While I did enjoy it, there’s still quite a lot to critique about the newest entry in the Harry Potter series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. From Queenie’s casually nonconsensual Legilimency to the general lack of people of color, at least I know that I won’t lack for post topics for a while.
One of the more egregious issues in the original series was J.K. Rowling’s ongoing conflation of fatness with badness. While Fantastic Beasts takes a small step in the right direction by making its fat character a good guy, his portrayal is still far less than ideal. Spoilers for the movie after the jump.
It’s a strange and wonderful thing to be diving back into the world of Harry Potter, a franchise that so many people around my age literally grew up with. There was certainly a lot of pressure on the new film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to transport us back to a world we all knew and loved, and I’m happy to say that while it certainly differed a lot from the series of films starring Harry and the gang, it was generally delightful. It made a lot of good storytelling choices, introduced a lot of great characters, and really invoked a sense of wonder, which is what every Harry Potter story ought to do. There were a few small hiccups in execution: specifically, some elements of the magical world seemed incongruous with the rest of the stories. Even with that considered, however, nothing significantly detracted from the overall experience, and I came out of the theater excited to learn more about Newt, Tina, and the American wizarding community.
While Boomer-controlled media offers a non-stop critique of the millennial generation, from our supposed laziness at breakfast time to our scorn for the classics, there’s really only one thing that unites millennials: we were raised on Harry Potter. Which is why we were all so excited to see the wizarding world expand into Africa, Asia, and the Americas, as J.K. Rowling returns to the series almost a decade after the last novel.
I have already expressed how underwhelmed I am with the new Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie, but I am feeling exactly the opposite when it comes to the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It’s the sequel to the Harry Potter books that I’ve always wanted, especially now that the cast has been announced.
By now, you all have probably heard about the extremely white cast for the upcoming movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This is extremely disappointing for those of us who were hoping that the film would have more diversity, as we certainly thought that a film set in 1920s New York would have at least a few characters of color. Alas, that was not the case, but apparently enough people have complained about this issue that producer David Heyman felt the need to speak out about the issue.
Like all of Jo Rowling’s works, [Fantastic Beasts] is populated with a variety of people and that will be the same in this series over the course of the films. There will be people of various types of ethnicities. In New York in the 1920s, there was a segregation between white and black, the neighborhoods were largely separate, and that is reflected in [the film]. But the wizarding world is a much more open and tolerant society where people of color and different ethnic backgrounds exist harmoniously together. There are people of color filling this world in an organic way.
There is so much about this comment that disappoints me that I barely know where to begin. That outrage aside, there are several issues at play here that need to be discussed.
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: “why does this character have to be gay? It’s so distracting!” Or what about this: “we thought about making this character queer, but we thought it would be a distraction”. It seems like I’ve been seeing this sort of thing a lot lately—I see authors insisting that they’re open-minded and love their “gay fans”, but making characters queer would divert attention away from the story; on the other hand, I see fans complaining that the existing queer characters are distracting. But all I, a queer person, can hear from this is “for me to accept and portray you as a person, I need to ignore a piece of your person; can we pretend it doesn’t exist?” and “no one wants to see you as you are”.
Awesome character, but not an epitome of LGBTQ+ representation
It seems that a lot of creators think that it’s enough representation if they have ‘hidden’ LGBTQ+ characters—only revealing it with a throwaway punchline at the end of a movie (see: Mitch in ParaNorman), or even worse, only mentioning it outside the work itself (see: J.K. Rowling’s “I always thought of Dumbledore as gay”). Many fans cheer when this happens, because, see, you can write gay characters who don’t distract from the story. On one hand, this helps to normalize queer characters; it makes them seem just like heterosexual characters, so straight viewers don’t think of them as ‘other’, but as people just like them. And this is important. But on the other hand, really, what sort of representation is it if the audience has no idea the character is queer for mostof the work? Invisible representation is not representation. It also sends the message to queer audience members that they’re only equal to straight people when they’re indistinguishable from them, when they’re exactly the same; that to be accepted you have to follow the heteronormative rules. If you’re in any way different, you draw attention and it’s annoying and disgusting and the need for you to be this way is constantly questioned.
Trigger warning for discussion of rape throughout this post.
Since the publication of the final Harry Potter book, J.K. Rowling has offered us many bits of trivia about the HP universe. Some of these are interesting and some are frustrating, but few are so problematic as what she shared about Voldemort’s inability to understand or feel love. In a Q and A hosted on The Leaky Cauldron, she said that it had its basis in his being conceived under the effects of a love potion. She said his conception was:
[A] symbolic way of showing that he came from a loveless union – but of course, everything would have changed if Merope had survived and raised him herself and loved him. The enchantment under which Tom Riddle fathered Voldemort is important because it shows coercion, and there can’t be many more prejudicial ways to enter the world than as the result of such a union.
Now, as we’ve discussed before, one of the polarizing aspects of the Harry Potter books is that they tend to use magical allegories as substitutes for real issues. Lupin’s lycanthropy is used as an allegory for AIDS, for example, and racism based on skin color was replaced by racism based on percentage of Wizarding blood. And as I have pointed out before, love potions are essentially magical date rape drugs.
We’ve talked a lot on this blog about authors who use their novels as religious allegories, but many authors also use various magical diseases and abilities as a stand-in for many touchy political or personal issues.
In J.K. Rowling’s case, she switched out a real disease for an imaginary one: lycanthropy. The werewolves that populate Harry Potter were meant to be an allegory for the real-life suffering of people with HIV and AIDS, who, up until recently, were treated with contempt and suspicion by the general populace due to a fundamental misunderstanding of what caused the disease and what the disease did. Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s Remus Lupin’s life in a nutshell. In the 2008 court case between JKR and Steve Vander Ark over the HP Lexicon, Rowling said:
I know that I’ve said publicly that Remus Lupin was supposed to be on the H.I.V. metaphor. It was someone who had been infected young, who suffered stigma, who had a fear of infecting others, who was terrified he would pass on his condition to his son. And it was a way of examining prejudice, unwarranted prejudice towards a group of people. And also, examining why people might become embittered when they’re treated that unfairly.
Back in May of this year, YA author Maureen Johnson issued a Tumblr challenge to her followers: coverflip a book. What exactly she meant by that was unclear, so as she explained it:
1. Take a well-known book. (It’s up to you to define well-known.)
2. Imagine that book was written by an author of the OPPOSITE GENDER. Or a genderqueer author. Imagine all the things you think of when you think GIRL book or BOY book or GENDERLESS book (do they EXIST?). And I’m not saying that these categorizations are RIGHT—but make no mistake, they’re there.
The saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” has been around for eons, but Johnson’s challenge made the point that yes, we do judge books (and books’ readers) by their covers. As covers are the first thing anyone sees about a book, it’s easy to formulate an (often incorrect) idea of the author’s intent from a graphic and a name. Does the cover feature half of a smiling girl’s face, two people kissing, or generally have a lot of bright colors? Probably written by a girl. Check the name. Does it sound like a girl’s name? Okay, I’m not in the mood for chick-lit romance today, I’m going to go for that book over there with a dragon on it! It looks like it’s written by a guy, so it’ll probably have a lot of action and adventure!