Why Hollywood's Whitewashing Of 'Doctor Strange' And 'Ghost In The Shell' Is So Frustrating

Earlier this year Chris Rock caused a minor kerfuffle at the Oscars when he took the stage to take on Hollywood's mistreatment of black people... only to crack jokes at the expense of Asian people. The tasteless jokes underlined what I think many Asians and Asian-Americans have long suspected: that the push for more "diversity" and "inclusion" in Hollywood does not extend to us. That to them, we aren't worthy of respect or consideration or even common courtesy.

Last week, two major projects further drove that point home. On Tuesday night, Marvel dropped the first trailer for Doctor Strange, rich in Orientalist undertones and featuring a white woman (Tilda Swinton) as a racebent version of an Asian character. Then on Thursday, Paramount and DreamWorks unveiled the first official still from the anime adaptation Ghost in the Shell, starring another white woman (Scarlett Johansson) as a character named "Motoko Kusanagi" in the source material. Whitewashing is a tradition as old as Hollywood itself. Still, you'd think that after the Oscars misstep, and the Emma Stone in Aloha dustup, and the The Last Airbender and Exodus: Gods and Kings and Pan and Gods of Egypt controversies, Hollywood would have learned its lesson. Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell suggest that they most certainly have not. 

Granted, neither of these movies have come out yet. It's theoretically possible that something in them will inspire me to change my mind, and come around to agreeing that the filmmakers handled the thorny racial issues surrounding both properties just right. Not super likely, considering that all of the titles named above turned out to be just as eye-rollingly problematic as their marketing suggested, but theoretically possible. But the marketing itself says something about how Hollywood wants these projects to be perceived, and which audiences they do and don't care about, and the message from both teams is quite clear: they do not give a s*** about Asians.

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Doctor Strange and Marvel's Asian Problem

Doctor Strange's casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One raised eyebrows from the moment it was announced. The character is Asian and male in the comics; Swinton, as you may have noticed, is neither of those things. To be sure, the character as written in the comics is plenty problematic, as Marvel has acknowledged. He's essentially a variation on the "Magical Asian" archetype, a wise and enigmatic mentor who trains arrogant surgeon-turned-sorcerer Stephen Strange in the mystical arts. But changing the character into a white person hasn't rid Doctor Strange of its off-putting Orientalism. The film still appears to be heavily Asian-influenced. The characters visit exotic locations full of Asian people and architecture and neon signs in Chinese text, train in rooms that look like martial arts dojos and wear robes reminiscent of martial arts uniforms.

The difference is that now, Asians themselves appear to have been erased from the narrative. At least in the trailer, no Asian actor gets to try and own the role, or comment on the Orientalist nonsense saturating the film, or offer a contrasting image of Asian-ness. Some have insisted that Doctor Strange actually has a strong Asian presence not hinted at in the marketing so far, and maybe it does – perhaps in the form of the sidekick played by Benedict Wong? But if Marvel's plan for dealing with the property's unsavory exoticism is to give that nonsense to white people so actual Asian characters can appear in less stereotypical roles, they aren't tipping their hand. The marketing team that okayed this trailer presumably knows a thing or two about maintaining good PR. Even so, apparently, they figured that no one who matters would care that Doctor Strange (regardless of what the movie actually turns out to be) would look like a movie steeped in Asian culture but without any actual Asian people.

It's worth pointing out, too, that the Doctor Strange trailer arrives at a time when Marvel's obliviousness about Asians is more apparent than ever. Allow me to remind you of Daredevil, with its hordes of nameless, faceless, totally expendable ninjas, and the upcoming Iron Fist, which seems to be centered around the premise that no one wields a mystical Asian power better than a white dude. The Marvel franchise has zero major Asian characters so far. Maybe the Marvel franchise has plans to add some leading Asian superheroes in the coming years (how about a Ms. Marvel movie, huh?), but if so they've not revealed them.


Ghost in the Shell: Whitewashing a Japanese Tale

As for Ghost in the Shell, here is a film based on an iconic property that some have argued, convincingly, is every bit as uniquely Japanese as Akira is. It would probably be naive of me to suggest that Hollywood leave such a big, fat, juicy potential franchise alone, but it would be nice if they'd at least tried to adapt it in a way that demonstrates respect for its Asian roots. Especially since, unlike Doctor Strange's Ancient One, Ghost in the Shell isn't an Orientalist fantasy cooked up by white people, but a Japanese story told from a Japanese perspective. Instead, Paramount and DreamWorks gave the lead to white girl Scarlett Johansson.

To make matters much, much worse, the very next day, Screen Crush published a report claiming the studios had commissioned visual effects tests to make Johansson appear "more Asian." In fairness, according to their sources, the production rejected the idea "immediately" after seeing the test. And it's true lots of crazy ideas get thrown around in the development process. That's what it's for. But the fact that the studios even considered a digital yellowface makeover is, to put it frankly, some fucking bulls***. Clearly, the studios understood they'd get some blowback for their casting decision. Just as clearly, they have no clue why. The problem was never one of aesthetics – people weren't mad because Johansson's skin, hair, and eyes were the wrong color. It was one of politics — Johansson, a white woman, was claiming an iconic Asian role as her own. Or maybe the studios did understand that, which is almost worse. What does it say when filmmakers decide they'd rather invent an Asian person out of pixels than cast an actual Asian person in their movie?

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What's the Best-Case Scenario?

The best-case scenario for both of these films is something like Iron Man 3. The Mandarin was billed as the villain of that movie, to the irritation of fans who recognized his comic book counterpart as an ugly Asian cliché. When the film actually opened, though, it turned out that the filmmakers had played on those same stereotypes to completely subvert our expectations. It felt like a step in the right direction, taking the venom out of a racist caricature. Sure, the twist was totally unfaithful to the comics — but in a positive way that demonstrated that the filmmakers were well aware of the issues with the source material, and committed to moving past them.

So I'll allow that Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange could have similar tricks up their sleeves. I'll also concede that casting Asian people in cartoonishly "Asian" roles isn't always the best way to move past stereotypes, especially if no efforts are made to broaden the role past the same old lazy tropes. The problem of Asian representation in Hollywood is too big and complicated for a single easy one-size-fits-all solution. However, from where we're standing right now, based on what we've heard and seen of these projects so far, it sure looks like Doctor Strange dealt with its Asian problem by simply getting rid of its Asians, and like Ghost in the Shell has blundered into some tone-deaf casting. It doesn't look like progress as much as it does indifference and erasure.

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Why These Missteps Matter

All of this is especially frustrating given the scarcity of Asian stories and Asian roles in mainstream Hollywood. The vast majority of big, splashy roles go to white stars, and occasionally to either black actors deemed to have "crossover potential" (your Denzel Washingtons, your Zoe Saldanas) or to actors of ambiguous ethnicity (your Keanu Reeveses, your Oscar Isaacs). Unmistakably Asian A-list movie stars aren't just rare in America, they're not-existent. There is no Asian-American equivalent of Brad Pitt or Will Smith or Michael B. Jordan, and at present it doesn't look like anyone is trying to create one. And it's a self-perpetuating cycle. Yes, you can argue that there are no Asian actors in Hollywood on the level of Johansson or Swinton — but why not? Well, because no Asian actor in Hollywood gets cast in Johansson- or Swinton-level projects. Why not? Because there are no projects demanding Asian actors in major roles.

Except, as we've just seen, there sometimes are. It's just that even they go to the Johanssons and Swintons of the world, and get packaged by mostly white screenwriters, directors, producers, and studio executives. It may be tempting dismiss Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell as just two questionable decisions from an industry that churns out hundreds of films a year, but even minor missteps take on outsized importance when opportunities for representation are so rare to begin with. Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell aren't two random faux pas. They're part of a larger pattern of Hollywood telling Asians and Asian-Americans that we don't matter, even as they strip-mine our cultures and traditions for parts and throw us under the bus during conversations about "diversity." Speaking as an Asian-American person who's also a voracious consumer of pop culture, that freaking hurts.

Questions of identity and authority and appropriation are mind-bogglingly complex. I don't claim to have all the answers about how to separate Doctor Strange from its Orientalist origins, or who gets to enjoy Ghost in the Shell and why, or how Hollywood should fix their Asian problem. (Though hiring more Asian stars and filmmakers seems like it'd be a really good start.) And again, it's impossible to offer a full reckoning of the racial dynamics in Doctor Strange or Ghost in the Shell when no one has actually seen them yet. But we're not talking about leaked footage or set photos here — we're talking about the materials that Marvel and Paramount and DreamWorks deliberately served up for moviegoers to judge, hoping to lure in everyone they want to watch their movies. And Asians, apparently, never factored into that equation.