Tilda Swinton weighed in on the white-washing controversy on her role as the Ancient One in Marvel’s Doctor Strange, and her short response has only stirred more confusion.
The character was originally portrayed in Marvel Comics as a male Tibetan monk, and Swinton’s casting has been a lightning rod for criticism. Yes, the choice was praised for its gender-bending, but also condemned for white-washing a character of color.
“Well, it’s not actually an Asian character — that’s what I need to tell you about it,” she told THR at a screening of A Bigger Splash in New York. “I wasn’t asked to play an Asian character, you can be very well assured of that… You just have to wait and see, because it’s not an Asian character.”
Though Marvel is usually a champion of progressive politics and diversity, some of its superheroes and characters are reinforced by white savior myths and mid-century eastern fetishizing. The kung-fu superhero Iron Fist — who will be getting his own Netflix series starring Game of Thrones alum Finn Jones — is a troublesome character, since he is an affluent white character learning martial arts from a heavily “oriental” culture. Same with Doctor Strange, a cocky white surgeon (who used to be Asian in his earliest portrayals) who learns magic from the Ancient One, Swinton’s character, in a faraway region and returns as a superhero.
Considering Swinton’s answer, it seems the Marvel Cinematic Universe has altered the Ancient One from a person — into a ceremonial title. Like “The Ancient One” is something that can be inherited, which may explain why a British woman (Swinton maintains her natural accent in the Doctor Strange trailer) would possess powers Stephen Strange wants to learn. Which now begs the question: Who is the Ancient One?
It means she won’t be in yellowface, but that doesn’t exactly fix things; Hollywood has been guilty of white-washing characters for years, all the way back to the industry’s beginnings in the early 20th century.