Race- and Gender-Bending Casting Decisions Are Complicated

The other day I was scrolling through my news feed, and I stumbled across this article editorializing on the recent news that Tilda Swinton may be cast in the role of an elderly Tibetan man in the upcoming Dr. Strange movie, and it got me thinking about the complexities that come with re-imagining existing characters for on screen adaptations.

Swinton has some range, but I’m not sure she can pull off Tibetan. (Image credit: Comic Book Resource)

As the article rightly points out, this casting decision is kind of an intersectional mess.  On the one hand, if the rumor’s true then this marks a pretty significant role in an upcoming blockbuster being offered to a woman in her 50s, which is really great in a lot of ways.  On the other hand, the character, the Ancient One, is also Tibetan in the source material, and it’s really problematic that a role which could be cast with an Asian actor is being offered to someone who’s white.

It’s not a new problem by any means (Illidge’s article above lists a multitude of examples), but this particular case is unusual in how it highlights the failure of intersectional thought that’s going on with the few progressive decisions that creators in Hollywood are trying to make.  Given that Dr. Strange is a Marvel property and that Marvel has a decent track record in recent years regarding the promotion of diversity in their comics, I’m not surprised that there’s an effort to introduce some gender parity in a property that’s kind of a sausage fest, but it also needs to be pointed out that the premise of Dr. Strange, that a wealthy, educated, white man from the West learns mystical Eastern secrets and becomes the best sorceror in the universe, is already problematic and needs a lot more consideration than simply making a character female (let’s also not overlook the fact that aside from the Ancient One, all the other characters of color are cast in servants’ roles).

If anything, this is a pretty stellar example of why intersectional feminism is a necessity when trying to correct systemic social problems.  Yes, it’s difficult to keep all of the various axes of oppression in mind when tackling this stuff, and there are going to be missteps, but any solution offered to help one oppressed group at the expense of another isn’t actually a progressive solution.

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