The East as a cultural playground for the West | Pakistan Today

The East as a cultural playground for the West

The strangest thing in Dr Strange is the white man’s burden

We’ve long made peace with the fact that we, the Easterners, are supporting characters in our own tales. We are a part of somebody else’s experience of the world. We are the set builders, and even the silent decorations themselves on a stage manned and operated by the West, for the West.

Doctor Strange, despite its stellar production and eye-popping visual effects, adds itself to the mountain of exhibits proving my point; a point which is shared by many liberals across the world, armed with the much-despised and poorly-understood term, ‘cultural appropriation’.

The film raises more than a few questions concerning its casting and production: like how the visual effects team managed to make intricately designed buildings fold unto themselves; or how the casting team failed to find a single Asian actor to play the part of the ‘Ancient One’ in all of Nepal? The only thing more fantastic than a flying cape is the idea that a white neurosurgeon travels thousands of miles to Kathmandu, only to be tutored by another white person on mystic arts and other Eastern wisdoms.

The woman at the helm of an ancient order based in the heart of Kathmandu, and the highest ranking guru at a Nepalese temple, is – of course – none other than Tilda Swinton. And despite a wealth of Asian disciples that sway expressionlessly in the background, who else would be the one man destined to save the planet from the onslaught of the dark dimension, but a white doctor from New York.

Incidentally, New York is home to one of the three sanctums protecting the world from doom. The other one is London. The two sanctums glow with kaleidoscopic Gandharan symbolism, but points of such immense significance – by laws of Western common sense – may only conceivably be found at the very centres of the ‘White Dimension’: London and New York.

Someone at the studios must’ve hurt himself at the decision of naming ‘Hong Kong’ the third and final sanctum, far outside the hallowed White Dimension for whose denizens this film has primarily been made. In their defence, however, the screenplay demands a return to its cultural roots (sort of) for its climax. But if it’s any consolation to the white audience, Asian people – with the brief exception of the unforgettably talented Benedict Wong – play no more part in the destruction/salvation of Hong Kong than props that scream and run around in the background.

This would’ve been hardly problematic, if films like Doctor Strange did not sit on a giant pile of Hollywood flicks where the Eastern art and culture is duly stripped of its creator and consumer – the Asian peoples themselves, and their concerns in a neo-colonial dimension – and handed over to white people to play with.

Your sari is absolutely fabulous. Now, if you could just remove it and hand it over to Sarah Jessica Parker, she’d be happy to represent you and your culture on mainstream world cinema. As Jenny Zhang effectively puts it, “They pretend to be us, while pretending we don’t exist”.

Many of those who argue that the appropriation of Eastern cultures by Western artists is a trivial matter, are usually the same people who boisterously complain about an all-female remake of Ghostbusters as blasphemy; or worry that a black actor playing Agent 007 would ruin the ‘authenticity’ of the film.

Then there are those who claim that cultural appropriation is forgiven, if the white actor playing a non-white role is sufficiently talented; say Leonardo Di Caprio as a possible pick for the role of Jalaluddin Rumi. In fact, Mr. Di Caprio is so talented, he is currently under consideration to play the role of Black Widow in the next Avengers movie; he can pull anything off! No, not quite.

Hollywood whitewashing ultimately becomes an act of racism validating racism. The filmmakers must handover key roles – irrespective of authenticity – to white actors, because they have a larger fan following than non-white actors. Non-white actors cannot possibly attain the same success and following as their white counterparts, when they aren’t getting enough opportunities to display their talents. Not to mention that it is a racist assumption in itself that only white actors like Tilda Swinton and Gerald Butler – an Irish actor playing an Egyptian deity in ‘Gods of Egypt’ – are ‘talented’ enough to fill the lead roles in Hollywood blockbusters. All of the East combined, has supposedly not been able to produce a single actor of merit to play the role of an Afghan man in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, or a Japanese cyborg in ‘Ghost in the Shell’. All must be replaced by the obviously superior white variety of performers.

The world beyond the West is more than a cultural playground for the white tourist. The saris and kimonos, kurtas and abayas, samosas and sushi, may not be ripped away from their cultural context – with their makers deemed unfit to be trusted with the right of self-representation – and handed over to spruce up the Western civilisation and its art form in a way they decide these trinkets are meant to be used.



Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat is a medical doctor from Rawalpindi and an ardent traveller who writes frequently about science, social politics and international relations.