but that is another problem altogether. What I want to address in this post is the casting of a white woman as the Ancient One in the upcoming Doctor Strange movie and the casting of a white man as Iron Fist in the Netflix series.

When I first heard the news that Tilda Swinton would be in the Doctor Strange movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch, I was ecstatic. She is such a wonderful actress and any film would be lucky to have her. However, my feelings became torn when it was revealed that she was going to portray Strange’s mentor, the Ancient One. In the comics, the Ancient One is a man born in Tibet. I have no problem with gender-bending the role as president of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige has defended. Why can’t the Ancient One be a woman? What I have a problem with is the fact that once again, our white hero will learn about the traditions of a culture from someone who is also white and not of that culture. Some can argue that maybe Swinton’s Ancient One learned from a Tibetan Ancient One before she assumed that mantle. Sure, but that’s not what the Doctor Strange narrative is about.
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Cultural appropriation is a problem in the entertainment industry. Here was an opportunity for Marvel to get it right. I am a feminist so of course I love the fact that the Ancient One in this version is a woman but why did the conversation have to stop at that woman being white? Couldn’t they have cast her as a Tibetan woman? Wouldn’t that have made more sense story-wise? And before people start bringing up stereotypes, let me shut you down. You can’t justify not giving roles to Asian actors on the basis of type-casting. No Asian actor would ever get work. You just have to write and portray the character in a way that isn’t stereotypical and offensive, what a novel idea.

This train of thought leads me to Iron Fist. I was disappointed when they announced that Finn Jones was cast as Daniel Rand. The story of Iron Fist revolves around a young man whose family is killed (as per usual). He desires vengeance so he gets trained in the martial arts in a mystical city within the Tibet region. Here’s why it actually is possible to whitewash a white character. Iron Fist as a concept is problematic from the very beginning. The comic was created to capitalize on the martial arts hype during the 70s. White man inserts himself in an Asian narrative, takes what he needs from that culture then becomes the hero. The whitewashing happened when he was conceived and then by casting a white actor, you’re saying there wasn’t a problem to begin with. By casting an Asian-American actor, it would allow for Iron Fist to learn from his own culture and become an Asian hero. You take away the always-saved-by-the-white-man trope and the yellow fever-ness of it all.
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So just to recap Marvel’s reasoning behind casting Finn Jones is that Daniel Rand is white in the comics, whereas they wanted to be edgy and unpredictable with the Tilda Swinton casting by going against comics canon. They messed up both times. In Daredevil Season 2 though, they were fine with having Elektra be a character of Asian descent despite her long-established backstory. So why not Danny Rand? This article breaks down the troubling reasoning behind that

Basically it boils down to Asian women are fetishized while Asian men are viewed as unappealing leading men. This is what worries me about the casting of Jessica Henwick as the female lead in Iron Fist. Henwick was awesome in Game of Thrones and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I just hope her character is not reduced to the white hero’s exotic love interest.

Asian fans deserve better. We deserve to be better represented in movies and TV shows. But more importantly, we deserve to be represented and represented well in the films and TV shows that deal with or showcase our culture as a fundamental theme or plot device. Come on, Marvel, you’re pretty great already but do better.

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