When keeping it real goes wrong…
A couple of weeks ago it was revealed — by way of a new trailer for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald — that a pivotal character in the world-renowned Harry Potter book series, a snake named Nagini, just so happened to be a woman. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a film adaptation of the book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is connected to the Harry Potter book series written by author J.K. Rowling. About 30 seconds into the trailer, South Korean actress Claudia Kim is shown transforming into a snake while saying her name is Nagini. At first glance, this revelation seemed harmless. However, many fans of Harry Potter felt otherwise.
Within the seven Harry Potter books written by Rowling — along with their accompanying movies — there was no mention of Nagini being a woman. Instead, this snake served the main antagonist of these books named Lord Voldemort, who is depicted as a cisgender White male — more on that later. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald reveals that Nagini is a maledictus, or a woman carrying a blood curse from birth which leads to them permanently shape-shifting into an animal. This retroactive change caused many to accuse Rowling of racism, most specifically because of how this now-Asian character spent her time as a snake serving a White man.
Rowling: A History
In response to the trailer’s criticism, Rowling tweeted that she arrived at the name Nagini through studying the Naga, which are snake-like mythical creatures found in Indonesian mythology. She furthermore stated that Indonesia comprises many ethnic groups, including Javanese, Chinese, and Betawi. Despite her explanation, however, Rowling angered her fans even further, as well as other onlookers, since she failed to account for Kim’s South Korean heritage, which many believed was ignorant.
When looking into this situation further, one could argue that calling Rowling a racist seems premature. If anything, her controversial retcon and follow-up tweet explaining this decision could instead be called ignorant or a failed experiment. One must also consider Rowling’s proclivity for adding onto or expanding upon the Harry Potter book series since its end. For example, she revealed that one of its most notable characters, Albus Dumbledore, is gay during the early 2000s. In 2015, Rowling teased that Hermione Granger, a key protagonist and best friend to the series’ main character Harry Potter, could be Black or mixed race though she was portrayed as a White female in the Harry Potter movie franchise.
Despite Rowling’s tendencies, however, one must also take time to understand the frustrations faced by fans of the Harry Potter series — most specifically those with East Asian ancestry.
Hollywood has a history of negatively stereotyping individuals of East Asian descent (ex. those classified as Korean, Japanese, Chinese, or Taiwanese). When highlighting East Asian women specifically, two distinct images that have been widely promoted are the “Dragon Lady” and the “Lotus Blossom.” According to Pagett (2016), the “Dragon Lady” stereotype pertains to a seductive and often violent woman whereas the “Lotus Blossom” stereotype comprises submission and being quiet while in the background. The choice to make Nagini an East Asian woman seemingly reinforces the “Lotus Blossom” stereotype, especially since she is later tasked with serving Lord Voldemort. A case could be made, however, that Nagini also exhibits characteristics found in the “Dragon Lady” stereotype, considering she is asked to kill people throughout the Harry Potter book series. Moreover, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows she disguises herself as a woman and tricks Harry Potter by briefly befriending him. This is arguably a form of seduction.
Considering Nagini’s relationship with Lord Voldemort, some might have also taken offense to Kim’s casting since there is a widespread belief that many White men often fetishize Asian women. Lim (2018) touched on this when highlighting the alt-right, who are primarily comprised of White men, stating that this group seems to have “yellow fever” due, in part, to the belief that Asian women are subservient and hypersexual. In a satirical piece on Medium entitled “’Kawaii’: Dating Advice for my East-Asian Sisters,” Nuance Media stated that White men view Asian women as “fashionable trophies.” Regarding this relationship, Ralston (1998) stated the following:
“the stereotype of the Asian woman is built around the presence of a man — whether she is serving him, seducing him, loving him or simply part of the context in which he acts, the key ingredient is the man, especially a white, Western man” (p. 688).
To Be or not to Be?
Given Hollywood’s problematic representations of East Asians in the past, as well as the observed relationship between White men and Asian women, it is understandable that those of East Asian descent would feel insulted by Rowling’s character change in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Thus, their being upset over Nagini’s retconned origin is understandable and justified. Nevertheless, the choice to cast a South Korean actress as a highly notable character in the world of Harry Potter seemingly promotes more diversity in a series that has a history of centering on White characters. Rowling has received her share of criticism in the past for this lack of inclusivity. Flint (2018) stated that Rowling has since been trying to score “woke points” — become more progressive — because of this. Still, the way diversity is introduced also matters.
When speaking on the Harry Potter book series, Mitra (2018) asserted that fans have a right to ask for thoughtful representation and that diverse characters should not be haphazardly introduced. If Kim’s casting as Nagini was, in fact, an effort to promote diversity, Rowling arguably missed the mark. Instead of making changes to established characters within the Harry Potter book series, a better adjustment might have been to introduce a newer character. Still, many devoted fans believe that Rowling should stop adding to her imaginary world altogether. Whatever the case may be, casting Kim as Nagini has come to pass. One can only hope that this decision does not take away from the recent progress Asian communities have made in both Hollywood films and television.
Check out the following episode from K3mistry Productions’ YouTube channel highlighting Crazy Rich Asians, a film well suited for this discussion:
Flint, H. (2018, September 28). Fantastic beasts isn’t racist, but jk rowling should stop tweaking the source material. Retrieved October 8, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/sep/28/fantastic-beasts-isnt-racist-jk-rowling-source-character-claudia-kim-nagini
Lim, A. (2018, January 06). The alt-right’s asian fetish. Retrieved October 8, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/06/opinion/sunday/alt-right-asian-fetish.html
Mitra, M. (2018, October 01). Opinion | Is ‘fantastic beasts 2’ racist? Not quite. Retrieved October 8, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2018/10/01/is-fantastic-beasts-2-racist-not-quite/?utm_term=.d9015e613b4f
Pagett, G. (2016). Asia: Place or hollywood stereotype?(Order №10097944). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1781243772). Retrieved from http://eduproxy.tc-library.org/?url=/docview/1781243772?accountid=14258
Ralston, J. Y. (1998). Geishas, gays and grunts: What the exploitation of asian pacific women reveals about military culture and the legal ban on lesbian, gay and bisexual service members. Law & Ineq., 16, 661.