In some ways, it’s been a good few months to be Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. Captain America: Civil War is raking in crazy amounts of money and garnering a ton of critical acclaim. But at the same time, there’s been a lot of justifiable criticism lobbed at him and Marvel for casting Tilda Swinton (a white woman) as the Ancient One (a character who’s traditionally portrayed as an Asian man in the comic-book source material) in the upcoming Doctor Strange. It’s a pretty textbook case of whitewashing and Marvel has yet to offer an explanation for the casting that has satisfied critics (perhaps the best-known of whom is noted national treasure George Takei). In an interview with Deadline, Feige responded to the criticisms.
He said the decision was an attempt to avoid stereotypes about people of Asian descent:
The casting of the Ancient One was a major topic of conversation in the development and the creative process of the story. We didn’t want to play into any of the stereotypes found in the comic books, some of which go back as far as 50 years or more.
He went on to take pride in the decision to gender-swap the character:
We felt the idea of gender-swapping the role of the Ancient One was exciting. It opened up possibilities, it was a fresh way into this old and very typical story line. Why not make the wisest bestower of knowledge in the universe to our heroes in the particular film a woman instead of a man?
He also addressed the comments of Doctor Strange co-writer C. Robert Cargill, who said in an interview that the character was made white as part of an effort to appease Chinese officials and audiences, given that the character is portrayed as Tibetan in the original comics (Tibet is a thorny issue in the Middle Kingdom, after all). When asked about those statements, Feige said, “That story was completely erroneous.”
None of this really explained the elephant in the room, which is the whitewashing of the character. Sure, having the Ancient One be the stereotype of the wise Asian magician would have been problematic, but that doesn’t explain why you had to keep the character in the story and make him/her white. Even if you’re getting rid of an Asian stereotype, you’re still getting rid of an Asian person (and, therefore, an opportunity to hire an Asian actor) and adding in a white lead. There’s also the matter of Strange’s sidekick, Wong, played by Benedict Wong in the film. Isn’t it also a racist stereotype to have a white mystic gain the assistance of an Asian sidekick? Why was that element left in there, but the Ancient One became white? Feige’s words aren’t likely to make any of the outcry die down.