In the latest controversy surrounding the whitewashing of characters of color in Hollywood, Marvel has taken a defensive stance regarding its choice to cast Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in its upcoming Phase Three film Doctor Strange.
“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 studio said in a statement. “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.”
In the comic books, The Ancient One is portrayed as a Tibetan man. Casting Swinton in the role is progressive in one sense, as a female gets to portray a badass sorceress who kicks the soul out of Benedict Cumberbatch in the film’s trailer. But it’s not helpful to the growing outcry over Asians being woefully underrepresented in Hollywood—a truism most recently embodied by Paramount’s decision to make Scarlett Johansson appear to be Asian in Ghost in the Shell rather than casting an actual Asian actress.
To be fair, the very concept of “Asian” as employed in the United States tends to ignore the wide diversity of that continent, particularly of East Asia, a nuance that Doctor Strange co-writer C. Robert Cargill emphasized in a recent interview, pointing out the contentious relationship between China and Tibet—the former does not recognize the latter’s independence, and in fact has a history of oppressing its people. “If you are telling me 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,” he said on the Double Toasted podcast. Cargill also pointed out that the original Ancient One character in the comics was a “racist stereotype,” and that having Dr. Strange eventually outpace an Asian mentor would be an extension of the white savior mythos.
That said, Cargill squandered a lot of goodwill later in that aforementioned interview when he said, “The social justice warriors were gonna get mad at us for something this week”—not a good look, what with the implied equation of “social justice warriors” to “whiny, easily provoked people whose concerns should not be taken seriously.”
As for our opinion on the matter: all of the good points that Cargill made should not be wiped out by his use of the term “social justice warrior,” even as laced with privilege as that pejorative has become. Certainly, further angry backlash against someone who clearly has a strong consciousness of identity politics isn’t a way to make progress.
Regardless, seeing Swinton as The Ancient One is going to be goddamn awesome, particularly in a Hollywood that’s still unconscionably male-heavy, and within a cinematic universe that has yet to provide us with very many badass women.
Doctor Strange comes to theaters on Nov. 4.