Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released on the 26th of June, 1997: just 2 months after I was born. I have grown up in a world where Hogwarts has always existed, the characters and plots are as familiar to me as any classic fairy tale. JK Rowling’s fantasy world has inspired a generation of creative minds to read, discuss, debate and analyse every scrap of writing she has ever published. Harry Potter has lead to a fandom boom, with millions of fanfics being written and shared and critiqued. Even now, more than a decade after Deathly Hallows hit the shelves, it remains the most popular Books & Literature tag on Archive of Our Own (AO3). For me, Harry Potter has been a huge part of my life and development. I was still in primary school when the series originally came to an end, but I returned to the books constantly throughout my teens. It is not difficult to understand the appeal of the Harry Potter universe, and I could write pages and pages on the impact the books have had on me personally (maybe another time!). What I want to write about here however, is the changing relationship between fans, Rowling herself, and the continuing production of Harry Potter media.
The past few years have seen the release of the play/ script Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016); and the two films Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (along with several related printed books). These releases brought huge excitement to content-starved Potter fans, but they did not receive nearly as warm of a welcome as the original series. The vast majority of Harry Potter fans are people like me: in their twenties and thirties, who love the franchise and know the content off by heart. So, you would think that such a loyal fan-base would be willing to eat-up all of the new content without complaint. However, JK Rowling’s repeatedly tone-deaf interactions with fans, controversial decisions and, let’s be honest, poor writing, have left many fans feeling incredibly disappointed. That isn’t to say the new instalments are completely without merit, but in my opinion, what they bring to the table with cutting edge CGI and incredible Wizarding World aesthetics is grossly let down by pretty much everything else.
For years now, JK Rowling has been stirring up fans by dropping small hints and titbits that she never included in the original novels. In 2007, she revealed to fans that Dumbledore is gay. In 2014, she highlighted a Jewish wizard among the ranks at Hogwarts. In 2015, she commented on her vague descriptions of Hermione, leaving her race up for debate. Progressive, right?
The problem with these statements is that they come across as incredibly condescending and insensitive. LGBT fans looking for representation might be pleased with Dumbledore’s sexuality being highlighted, but the fact remains that it was never mentioned in the canonical books. And I might point out that it continues to be kept vague and covert in the new Fantastic Beasts adaption: which is ridiculous considering that Grindelwald and Dumbledore are major characters. At one point in The Crimes of Grindelwald, Dumbledore refers to himself and Grindelwald as “closer than brothers” following an incredibly PG, homo-erotic-if-you-squint flashback sequence. (Yes, my friends and I did audibly curse at this point and we weren’t the only ones in the cinema to do so…). If you want your franchise to be “progressive”, then you have to write in such a way that you organically meet the requirements to be so! If you want to be applauded for being diverse, you have to actually do it. It’s a complete insult to pepper in diversity after the fact via Twitter.
People have explored the issues surrounding race, ethnicity and JK Rowling in much more eloquent and introspective ways than I will ever have the ability to do. (See the bottom of this article for links!) But my own opinion on it is this: if you think that having a character’s appearance remain ambiguous equates actual representation, you are fooling no-one. All that does is leave fan artists and writers more room to create head-canon designs. It is not the same as writing a character and actually including their race as a human characteristic. Race and ethnicity are not just the colour of your skin, and to reduce it to such (a “colour in the character however you see fit” mentality) erases all of the cultural context, all of the potential struggles that diversity brings to the plot, all of the responsibility that you have as a writer to provide that representation in a respectful and informed way. Unfortunately, Rowling has shown that when she does attempt diversity, she handles it in anything but a respectful and informed way.
When she began to expand her Wizarding World to North America, Rowling made several very ignorant and hurtful mistakes. She appropriated many existing beliefs of various Native American peoples and equated them with her own invented magic.
The legend of the Native American ‘skin walker’ – an evil witch or wizard that can transform into an animal at will – has its basis in fact. A legend grew up around the Native American Animagi, that they had sacrificed close family members to gain their powers of transformation. In fact, the majority of Animagi assumed animal forms to escape persecution or to hunt for the tribe. Such derogatory rumours often originated with No-Maj medicine men, who were sometimes faking magical powers themselves, and fearful of exposure.
JK Rowling, “History of Magic in North America”, Pottermore
There are multiple issues here. First of all…”the Native American”. In her writing she repeatedly refers to Native American peoples as if they are one monolithic culture, which is absolutely not true. The term “skin walker” is a Navajo term which I do not have the expertise to try and define here. It relates to very strong and powerful beliefs held by Navajo people. Rowling tried to reduce it to simply being the same thing as an animagus: a human who can turn into an animal. This is incredibly demeaning and offensive for obvious reasons. White people have a long and ugly history of equating Native American peoples with magic in a way that marks them out as something to be feared, othered, viewed as sinful. Rowling’s clumsy attempts achieve nothing except further erasure of the actual living, breathing Native American peoples and cultures who are alive today. You could make the argument that, “Rowling isn’t trying to co-opt REAL Native American people’s beliefs! She’s inventing fictional beliefs for fictional Native Americans!” but…that is even worse. That would mean she is using real-life people in a way that reduces their culture to a fetishisation tailored to Western audiences, rather than doing actual respectful research and trying to imagine how those Real Life People would fit into her world (which is, after all, supposed to basically be OUR world plus magic).
With all of this in mind, the retconning of Voldemort’s snake (she was an Asian woman all along! What?!) did not come as a surprise to fans. Rowling decided to add Nagini as a character in The Crimes of Grindelwald, an Asian (Korean) woman enslaved as part of a circus and cursed to one day to permanently become a snake (played by Claudia Kim). This is supposedly based upon the Indonesian “Naga” mythology, but there are few to no comparisons that can be drawn between the Naga and Nagini. On the surface level this would seem to be a step in the right direction, but the actual representation is token and weak. Nagini’s character has barely any agency of her own and exists to basically be a doomed love interest/ damsel in distress. She has barely any lines, and those she does have are with Ezra Miller’s character Credence…who she is in love with? The details are foggier than her characterisation. This casting decision was announced as a triumph for diversity but instead was just another disappointment.
In terms of casting decisions, perhaps the most controversial of them all was Johnny Depp in the role of Grindelwald. Depp has always denied the claims of his former wife, Amber Heard, that he was abusive towards her. Regardless of whether or not the claims are true, the fact that he was not recast considering the high-profile exposure of abuse in Hollywood sends a clear message as to what Rowling believes. In a statement regarding the casting on her personal website, she said, “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.” This angered a great many fans who felt that Rowling was undermining the struggles faced by women not just in Hollywood, but all over the world. Fans argued that men should not be able to get top-billed positions when in the midst of abuse allegations, especially not in children’s media, as such positions could be taken as an endorsement of their actions.
When I was younger, I idolised JK Rowling. I have wanted to write stories for as long as I have been able to read, and her story was inspirational to me. As I have gotten older, every new development in the Wizarding World leaves me feeling more jaded and disenfranchised than before. For someone who has achieved such enormous success and garnered such an expansive fanbase, Rowling seems to be completely out of touch with her own influence. I still love Harry Potter and I will always think of Hogwarts as my fictional home, but I can’t help but wish that Rowling had left the universe alone when she wrote, “The scar had not pained Harry for 19 years. All was well.”
What do you think? Would you like me to write on anything else Harry Potter themed? Leave a comment and let me know!
“Characters are not a Coloring Book or, Why the Black Hermione is a Poor Apology for the Ingrained Racism of Harry Potter” https://www.thebooksmugglers.com/2016/12/characters-not-coloring-book-black-hermione-poor-apology-ingrained-racism-harry-potter.html
“Why Writing Colourblind is Writing White” Accessed December 16, 2018. https://www.kameronhurley.com/why-writing-colorblind-is-writing-white-a-rant/
“Native Americans to J.K. Rowling: We’re Not Magical” https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/03/160311-history-of-magic-in-north-america-jk-rowling-native-american-stereotypes/
“Magic in North America Part 1: Ugh” https://nativeappropriations.com/2016/03/magic-in-north-america-part-1-ugh.html
“Fantastic Beasts director reveals how sequel handles Dumbledore being gay” https://ew.com/movies/2018/01/31/fantastic-beasts-dumbledore-gay/
“J.K. Rowling at Carnegie Hall Reveals Dumbledore is Gay” http://www.the-leaky-cauldron.org/2007/10/20/j-k-rowling-at-carnegie-hall-reveals-dumbledore-is-gay-neville-marries-hannah-abbott-and-scores-more/
“Grindelwald casting” https://www.jkrowling.com/opinions/grindelwald-casting/
“J.K. Rowling defends Nagini Casting” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-45666350