J.K. Rowling: A Problematic History


Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, is coming out this November, and the final trailer revealed a surprise twist that brought the constant struggle for diversity and representation throughout the series to a boiling point. Nagini, Voldemort’s pet snake, was an Asian woman who was transformed by a blood curse. Claudia Kim is the fourth Asian woman to join the cast of the Harry Potter franchise, and she will be playing the snake. The Fantastic Beasts cast has faced criticism for being incredibly white, with the exception of Carmen Ejogo’s role of Seraphina Picquery. However, this last-ditch effort at representation misses the mark entirely.

The Fantastic Beasts universe definitely needs more people of color. There’s a clear racial analogy within the Harry Potter world with the idea of muggle-born wizards versus purebloods, with the latter echoing Nazi ideology. This contributes to the theme throughout the books of good triumphing over evil. However, the lack of people of color in prominent roles makes it seem like Rowling can only talk about racial equality in terms of metaphors, but fails to see it through with diversity on screen.

Additionally, Claudia Kim’s role is harmful representation. Casting people of color only as villians is destructive as it sends a message when heroes are always white and villains are always people of color. It's not that people of color should never be villains, but there should be enough representation in a cast so there can be a balance rather than throwing them in as a token villain.

Nagini isn’t even the villain; she’s the villain’s property. To break it down, Kim's character is a snake controlled by Voldemort, played by a white man. Although the trailer didn’t delve into the intricacies of the character, it seems that Nagini’s portrayal could be fueled by Orientalist stereotypes that Hollywood perpetuates time and time again.

Rowling defended the casting decision on Twitter, claiming that the character was inspired by Indonesian mythology. Author Amish Tripathi debunked the claim by responding that the Naga, snake-like creatures, emerged from India and “Nagin” is actually a Sanskrit word. This is not the first time that it seems Rowling failed to do her research before referencing other cultures.

The four-part series “History of Magic in North America” released on Pottermore in 2016 displayed a similar cultural ignorance. Rowling repurposes the Navajo legend of skinwalkers—evil witches with the ability to transform into animals—reducing a living tradition to the likes of fantasy, stating on Twitter that “in [the] wizarding world, there were no skinwalkers,” and that they were made up to demonize wizards. But it isn’t her world, not when the legend is appropriated from beliefs still practiced today. The impact is disturbing whether or not Rowling lacked the knowledge to represent Native Americans respectfully or with an ounce of tact.

Other aspects of the short series further incriminated Rowling. The narrative reinforced the white savior complex as explorers taught the natives to use wands to make their magic “more precise.” She clearly modeled the natives and their ability to do wandless magic in the first place under the “noble savage”—a trope that was constantly used as a justification for colonization.

Nagini’s casting isn’t the first time fans have expressed outrage about the upcoming film. Frustration arose in January 2018 when director David Yates stated in an interview that Dumbledore’s sexuality would not be explored in the upcoming film.

After the publication of Deathly Hallows, Rowling revealed that Dumbledore had been gay all along. Shruti Rajkumar, a freshman journalism major, considers the retroactive representation to be indicative of Rowling’s awareness of the platform she has as the author of such a loved series. Watching the Goblet of Fire when she was only eight, Rajkumar was excited to see the Patil twins dressed in traditional Indian lehengas, which were a familiar part of her own heritage, at the Yule Ball. However, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Rajkumar says that “If [Rowling is] going to say it, she needs to incorporate it into the film to actually represent the community.” It becomes easy to theorize the true motives of Rowling’s claim as a self-serving attempt to win ally points when this thread is not addressed in a movie that has Grindelwald, Dumbledore’s love interest, in the title.

Throwing in representation that requires reading between the lines leaves LGBTQ+ individuals in the closet. Adding in diverse characters without considering the implications reinforces racial stereotypes. It’s time to demand more from storytellers, especially those as influential as J.K. Rowling.

Photography by Abbey Finn