Responding to accusations that its casting of Tilda Swinton in the upcoming Doctor Strange constitutes whitewashing, Marvel has issued a statement explaining (or maybe just explaining away) its decision to place a white woman in a role traditionally interpreted as being Asian and male. As reported by People, Marvel’s statement reaffirms the company’s commitment to diversity while also explaining that this isn’t even a big deal because in this version of Doctor Strange, reclusive mystic master The Ancient One is a Celtic woman, not a Tibetan man:
Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films, and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe] to life. The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic.
So, it’s not that Swinton’s playing an Asian character; it’s that she’s playing a Celtic woman who lives in Asia in an Asian-style home and teaches people mysticism and martial arts. That actually jibes with Swinton’s own comments about the role, in which she said her character wasn’t Asian. Presumably Swinton’s version of The Ancient One inherited the title from someone else, and then just never bothered to change her dojo’s decor.
Marvel’s “See? She’s Celtic and everything is fine” official statement stands in contrast to one made recently by screenwriter C. Robert Cargill, who—despite peppering his language with phrases like “social justice warrior”—was also willing to acknowledge that The Ancient One is a dangerous character to use in a modern setting. That’s both because of the ways the character plays into much-loathed “Mighty Whitey” tropes—in which white characters show up to learn from, and then surpass, teachers of other races—and his politically sensitive status as a man from Tibet. After all, China never banned a movie from its incredibly lucrative box offices because it acknowledged the independent existence of the Celts.