Is That Racist? – Doctor Strange The Ancient One, Tilda Swinton
Is Marvel casting Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One instead of casting an Asian male actor for the role racist?
Last week, Marvel held an exclusive IMAX First Look for their upcoming film Doctor Strange. In short, the movie looks mind blowing! But chances are you’ve heard about the movie already and heard about the controversy with The Ancient One being portrayed by Tilda Swinton. I’m a bit late on the subject, but I figure with the movie only a few weeks away now is as good a time as any to share my thoughts on the situation.
A little back story on The Ancient One, he was originally born in Tibet over 500 years ago and is an extremely powerful sorcerer. He is best known as being Doctor Stephen Strange’s teacher of the mystic arts. He is an extremely powerful character who has impacted several story lines, however, is not one that is often mentioned or even referenced in recent issues. In the animated Marvel Movie Dr. Strange, the Ancient One is killed in Strange’s Origin Story of becoming Sorcerer Supreme. In the comic books, Strange is able to master the mystic arts in years, where it took The Ancient One centuries to do so. Also in the comics, The Ancient One sacrifices his physical life in order to prevent Shuma Gorath from entering the world. Pretty much every incarnation of the character, he dies and Dr. Strange is the Sorcerer Supreme.
In Marvel’s upcoming live-action adaptation of Doctor Strange, The Ancient One will be portrayed by Tilda Swinton. Tilda Swinton is neither Asian or male, so this is a rather noticeable gender/race swap of the character who first premiered in the 60’s. This has stirred the Asian community and even prompted many to boycott the film. Hollywood race swapping Asians is a horrible trope and is a practice that has been widely attacked as of late.
So, here comes the question: is race/gender swapping The Ancient One for Tilda Swinton Racist?
Hear me out, as this is not a popular opinion. But, replacing The Ancient One’s race/gender for Tilda Swinton is not as racist/offensive as many are making it seem to be.
First of all, The Ancient One is not the only character who is race swapped. Baron Mordo is changed from a white character to a black character. Yet none of the articles I have read on the subject have mentioned this fact. This leads me to believe that people are quick to act emotionally and jump on the trend of speaking out for Asians in the industry and not fully understand the situation. It is a worthy cause, but there is a line between fighting for equality and jumping to race hate. By failing to acknowledge the Mordo race swap, means that the general audience pointing out the situation has no strong knowledge or connection to the actual character. This isn’t a title character like Goku or Aang, this is a character that has an interesting but very limited part. Mordo, on the other hand, is a long recurring character who often appears in other character’s comic books and has been used many times in different Marvel Animated Series. I’m not saying I’m not happy with the Mordo swap, Chiwetel Ejiofor is a brilliant actor, I’m just saying that people are focusing on the situation and complaining about it without actually knowing much about it.
Secondly, the fact that they change the character to be female opens up the movie’s diversity and potentially allows it to pass the Bechdel-Test, which a number of other Marvel films fail to do. Without Tilda Swinton, the movie would pretty much only have men who fight and Rachel McAdams as Strange’s love interest. That would not be a very diverse movie and it also would not be amazingly different from any of the other Marvel Origin Movies.
Lastly, it was a lose-lose situation for Marvel. If they had stuck to the original version, they likely would have been slammed for using an Asian stereotype and only giving menial roles that die to Asians. So rather than lose out in the long-term for racist casting, they open up their diversity overall and deal with the criticism before release and reap the benefits of making good movies after its release.
Now, they could have gone with an Asian actress for the part and kind of middle grounded the situation. I think Michelle Yeoh would have been a fantastic choice and opened up the Asian market, however, if the character does die, which most signs do point to, I think it would have caused more outrage overall.
So again, is casting Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One Racist? Not really. Yes, it is disappointing that an Asian character is not being portrayed as Asian, which does follow the racist trope and is what makes it racist. But, we’re not losing a major character that would help define and project positive Asian portrayals. The Ancient One is a bit of a stereotype Asian role, that likely does not have a long-term part in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Completely skipping over the fact that another part was race-swapped, and that the casting choice greatly opens up the diversity overall, really belittles the argument trying to be made. It is understandable that people, especially Asian people, are going to be upset to see a part that logically seems like it should be an Asian person, go to a white person yet again. But getting upset without truly knowing the character/part is not only whiny but in my opinion, just as ignorant as race swapping Goku. I think Marc Bernadin accurately describes the dilemma of Asian characters being race swapped for white ones in his piece Hollywood’s glaring problem: White actors playing Asian characters:
“Take two children. One of them has 1,000 action figures, while the other has just one. If you take a single figure away from that first child, it is possible, if not probable, that he or she won’t even notice it’s gone. And even if he or she did complain, any sane person would explain to that child the virtues of sharing, of generosity.
Now, if you turned to that child with the solitary toy and tried to take it away, that child would be devastated. That toy might well be his or her lifeline to imagination, to hope, to the idea that play could unlock something within that he or her didn’t even know existed.”
And as much as I agree with his piece overall, I disagree in this specific situation. To be brutally honest, this situation isn’t the kid who has a single a toy and has it taken away. The situation is actually the kid found out they’re parents donated a toy they never they had to the Salvation Army. It is understandable the kid is upset, but also if no one ever told the kid they would have never known. So one more time, Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One is racist, but not as offensive as it is made out to be.
Now, Birth of the Dragon, that’s the movie everyone should be mad at and fight against.