J.K. Rowling has become renowned for her biting remarks and replies on Twitter these days as she “hits back” at critics and fans of Harry Potter/Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them for almost everything; from not emphasising Dumbledore’s sexuality and his former relationship with Grindelwald to casting Johnny Depp as the latter character, and from casting a Black actress to play Hermoine in the Cursed Child play to now having an Asian actress portraying Nagini (as in Voldemort’s faithful snake/horcrux) in the highly anticipated Crimes of Grindelwald.
Rowling is also known for “confirming” or denying rumours and theories fans have concocted or come to the conclusion of over the years or for revealing secrets about characters, plots and underlying themes from the seven original books – many of which were surprisingly barely mentioned or not hinted at at all in the source material. Some have therefore said she is simply pandering to different communities (namely the LGBT community and POC) or adding to character backgrounds and storylines by making it up as she goes along for the sake of it or to keep people interested, shocked or on their toes with even the tiniest tidbit of extra information that is actually not always really relevant. For example, she once compared Remus Lupin’s werewolf condition and persecution to the plight HIV and AIDS sufferers faced in the 80’s. And while this bizarre and random metaphor might make some sense, it is quite unnecessary to know and of little importance to most people.
In the latest backlash she’s received regarding casting Korean actress Claudia Kim in her first real breakthrough role as Nagini in human form, Rowling has been forced to address a number of different criticisms. First of all, people are up in arms about the fact that the lady who turns into a snake and eventually Voldemort’s flesh hungry “pet” is Asian and in this film is “enslaved” in a travelling circus to entertain crowds. Some have said it’s stereotypical that an Asian (as a human and animal) is the “property” or “slave” of a White man and that she is ultimately an “evil” character.
Second, many have called her out for her racially insensitive casting and “Yellowsplaining” or “Asian-washing” (as previously discussed in another post) judging by the fact that Claudia is Korean and Nagini (going by the origin of her name) is from Indonesia. Rowling argued back about this, saying Indonesia has a very multicultural population with many other ethnic groups that include “Javanese, Chinese and Betawi” – though she didn’t mention Korean. However, interestingly, there are apparently at least 78,000 Koreans living in Indonesia. Though it would appear in this film that Nagini’s cultural background in human form is not explored or important to the story, despite her careful consideration when naming her.
And thirdly, though not so much, some have expressed bewilderment that Nagini was once a human (“Maledictus”) and believe she’s only just decided this plot twist not long before production of the film began – she claimed this was a secret she’d been harbouring for 20 years since the original books, but nobody can really tell if that’s true.
Now, as much as I am a big fan of Rowling’s work and always intrigued by the way her creative mind has worked when expanding the “Wizarding World”, a lot of the information she has leaked since The Deathly Hallows book via Pottermore, Twitter and in interviews, has often either seemed farfetched or unnecessary – though interesting nonetheless. I mean, with all the questions she received and fan theories that were flying around did she just see which ones she liked the sound of and were in line with the books and either confirmed or denied them? Because it sure seems that way sometimes. However, it can also seem plausible to agree with those who say she has attempted to pander to different audiences. Dumbledore being gay was never even hinted at in any of the books and she categorically denied that Hermione was ever “written as White”, when there are several implications that she was – or at the very least, certainly not Black, mixed race or a POC.
With the racial casting, it is first of all a good thing that an Asian character/actress is given a pivotal role in the film. The Wizarding World has so far been pretty much dominated by White Witches and Wizards, with the odd exception of a few minor roles such as Cho Chang, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Angelina Johnson, Dean Thomas, Lee Jordan and more recently, Seraphina Picquery (the President of MACUSA) – who was the only POC in the previous Fantastic Beasts film and thankfully in a position of power (though only a supporting role).
Whether or not Nagini’s character is “harmful” to the portrayal of Asian people from the perspective of White Hollywood is another thing. This is not only a fictional character, but one that in reality doesn’t and cannot exist, living in a fantasy world for a film. If Nagini’s ethnic and/or cultural background is not stated or explored in the film and whether or not she’s supposed to be Asian considering her name, this should not be an issue. And ultimately, Nagini is a powerful and unique being, with an important role to play within the Wizarding World/World of Harry Potter, therefore her role as a “slave” is not merely that. When she permanently becomes a snake by Voldemort’s time, can we still consider the FBAWTFT storyline canon? And with her human form now non-existent, she is nothing more than a snake and her being Voldemort’s faithful “pet” or “evil” should again, not be an issue.
And unfortunately the same problems and backlash would have risen had Nagini been portrayed by a White actress. The accusations of her being stereotypically “enslaved” and a “pet” would surely not be mentioned but others would likely find fault in her not being Asian.
Aside from this, the Crimes of Grindelwald will also reveal more about Dumbledore’s character and past. But it has already been confirmed by director David Yates that his sexuality would not be “explicitly” explored in the film, though he did acknowledge the now well-known fact that Dumbledore and Grindelwald had an intense relationship and fell in love with each other before turning against one another. So who knows how much of this relationship – which is surely an important factor in the rise and fall of Grindelwald and the rise of Dumbledore as one of the greatest wizards of all time? – will be included. What does “not explicitly” really mean? He adds: “But I think all the fans are aware of that” – is that his way of saying that because everyone knows the backstory, there’s no point expanding on it? Well then, what is the point of this film since we all know how the demise of Grindelwald comes about anyway? It’s a great shame that what many fans see as being necessary to the story and what many members of the LGBT community will consider as important for representation, will potentially be no more than a throwaway line in the film.
What we can all at least hope for though is that it does not take another two years to wait until the third instalment…
Update: February 2021
Unfortunately though, Rowling’s recent comments regarding trans rights have landed her in hot water with the LGBT and particularly trans communities. Many believe her harmful and misinformed “transphobic” views of trans people and their rights, which conflict with her ideas of women’s rights and her misunderstanding of biological sex and gender identity, show that in reality, she is not as open and caring of diversity as she makes herself out to be. She has also not helped herself with her alleged camaraderie with anti-trans folk (“TERFs”), particularly on Twitter and though she claims she isn’t transphobic, her total mishandling and misspeaking regarding the issue does unfortunately at least show her to be attempting to erase their voices, opinions and rights in favour of her main stance – protecting women’s rights. Will this latest controversy, coupled with her silence on the revelation that Johnny Depp was asked to step down as Grindelwald due to domestic abuse allegations (after she once stood up for him and defended the decision to cast him), obliviate the rest of the Fantastic Beasts franchise into obscurity and taint the magic of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter?