So far, 2016 hasn't been a great year for race politics in Hollywood. We've had #oscarssowhite, and the first picture of Scarlett Johansson as the originally Japanese lead in Ghost In The Shell sparked off that whitewashing debate again.
As far as diversity is concerned, Marvel isn't too bad as a franchise, especially when you take the TV shows into account. And yet, they've come under fire for one of their most eagerly-anticipated movies, thanks to the casting of Tilda Swinton in the role of the Ancient One.
Because this character has always been portrayed as Tibetan, this casting choice has received a huge amount of criticism. Never one to shy away from controversy, Swinton herself has responded to these complaints while speaking to DenOfGeek:
"The script that I was presented with did not feature an Asian man for me to play, so that was never a question when I was being asked to do it. It all will be revealed when you see the film, I think. There are very great reasons for us to feel very settled and confident with the decisions that were made."
While Swinton's statement is very measured, this actually speaks to a wider problem with Hollywood in general.
If what Swinton says about the script is true, we have to wonder if Marvel really considered the importance that this character is, or rather was, Asian.
Why Is This So Important?
There are very few Asian roles in big Hollywood movies (around 4% in total), so its understandable that people feel like this rare opportunity for Tibetan representation has been stripped from them. This has sparked a lot of anger among fans:
— although some saw a silver lining.
The Doctor Strange story has always been steeped in Asian mysticism, and has chimed with fans because of this.
This is thanks in a large part to the Ancient One, a revered High Lama who combined the philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism with sorcery to achieve incredible magical feats. There isn't another character like him in Marvel's history, and this post explains the impact the Ancient One had on fans:
What Marvel is doing with this film is inexcusable. I’m Tibetan, and I grew up in America as a child of refugees. My father was a fan of Marvel comics as a child, and one of his favorite stories was Doctor Strange’s, because of his connection to our homeland, Tibet.
There's also the fact that (except Agents Of Shield) there are a grand total of zero main characters in Marvel who are Asian. The closest they came was Helen Cho in Age Of Ultron, who was a supporting character at best.
Oh, and Marvel shifting the story to Nepal instead of Tibet is another thorny issue.
OK, This Sucks. Is There A Bright Side?
Yes, actually. Tilda Swinton herself is a fantastic actress, and her performance as the Ancient One promises to break ground and challenge gender norms. Swinton is known for choosing interesting roles, and she always puts her distinctive stamp on the characters. She's something of a chameleon, totally disappearing inside her roles to become practically unrecognizable.
What she's doing with the Ancient One is very interesting, as the character will reportedly float somewhere between the rules of gender — neither male nor female, but something other. Kevin Feige spoke to EW about the infinite possibilities that came with casting Swinton in this role:
"She has this amazing [ability to] harness of this androgynous sense. So, we use the term ‘her’ and ‘she’ in the film but, other than that, it’s very androgynous. Because it doesn’t matter."
Swinton also commented that she hadn't decided what gender to play the character as, and that she could opt for an agender position.
This is representation of a different kind, making the Ancient One the first truly androgynous character in the MCU.
In theory it shouldn't matter what gender, race, or sexuality the actors are who portray certain characters. Unfortunately, there is an imbalance in Hollywood and a bias towards one race in particular, making issues like this particularly heated. So although Swinton is bound to do a fantastic job as the Ancient One, we can still understand why her casting has upset fans.