Much ado has been made in the last few days about Tilda Swinton being in talks for the Doctor Strange movie, making her the second surreally-visaged actor to potentially claim a role in said film. At first blush, this could be cool; Tilda Swinton is weird and wonderful, she’d be a welcome addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Except for one thing: she’s apparently set to play Doc Strange’s mentor, the Ancient One—a traditionally Tibetan (and male) role. While on one hand, it’s nice to see that Marvel is finally thinking out of the box in regards to casting, it’s also pretty dang racist to whitewash a role that’s traditionally filled by a person of color.
This leads me to ask: when should a character not have a certain set of powers? Are there certain kinds of magic that are tied enough to specific cultures that it’s not right for someone outside that culture to have them?
The Doctor Strange mythos doesn’t have a monopoly on appropriative magic at Marvel, sadly. Iron Fist springs to mind immediately, and his racist backstory comes straight from the comics rather than being a tweak for the MCU. Danny Rand is a rich white guy who is instructed in mystical martial arts after being orphaned as a child. He trains to adulthood and is raised to the role of Iron Fist after successfully punching a dragon to death and bathing his hands in the creature’s molten heart. This heart-bath additionally gives him super punching powers. His other abilities include meditation, chi manipulation, and pressure point attacks—all skills that are generally coded as Asian. His backstory is considered so questionable that there’s a large push to cast an Asian man as the lead of the upcoming Iron Fist Netflix series to escape the character’s history as a white guy being the best at Asian things.
Then there’s the wendigo, one of my favorite monsters but one that’s often used in an problematic way. Wendigos are creatures of Native American, specifically Algonquian, myth—humans who’ve transformed into voracious beasts because they stooped to eating human flesh. My first introduction to these creatures was from Supernatural, so, that doesn’t bode well. The first problem with the monster’s appearance in that show is that it’s way out of its backyard—it appears in Colorado, and the tribes that had wendigo myths lived along the Atlantic coast and Great Lakes. This is pretty much handwaved away. The second problem is that Dean uses Anasazi protective glyphs to guard his group from the creature, and while the Anasazi tribe’s reach did extend into Colorado, they are not one of the tribes that told stories about wendigos. All of this ties into the racist assumption that all Native American beliefs are one monolithic structure. Wendigos also appear in Teen Wolf, in which they are portrayed as a wealthy white family whose house comes complete with a human-body-filled meat locker in the basement—and in Sleepy Hollow, where the creature is played by Sheriff Corbin’s (white) son, effectively whitewashing the monster’s Native backstory.
Teen Wolf also gets negative points for the entire nogitsune arc on this front. In the show, the nogitsune is portrayed as a completely different creature from a kitsune, where the former is a dangerous spirit that takes up residence in Stiles’s body, and the latter is a creature not unlike a werewolf, fundamentally human but with electric-based powers and martial arts skills. This is not the case in traditional Japanese myth—kitsune are fox creatures that can take human form but are not human, nogitsune are a subspecies of these with more explicitly trickster-y agendas, and both kitsune and nogitsune can briefly possess humans. While the divergence from the original mythology is one thing, the fact that the entire season’s main focus was on a white kid playing a Japanese spirit was more than iffy.
Every culture has interesting traditions and mythologies, and on its face, it’s good for Western/American pop culture to want to share these stories with a wider audience instead of just constantly rehashing the same old Christian-inspired and European-based tales. However, the fact is that powers and abilities that come from cultures that are marginalized in Western society are rarely shown in media. And when they do, they’re constantly either given to white people or stripped of their ethnic identity completely, and that’s deeply problematic. I’m hard-pressed to think of an example where characters of color do get representative powers in a thoughtful way and it’s not just racist in a different way. The bright side is this: this is not a hard problem to fix. Just… stop doing it. Cast actors of color to represent the myths of people of color. Edit your writing to make sure that you’re not pulling your mythology out of context. Stop cherrypicking what you think will sell and just focus on telling well-researched and interesting stories, and audiences will come to you.