With the expansion of the Harry Potter world to America, and an introduction to a new generation (or rather, older generation) of characters, Potterheads around the world have never been more excited to continue their journey into the magical universe.
The main elements that have always drawn readers toward this series (whether it’s the books or movies) are its themes of friendship, bravery, unity, and of course magic. After all, how many of us waited patiently for an owl with a letter that will decree our place in a school that teaches you how to make feathers fly and transform animals into household objects? Unfortunately, what it seems to lack is proper representation for minority communities. For a book in which the main message is to value the differences in people, you’d expect that to be reflected by diversity in its characters.
And people are starting to notice.
So, that brings us to the first problem.
The Closeted Case of Dumbledore
Back in 2007, J.K. Rowling announced that Dumbledore is in fact, a gay wizard, to the delight of many Harry Potter fans. This was especially important for queer readers of Harry Potter to know because having their sexuality acknowledged in a popular book series, even if it’s just one spectrum of the diverse LGBTQ community, is a rare occurrence. In a world where being queer of any sorts is so frowned upon and seen as a shameful and unnatural thing, having one of the most powerful wizards of one of the most well-known book franchise be canonically gay can help them overcome any shame or fear instilled in them. Furthermore, letting queer readers of Harry Potter know that one of their most beloved characters is gay tells them they could be accepted in a world they love so dearly.
Fast forward eleven years to the arrival of a five-part movie series based on “Fantastic Beast and Where To Find Them”, many fans are over the moon in learning that Dumbledore’s famed story arc with Grindlewald is set to be explored. After all, his sexuality was announced via a throwaway comment by J.K. Rowling about his tragic relationship with the dark wizard. To make a long story short, Dumbledore was deeply in love with Grindelwald but his fascination with the dark arts horrified Dumbledore, which ended in one of the most famous duels in wizarding history. The full transcript of the revelation can be accessed here. So understandably, one would reasonably expect the second film called The Crimes of Grindelwald to explore such a fascinating, tragic relationship and how such a misguided love came to be. And in order for that to happen, it goes without saying that Dumbledore’s sexuality has to be properly addressed on screen, so the context of their love would actually make sense. Right?
Director David Yates announced that Dumbledore’s sexuality won’t be shown explicitly on screen. Now, why is that a problem? His sexuality has been touted around the Harry Potter universe via fan-fictions, speculations and discussions. It’s been used to show how accepting and progressive this fictional universe is, and by extension, how accepting and progressive J.K. Rowling is herself. To open your arms and welcome your queer audience with their own hero and assure them that they too have space in this universe many grew up with, only to yank that tiny sliver of representation out from under their feet is just cruel.
Queer people are sick and tired of this senseless queerbaiting. The practice of promising your audience a gay character of any degree only for their sexuality to be explored in a second long scene and never to be mentioned again is, unfortunately, a shameful and common practice in Hollywood. Queer people are people too and they deserve to see themselves on the screen, where their sexuality can be announced loudly and proudly. This might seem silly to the straight audience, but that’s because we live in a society where straight is presumed to be the norm. Anything that deviates from the norm is not confirmed unless it is stated. Explicitly. A throw-away line about Dumbledore’s sexuality can only get you so far when it comes to brownie points if it is not explored and fleshed out in his character development.
However, there is still some hope. J.K. Rowling herself seemed to suggest in a tweet that his sexuality may be explored more thoroughly in the later movies -after all, it is a five-part series.
Now, let’s get even more uncomfortable and talk about race.
“I Don’t See Colour” And Other Fantastic Beasts
When one thinks of New York in the 20s, the jazz scene and overflowing champagne in the era of prohibition are what comes to mind. The Harlem Renaissance could be argued as the most well known cultural revolution happening within that city during that fascinating era. An era described as “a black cultural mecca” – with a huge surge of African American immigration to Harlem which lead to the birth of a vibrant nightlife dominated by jazz legends such as Louis Armstrong (read more here).
So, when Fantastic Beasts was announced as being set in New York during this era with its main focus on American wizards, one could safely assume that some, not all, that would be too ambitious, but maybe one or two of the main characters would be African American.
Let’s just say the film falls short of that expectation.
With the expectation of Seraphine, which I give J.K. Rowling full credit for making the President of MACUSA (the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic) an African American woman, none of the main characters are, well, anything but white. Which makes it so much more disappointing knowing that it was set in a period where it would be historically accurate to have African American characters, and therefore, to have an African American character that appears in more than two or three scene would actually make sense. Furthermore, having just one character without any substantial storyline compared to the other main characters (purely judging from the first film) seemed like a really pathetic case of tokenism. That is when creators want to avoid being seen as racist so they put one (and just one) character of a minority background and shoehorn them into the plot without actually giving them the privilege of being complicated and fleshed-out characters.
To add insult to injury, Newt Scamander, the film’s main protagonist was described as “swarthy” on the Pottermore website, where J.K. Rowling gives many interesting tidbits about her beloved characters. According to Merriam-Webster, swarthy means “of a dark color, complexion, or cast.”
When confronted by a fan’s disappointment that the Fantastic Beast’s cast is seemingly fleshed out to be extremely white, J.K. Rowling simply replied: Everyone in #FantasticBeasts is not white (view the tweet in its entire glory here). So, hopefully that means there would be more POC characters, but judging from the second movie’s cast photo, that prospect is looking pretty bleak.
Why does it matter?
Representation matters. Simple and basic fact. Being able to see yourself reflected on the screen or in books shows that you too can be part of whatever fascinating world authors create. It also reflects the increasingly diverse environment in which we are living, where people from all different backgrounds and races don’t feel left out. If you’re reading this and rolling your eyes whilst muttering “PC culture” under your breath, the chances are you are already properly represented in the media. So what’s the harm in letting other people have a chance to see themselves in stories?