Sophia Zhu ’18
The new Marvel film “Doctor Strange” came out last Friday. To honest comic fans, this was certainly a day of celebration, although the film can also be disappointing to those who expected their favorite characters to appear on the big screen exactly as they do in the comic books. The film is different from the original story in a couple of places, and the most noteworthy one is the change in gender of one of the most important characters in the story, the Ancient One.
Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige said in an earlier interview that Marvel is never afraid to change, which is exemplified by its past boldness in modifying characters’ background, race or gender. This time, they decided to cast Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, who guides the main character to the world of magic and teaches him to become a better human being. A female version of the mentor with immense power, superior status and a hint of complicated history successfully breaks the gender stereotypes in a novel and smart way.
Promoting equal and fair representation is never about number or superficial adjustments. Too many films have either added meaningless roles or made changes that are totally out of context. While going against stereotypes can be entertaining at times, filmmakers often create overly ruthless female characters to fight alongside men while still commercializing their bodies and designing them as tough only so male characters can eventually win them over. The portrayal of a female Ancient One, however, shows no trace of such superficiality. This is a genuinely strong and well-developed character with a reason behind each of her actions. It also perfectly fits in the context of the story; the Ancient One serves as a stark contrast to the main character’s ego. Thus, she is the most appropriate one to transform him from a domineering man into a caring hero.
Such an alignment of anti-stereotyping and good storytelling is commendable and represents a step forward to a gender-sensitive way of filmmaking. What the representation of women in movies really needs is not another powerful female character, but women who can either reach excellency or commit evil according to their own reasonings. Film can be an important outlet that subtly influences people’s way of viewing the real world. It is thus expected to be not only an honest representation of reality but also a work of art that stands above reality, exposing or even dramatizing the dark side and then showing the audience what the world could alternatively be.
While I give Marvel credit for breaking gender stereotypes in casting Tilda, it is still disappointing that a great opportunity to link with Eastern culture has been wasted. Although the film avoided overly exoticizing Asian culture, seeing a white monk training a white man in Nepal is not something I would expect. Another identity of the Ancient One is being Tibetan, which was modified to Celtic in the film. This decision has contributed to the already severe underrepresentation of Asian characters and was accused by many of “whitewashing.” The only two noteworthy Asian characters in this film are Master Wong and Master Hamir, both of whom conform to the stereotype of being silent and invisible Asians who lack a sense of humor. The problem with stereotyping is that it serves as an oversimplification of how the real world works. Because people tend to confuse what the world is with what the world should be, generations of misrepresentation can lead to the self-internalization of stereotypes among targeted groups. Stereotypes can thus become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is truly unfortunate. Filmmakers still have miles to in paying more attention to minority groups and portraying them in fair ways, rather than falling into the trap of streotypes.
In addition, according to screenwriter Robert Cargill, the decision of erasing the Ancient One’s Tibetan origin was made to avoid the alientation of billions of people in the largest film-watching country, to whom any mention of Tibet can be political. Admittedly, we should not expect a commercial film to carry political messages that mcouldy hurt its box office prospects. Such self-censorship is nevertheless alarming and we see this trend of catering to ticket buyers growing in all sorts of media that are supposed to enshrine the freedom of expression. After all, film is a form of art that originates from the society we live in. It is questionable whether it is truly possible to completely shield films from politics. As disappointing as it is, more and more money-driven films may continue to be oversensitive to political taboos but under-sensitive to cultural stereotypes.