Hollywood’s upcoming films prove it loves Asian culture – as long as it comes without Asians

by Kelly Kanayama 

When the trailer for Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch dropped a few days ago, parts of the comics Internet were pretty excited. Magic + action + pretend martial arts + a superhero with whom many nerds are familiar but whose name probably wouldn’t be recognised by the average member of the public — this trailer had everything…

…except Asians.

Doctor strange 1It’s an egregious omission considering that the aesthetics and visuals on display in the trailer are taken straight from Asian culture. For instance: golden Thai-inspired temples on mountaintops; robes and jackets that combine the historic fashions of China, Japan and numerous other Asian countries (because they’re all the same anyway); the interior of the building — likely a temple — where Tilda Swinton’s bald martial arts master hangs out is all dark wood and lacquer.

Rubbing salt into the wound is Cumberbatch scoffing that he doesn’t believe “in fairy tales like chakras or energy”, and the fact that Swinton’s character is a whitewashed — albeit female — version of the Ancient One, the Tibetan monk who as “Sorcerer Supreme” instructs Dr. Strange in the use of his powers. Obviously the trope of the Asian mentor to the magical white man was tired before it even began, but there’s a way around it without making an Asian character white. (Need a hint? It involves making both characters Asian.)

In fairness, there is one named Asian cast member who doesn’t appear in the trailer: the excellent Benedict Wong. But it’s not really a victory; he plays Wong, who started out as Dr. Strange’s Chinese houseboy/servant and in more recent years graduated to the role of wisecracking assistant. So we have a white man mastering (pretend) Asian culture while an actual Asian person plays sidekick to his appropriating antics, in the year of our Lord 2016.

Before I go any further, let’s address the plaintive cries of “But Dr. Strange is white in the comics!” that inevitably rise from the whitebro sectors of comics fandom whenever this issue comes up. First of all, in his original Steve Ditko-drawn incarnation, he looks like a racist caricature of a Chinese man (Fu Manchu without the mustache). Why not redress that by casting an actual Chinese or East Asian actor in the role? I’m thinking Tony Leung myself, although others have suggested — based on the cultural origins of Dr. Strange’s magic — casting a wider net to Rami Malek or Alexander Siddig.

Second, the primary reasons to not change a comic book character’s race in film adaptations are:

  1. Recognisability: since most non-comics-reading people would be able to tell you what Superman looks like, for example, he continues to be played by white actors with dark hair. However, the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm in the recent Fantastic Four movie works because the average person on the street probably wouldn’t be able to pick Johnny Storm out of a superhero lineup, so the character doesn’t have to conform to a certain set of features.
  2. If their race is tied to their backstory or significance: this is why you can’t make Black Panther non-black, or the Punisher — who, as a betrayed military veteran who kills criminals and the corrupt in his own city, represents (among other things) the American dream eating itself — non-white.

Dr. Strange and his crew fulfil neither of these criteria, yet the teasers for the movie treat us to scenes like the one below.

Doctor Strange

As Twitter user @bettyfelon put it: “when your non-Asian classmates study abroad in Asia for one semester and come back looking [like] this”.

Didn’t Netflix users already go through this with Marvel’s Daredevil, Season 2 of which centred largely on a white lawyer beating up evil faceless Asian villains because he was better at their own martial arts than they were, and having to choose between a pure-hearted white woman and a morally ambiguous half-white/half-Asian woman?

The above is particularly hurtful for coming out in the same week as the announcement that Scarlett Johansson is playing the lead in a live-action adaptation of the famous anime Ghost in the Shell. In other words, when the people behind the film were looking for the best actor to play a character named Motoko Kusanagi in futuristic urban Japan, they picked this person.

Not that the filmmakers weren’t aware of the limitations involved in casting white actors. They found a way to deal with the problem, which of course didn’t involve casting Asian actors, but instead (reportedly) applied visual effects to make their white actors look Asian. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better story that illustrates how much Hollywood fetishises the trappings of Asianness while ignoring and disrespecting Asian people.

Add to this the uniquely Japanese nature of Ghost in the Shell‘s narrative, as laid out by tweeter @jontsuei — an anime exploring the relationship between the body, humanity and technology, at a time when Japan was the leading producer of technological products from cars to Walkmen and its post-war babies had established new bases for their identities in an unprecedentedly mass-commerce-drive context — and Hollywood’s stance on Asians becomes painfully clear.

We want your stories. We want your clothes. We want your customs, your lore.

We just don’t want you.

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Kelly Kanayama is the Administrative Manager/Editorial Assistant at Media Diversified. Originally from Hawaii, she now lives in Scotland and carries out PhD research into contemporary transatlantic comics  at the University of Dundee. She has written on comics and related media for SciFiNow, NPR: Code Switch, Bitch, Paste, and xoJane. Her poetry on comics and pop culture has been published in the award-winning Lighthouse Literary Journal, Room Magazine, and Ink Sweat & Tears. Other writing can be found on the intersectional feminist geek culture site Women Write About Comics and on Mindless Ones. She also co-hosts the podcast FONFLIF! with comics critic/author/scholar Douglas Wolk.

Her favourite comics include Judge Dredd, Preacher, (almost) anything by Grant Morrison, and Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX. Find her on Twitter at @KellyKanayama.

 

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39 replies

  1. I really wanted to see Dr. Strange. I am not. I am an elderly Asian American. I spent my movie life wanting to be James Bond or some other white dude. Finally I get to see old Asian Man on big screen. Oh, sorry- role taken by young white woman.

    When I was young I believed I belonged in America. Now I am old I belong nowhere. I cannot wait to get there now. Nowhere. No heaven, no hell, just GONE.

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  2. This makes me wonder. When the time comes for Marvel to cast Shang-Chi, will they turn him into a skinny white woman too? I will be very angry if they do but not surprised.

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  3. see kulturemedia.org to understand how Hollywood is weaponized to forment anti-Asian hatred and divide the Asian community. People do not see us as individuals, but as sick stereotypes – exotic and submissive Asian women to be raped and discarded; annoying and ugly Asian men to be ridiculed and slaughtered

    IT is important to send this message to Asians back home especially in China and enforce a total boycott of Western media. They deserve to earn NOTHING from Asians.

    anti-Asian hollywood | http://www.zakkeith.com/articles,blogs,forums/hollywood-asian-stereotypes.htm

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  4. Strange as it may sound (no pun intended), sometimes putting an Asian character in a somewhat Asian character role might actually be a step backward.

    As a Chinese-American, I can just tell you after seeing the image from the Dr. Strange trailer that I would have cringed if one of those dudes wearing Halloween pajamas looked anything like me. As someone who bristles when people ask me where “I’m from (no where are your parents from)”, I’m more concerned about the lack of casting opportunities for Asian Americans, but I’d rather see those open up in more conventional roles.

    Comic book based movie characters are campy and stylzed. They’re stereotypes brought to life on the big screen. If they cast an Asian person into an ambiguously Asian character such as a Dr. Strange, they’re in a strange pickle of trying to be extra culturally sensitive with a character in a genre whose entertainment value mostly is gained from being fun. There would be gags and scenes that they wouldn’t have to think three times about because they might end up appearing blatantly racist if the character involved actually was Asian.

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    • As another Asian person, let me tell you that you are falling for a trap. They’ll write stories about Asians and their cultures all day (as well as steal things without regret) but won’t employ Asians in those roles if they can get a white person to do it. They’ll sell us our processed culture but won’t support us or our culture. They’re harvesting us for stories but don’t want to feed us.

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  5. I think it’s really a relic of the times when America and most of Asia were actually enemies. During WWII, Hollywood, like the rest of the media, portrayed Japan as subhuman, evil, etc. While the rest of society moved on, the circle of people who run Hollywood is pretty small. And until the mid 1970s, the Chinese were considered the enemy too. And now, North Korea is pretty much the number one enemy.

    Ever since WWII happened, America has always either been at war with or has had hostile relations with at least one Asian nation. It’s really true – we have pretty much always been at war with East Asia – as long as most people can remember. And why would we put the faces of people who look like our enemies on our own films?

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  6. “Why not redress that by casting an actual Chinese or East Asian actor in the role? I’m thinking Tony Leung myself, although others have suggested — based on the cultural origins of Dr. Strange’s magic — casting a wider net to Rami Malek or Alexander Siddig.”

    Because nobody knows who those suggestions are. That’s why. When you have $100 million dollars that investors want to get back, you mitigate your risk by casting known entities, not by casting unknowns. It’s business, not racism. And before you argue and say “Yes it is!” tell us that YOU’D risk your entire life savings, home, car, etc. on an unknown risky venture instead of the known probable investment.

    It’s not racism. It’s Capitalism. When investors want a return on their investment, you downsize the risk and that means casting BANKABLE actors who have a track record of getting butts in the seats. If you want to advance the human condition and don’t care about losing your money, then you can cast whoever you want. Until that day, welcome to Capitalism.

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    • That’s actually, racism. Not hiring/casting a certain race because you’re afraid it’ll cut profit, that’s racism. And let’s be real here, bitches would still have money for brunch even if their movie fails.

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    • Except asian countries are grossing more money for blockbusters than in the United States. Some movies box office gross in China, South Korea, and Japan outweigh that of the U.S. If Hollywood was smart they would cast more Asian actors because they will sell even more in these regions. Who was Jackie Chan in the United States before Rumble In The Bronx? You can have bankable Asian stars easily if they are given the opportunity.

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    • Racism is fueled by capitalism and propagates racism, therefore capitalism is racist. When all the big companies are white and wanting to appeal to a white audience with white demographics and white testing groups of course they’re going to end up wanting a whiter audience. Just because it’s capitalist douchebaggery doesn’t mean it’s not also racist. They go hand in hand.

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    • That leads to the question of why there are not more bankable Asian actors, which leads to the author’s point. It is more or less a closed system, change has to start somewhere.

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  7. I think your heart is in the right place, though the execution is all wrong. In a country that is predominantly non-asian (read 95%), the majority of film and television roles will be written for people of other cultures. Not due to racism, but simple demographics. If we want to see more of ourselves on screen – we are going to need to be cast in roles that may have been written for other cultures.

    A perfect example of this would be Bokeem Woodbine playing Mike Milligan in the latest season of Fargo. Contextually a black man being part of drug cartel in North Dakota in the 60s/70s makes very little sense, but Bokeem Woodbine’s brilliance as an actor provides the magic to make it seem plausible. Your logic that only a person of a specific background can play a character of said background is really limiting in this respect. We need more open doors, not fewer. I’m also afraid insisting asians play asian roles, and blacks play black roles will only feed into the stereotypes of what it is to be asian, or black. Conceivably an russian man born in Tokyo could be far more ‘asian’ than a Japanese girl born in Austin.

    At the end of the day – the very heart of acting is not who an actor is – their race, gender, or sexuality – but their ability to make you believe in the character they are playing.

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  8. Someone above said this is an issue with Marvel, not entirely Hollywood… and I have to agree this is true for one particular reason:

    In the last Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie (which was produced by Michael Bay) they hired Japanese-American actor Tohoru Masamune (This could have been a reaction to people seeing a white person whom they assumed would be Shredder, but hey, they fixed the.issue). In the second installment, they have a different but still Japanese-American actor to play Shredder, Brian Tee. So that means we have two movies, both being produced by MICHAEL BAY, and they’re actually sticking to keeping the ethnicity of their characters true.

    Of course, one could point out how Shredder is a villain, which in turn paints the idea that Asian actors can only be cast for villains… but that’s another debate for another time.

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    • Because one example shows that a non-marvel movie tried harder to be less racist, all of Hollywood is absolved? Are you kidding me?

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    • “Conceivably an russian man born in Tokyo could be far more ‘asian’ than a Japanese girl born in Austin.”

      Oddly enough that is not necessarily true. When I lived in China, I knew a person who’s parents (American and Italian) stayed on after the revolution. She was born and raised in China, spoke better Chinese than English, and people treated her like a foreigner her whole life.

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  9. Why are some people so eaten up with race, sex, religion, skin color, nationality, etc.? Can’t they see people for the content of their character and the deeds rather than packaging? If Jesus [for example] could give a good sermon, does it matter if he looked like an effeminate blonde Western European or a curly-headed Middle Easterner?

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    • It does matter when you never, ever see any representation of the Divine that looks like you. Go to Southern Mexico and see how fucked up it is seeing entire rooms of brown people with an image of a blonde on the wall that they’re worshipping. There isn’t a blonde man for miles around. Stories – all stories – are meant to function as mirrors back to the people so it’s a severe, psycho-illness creating situation when 95% of the world is forced to swallow mass media (storytelling) that tells them that they actually don’t even exist, and if they do, only in ways that serve the egos of and usage by white-skinned people.

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  10. Yes. Asians should play roles of Asian characters. But to be fair, the same problem kinda exist across the Pacific. Go watch some Chinese and Indian movies. There are many Caucasian roles that are played by Asians. Many a time the fake white blondes and black men are so obvious it is comical.

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  11. I agree there could be more diversity in Hollywood film, but unfortunately they’re investments.

    Once you start investing millions into a film, cast whomever you like.

    Again I agree more diverse would be fantastic, but complaining about it, is like being angry at someone on wall Street buying stock in Apple because they’re too big, and its unfair to the smaller companies.

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  12. Oh, but don’t worry. They’ve cast an Asian to play Iron Fist, the Kung Fu superhero who used to pretty much entirely represent Asian cultural appropriation. Oh wait, no, they didn’t. They cast another white guy for that role… And bear in mind, most of this isn’t just Hollywood. It’s Marvel in particular.

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  13. Although i agree that some characters have been played by white charecters and can easily be played by just as good other raced characters i do feel some of the character’s actors such as for Doctor Strange is well fit. YES Comics have been obviously racially biased. YES they have tried to band aid the problem by sticking a stereotypical backround to heroes and sideckicks and called it racial equality but that doesn’t make every white character undeserving of their role. *spoilers Daredevil did beat the hell out of some ninjas with their own martial art mixed in with some other fighting techniques. But they were focusing on the fact that he is blind and doing this. Not because he is white. Im not going weigh in too much on the ghost in shell thing because its in my top 3 favorite anime and im very pick about the actor. And not that sacrlet johansesn is my favorite ive been hearing alot of actresses names thrown out there just because they are asian and did martial arts in a movie one time and were popular(this isnt just one actress either)
    And to comics side they ARE trying to give better non stereotypical backrounds to characters so no i don’t think it is mostly controlled by white america anymore. Its just a slow process. Instead of wishing they change th e ethnicity of characters already set in alot of people’s minds lets start focusing on creating new material that has a fresh face that is set our new world of more open minded people that can see something more than just race. And no im not white

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  14. That was brilliant, the idea of a less racial divide in Hollywood and more equality is a much needed issue that needs to be voiced out for. Hollywood has all the tools to be global…they just prefer to go global keeping racial diversity and equality at bay because maybe they fear it won’t sell?

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  15. My pick for playing Motoko Kusanagi is Keiko Kitagawa – a well qualified Japanese actress who speaks excellent English. It would be reasonable compensation for her speaking scenes being cut in Fast & Furious 3: Tokyo Drift.

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  16. that would be awesome if they were mixed raced family and they were foster children, but they arent and was never explained and like the og post says if you dont know Johnny storms character you would never know they are from a mixed raced family and even coming from a mixed race family effect the character and their background. so it proves the point further that race does effect background. Dr. strange did come out looking asian BUT the comic switched his race not hollywood so my question is why attack the series now? why feel they are white washing now when they did it years ago in the comic? i will also insists on a very racially diverse cast if it doesn’t effect the story. like og post says it would make no sense to make black panther back or even black talon a different race because changing their race will effect their story and background and who they are. but Johnny storms it effects his background, so it doesn’t make sense to use him as an example. but dr strange has two races that could be portrayed in the movie that wont effect his character background or story since they could go with either orgin. it like making spider man black, it wont change his story at all, making johnny black well explain how him and his white sister sue are related not act like arent related at all. it changes the characters out look and changes how their views. Im native american, i never seen a native american actor on stage in a marvel movie. but thats not going to be the case any time soon since i know marvel native american character’s arent popular. but i enjoy the comics and the movies. this post by OG is just complaining about a thing that happend years ago and its “effecting” them now because its back in pop culture, they had years to complain about it.if your not a comic book fan then his race wont bother you because you never read the comic so you wouldnt know. if you are a comic book fan his race wont bother you because you read the comic and knew about the race change. just enjoy the movie and stop tacking your agenda to a simple movie. if you dont like it dont watch it, go make your own Dr.Strange movie that simple.

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  17. your number one contradicts your number two… having Michael B. Jordan does effect his background story. since Susan storm and johnny storm are related (the invisible woman) they are brother and sister so yes it does effect his whole story and his character. if they made both sue and johnny african american then it wouldnt be a issue but changing a siblings race and acting like they arent siblings is changing their whole background story.

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      • yes they can be, but they never touched or acted like they were siblings in the movie but just normal friends not related by any way. and being adopted changes someones out look on how they say things since it a different experience then already being in a family, even if their parents remarry and they were children of other fathers or mothers and they became one family that still changes their orgin story thus changing their character’s out look on certain scenarios. being adopted is changing the characters story. so yes its a problem.

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        • That problem was more down to the fact that Fantastic 4 was an awful film, and the final product was far removed from what the director (Josh Trank) has intended. I agree there was little depth in the characterisation with Johnny and Sue, but that was down to aspects unrelated to their race. There was little depth to any of the characters, or the story.

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    • It’s not unprecedented to have blind casting, in which case people–even people who are related–might be of different ethnicities and/or races (in blind casting, it’s understood that race has no bearing on who is cast. A famous example of this is the 1990s version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing).

      I didn’t see F4, but I just checked out the casting, and a black actor was cast as Franklin Storm. I don’t see any credits for Mary, but if she was white and Franklin is black then it’s in no way inconceivable that they could have one child who looks black and one child who looks black.

      Additionally, as another poster mentioned, there’s adoption.

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  18. This is so relevant, and something that’s really bothered me for many years. I’m white, but I’m a foster parent and I’ve experienced the challenge and awesomeness of having a mixed-race family. Finding children’s toys, books, games and movies that feature kids of all races is a challenge. If my novels ever get turned into movies (not likely, but a girl can dream) I have always imagined that I will super laid-back, except for one thing: I will insist on a very racially diverse cast.
    Thanks for fighting the good fight and pushing for more diverse media. It makes a difference, and hopefully one day we’ll see reality portrayed more fully in pop-culture!

    Liked by 1 person

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