Tilda Swinton was hired for ‘Doctor Strange’ to avoid a racist caricature


Tilda Swinton was pretty much confirmed for Doctor Strange several months ago, but only officially confirmed for the role recently. Tilda is playing The Ancient One, a character which was traditionally an old, Tibetan man in the comic books. The fact that Marvel had the opening to hire an Asian actor but ended up hiring a white woman has caused some consternation. On one side, yay feminism because an actress got hired for a role that would have gone to a dude. On the other side, boo racism because why does Marvel have to whitewash this character (or any character)?

I tended to think that since the Chinese market for Marvel films has grown by leaps and bounds, Marvel simply didn’t want to have an ethnically Tibetan actor, or an actor playing a Tibetan. But in Entertainment Weekly’s new issue, Marvel honcho Kevin Feige explains why Tilda was hired:

One of the most important characters in the Doctor Strange comics is the Ancient One, a mystic who lives in Tibet and acts as a mentor to Strange’s surgeon-turned-superhero. Traditionally, the Ancient One has been depicted as an Asian man. But in Marvel’s new superhero movie Doctor Strange (out Nov. 4), the character is played by non-Asian actress Tilda Swinton. What gives?

“We’re never afraid to change,” says Doctor Strange producer and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. “In the comic books, Jarvis is an elderly butler. In the movies, he’s an A.I. system which becomes Paul Bettany’s Vision. We are always looking for ways to change. I think if you look at some of the early incarnations of the Ancient One in the comics, they are what we would consider today to be quite, sort of, stereotypical. They don’t hold up to what would work today. Also, within the storyline of the comics, and our movie, ‘the Ancient One’ is a title that many people have had. We hit very early on on, What if the Ancient One was a woman? What if the title had been passed and the current Ancient One is a woman? Oh, that’s an interesting idea. [Clicks fingers.] Tilda Swinton! Whoah! And it just hit.”

However, there seems to be some doubt as to whether Swinton is playing a woman in the film. “Look, she’s a chameleon in everything she does,” says Feige of Swinton, whose credits include Snowpiercer, Trainwreck, and 1992’s Orlando, in which her character transformed from male to female. “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.”

Indeed, when EW asks Swinton whether she is playing a man or a woman in Doctor Strange the actress responds, with a cackle, that “I wouldn’t know how to answer that one. I think it’s all in the eye of the beholder.”

[From EW]

I sort of understand it now. Marvel was actually trying to avoid the racist Asian caricature seen in the source material (see: Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s), so instead of simply updating the material and creating a role for an Asian actor which would have been three-dimensional and not racist, Feige just decided to do a mulligan on the character. Does it still piss you off? I’m pretty ambivalent about the whole thing.


Photos courtesy of WENN.

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57 Responses to “Tilda Swinton was hired for ‘Doctor Strange’ to avoid a racist caricature”

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  1. Dragonlady sakura says:

    I call bullshit. There are plenty actors in the states and other countries who could have fulfilled this role. Studios make millions and can afford the very best. It’s a whitewash again, and while I’m not shocked, it’s another disappointment. 😑

    • Mia V. says:

      But Marvel didn’t cared to perpetuate the “russian vilain” perspective with Mickey Roorke.

      • Locke Lamora says:

        Marvel, and Hollywood in general doesn’t have a problem with stereotyping Eastern Europeans who are portrayed in an offensive way 99 % of the time. Why no one ever says anything about that, I don’t know.

      • Locke Lamora says:

        Marvel, and Hollywood in general doesn’t have a problem with stereotyping Eastern Europeans who are portrayed in an offensive way 99 % of the time. Why no one ever says anything about that, I fon’t know.

      • Farhi says:

        I think it is the legacy of the Cold War. Many people still see Eastern Europe and Russia as inhospitable, scary and violent places. They are the Vikings of our days.

        Another reason is that it is not a big market, and the profits are even lower than they could have been due to widespread piracy issues.

      • KHLBHL says:

        Not condoning that stereotype but maybe it’s because in the stereotypical view of Eastern Europeans, they don’t “look” foreign and like “the enemy”? Asians and people who look nonwhite are seen as the “other” and therefore their portrayals in the media are much more blatantly racist because of this. For example, they changed the bad guys in some movie from Chinese to North Korean just by changing some dialogue and CGI-ing some uniforms. Not that they don’t do this with mixing up different Eastern European cultures but I just feel that usually good guys = American in the media and American = white-looking? Do I make sense?

      • Locke Lamora says:

        I think the fact that Eastern Europeans are white does play in the way people react to stereotyping of them.
        They also equate the whole of Eastern + Southeastern Europe with Russia, even though these cultures are very different. They also usually give us strong Russian accents and show us living in utter poverty. With a few exceptions, I’ ve almost never seen an Eastern European woman being portrayed as something other than a prostitute.

      • Locke Lamora says:

        Having said that, at least we have our domestic movies where we are not stereotyped. It must be horrible to be stereotyped by your own country.

  2. Catelyn says:

    The Chinese movie going market is huge and growing, but still govt influenced. Hiring someone from Tibet/having a Tibetan character could be awkward for the studio if they want to market it over there, since China and Tibet have…issues.

    • PennyLane says:

      That’s exactly what I was thinking. The Chinese market is big, and they do not like Tibet being depicted as an independent country. Keep the character as Tibetan and you’re looking at losing 1 billion potential ticket sales because your film won’t be able to find a Chinese distributor.
      This one’s all about the money.

      • Snarky says:

        It’s far more insidious than troubles finding a distributor, actually. The Chinese government will only allow about 50 non-Chinese films to be shown in country. A large factor in their decision of which 50 is how much the movie kisses China’s ass.

        Ever wonder why you can’t see a big budget film these days that doesn’t have an irrelevant scene in China, or some two-dimensional Chinese character played by a half talented Chinese actor? That. That is why. Pucker up, Hollywood execs.

    • Sixer says:

      China box office The Avengers = $86m of $1.5bn. China box office Age of Ultron = $240m of $1.4bn. That’s a three year growth from 2012 to 2015. The domestic take was $623m down to $459m.

      I think that tells you all you need to know. There won’t be any yuan-boat rocking.

    • Snarky says:

      I don’t really see how, though, unless the movie specially referred to Tibet as occupied. I used to live in China, close to Tibet. I think that the Chinese market would just be happy to see a reference to what they consider part of their country.

      The pandering to the Chinese market, however, is tacky and should just stop. There are countries outside of China. And, while their might be a lot of people in China, the country sure loves bootlegs…which makes me question whether the monetary bump is really worth the watering down of an industry.

  3. Sixer says:

    Hmm. Methinks Feige protests too much and your initial thought was right, Kaiser. They want the yuan so they didn’t want a Tibetan. I suppose, given that environment, at least they went with a woman.

    • Original T.C. says:

      It’s like Tiger Lily 2.0
      Switching the Asian character for a Caucasian one to reach a “broader market”. In this situation as you eloquently pointed out, to reach a “higher revenue market”. These white-washing things have been blowing up in their faces recently so let’s see what happens!

  4. Freebunny says:

    And an asian actress? There’s many.
    Tilda is great but she’s in everything lately.
    Anyway I call BS, cause we could have a Tibetan character who is not a stereotype, but you know better not pi*** off the Chinese gvt.

    • sugar says:

      That’s what I think. China has huge influence in Hollywood, and what goes in.

    • Maria A. says:

      Well, look at the third Pirates movie: they censored out Chow Yun Fat’s character because the Chinese government took offense. I don’t know how much, if anything of his performance remained in it when the film showed in China. And China gets real pissy if Tibet is even mentioned.

  5. HollyG says:

    If you want to know the real amount of progress we’ve made towards acceptance, you can always check Hollywood’s casting decisions. Nothing personal, but always profitable.

    This is the second movie I’ve read about where sensitivity toward the China market had a direct influence on how the story is handled (the other one being the Adam Sandler movie Pixels). It’s an interesting phenomenon.

  6. Shambles says:

    Eh. It’s not the most terrible thing that a studio exec has ever done, but it still seems like a lazy cop-out. They absolutely could have stayed with an Asian Ancient One, and just updated the character so that it wasn’t a stereotypical depiction? Sounds so simple when one types it out, so I don’t see why it would have been that hard. Especially since they’re “never afraid to change.” Instead it was more like “Control, alt, delete. Goodbye. Not touching that one.” Lazy and a little cowardly.

    BTW, happy 2016 celebitches! Wishing you all the happiness and light in this new year.

  7. NewWester says:

    The day is coming where a Hollywood studio will CGI certain parts of a film to suit different markets. It all comes down to money

  8. The Eternal Side-Eye says:

    I guess this will be Hollywood’s new way of increasing diversity. Eliminating minority character roles and placing white women in them. There’s excuses for days about how they don’t really want to offend and therefore just can’t find a way to write a cultured modern ethnic character, I don’t believe any of them and I will not be supporting any film that continues this nonsense.

    • BossyKat says:

      That’s basically how affirmative action works. It really served whites the best, in that white women, who counted as ‘historically oppressed minorities,’ were always given opportunities before racial minorities.

      Then of course, Aff Action ran for a good decade and change actually uplifting the white race (lol, seriously) before the right wing conservatives decided it was a good political wedge issue to get their base fired up about (I.e., “Waaaahh – the blacks and hispanics are taking all the jobs!!” When it really was your older sister Carol, or your brother in law’s niece Becky Sue)

      So it’s definitely served some, not nearly enough and mostly white women.

      Hollywood is no different than the real world.

  9. antipodean says:

    Choices, smoices, Tilda just elevates anything she does, that is why she is everywhere, and can do anything. I would pay good money just to hear her cackle!

    • Esmom says:

      She is really brilliant. But she’s got so many opportunities (I’d think), it seems odd that she’d want to entangle herself in on that’s rooted in controversy. Maybe the paycheck is increasing in importance over the “art.”

    • guest says:

      She was terrible in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Don´t get the love for her when she phones it in like every other actress.

  10. Moon says:

    You mean, yay white feminism? And is this what we’re calling it now? ‘Honey I just don’t want coloured people on my movie, but I’m going to say it’s for their own good!’

    This makes me so so so mad. If she were African American people would be more outraged but people seem to think it’s okay to do this to asian people.

    • judah says:

      people be more outrage for African American community cause black people protest and shout more maybe you can get the Asian community and protest other then be mad that African American get more attention

    • amunet ma'at says:

      But if the character was AA the community would be told to just get over it and to not be so mad at a comic-book character. Which is par the course for these types of situations. Personally, I’m upset that Marvel did this when there were other options. This is precisely a case of white-washing and for them to do this with such an important character is trashy.

    • Original T.C. says:

      ” makes me so so so mad. If she were African American people would be more outraged but people seem to think it’s okay to do this to asian people.”

      I’m African-American and I’m outraged but if you study history you will find out that AA had to go out in the streets and risk brutality and death to have their voices now be heard. We have paved the road for other communities of color. We can unite and do more.
      If Asian-Americans also join us in the streets to fight to be heard, they will be. Asian-Americans protested on the web against the Aloha film and the got noticed; however as a community they have to do more, risk being vilified as AA are for simply not rolling over and being crushed. Jews too fought for their rights and are very verbal when they see discrimination of their community.

    • Jo 'Mama' Besser says:

      Yeah, this casting is bull lots of black people are saying so, as they do every time this happens to people of colour, but people of colour might want to something about white supremacy instead of being peevish about African Americans again. African Americans have suffered and stuck their necks out to the benefit of all people of colour, frequently getting nothing in return from them but contempt. But African Americans will continue to stick up for people of colour, so let’s not *whitewash* that part.

    • BossyKat says:

      Well, I actually think Tilda benefits from her overall non-threatening likability factor. If they had cast a lightening rod actress (like a Kristen Stewart or Gwyneth Paltrow ) there would be a huge conflagration.

  11. lilacflowers says:

    In other Marvel news, they have hired Ryan Coogler to direct Black Panther. Fruitvale Station was excellent and he did a nice job with Creed. Let’s see what he can do with a comic book film.

  12. Irene says:

    If they wanted to avoid a racist caricature, they could have just NOT WRITTEN A RACIST CARICATURE.

    I’m a huge Marvel fan, but I’m getting real sick of their racist and sexist bullshit. I’ll see the last Captain America film in theaters (because I’m invested in the character), but I think I’m gonna take a break from Marvel after that. No desire to watch Cumberbatch in this role (the role that actually SHOULD have been racebent – sorry Cumberbitches- but this was the perfect opportunity for Marvel to finally have a POC lead and they cast ANOTHER pasty white guy?), and they’re literally erasing existing POCs from the story? I’ll pass.

    • spidey says:

      they cast ANOTHER pasty white guy? Mmmmmmmm

    • Farhi says:

      Which POC actor would be a good fit? It would need to be somebody who is known and there aren’t many choices.

    • Solanacaea (Nighty) says:

      Why would they cast a POC if Dr Strange’s character is white?
      One thing is the character played by Tilda, if the character is Asian, it should be an Asian actress, but with Dr Strange I don’t get the POC??

  13. Mia4s says:

    Marvel makes lazy choices (and are cheap); this is news? They have no interest in challenging their audience so none of this should be a surprise.

  14. InvaderTak says:

    Not getting why an Asian actress was not an option. Bai ling might have had a lot of fun with it (thinking of her character in the crow). Maybe not th greatest actress, but fun. It’s a comic book movie after all. Marvel and Hollywood cop out yet again. Avoid stereotypes by not representing a culture at all. Respect a culture by dismissing it completely. Not nice.

  15. grabbyhands says:

    I love Tilda Swinton and I don’t doubt she’ll do a great job, but his explanation is extremely weak.

    If you want to avoid a racist caricature, then don’t write the character that way.

  16. NUTBALLS says:

    Nope. Don’t buy it. The change had everything to do with keeping the yuans in their pocketses. It’s certainly not about being unafraid of change.

    I love Swinton, but they hire far too many white actors for me to fall for this bullshit.

    • Poisonous Lookalike says:

      “The change had everything to do with keeping the yuans in their pocketses. It’s certainly not about being unafraid of change.”

      Exactly! I read an article fairly recently—sorry I don’t have the link handy—that said the growing market in China for movies has become a major force shifting what American studios are turning out. That’s why we’re getting all these comic book movies: that kind of stuff translates (in a very broad sense of the word) much better than comedy, rom-coms, etc.

      Not being into comics myself, the shift has kept me out of mainstream theaters. I’m fortunate that my town has a wonderful arthouse cinema where I can see a wide variety of independent/classic films.

      • The Eternal Side-Eye says:

        Ironically that will end up hurting them just as quickly. There’s already superhero fatigue in the states, if they keep pushing those types of movies soon their US box office will drop so low they’ll barely be breaking even.

      • Farhi says:

        Yes, actions movies have the broadest appeal of all as they don’t rely much on dialog or cultural references. It is a good vs. evil struggle which is universally understood. Romantic movies are the second category.

        These two areas have been Hollywood’s bread and butter for decades. I don’t see it changing quickly for this reason.

  17. Kiki says:

    This is why i am fed up with Hollywood. Why won’t they give diversity a chance? I know, maybe, it is because they think that diverse characters will not make enough billions of dollars like the ‘ white counterparts ‘

    They are not taking a risk and wants greed. That’s it.

  18. AlmondJoy says:

    Nah this is wrong. The explanation doesn’t help either. It’s a cop out.

  19. Ana A. says:

    This is just lazy. Feige is just trying to save his face. How about Tilda as the Acient One AND adding a non-racist, major Asian character to make up for the removal of one? Not an option?

  20. Tink says:

    I love the Marvel movies, mostly for Cap, Bucky, Widow and the Russo brothers but this sucks. I also love Tilda but once again they’ve ignored an opportunity for diversity. Spiderman should have been not PP, Dr Strange should have been race-bent, we should have one goddamn female led movie by now. I’m going to be very selective with which ones I see from now on.

    • The Eternal Side-Eye says:

      Same. Until these idiotic studios feel a pinch in their pockets they’ll never be motivated to change.

  21. Farhi says:

    From pragmatic standpoint I think hiring Tilda was an easy choice to make as she would bring in her fans. She is so striking.
    Hiring an Asian actress would be more risky from the marketing standpoint. Unless they could hire a popular Chinese actress with an aim of brining her Chinese fans.
    Still hiring foreign actress for one of central parts is a big risk.
    The rest of the cast is very strong and they needed someone at that level to do the part justice.

  22. Jo 'Mama' Besser says:

    He thinks he’s slick, doesn’t he?

  23. serena says:

    I would have been pissed if it had been anyone else, but with Tilda Swinton I sort of believe what they said.

  24. lower-case deb says:

    if they want to keep it away from the Tibet/China dichotomy and keep it as an Asian Ancient One, they could’ve picked Korean or Japanese, or other parts of Asia: South Asian (and it does have “Ancient” credentials, it has a long and storied history), South East Asian (ditto).

    or perhaps someone from the African Continent (North Africa? South? Central? or East Africa, held by the “out of Africa” theory as the origins of the modern human?). also a viable alternative since the continent itself is vast and rich in culture.

    how about the Pacific, Polynesian/Micronesian islands, they also have amazing histories and stories that will be interesting rather than rehashing the same old histories.

    they’re going to make a departure anyway, why not be daring? nowadays, many go with the let’s flip an ethnic male with a white woman and we can say “hooray feminism”. but why not women from any of the above ethnicities. and some of those cultures are also maternalistic cultures which would give another facet or story to the character.

    if from a marketing point of view? those places aren’t exactly barren wastelands are they?

  25. Elisha says:

    I’ve read enough of that TV tropes website to know what this dude is talking about and he does have a point. Change is good. Here you go: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MagicalAsian

    Warning: TV tropes is a rabbit hole.