Wise Old Masters

I have a very clear memory of being ten or eleven and watching Cartoon Network. I didn’t have cable growing up, so this was at a hotel or someone else’s place. I’d left Singapore and was in that whole growing-up-on-a-ship phase of my life.

Anyway.

Johnny Bravo was on, and for some reason or other the titular character had to learn some martial art or another. So he goes to a dojo, meets the guy, and asks him to teach him “the secrets of the East.”

This took me aback. That was their takeaway? Not, y’know, the whole modern metropolis thing or the food or anything; the old Asian guy teaching some martial art or another was their view of ‘The East’? Also, the heck is up with calling it ‘the East’?

I suppose it’s kind of special to be able to pinpoint your first conscious encounter with systemic racism (special in the way that it’s special you remember what class you failed in High School), but it is certainly something amusing to be aware of. Because, wouldn’t you know it, that is one of the prevailing images of East Asians in popular culture: the wise old master ready to teach you some oriental martial art.

And I suppose that’s one reason why I wasn’t bothered by Tilda Swinton being cast as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange. It’s not just because it adds another woman to male-heavy cast in a male-heavy franchise, but it’s because it moves away from a particular stereotype.

Now, would it have been great to have an Asian actor cast as The Ancient One? Sure. But I’m sick of Asians having to fit into a few prescribed roles (wise old master, funny foreigner, engineer/doctor/smart person). There are these places where stories tend to default to having an Asian character, not unlike how the default everyman is a white dude. The wise old master is so ingrained into the popular consciousness that one of the funnest turns in Batman Begins is that Ken Watanabe isn’t Ra’s al Ghul, but is actually Liam Neeson (uh, eleven year-old spoiler, I guess).

The problem at hand is only letting people be a certain thing. If the only time/only way we let an Asian character be of importance is by making them a wise old master/funny foreigner/smart person, it perpetuates the idea that that’s all they/we are. It’s the same thing as the whole all-Asians-are-martial-artists thing where that is the only thing worth knowing about Asian countries. It’s why I celebrate Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for making an Asian character idiot bro. There is definitely a discussion to be had here about people and roles, but, again, I’m plenty happy with Tilda Swinton in the role, especially because she does such a great job at it. And hey, how often do we get to see women be the wise old masters?

I’m not so sure I’d call it white-washing either. I’m not terribly familiar with Doctor Strange’s backstory in the comics, but there’s little about The Ancient One that seems Asian outside of the, y’know, old master on a mountain top. His race (or gender, for that matter) isn’t too tied to the material: this isn’t kung-fu or karate (s)he’s teaching, it’s magic. Not Chinese magic; magic magic. I understand the problematic nature of taking a character who’s a minority in the source material and making them white in the adaptation, but there’s also the excision of a particularly frustrating stereotype from a narrative at play here. It’s not a simple one-or-the-other predicament, it’s a nuanced, messy situation. One that requires dialogue, not dogma.

Besides, Doctor Strange does decent in diversity elsewhere, with Benedict Wong’s Wong being a particularly enjoyable one-note supporting character (and the source of some of the best gags). Plus, the other sorcerer-students and doctors in the background are noticeably diverse, and the movie is one of few to feature a villain with henchwomen. It doesn’t mean it’s enough, but a cast photo that looks like this is a step in the right direction.

Now, there is room for discussion here and for me to be wrong – there always is. I suppose I’m just happy to see a wise old master that, well, isn’t an Asian guy with a long beard.

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