In part 1 of a 3-series audio review, Dawn Xiana Moon and Michi Trota review the first 4 episodes of Netflix’s latest series, Marvel’s Iron Fist. They’d fully intended to watch 6 episodes but apparently they didn’t have enough cake and cocktails to make it any further. Part 2 will cover episodes 5-9, and Part 3 will cover episodes 10-13, with a special audio track of Dawn and Michi reviewing the finale as they watch it after briefly recapping episodes 10-12.
by Genevra Littlejohn
An apocryphal story about the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi tells that while he was staying at an inn, he chanced to overhear the man next door exploding in rage after receiving a letter and a peony from the city’s most skilled swordmaster. The message was a polite rejection of the man’s invitation to duel, accompanied by a flower to soften the blow, but incensed, he threw letter and flower into the garbage. Musashi claimed the flower, and realized instantly that the peony–a flower with a delicate stalk, easily bruised or mangled–had been cut with a single crisp sword stroke, so smoothly that the stem had kept its shape.
The man in the next room over did not have the knowledge to recognize what he had been given; unequivocal proof of the samurai’s mastery. All he saw was the story his own ego was telling him. He could not see the cut.
Upon seeing the teaser photos for Netflix’s new live action Iron Fist adaptation, my immediate thought was of the Japanese martial art of kendo. “Kendo without respect is just grown men playing with sticks.” Bow to shomen, bow to Sensei, bow to opponents, fight with sincerity, swing with 100-percent effort. Our kun, the dojo motto that we repeated after every practice, began with a phrase which translated to “Please cut me.” Please challenge me to grow, please cut away the parts of me that prevent me from being a better human being. Even if it stings.
Those first release photos show actor Finn Jones, the titular Iron Fist, to be using a shinai–the bamboo practice sword used for swinging and sparring, meant to represent a katana–which does not fit him. It is the size which would be handed to a ten-year-old child. Even though a practice sword is made of bamboo and leather it is held and swung like the real thing. There’s a dedicated “cutting” edge. Jones is holding his child-sized shinai upside-down, with the edge pointed at his own face.
These are the first-release photos for this show, meant to court potential audiences and raise a buzz. They are supposed to show Jones’ character in his mastery, the intimidating martial arts superhero, but what I see is a grown man playing with a stick.
A new shinai is bound tight with red cotton string. The very first thing done upon receipt of it is that the string is cut to allow the separate bamboo staves to have room to flex on impact. A tied shinai is too dangerous to use against another human being. The four staves are locked together into one solid piece, which in sparring could cause a concussion or shatter a wrist. Every shinai visible in any of the photos is still tied with its little red strings.
It’s jarring to witness, this thing which is obvious to a kendoka, invisible to someone with no cultural or personal martial arts experience. It’s like a secret story being whispered inside the presented narrative. Because untying a shinai is such a simple thing, the work of thirty seconds, and in a show purportedly about martial arts the studio didn’t care enough to get it right–and now every shinai in that supposed dojo is a tool it would be disrespectful to use in an actual practice, if not straight-up murderous. We want to play with your toys, but we don’t want to have to work to understand them, the whisper goes. Don’t worry, we’ll tell you what it all means.
Iron Fist was an opportunity to challenge American audiences to believe that Asian people are individuals, capable of the full complement of human emotions and motivations. It was a chance to show that the Asian-American experience is as valid and real as the white American one, even if that made viewers a little uncomfortable. Whether through ignorance, or laziness, or greed, the showrunners transformed what could have been subtle strikes into the blows of blunt instruments good only for causing injury. I can’t help but wonder what other elements of the show will display the same lack of care, the same double story of congratulation when seen through white eyes and disrespect through Asian ones.
My second thought, upon seeing those photos, was “Wait. Is he doing kung fu?”
I consulted an instructor with twenty years of practice behind him, and he agreed that what we were looking at was an attempt at wushu or kung fu. In particular, Finn is performing a straight sword form. The Chinese straight sword is a double-edged weapon, unlike the single-edged Japanese katana; it is used for horizontal motions, figure-eight cuts, slashes and wicked flicks with the thinner and more flexible blade. A comparably stiffer katana would recoil or, worse, twist in its wielder’s hands and lodge in muscle or bone if used in this form. In an emergency, against great need, it could be done, as my instructor friend demonstrated for me with my own shinai. But even with his decades of practice, it was easy to see that the form was not well-matched to the weapon. His usual fluidity took on a subtle cramping, the motion of his wrist lost its suppleness due to the length of the hilt.
Iron Fist is only the most recent example of a mismatch that can be seen across many movies and television shows down the years. Forbidden Kingdom, The Last Samurai, David Carradine made more famous by a role designed for Bruce Lee. Filmmakers who would never confuse German culture with French casually demand Korean actors to show up to auditions in kimono, or only invite popular Chinese actresses to audition for the roles of Japanese historical figures.
Our Asian and Asian-American religious traditions, our architecture, our cuisine, are all indistinguishable from one another in the stories being told about us. You’d think that we’d get used to it. But when I heard that Netflix was doing an Iron Fist adaptation, I thought about everything that they got right, first with Jessica Jones, and then with Luke Cage almost immediately afterward. A show about a woman where she behaved like an actual woman might do, right or wrong, conflicted and angry and real; a show about a black man where the character was allowed nuance and depth and an authentically black upbringing that white viewers might find a little out of their experience. I thought that at last we might get to see an Asian-American character portrayed like a human being instead of an incense-scented, silk-clad set piece there to dispense black tea and opaque wisdoms only understood in retrospect. There was such potential!
Instead, we are commanded to cheer for the same weary tale we’ve always been handed, about a white man who goes off to learn from Asian masters and then outpaces them. A man who takes just a little time off from his real life and becomes adept at someone else’s life’s art. We see the main character standing in his street shoes on a Japanese dojo floor, making a very poor attempt at a Chinese fighting stance with a weapon that cannot possibly belong to him.
The show’s creators expect us to see only the flower, not the cut.
Kendo is a little different from many other martial arts in that it is always practiced with a partner. A kendoka can swing on their own, practice footwork on their own, but all kata is paired. All active striking is against another person. Even though they go into every sparring match striving to do the very best that they can, to win, to strike and not be hit, the philosophy of the art demands unselfishness. As development in the art matures a practitioner will begin to see a difference in how others practice. They might begin to overhear the Sensei referring to one practitioner’s kendo as “selfish,” or another’s as “generous.” The phrase isn’t discussing making it easy on one’s opponent, it’s about sincerity, about respecting one’s opponent as a human being inside the armor. About not sparring lazily, about giving good effort no matter whether fighting a stranger or a friend. Part of respectful practice is to think about what is being provided to the other person; a young student hears over and over that if they are on the attack, they must show the respect of striking cleanly, and if they are acting as the receiver of strikes, they must still challenge their opponent, remembering that it is only because there is another person present that improvement can be made. When they drift off and daydream about striking during the time to be struck, when they selfishly begin to think of people just as targets, their kendo becomes weak.
Everything I am seeing about this production demonstrates selfishness. They are simply not even thinking about huge portions of their potential audience, and because they have that little respect for the cultures they are drawing from–and presumably that little respect for their own martial artist stuntfolk, so many years of experience dismissed, knowledge of their own heritage dismissed, treated as useful bodies with no mouths.
It’s not merely the purposeful racism of “we should probably hire an Asian actor to play this role, but we’ll hire a white guy anyway,” it’s an ignorance with no desire to become educated. Since it all looks the same anyway, why bother spending the time and effort on legitimacy? Throw a dojo in there and fill it with people who can’t tie their belts, nobody important is going to know the difference. Make sure the soundtrack has an erhu in it, that’ll make it other enough to be exciting. A sword is a sword, and the portrait of one bearded old Asian man on the dojo wall is the same as any other. And the result is this: the white man walks to the middle of the dojo floor in his street shoes, not caring that his barefooted practicemates will now have to navigate the debris he strews behind him. He picks up a sword meant for a child, and without preparing it for use he clumsily demonstrates a form from the wrong culture with it. And though the show is not yet released, I’d be willing to bet money that we, and everyone standing in that school, are supposed to be impressed.
What kind of story do these showrunners want to tell? Without respect, a story they are telling about a culture not their own becomes nothing but grown adults acting out old racist games, and demanding we applaud.
Genevra Littlejohn is a queer, Filipino-American martial artist who lives in the woods with her partner and a cuddlesome cat. If she’s not at practice or reading, she’s probably in the garden, crooning at her tomatoes.
by Marianne Eloise
There are some cultural objects that many of us dismiss as trash, often sight unseen. This is in part due to taste cultures; in our society the tastes of educated cis straight white men are considered ‘high’, while products that appeal to anyone else are ‘low’ (Jenkins 1992 p.17). I have previously written for TLF on high-low culture regarding Twilight (2008); here I will be looking at television and male fandom. Why do so many dismiss certain media? After all, the decisions we make regarding taste are rarely organic, and that there is no universal definition of ‘good’ taste.
This essay focuses on television aimed at young women – in particular Warner Bros. teen drama The O.C. (Josh Schwartz 2003-2007); looking firstly at its massive cultural impact, but also at its male fans and detractors. It will be exploring the idea that men often dismiss products that they believe are aimed at women or children. The O.C. has been carefully selected as a case study because it best exemplifies the strong positive and negative reactions that audiences can have to certain media, regardless of its success.
The reactions to The O.C. demonstrate the idea that men often dismiss products that they believe are aimed at women or children.
The O.C. may have had a cultural impact in 2003, but due to its perceived status as a teen drama there is an instantaneous dismissal of it by some viewers; leaving its fans to feel ashamed. This will affirm the idea that taste cultures are arbitrated by upper-class white males and, whilst teenaged girls are avid consumers of television, their tastes are not considered legitimate. My argument is not that The O.C. is inherently good, nor that anything is above criticism, but that in its status as entertainment it should not be criticised solely for its perceived ‘feminine’ associations.
The O.C. was an American TV show that ran from 2003-2007 on the FOX channel; the debut work of 26-year-old creator Josh Schwartz, who wanted to document his feelings as a white Jewish LA transplant from the East Coast. The show is centred on the lives of wealthy teenagers and their parents in a prestigious and largely fictitious version of Newport Beach, Orange County. It begins with central character (and Chino native) Ryan stealing a car; wealthy lawyer Sandy Cohen defends him and, upon seeing Ryan’s rough home life, opts to take him in.
Despite the Cohen’s wealth, Sandy is from a poor white Jewish family from the Bronx; and his background gives the family down-to-earth values and thus, distance from the WASPy and similarly placed white people of Newport Beach. This distance and Ryan’s own confusion enable the show to become a satire of shows such as 90210, which deal with the exploits of over-privileged teenagers. However, despite this cynical viewpoint of the privileged people of Newport, the show still functions as a sincere teen drama.
The O.C. received critical appraisal, and was viewed by as many as 9.7 million people in its first season. It promoted extraneous material, official soundtracks, merchandise, and a number of parodies in sketch shows such as Saturday Night Live. All of this only goes to show that for teenagers in the early 2000s, The O.C. was formative. But despite all of this, it is still often considered as ‘low’ in the cultural canon; even by its fans.
But why are men reticent to admit that they watch a show equally as targeted at them as at women? The show’s creators were aware of the stigma surrounding teen dramas, and opted to take a “post-modern twist” (Meyer p.455) on a familiar genre. Josh Schwartz describes the show as a ‘Trojan horse’: a glossy outer skin that sneaks in “soulful, quirky characters” and social commentary. He has not spoken against the teen genre, only stating that we live in a “post-everything” universe and everything has to be done ironically. (huffingtonpost 2013).
For this study and in an attempt to explore the complex notion of fan-shame, I interviewed several men in the age range 23-35, who were around 14-26 when The O.C. was last on television. This ensured that when the show ended, the men were within the intended audience. I asked these men whether they knew of the show, and for those with strong responses, I conducted longer interviews. My final interviewees were: Sam and Ben, both proud fans of the show, Jake, a secret fan, and Josh, a male who has not watched the show but hates it. The main questions asked of fans were:
- How did you first start watching The O.C.? (Flipping channels, intentionally,
through a friend, etc.)
- Are you ashamed to be a fan? Who would you disclose that information to?
- What do you like about it?
The questions asked of detractors were similar:
- Have you watched many episodes of The O.C.?
- Why don’t you like it?
- How do you feel about other shows – Desperate Housewives (Marc Cherry 2004), Gilmore Girls (Amy Sherman-Palladino 2000), Gossip Girl (Josh Schwartz 2007), etc?
Through these questions I hoped to understand what it is that detractors not only dislike about the show, but how they justify their dislike when they haven’t seen it. I also aimed to gauge their feelings about shows that are assumed similar despite massive differences to try and get a picture of whether or not their dislike of The O.C. is a case of bias.
Through the fan questions I wanted to understand why men who love the show often keep it as a guilty pleasure, only disclosing the information when someone else initiates the conversation. I also wanted to see how viewers got into the show, and whether they intended to get sucked in. I expect to find that the reason men dislike the show is the same as the reason why fans are ashamed to admit it – because of The O.C.’s association with teen drama, and therefore, the assumption that it is for women.
Many of the men I spoke to for my study had not even watched The O.C., and had based their opinion on a snap decision made on the basis that it was a “teen drama” “for girls”; proving again that we instantaneously dismiss anything associated with female viewers. Were this statement true their dismissal would still be unwarranted, however, it is not. The women of The O.C. are multi-faceted, interesting, and likeable characters – but this is not their story.
The story of The O.C. is told primarily through the eyes of a handful of male main characters, with the women occupying secondary roles; they only come into the narrative as partners of the men.
In secondary research, I found some academic work on The O.C. – thus proving its status as a cultural phenomenon. The show’s funny, postmodern critique of Orange County life proved incredibly popular and had lasting impact overnight. Writer Alan Sepinwall, author of Revolution was Televised (Sepinwall 2012) and Stop Being a Hater and Learn to Love the O.C. (Sepinwall 2004), has worked to break down assumptions about the show since its first season. He holds the position that the only thing standing between a hate of the show and a love of it is letting go of the stigma that surrounds soaps and teen drama. He even ranks it alongside shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997) and Breaking Bad (2007) as changing the nature of television on the whole. The blurb of Stop Being a Hater and Learn to Love the O.C. caters to an ashamed audience – “why watch a teenage drama when you’re now twentysomething?” and whilst the first few pages are dedicated to arguing the show’s legitimacy and that it is “not just a soap opera”, the book primarily exists as a companion to the show (Sepinwall 2004 p.3). If nothing else this book’s existence proves one thing – that there are male fans of The O.C.
One piece, Masculinities in the O.C. by Elizabeth Meyer (Meyer 2012), provides a dismissal of the show on another basis – not that it is associated with women, but that it isn’t feminist enough. She chose to watch the show as she recognised that in 2003 her entire class had been watching it, proving its ubiquity. Throughout her analysis, however, she states that the women occupy unlikeable archetypes and consequently, a show that had appeared to break gender norms had simply reinforced them (Meyer 2012 p.455). This is a matter of opinion – she may not like the female characters, but they only occupy archetypes in so far as all characters do. Critics have otherwise praised the portrayal of the women as interesting characters who occupy similar screen time to the men (huffingtonpost 2013).
Meyer concludes that despite the show’s attempts to subvert norms of masculinity, it lacks the ability to battle problematic ideologies in Hollywood and instead joins the ‘boys’ club’. (Meyer 2012 p.60). This may be true, but what Meyer is missing is that the show does not have to have a political message. It is entertainment, and never claimed to be anything more. The very fact that her students – both male and female – were engaging with a genre previously assumed as “women’s media” is interesting enough. It is unfair to place the onus of political change on a mainstream media product – despite its occasionally subversive or self-reflexive nature, The O.C. should still be judged within its own parameters for what is to be reasonably expected from a television show in 2003.
What is interesting about this study is that Meyer recognised an audience of men and women – meaning that men were freely admitting to their enjoyment. Nine years after The O.C. ended I faced difficulty in tracking down male fans that were willing to discuss their fandom, which could be indicative of a change in attitudes or behaviours since 2003-2007. Or it could be due to the fact that during its initial run, there were simply more viewers. Those that I have spoken to who have continued re-watching or who remember watching it are more likely to be die-hard fans or fanatical haters – it is hard to find anyone watching it organically so long after the finale aired, as it’s near impossible to happen across The O.C. during channel flipping. For this reason, my focus group is far smaller than it would have been in 2003.
My first subject was Jake, aged 24. He was just 11 when the show aired, but remembered it fondly. I tread lightly at first, asking him if he liked it – to which he was reluctant to disclose. He said that he “thought it was okay” and I asked my first question – after confessing that I was a fan. He told me that he “watched it because [I] was in love with Mischa Barton”. This answer is interesting, as he appears to be admitting to being a fan whilst self-consciously retaining an amount of masculinity and heterosexuality. I asked what kept him watching – and he stated that he developed something of a “man crush” on lead actor Adam Brody, and that he felt like he “was him”. When asked what he liked about it, Jake remembered that it was funny. I asked if he was ashamed to like it, and he said yes.
Despite earlier claiming to “kind of remember it”, after a while Jake leapt into vivid descriptions of storylines and confessed that he stopped watching after Marissa died in a dramatic season three finale because he was “heartbroken”. I asked him why he was ashamed to watch it, and he said simply that it was “for girls”. He confessed to gauging the conversation and my reactions before freely discussing how much he enjoyed it. I found a lot of things about this discussion interesting – firstly, his attempt at preserving masculinity. This indicates that there is an assumption that there is anything emasculating about enjoying teen drama – a cultural understanding that it is not for men. Jake actively denied himself the pleasure that he felt discussing the show in order to appear more masculine.
Next I spoke to Josh, aged 27. I asked firstly if he had seen the show – to which he said he “might have caught some of it on TV once”. I asked if he had liked it, to which he appeared shocked that I would even ask. “Of course not!”. I asked why, to which he responded: “I hate all of that stuff.” I asked him to elaborate, but what he deemed “all of that stuff” was unclear. I asked him how he felt about other, perceived similar, shows – such as 90210, Gilmore Girls, and Desperate Housewives. He said that he hated “shows about teenagers in high school whining”. I asked him if he had ever watched any of the above, and if not, how did he know he hated it? He said he hadn’t, and that he hated them all sight unseen as they were “tacky, crass, and lacking story”. I asked what genres of film and television he did enjoy, and he told me that he watched torture porn and enjoyed “pushing himself”.
What I found interesting was that whereas Jake openly admitted that his shame was due to the show being “for girls”, Josh was careful not to say this at any point. Instead, he freely stated opinions of the show that are frequently attached to criticism of women’s media – that soaps, dramas, and other similar shows are simply idle gossip for women (Baym 2000 p.45). Whilst Josh’s interview was disheartening, it was not surprising. His vehement reaction to my mention of a show such as The O.C. is in part responsible for the shame that other male fans feel upon expressing their interest.
My third interviewee was Sam, aged 24. He was only 10 when The O.C. began and therefore didn’t watch it at the time, so I asked how he had managed to get into it. He told me that he had been “forced to watch it by [my] girlfriend” – similarly to Jake, when confronted with enjoyment of The O.C., Sam reinforced his heterosexuality. He told me that he found himself enjoying it against his will and again, identifying with the primary character of Seth. After his introduction, Sam found himself “sucked in” and watched the show in its entirety. Four times. Despite initial shame surrounding his enjoyment and his admittance even now that he feels it’s “for girls”, Sam confessed that he now goes as far as to consistently defend the show against “hate”. I asked him how he felt about similar shows and interestingly, wherein Jake did not like those at all, and Josh had never seen them, Sam was also a fan. It was the same story – he was exposed to it against his will over the course of an episode or two, and found himself enjoying it. I asked what he liked about it and I received a simple, if honest answer – “it’s funny”.
My final interviewee and one that I choose to include because of his status as an outlier is Ben, 33. Ben considers himself someone who was a fan when The O.C. was on TV, and was 20 during its initial run – perhaps a little older than its intended audience. Ben got into the show when he developed a crush on Marissa – much like Jake, and in keeping with my hypothesis that men often state a “masculine” reason for watching the show. Like many of my other subjects Ben also related heavily to Seth, even getting his haircut. However, Ben dropped off from the series around the second season as its scheduling clashed with his job. Regardless, when he found out that Marissa Cooper had died in season 3, he says that he and another friend were “dramatic” in their reaction to it. When I asked Ben whether he ever felt shame surrounding his love of The O.C. or that it was too girly, he told me that he “loved girly things” and everyone in his friend group watched it. This supports two of my ideas: 1, that outside influences from peers determine how men interact with a product (Ben had left school in 2004) and 2, that it wasn’t so unusual for men to like it at the time; it has become assumed so over the years. While Ben’s story is different to many of the other men I spoke to, I believe his answers still back up my original theory.
From these interviews and others that I conducted, it was clear that despite the show being critically and culturally lauded, despite its male characters, and despite its hard-hitting themes of alcoholism and other issues – people still shun it due to the belief that it is for girls. This assumption leads to a mass dismissal of the show, as often happens with media associated with women. Interestingly, though, The O.C. was overwhelmingly marketed as a show for men and women – even insofar as releasing his and hers perfume in 2003 (theocinsider.com 2006). But somehow, through its association with teen drama or due to its female audience, it has become assumed as “for girls” and therefore dismissed.
This assumption leads to not only unfair denigration of the show, but to ingrained shame in the male fans that do enjoy it. This shame is circular, because the quieter the fans remain; the less likely it is that other men will change their opinion. Our dismissal of certain media only serves to reinforce damaging hierarchies. This piece aimed to fill a gap in O.C. scholarship with fan studies, and encourage the reader to unpack their own prejudices and assumptions regarding taste. I would like my audience to consider that women can not only be consumers of popular media, but can also be tastemakers; and that their approval of a show might even affirm its legitimacy as a male viewer’s would.
Marianne Eloise is an MA film graduate and freelance writer who has been published on Dazed, Noisey, Hello Giggles, and more. You can follow her on Twitter @marianne_eloise
by Dawn Xiana Moon and Michi Trota
“Every writer on the Orient (and this is true even of Homer) assumes some Oriental precedent, some previous knowledge of the Orient, to which he refers and on which he relies. Additionally, each work on the Orient affiliates itself with other works, with audiences, with institutions, with the Orient itself. The ensemble of relationships between works, audiences, and some particular aspects of the Orient therefore constitutes an analyzable formation.”
―Edward W. Said, Orientalism
This review of Doctor Strange by two Asian-American women focuses on imagination and the problematic reality it creates. It feels more urgent than ever to encourage art that shows how people of color are human, not Other; we bleed and hope and dream, too. As a reader and viewer, know that the issues we bring up aren’t abstractions; whitewashing, White Savior tropes, and Orientalist stereotypes lead to treating real people as less than equal, as less than human. It leads to minorities thinking of ourselves as less than equal, less than human. And that’s why this matters so much.
As fans who share an Asian-American/Pacific Islander heritage, it’d been next to impossible for us to ignore the discussions that sprang up around Doctor Strange, particularly following the news that Tilda Swinton, a white woman, had been cast as the Ancient One, a polarizing choice for a character who had originally been Asian in the comics. Both of us unapologetically brought our own experiences and perspectives to this film: Dawn is Chinese by way of Singapore and moved to the US at the age of five; though a well-versed geek, she came to Doctor Strange fresh. Michi, a US-born and raised Filipina, knew Strange’s story from almost two decades of reading the comics.
Like several of its predecessors in the MCU, most particularly Iron Man, Doctor Strange gives us an origin story of a rule-breaking, entitled, arrogant, rich white man who realizes he’s been selfishly squandering his true talents. He becomes a hero thanks to the insights and literal sacrifice of a wise teacher. Only this time instead of Robert Downey, Jr. being kidnapped by scary brown terrorists in the Middle Eastern desert, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch journeying to the mysterious East – but only after Western medicine has failed him.
The story of a lost white man traveling to the East to “find his true self” is one we’ve seen before, even outside of the Marvel universe (see: Batman Begins) and unfortunately a story we’re going to be subjected to again (see: The Great Wall); the Mighty Whitey savior journeying to an exotic pastiche of Asian cultural cliches is a well-worn trope, and in these stories only white men are allowed to break the rules, which they do with impunity.
Let’s get the million dollar question out of the way first: Did we enjoy Doctor Strange?
Actually, yes, for the most part we did, as it is entirely possible to both enjoy a film and find aspects of its execution to be distressingly problematic. As an introduction to a new corner of the MCU, Doctor Strange successfully piques interest about what mysticism in the Marvel universe looks like. While visits to the “multiverse” feel like a bad 70’s acid trip, the reality-bending cityscapes are stunning MC Escher-style creations that make Inception seem tame by comparison. Marvel’s trademark, snarky humor is used to entertaining (if somewhat predictable) effect. Strange’s Cloak of Levitation turns out to be the JARVIS to his Stark, with a distinctive personality that comes through without a single line of dialogue. If Marvel has any sense, it’ll run a Pixar-style short starring that cloak at the start of the next MCU movie.
By now it’s fairly easy to predict what you’re getting with an MCU movie, and while that formula has been generally successful, its execution in Doctor Strange is what ultimately weakens the film. For all its visual flash and strong performances, Doctor Strange makes perplexing choices that purport to tackle complex questions of ego, mortality, choice, and consequences, but end up timidly skimming the surface of those issues while asking us to believe it’s gone as deep as it can. Even more frustrating is the film’s unwillingness to attempt anything more than a cursory acknowledgement of the problematic Eastern Exoticism underpinnings to Strange’s story. The result is mixture of shallow characterization, missed opportunities, and the unshakeable feeling that we’ve already been on this exact same ride. It also contributes to the missteps Doctor Strange makes attempting to avoid the comic’s problematic origins and characterization.
For a movie that wants to impart a message about how binaries can be deceptive because life is full of gray areas and moral complexities, the filmmakers’ approach to addressing Doctor Strange’s complicated history with Eastern Exoticism and White Savior tropes is disappointingly simplistic, particularly regarding their approach to the role of the Ancient One. Either the Ancient One is Asian and thus the stereotypical wise martial arts master, or he’s recast as a white woman, adding “diversity” on one axis at the expense of erasing a marginalized group that already lacks representation. It’s an erasure that’s especially stinging, coming swiftly on the heels of other casting decisions that placed white women in the roles of Asian characters: Scarlett Johanssen in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell and Emma Stone in Aloha.
It’s a shame the filmmakers apparently couldn’t conceive of the possibility that the Ancient One could be an Asian woman without falling into the dreaded Dragon Lady mold, particularly given the appallingly short shrift Asian women (not to mention women of color in general) are currently getting in the MCU and media at large. In Western culture, Asian women are hypersexualized, portrayed as fragile submissives or exotic seductresses; neither can resist their white male saviors. It’s a story with deep white colonialist roots that’s been sold to audiences since 1904’s Madama Butterfly and so embedded in our culture that almost every Asian-American woman could share personal experiences about encounters with “yellow fever.”
How refreshing it could’ve been then, to see an Asian woman as the Ancient One, a wise mystic and deadly warrior in a position demanding authority over and respect from someone like Doctor Strange. How reaffirming it would have been to see an Asian woman imparting wisdom and experience to him without falling for his white male charms (even though she had taken lovers from among her fellow sorcerers before). Having the Ancient One played by an Asian woman might not have helped Doctor Strange pass the Bechdel Test, but at least it would have expanded an area of representation desperately lacking in the MCU and provided an opportunity for more interesting characterization.
As it is, Mordo, one of the Ancient One’s most loyal sorcerers (in a solid performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor), explains in passing why a white woman is leading a group of warrior sorcerer monks based in Kathmandu, Nepal: She’s old (no one knows how old) and she’s Celtic. But there’s nothing about the Ancient One reflecting a Celtic heritage besides that single throw away line – everything else about her, from the robes she wears to the form of martial arts fans her magic takes when she manifests it as weaponry, is unmistakably derived from Asian cultures. Frankly, it’s sloppy world-building: If your character is going to be Celtic, make her Celtic. The filmmakers don’t, clearly believing that a few words of dialogue absolve them of the basic writers’ axiom, “Show, don’t tell.” The result is that Swinton’s admittedly nuanced and subtle performance is unavoidably wrapped in the trappings of Orientalism while simultaneously whitewashing an Asian face from a major role in a film that’s already overwhelmingly white in spite of its global setting.
On the surface, the film wants to have a global feel: Our heroes are charged with protecting sanctums in London, New York, and Hong Kong, with the sorcerers’ base of Kamar-Taj located in Nepal; besides the obvious omission of locations in South America and Africa, collectively home to nearly a quarter of the world’s population, there’s a failure of imagination in that every sanctum feels like an Asian pastiche, the terminology to describe magic relies on concepts lifted from different Asian cultural philosophies, and every follower of magic wears clothing reminiscent of Buddhist monks. If the main sanctums are primarily connected to the UK and US, where are the British influences in their clothes? Where are the American influences in their mannerisms? If the monks come from cultures all over the world (and the monks are by no means ethnically monolithic), where are the reflections of their own heritages in what is ostensibly a centuries-old organization? There is no indication at all, in setting, clothing, fighting styles, or philosophy, that the mystic arts span multiple cultures and traditions. The film wants to go further than its source material but stops short of actually doing all the creative work it needs to do. The richness and complexity of multiple cultures all over Asia (lest we forget, Asia is not a monolith) are reduced to pretty but generic accessories.
Strange himself is another missed opportunity. For all intents and purposes, Strange is Tony Stark with magic instead of machines. That similarity doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem, but despite how Cumberbatch’s performance lends some much-needed depth to the sorcerer-in-training, Doctor Strange makes little effort to delve into what makes Strange tick beyond a few lines of dialogue about his need for control and perfectionism. It’s as if the script assumes since we’ve seen this character before there’s no need to delve into what motivates Strange beyond making it apparent he’s a ridiculously talented but egotistical jerk.
While much of the discussion about Asian representation has centered on Swinton’s casting as the Ancient One, many fans were just as passionate about the possibility of Strange being portrayed by an Asian actor. Fans pointed out how Strange’s defining traits – he’s a perfectionist doctor with control issues – didn’t require Strange to be white. If he were Asian or biracial, the reasons for those characteristics had the potential for introducing a new take on the Sorcerer Supreme through the lens of a struggle familiar to many who share Asian American identities: Internalized expectations of excellence and the push-and-pull between assimilation and ethnic heritage.
Casting a man of Asian heritage as Strange could have pushed the character beyond a mere combination of Tony Stark and Sherlock (Cumberbatch’s breakout role) into a hero we rarely see in American produced media, and haven’t yet seen in the MCU: A successful, truly American, Asian man with struggles and a vivid inner life who gets to be the Chosen One and the center of his own story. Suddenly the reasons for Strange’s arrogance, his prickliness, his desperation to regain his lost status as a surgeon, take on additional dimensions when seen through the lens of a man who has also navigated prejudices and stereotypes about “over-achieving Asians.” Instead of Strange’s story being about a white man learning “Eastern mysteries” to become a hero, it could have been a story twining Strange’s discovery of his capacity for true selfless heroism with rediscovering and reconciling multiple aspects of his heritage. As one of the movie’s central themes goes: Power comes with accepting yourself as you truly are, the whole of you, not just the parts you think (because that’s what the world has told you) have value. None of this would have diluted the essence of Strange’s personality, motivation, and evolution as a hero, and it could have given Asian/Asian American fans a story they could particularly relate to.
One of the frustrating things about Doctor Strange is that the film did get some things right – it offers tantalizing glimpses of the story that could have been. The filmmakers were clearly aware that they needed to address issues with the source material: Wong (played with gruff humor by Benedict Wong) is still a source of knowledge and support for Strange – but instead of being his manservant from the comics, Wong’s switch to librarian made him Strange’s mentor, making their positions much more equitable. Similarly, Mordo still becomes Strange’s eventual adversary, but instead of being motivated by jealousy and greed over Strange being given what Mordo felt was his due, his break is now caused by what he sees as a breach of trust by both his teacher and his new friend in their irresponsible flouting of rules. (Frankly, there’s something to be said for sympathizing with Mordo’s frustration over a cocky white rookie breaking rules that Mordo spent a lifetime upholding. Especially when the white dude gets kudos and the blessing of his mentor for it.)
In the end, Doctor Strange claims to push the boundaries of the Marvel universe, but falls disappointingly short in truly evolving its narrative for modern audiences: Where we could have gotten a rich, imaginative universe and characters with depth and development, we got stunning visuals without true world-building and actors who had to save their characters from sloppy writing. Where we could have seen realistic, complex Asian characters, we got whitewashing, Orientalism, and White Savior tropes. When a film is able to treat an inanimate object like the Cloak of Levitation with more thought and consideration than actual Asian people who are still affected by Hollywood’s long history of subjecting Asians/Asian Americans to stereotypes, erasure, and objectification, it’s not just a failure of imagination, it’s a reflection of who and what the film has actually taken into consideration.
Even mass-market, pop art like Doctor Strange serves to teach us about who we are as a society. It tells us what we should value, what behavior is acceptable, what we believe about ourselves as a people. It’s no coincidence that a culture that produces film after film with White Savior tropes finds itself electing an inexperienced, arrogant white man to its highest office. It’s no coincidence that a culture that treats Asians as set decoration, characterizing them with heavy accents or “exotic” clothing and behavior, finds itself asking American-born citizens what country they’re “from.” Yet concerns about stereotyping, Orientalism, and whitewashing are often either dismissed or outright mocked because “it was a fun movie and aren’t there more important things to worry about?”
Stories matter because they not only tell us who we are and who we can be: They also tell us how to see each other. And we deserve better than what Doctor Strange delivered, for all our sakes.
Dawn Xiana Moon is the Founder and Director of Raks Geek, a geek-themed bellydance and fire performance company that has garnered acclaim from MSN, The Daily Mail, UK Channel 4 TV, and the Chicago Tribune. She is also a singer-songwriter who has toured 10 states and released two albums (find her on iTunes), a UX designer and web developer, and dancer who performs 100 shows a year throughout the US and Canada. RaksGeek.com / @raksgeek / DawnXianaMoon.com / @dawnxianamoon
Michi Trota is the Managing Editor of the Hugo Award-winning and World Fantasy Award finalist Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the first Filipina Hugo Award winner. She is an essayist, public speaker, a community organizer, and serves as President of the Chicago Nerd Social Club. She is also a fire performance and object manipulation artist, appearing as part of Raks Geek and the Chicago Full Moon Jam. GeekMelange.com / @geekmelange