Marvel has decided to attempt to escape allegations of whitewashing by simply eliminating an Asian character altogether. In Doctor Strange, Tilda Swinton plays the Ancient One, a Tibetan man who gives Doctor Strange lessons in the supernatural. It’s already a difficult stereotype, and it’s made worse by the fact that Swinton, a European woman, is continuing an uncomfortable tradition of white actors claiming Asian roles. Swinton, however, has claimed that her character isn’t Asian, and Marvel has backed her up with a statement to Mashable:
Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU to life. The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic. We are very proud to have the enormously talented Tilda Swinton portray this unique and complex character alongside our richly diverse cast.
Marvel’s statement tracks with comments from Swinton, and from Doctor Strange co-writer C. Robert Cargill, who explained the studio’s political reasons for not casting an East Asian actor in an interview with the Double Toasted podcast over the weekend. The Ancient One originates from Tibet in the comics, he said, but “if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’”
One the other hand, it’s not accurate to replace just any East Asian actor with the character: “If we decide to go the other way and cater to China in particular and have him be in Tibet … if you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.”
Cargill compared the casting decision to the Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru, a test that everyone in the Starfleet Academy is forced to lose. In Doctor Strange, people would be angry about the casting decision regardless of who they cast, he claimed, so they decided to just give the role to a good actress and be done with it. Sure, but who will explain why Swinton’s Celtic Ancient One has decided to take up residence in Tibet? Or why she’s dressed exactly like a white woman pretending to be an East Asian man in the first place?