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Fantastic Beasts and the Crimes Against Diversity

I meant to write this post up directly after seeing Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald weeks ago and, to be entirely frank, I forgot all about it. That says a lot about my disappointment in the film and even more about our changing perspective on the Harry Potter phenomenon as a whole. Two years ago, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them released at my local theater and the line to get in—not to get tickets, those had been sold out days before—twisted down the theater’s massive steps, out the door, and around the building’s side. Everyone happily froze their asses off for the chance to see a new Harry Potter film and the tone was one of satisfied nostalgia. People dressed up, swapped snacks, took the nearest empty seat without any complaints about where they ended up. When we first heard the theme music people cheered loud enough that I felt the reverberation through the floor.

This time I walked into a nearly empty theater at 8:00 that night, having bought my ticket only two hours before. By the time the film started there were maybe twenty other people there, a few of which hadn’t bothered to show up until after the previews. When the film had finished a couple of students hung back to laugh at everything they’d seen. I ran into another group ranting on my way out, vowing that they were done with the franchise.

That is a staggering difference in tone.

Granted, this is just one (small) theater out in Columbus and I’m not pretending that my experience was representative of how the rest of the world responded to the film. I know it's not, as debates with my friends regarding how bad the film truly was continues to reign. To say nothing of the fact that the Fantastic Beasts series is still raking in money… even if we are starting to see a decline. Yet I can’t ignore how this change feeds into the growing trend I’ve seen online: where fans are focusing less on the magic and more on the massive missteps Rowling has been making in her series lately, particularly when it comes to representation. And that criticism is justified.

We’ve had these conversations before. We’ve acknowledged how Rowling has moved from understandable mistakes to outright disaster in her work and, more importantly, how her status as a literary celebrity justifies our criticism. As fanfiction continues to move into the public’s eye; as people begin to acknowledge that it’s a craft with vigorous work attached to it and a hefty level of skill involved, we’ve also seen the rise of the question, “Should we be critiquing free work online?” This is a complicated debate that I hope to tackle in a later blog post, but I bring it up here only to highlight some of the privileges Rowling has as a mainstream author: she’s paid for her work, she’s built a career out of it, a brand, a legacy----and all of this relies on people continuing to like her stuff enough to buy it. In short, there’s a certain give and take between author and reader that’s been established; a level of expectation that Rowling—particularly as one of the most powerful authors in generations—will use her position and power to do something good.

Upset with the lack of representation in the original series? Yeah, so is pretty much everyone else. However, it was the 90s. We can give Rowling a pass for writing (what began as) a children’s series under massive pressure to perform in a particular way, during a time when mainstream storytelling as a whole wasn’t doing much better. We acknowledge that we have different expectations now, higher bars to meet, and reading Harry Potter in 2019 needs to be done with a touch of historical knowledge. In the same vein, we watched the fanbase—young kids and teenagers absolutely rabid for any scrap of queer rep—heap massive praise on Rowling when she first revealed Dumbledore’s sexuality, despite the fact that it never made it into the books. Hell, I was that kid. I was the then less educated child sitting on my friend’s bed arguing passionately that of course we’d never learn he was gay. The books are from Harry’s perspective! I’d just learned about limited perspectives in English class and totally bought into the idea that an old headmaster isn’t going to talk about his sexual preferences to a student. Which I still stand by, obviously, but my young mind didn’t yet realize that 'Dumbledore explicitly comes out to Harry' wasn't the only option. That lack of representation is an active choice. That yes, you may not easily be able to work a specific character’s sexuality into the plot (overlooking for a moment that Rowling did have plenty of options given Dumbledore's backstory with Grindelwald...), but that hardly stops you from providing diversity through others. Where are the queer couples attending the Yule Ball? Where are the queer parents dropping their kids off at the Hogwarts express? Why didn’t we ever get some Remus/Sirius? Or Dean/Seamus? Or hell, some Ginny/Luna before she ends up with Harry? This isn’t a question of which ship you prefer, but rather an acknowledgement that Rowling didn’t do any of that. Much more damning (because again, 90s) she hasn't added anything to her canon after watching society change. Rather than doing the work to incorporate diversity into her canon now that she has the power to do so and an audience more overtly receptive to it, Rowling is happily accepting the brownie points she's gotten only because of an interview. Dumbledore isn't gay. He's said to be gay in a context separate from the series. Those are two distinctly different things.

Of course, this isn’t just an issue of sexual and romantic diversity. Rowling has been slammed for retroactive progressiveness by claiming that Hermione could have always been black----despite writing "Hermione's white face was sticking out from behind a tree" in Prisoner of Azkaban----and this being another example of how people supposedly 'don't see color.' Rowling has likewise been criticized for her insensitive re-imagining of Native American mythology, pairing nicely with her now racist choice to make one of her few Asian characters into a literal animal, a woman cursed to someday serve at wizarding Hitler’s feet. Whether it’s throwing out that of course there are Jews at Hogwarts (I just didn’t write them) or now queer baiting your fans in Cursed Child too… Rowling has a bad track-record when it comes to just leaving her story alone. She’s become the George Lucas of the modern age.

Which brings us to the The Crimes of Grindelwald.

Reader, I could write you a whole novel on everything that didn’t work in this film, but I’ll spare you. This post is already long enough. Rather, I want to emphasize that CoG is the culmination of everything mentioned above—and more. It’s what you get when you take an author who shoehorns in representation for the sake of social media cred and then give her 200 million dollars worth of carte blanche. This film's plot is built entirely around the destruction of a black family. The Lestrange lineage was already pretty complicated, but it became even more-so with the revelation that a young black woman, Laurena, was put under the imperius curse by a white man lusting after her, raped repeatedly, and died giving birth to a mixed child she never wanted. This kid drowned at sea after a ridiculous switcharoo by Leta—ensuring that Credence survived in the child’s place—but not before their half-brother, Yusuf, was sent on a lifelong mission to murder the unwanted kid. If you're at all confused and/or repulsed by this, you're not alone. I spent most of the film working out what was happening and the rest being utterly disgusted by it.

What makes an entertaining story nowadays? Apparently it's watching one of a franchise’s few black characters, a man we learn nothing about and therefore care nothing for, forced to accept an unbreakable vow to uphold his family’s honor—through the murder of a child. Yusuf is entirely incidental to the rest of his story and spends the vast majority of his time on screen being tortured by a magical slug in his eye before eventually realizing that his life-long obsession was all for nothing. Lovely.

Not that the well-rounded characters are treated any better. We devote long flashbacks to Leta’s childhood at Hogwarts, setting up her deep-rooted love for Newt… as well as another love triangle, because of course if you can’t have one brother you should obviously marry the other. Iffy romance aside, Leta had the setup to be a genuinely great character, one whose potential quickly withered and died first in the face of her white feminism, and then again in her literal death on screen. Despite being a black woman in the 1920s—a conscious choice on the creators’ part—race is entirely absent from her story. Rather, Leta parrots an overly simplistic version of the events based entirely on gender:

“My father owned a very strange family tree. It only recorded the men. The women in my family were recorded as flowers. Beautiful. Separate.”

And then she dies in Grindelwald’s fire, her last moments rooted in the ‘will she, won’t she’ anxiety of finding out whether Leta has been evil this whole time, her screen time dominated by the 'will she, won't she' curiosity of whether Leta will abandon Theseus for Newt. As one of the few canonically black characters in this series, Leta deserved better. She deserved better, period.

As said though, this is all just the tip of an iceberg. I’d be remiss if I didn’t re-emphasize Nagini and Dumbledore here, both of whom were given disappointing—if not surprising—roles in the film. More eloquent people than I have already laid out the racism attached to making one of your few Asian characters into a literal animal, a woman destined to become the slave of a genocidal dictator and an object that houses his soul. Really doesn’t look too good when you lay it out on paper like that. Still, Nagini had the chance to be a fully-fledged person before she meets her fate in the original book run. After all, having your audience fall in love with a character that they know is doomed is a particularly wonderful kind of angst. Sadly though, we don’t get any of that here. After escaping the circus with Credence, Nagini quite literally spends the entire time hanging off his arm or cowering behind his back. She doesn’t accomplish anything. She doesn’t have more than three or four throw-away lines. She doesn’t even bother to change out of the ridiculous dress that her capture forced her to wear. And sure, I hear what everyone is saying: It’s a setup film! Maybe she’ll have more to do in the next one! Yes, maybe she will, but I’m talking about this film and there’s not much to say about Nagini considering she does nothing, says nothing, and so far exists only to set up her future horror.

Dumbledore? Same story, different tune. Despite the announcement that he would not be “explicitly gay” in The Crimes of Grindelwald, fans latched onto Rowling’s admonishment that we hadn’t even seen the film yet, hoping that we’d finally get some of the canonicity that she’d been promising us for over a decade now. No such luck. There’s a lot of criticism to be leveled at the fact that our one queer character’s true love is a genocidal maniac who, in this film, tries to justify the murder of muggles by claiming that it will prevent World War II… but honestly that’s a discussion for another time. Unpacking all that will absolutely take its own post.

In the end I would have accepted Dumbledore and Grindelwald's relationship, flaws and all, just to have some solid representation in the canon. We can worry about the details once there’s actually some content to analyze.

However, Rowling is still refusing to commit, happy to rail against her fanbase for daring to make assumptions… while knowing the entire time that we were right to voice our suspicions. Dumbledore never identifies as gay—or another queer identity—in the film and there’s no other overt indications either. Oh, I agree entirely that the scene of him and Grindelwald passionately linking fingers as they swear a blood oath reads as “very gay,” but that’s all it is: a reading. Without Rowling’s statement on Dumbledore’s sexuality this scene remains nothing but subtext and easily provides homophobes with plenty of space to talk about how they’re, 'just really good friends! If I was swearing to never harm my BFF I’d link fingers like that too. It’s an emotional moment, but it’s not gay. Besides, the blood was on their palms. It makes TOTAL sense that they’d press them together like that.'

Seriously. I’ve read stuff like this.

Everything is made worse by the fact that we don’t just bypass Dumbledore’s sexuality, we actively ignore it. There’s a moment when his relationship with Grindelwald takes center stage and Dumbledore corrects the assumption that they were as close as brothers.

Dumbledore: “We were closer than brothers...”

Except everyone was waiting for the second half of that sentence. You were what, Dumbledore? Lovers? Boyfriends? Husbands? So crazy hot for one another that claims of a sibling-like love for this man are outright laughable? I would have taken any of it at this point, but sadly nothing came. We leave Dumbledore staring ambiguously into the distance and we leave the theater with no more representation than when we walked in. Like Rowling herself, the film tries to walk this middle ground between getting praise for queer rep without actually writing queer characters.

The rest is exactly the same. Queenie is vaguely coded as someone with a mental illness, given that her status as a legilimens often negatively impacts her life and presents her as atypical from the rest of wizarding society. In this film we see Queenie overcome with the amount of information she’s receiving when she ploughs into a crowd, eventually dropping to the ground, sobbing at the overload and her inability to find Jacob. This could have been a powerful moment, one where people with autism and anxiety see a new Harry Potter hero and think, “Oh hey, I’ve experienced stuff like that. She’s just like me.”

Instead this is the moment where Queenie starts to turn towards Grindelwald, a choice that’s insulting primarily because of how little it makes sense for her character. I'm all for good guys going bad as a plot device, but not when there's no logic attached to the decision. All it takes is a single sentence from Grindelwald about forbidden love and Queenie is apparently willing to join up with a known serial killer. The fact that her reasons presumably stem from her inability to marry Jacob just highlights another missed opportunity. Within Harry Potter’s context Jacob is automatically a minority by virtue of his muggle status. We might have had a fascinating, nuanced look at what it means to be a non-magical individual now immersed in magical society, fighting for basic rights when the rest of the world sees you as inherently lesser. Jacob already comes from a poor family. He’s already Jewish. His lack of magic might have functioned as an allegory for both.

Instead, we get him telling Queenie that she’s “crazy” as she steps through magical fire to join the man who wants to eradicate everyone like Jacob. Queenie and Jacob went from star-crossed lovers fighting the odds to people who will control one another through love potions (that's rape FYI) and label their partner as the one thing they fear the most: insane. How did we even get here?

We’re left only with these little nuggets to continue grasping at. Like the readings fans have of Newt’s autism that may one day find a home in the canon. Or yes, that Tina, Queenie, and Jacob all have Jewish last names----though of course that part of their identity is never openly acknowledged. In this day and age that’s both criticism and praise. Can’t minority groups just be? Let them populate stories without reducing them to their differences; let them exist and find meaning outside of the one part of their identity that others tend to focus on. I agree. However, there’s a fine line between having a minority trait be one part of a character’s identity and ignoring that trait entirely. JKR has a bad habit of doing the latter to the extent that “letting characters be” leads to:

  • A black family torn apart by white supremacy

  • A witch with dwarfism who is immediately killed off

  • A gay man who never comes out of the closet

  • An Asian woman enslaved by her animal instincts

  • No commentary on disability

  • A world where it's still a cishet white man saving the day

Some of it has to do with Rowling’s inability to let her original story go (Credence is really Dumbledore’s brother? Really?). Part of it is the mistakes any author is going to make. After all, diversity isn’t some box you can check off and then you’re done with it, and it’s never something that anyone does without flaws—particularly when everyone has differing views about how marginalized groups should be portrayed. To say nothing of the fact that our stances on how to achieve that continually change over time. Authors should be praised for what they do achieve, otherwise they may be less inclined to attempt more representation in the future… but they should also be criticized for their missteps too. Particularly when those missteps are done maliciously.

And yes, at this point I consider Rowling to be malicious in her quest for attention at the expense of marginalized groups. It’s been two decades since Rowling was a struggling mother on welfare, the nobody who through hard work and a stunning imagination built herself an empire. She has that empire now—a staggering amount of power within the literary, film, fan, and digital landscapes—but is not using that power well. No one is asking for perfection, only that she listen and strive to improve. On the surface it looks as if JKR is at least attempting the latter. What else are all these throw-away tweets and reveals if not an attempt to appease her fanbase? The problem is, it’s just that: an attempt to appease. When the fandom or, to use a less loaded term, when readers ask for representation JKR seems to be treating it as a chore. It’s not something she wants to deal with; something she does quickly, sloppily, and ultimately badly. Let’s think for just a moment how different things would be if she’d actually incorporated Dumbledore’s sexuality into the latest film. Rowling would have had a solid stance for claiming that we needed to wait to see the film and that representation (even if it was too little too late for some) would have garnered her actual positivity. That she instead grew defensive about the issue is rather telling.

I love Harry Potter, but I’m becoming more and more disenchanted with Rowling as time goes on. If you want to hold onto your franchise—reap the attention and praise that comes with keeping this story relevant—then you need to do the work to make it relevant, which includes listening to your fanbase when they say, “I’ve never seen myself in this world you created” or “I’m there but I’m treated badly. Is that how you see me in real life?”

As said, no one is asking for perfection, only evidence of real effort. The former isn’t possible, but I don’t see Rowling doing much of the latter. It’s 2019 and we still have a rather low bar when it comes to diversity in storytelling.

We should strive to meet that at the very least.

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