Dr. Strange’s whitewashing sadly not so strange, still damaging
In the weeks before its release, Marvel’s new movie Doctor Strange generated controversy and confusion surrounding its choice to cast Tilda Swinton, a white actress, in the role of The Ancient One, a character who was a Tibetan monk in the original comic series. Many people saw this casting choice as taking the role away from an actor of Asian descent and whitewashing the character.
Whitewashing is a term used to describe instances where filmmakers (or theatre makers, or TV makers, etc.) cast a white actor to play a non-white role. Essentially, a role written as a person of color is given to a white actor, occasionally with some attempt at an explanation as to why. This usually happens when the film is an adaptation of an existing story — as the character already exists as a person of color outside of the film — but can happen in original stories if the character is written to be non-white and yet a white actor is cast to play them as a non-white character. An example of the former is Johnny Depp playing a Native American in The Lone Ranger, and an example of the latter would be Emma Stone playing a woman of Chinese and Native Hawaiian descent in Aloha.
There are three common arguments as to why whitewashing is not a problem. The first of these is the claim that the film cast for talent, not race, and that the white actor playing the character of color was simply better at it than the actor of color. Even ignoring the fact that, very often, filmmakers don’t even consider actors of color for main roles, this argument implies that white actors are not only generally better at pretending to be a different person than actors of color, but that white actors are better at pretending to be a person of color than actors of color are at actually being people of color. This is clearly ridiculous.
The second argument is that filmmaking is a business, and actors of color simply don’t earn as much box office proceeds as white actors. If, again, we ignore the fact that in the Motion Picture Association of America's Theatrical Market Statistics for 2014, audiences of color bought 46 percent of tickets sold despite being 37 percent of the U.S. population, there is a point to be made here. Hollywood, much like many other cultural and political institutions, has difficulty supporting people of color as much as it supports white people. If filmmakers truly wanted actors of color to rise to more prominence despite Hollywood’s inherent racism, then the first step is to fight to normalize prominent actors of color, especially when casting characters of color.
The last argument is less of an argument and more of an attempted catch-22. Why is whitewashing considered such a problem when actors of color playing traditionally white characters is not? The answer is a matter of quality and quantity. There have always been more roles for white actors than actors of color. A study by two professors at the University of Southern California found that in the 700 top grossing films from 2007 to 2014, an average of 25 percent of actors were not white. This includes stereotypical portrayals as well as characters with virtually no screen time. Of the top 100 films of 2014, only 17 had a lead or co-lead actor of color. Not only do actors of color receive fewer roles than white actors, but the roles they do get are less complex, dynamic, and engaging. Taking roles away from actors of color compounds this fact, while giving them roles traditionally played by white actors helps to remedy it.
Why is this lack of representation a problem, though? Multiple studies, including one from two Indiana University professors, have shown that consistent exposure to media that lacks positive representation of black characters negatively affects the self-esteem of black children. Lowered self-esteem goes on to affect nearly every aspect of life, including impaired academic and job performance and increased vulnerability to depression and substance abuse.
But let’s argue, for a moment, that you don’t care about any of this. Representation in media is unimportant to you, you don’t care about anyone’s self-esteem except for your own, and you just want superhero movies starring white guys named Chris to keep coming out without all these ‘social justice warriors’ complaining about them.
A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that exposure to characters in media associated with stigmatized or minority groups reduced prejudice towards those groups. The empathy that seeing complex representation of people other than ourselves cultivates is necessary for a just and equal society. Lack of empathy and understanding of marginalized groups only increases that marginalization.
The media that a society creates and consumes shapes that society irrevocably. Media that reinforces negative stereotypes and fails to provide positive representation will create a society that is not inclined to view people of color as complex, real human beings. Because Hollywood films are so prominent in our cultural consciousness, they have a huge effect on shaping the culture we live in.
Doctor Strange’s director, Scott Derrickson, has stated in an interview with The Daily Beastthat the role was given to Swinton because he “felt like [he] was going to be contributing to a bad stereotype” by casting an Asian actor in a role related to mysticism and other Asian stereotypes. This is, of course, an admirable goal. The way to combat stereotypes, however, is not by erasing them, but by negating them. A character is not a stereotype if they are complex and multi-dimensional, and the only way to refute stereotypes is to examine them and show why they are reductive and dehumanizing. The character of The Ancient One may have been an insulting stereotype in the original comics, but adaptations are, at their heart, a means to right the wrongs of the original story.