J.K. Rowling is famous for revisiting specific characters from her iconic Harry Potter series and volunteering new details to enrich our understanding and enjoyment of the world she created. This has been met with delight by some and an eye-roll from others, but has mostly proved harmless. However, when the new trailer for spin-off prequel Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald dropped last week, a typically Rowling-esque retcon caused quite the stir.
In the trailer, we are introduced to Nagini, a circus performer who suffers from a curse, which results in her transforming into a snake. Portrayed by South Korean actress Claudia Kim, Nagini is one of the only non-white characters in the film, and one of only a handful in the wider Potter franchise as a whole. And while casting a person of color might seem like a step in the right direction, the way the character is depicted has given many fans pause.
If you told me there was fanfic about Nagini where she’s secretly human with this complex emotional life and is all WICKED but with snakes, I would be all over it.
But it is far less appealing as what feels like a barrel scrapping plot point in Fantastic Beasts.
— Jeannette Ng 吳志麗 (@jeannette_ng) September 25, 2018
The Daily Dot’s Gavia Baker-Whitelaw writes that while Rowling has a talent for making observations about British class politics and mining European mythology for inspiration, she struggles when reaching further afield, especially when writing characters of color. In the case of the Fantastic Beasts films, which transpose the action from an English boarding school to the United States of the early 20th century, this becomes painfully obvious.
“So far, the basic premise of Nagini’s role is dubious at best,” Baker-Whitelaw writes. “While the white characters come from a neutral starting point, Nagini is already bogged down in racist subtext, beginning with her introduction in the trailer: a mysterious woman performing in a cage.”
What we see of Nagini in the trailer could be construed as playing on the “Dragon Lady” trope, a device which exoticizes East Asian women and characterizes them as enigmatic femme fatales. And the optics of the character are unavoidably influenced by what we know of her future; in the original novels, Nagini is a subservient animal kept as a pet by Lord Voldemort, meaning she is destined to become literally dehumanised.
This isn’t the first time the Potterverse has faced criticism for its portrayal of women of color. Harry’s first crush, Cho Chang, was written as something of a cypher in the books (and the debate continues as to the origins of her name). Meanwhile, the film version of Lavender Brown was originally played by two black actresses in non-speaking background roles, but recast with a white actress in Half-Blood Prince, where the character got more screen time as a love interest for Ron and romantic rival for Hermione.
But the Nagini of it all isn’t the only obstacle to enjoying the latest Fantastic Beasts film. Rowling also backed the studio’s decision to keep Johnny Depp on board as villain Grindelwald, following allegations of domestic abuse from his ex-wife Amber Heard. Despite having a handy canonical excuse to recast the character (Grindelwald can shape-shift, and was played by Colin Farrell in the previous film), it was seemingly decided that having an alleged abuser play the titular role in one of the biggest family films of the year was preferable to delaying production.
And then there’s the fact that Rowling famously outed Albus Dumbledore after she was finished writing the original novels, then downplayed the assertion that Dumbledore and Grindelwald were lovers when they were once more headed to the big screen. What was undoubtedly intended as a move to make her series appear more progressive ultimately came off as lazy queer-baiting. If Dumbledore’s sexuality is never referenced in the books and won’t be included in The Crimes of Grindelwald, then it does not serve the broader purpose of representation. Because, you know, it isn’t actually being represented.
As a public figure and active Twitter user with 14.4 million followers, J.K. Rowling puts out a fairly left wing brand, but her work tells another story. Hogwarts, as one might expect of a traditional fictional boarding school, is almost overwhelmingly white, and while Rowling defended the casting of a black Hermione in the stage production of The Cursed Child by saying that Hermione’s race is never explicitly stated in the books, she didn’t exactly go out of her way to include fleshed out characters of color with dialogue either. It’s the literary equivalent of saying “I don’t see color.” For this simple reason, the books fall short of the progressive bent Rowling seems intent on ascribing to them. But even more troubling are the many long-standing fans for whom these books and films still function as a lens through which they engage with the real world.
It speaks to Rowling’s impact as a storyteller (and to the franchise’s success as a brand) that you can still scroll through social media after all these years and see people self-identifying as Hufflepuffs or Ravenclaws in their bios, or comparing Donald Trump to Voldemort. This is a trend that shows no sign of going away thanks to the promise of three more Fantastic Beasts films slotted to follow this one, but the parallels between Rowling’s world and this one are starting to feel increasingly tenuous.
Retreating into the world of a beloved book series can be an effective way of staving off the dread induced by a relentless and triggering news cycle; equal parts comfort blanket and coping mechanism. And Harry Potter serves that emotional purpose well, featuring a main character who undergoes immense trauma and loss but ultimately prevails thanks to his support system. But the novels are becoming less and less fit for purpose as a political allegory. While the later books explore themes of authoritarianism and fascism, it can be a little tiresome to see constant allusions to Death Eaters and Voldemort in political discourse a full decade later.
People making Harry Potter references to today’s news: PLEASE READ ANOTHER BOOK
— Christopher Cooper (@ARTofCOOP) September 27, 2018
It does seem as if, for a certain subsection of readers, this is their only frame of reference for understanding what is going on in the world right now. There is even an entry on Urban Dictionary illustrating this phenomenon: “Read another book” is defined as “the appropriate response to any stupid political analogy that uses material from the Harry Potter books as a reference point.”
I suspect that Rowling is aware of this phenomenon, and that it is at least partially responsible for her “woke” attempts to broaden her readers’ horizons by retroactively inserting social commentary into the text. But at times it feels like an alternative to simply holding her hands up and admitting that she wrote a very straight, white story. It’s clear that Rowling is trying to diversify her universe with the Nagini character — but the character’s framing betrays a deeper ignorance around why people are frustrated with the continued relevance of the Potterverse.
I have no problem with the concept of fandom. I’ve written before about how pop culture phenomena like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games can be a great introduction for young readers to ideas about the power of resistance and questioning authority. But they are just that: an introduction. Back when Pottermania was at its peak in the early 00s, J.K. Rowling was credited with getting kids excited about reading — but if people don’t continue to read other books, explore different tastes, and encounter new characters, worlds and ideas, then what was the point? In some ways, this uncritical loyalty to a franchise — which frankly needs criticism if it is going to continue thriving — speaks to a broader unwillingness to judge our faves by more exacting modern standards; a reluctance that stunts culture and dooms artists and consumers alike to repeat the same mistakes. Holding fiercely onto one piece of media as it gets more outdated and irrelevant is like sitting in front of the Mirror of Erised: your imagination will waste away while the world moves on around you.
(Oh damn, now I’m doing it!)
Photo via Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection.