Ever since the announcement of the casting of Tilda Swinton in the role of the Ancient One–a role portrayed in the comics as an Asian man–in the upcoming Marvel film Doctor Strange there has been a contingent of the fanbase at large that have leveled charges at the studio of “whitewashing” the character. That is, casting a white actor in the role of a non-white character.
In the case of the Ancient One, the director, Scott Derrickson altered not only the ethnicity of the character but the gender as well. Previous explanations have proffered the reasoning that “Ancient One” isn’t a person so much as a title given to a succession of people throughout the ages. Therefore, this Ancient One is a Celtic female, not an Asian male.
Derrickson has remained largely quiet on the issue but Entertainment Weekly is reporting that he did address the issue to The Hollywood Reporter during the kickoff of the film’s press tour in Hong Kong.
“Looking at Marvel movies, I think that we’re missing a major character that is Tilda’s age and has this kind of strength and power. The Ancient One in the comics is a very old American stereotype of what Eastern characters and people are like, and I felt very strongly that we need to avoid those stereotypes at all costs.”
This justification are similar to the comments in the current Entertainment Weekly cover story about Doctor Strange in which he said this of the whitewashing controversy:
“I was a little surpised by it. Certainly our intentions were to subvert racial stereotypes and to create the best possible diversity within the cast. To avoid the stereotypical ‘magical Asian,’ we cast Tilda.”
It does seem to highlight the issue of casting in films based on works created during a time when racial stereotyping was more common and seldom raised. And Marvel film/TV properties have come under question before. As noted in this MCU Exchange piece earlier this week regarding the casting of the Marvel Netflix series Iron Fist, Lewis Tan suggested that the lead character, Danny Rand, depicted as a white martial artist in the comics, should possibly have been cast as an Asian character in the show yet at the same time laments that Asian actors often get typecast as IT nerds, sidekicks, or…martial artists.
There is obviously a fine line that needs to be drawn as both sides of the issue are very easy to see. Derrickson seems to have encountered the whitewashing charge while trying to avoid the stereotyping charge and the casting of Iron Fist seems to have encountered the non-diversity charge (ironically by not changing a character’s ethnicity) also by not using an Asian actor in a stereotyped role. Yet, there is little doubt that not only do Asian characters get typecast in non-leading roles but that whitewashing does, indeed, regularly occur. Finding a solution that addresses these juxtaposed issues equally will certainly be difficult, particularly if done while keeping the fan base satisfied that the characters they know and love are still true (or true enough) to their comics counterpart.
With no easy remedies close at hand solutions will only come about through open discussions on the issue and movie-makers understanding that there is a problem to be addressed. Sound off below to add your thoughts to the question and hopefully become part of the answer.
Doctor Strange opens in theaters on November 4.