I have to be totally honest. I wasn’t sure what to write about this week for Off The Record — I always have my Lena Dunham, Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Schumer trinity of problematic white women piece on standby, but as a pop culture blogger, I wanted to stay current and relevant.
Bless J.K. Rowling for having the exact same problem and dealing with it in the most absurd ways.
If you no longer swear by the “Harry Potter” series, then you might not know a new trailer for “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” just dropped, revealing fascinating new information (read: red flags) about the beloved universe Rowling created. This has lead me to compile a list I like to call …
Fake Allyship: The Crimes of J.K. Rowling
1. The Nagini Reveal: The new trailer introduces South Korean actress Claudia Kim as Nagini, the pet snake to the Wizarding World’s equivalent of Adolf Hitler. There’s a lot to unpack here. First, Nagini is a Sanskrit word referring to mythological snake people who can transform at will. This myth also made its way into Southeast Asian cultures, but in either case, not a Korean custom that warrants a Korean actress. I’m still not sure why it’s so hard to grasp that South Asians and Southeast Asians are different from East Asians, or how many times it has to be explained, like with any community of people, the Asian and Pacific Islander American community is not a monolith or interchangeable with one another. But this is hardly the first time Rowling has struggled to represent cultures fairly or accurately. Second, it is so frustrating that a non-white actor is destined to become the animal pet of a villain; it is literally dehumanizing. Third, this brings the grand total of Asian representation to five characters in a franchise that currently consists of ten films. Not to mention the lack of representation is most definitely not limited to the A/PIA community.
2. The Johnny Depp Controversy: This trailer comes after the decision to not recast known domestic abuser Johnny Depp. After fans expressed discontent in the filmmakers’ decision to keep Depp in the “Fantastic Beasts” series, Rowling responded on her website: “Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.” Yikes. In a time when women have been consistently expressing how systems of power have failed them in cases of assault, it hurts to see another woman uphold them. I suppose this was only to be expected when, even in her own fictional writing, Harry Potter’s domestic abuse was treated as character building by the adults of the Wizarding World rather than a horrific wrong.
3. Appropriating Native American Culture: When Rowling revealed information about the “Magic in North America” series on the Pottermore website, she displayed a general lack of understanding of American culture and an astounding amount of insensitivity toward American indigenous cultures. While I cannot speak to the experiences of fans who identify with one of the many indigenous tribes in America, Rowling specifically takes skin-walkers — figures recognized in the very much alive Navajo culture — and decided in the fictional magical world she’s created that skin-walkers are a myth perpetuated to demonize her replacement shapeshifting figures, Animagi. Rowling pushes the dominant narrative that indigenous culture is exotic, mystifying and the stuff of fantasy rather than the lived reality of a marginalized group. As a British white woman, it is not her place to say what is or isn’t real in her fictional world when it stems from the lives of American indigenous peoples. (This article addresses this issue and others in more depth and with more context.)
4. Retroactive Progressiveness: Rowling has become somewhat infamous for saying certain characters hold various identities but never including it in the written source material. Anthony Goldstein was revealed to be a Jewish wizard who attended Hogwarts — a school that only ever celebrated Christmas in the books. Most frustrating, however, has been the 2007 reveal that Dumbledore was gay. In the 11 years since then, this information has never been addressed in any of the films. In an attempt to accrue “woke” points, Rowling spends a lot of time telling her fans how diverse her world is without ever really showing it.
Don’t get me wrong, Rowling isn’t all bad. She gave her stamp of approval on the casting of Black actress Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger in “The Cursed Child” and her foundation Lumos works to help children in orphanages live happy, healthy lives with their families. But that does seem to be the limit of her actionable activism. There seems to be a general lack of awareness that, as a white woman with more than 14 million followers on Twitter, her actions have a far reaching impact internationally. It’s also especially hurtful that when loving fans do point out flaws, Rowling has a tendency to block them. Just because she is a woman who came from a low-income background does not mean she is incapable of being racist.
These days, I’m both frustrated by how stagnant and white Rowling’s stories remain, and I’m frankly embarrassed by how she chooses to incorporate diversity. I still remember how exciting it was to figure out which house I was in (Slytherin, for the record) and how cool it was that the smartest character in the series was a girl. I wish Rowling still held that same charm. But in the end, her supposed “wokeness” seems to be performative words on Twitter that get her likes and retweets but give me heartache over my nostalgia for a fictional world I once loved.
So if you’re still wondering — fake allies? You find them on Twitter, in charge of the very things you once adored.