In the latest trailer for Fantastic Beasts 2 we see that Voldemort’s pet snake Nagini will play a part in the latest instalment of the Wizarding World prequel. Actress Claudia Kim confirmed that she is playing the roll of the woman who will eventually turn into a snake? Or turns into a snake at will? Or was once a snake and will be again? I don’t know.
That’s a narrative issue, and the backlash online in the last twenty-four hours has not been narrative-based, but rather surrounding the casting choice for this particular role.
It’s probably important to point out that I feel indifferent about the Harry Potter series. I wouldn’t call myself a fan, I think the books are great children’s books and the films are just kind-of okay. I’m not coming at this from the perspective of someone who is seeking to defend every decision made by J.K Rowling. We all know she’s made a few questionable decisions in the last few years, including the casting of Johnny Depp at the height of the #MeToo movement.
The issue is this — Rowling has cast an Asian woman in a role that is submissive to a male Caucasian antagonist. People aren’t happy for two reasons, the first being the representative connotations of this role. These connotations include; The submissiveness of the character, the fact that she’s a villain, an Asian woman as a seductress for evil, an Asian woman as an Asian mythical creature (A Naga).
The second is that Rowling has a reputation for not writing diverse fiction. Harry Potter is about a lot of white people who occasionally have friends from other ethnicities — but these books were written twenty years ago by a white woman from the UK (a country that is still 87% white), which isn’t an excuse but is important to remember. So the argument is that Rowling is panic-diversity casting; Shoehorning characters from other ethnicities into her world.
There’s no right or wrong answer here, it’s an extremely nuanced issue with positives and negatives to the casting choice. Before I offer my thoughts I’d like to mention that nobody is waiting for Claudia Kim to issue a statement — The person whose voice matters the most in this scenario. I mean, I’m also not waiting, I just wanted to make it clear that I’m aware my opinion doesn’t matter.
Let’s start with some of the obvious negatives of this casting decision. It’s really not great that this role has the outward connotations it does. At first glance this is an Asian woman who turns herself into a snake and serves a white dude — Johnny Depp no less. It’s a fantastical version of the kind of media representation that Asian women have been fighting against for decades.
Another negative is that there could be some legitimacy to this being a panic-diversity cast from Rowling. The fact is that there’s no way of knowing for sure. Rowling claims that she has known the truth about Nagini for twenty years, but there’s no proof other than her word. However, Rowling also never stated that she was a human at all, so at least she’s not quickly recasting a previously white character as Asian for the sake of some diversity amid backlash. This character used to be green, until yesterday she was just a snake.
On social media I’ve seen a lot of Asian people make balanced arguments, weighing up positives and negatives before carefully explaining why this isn’t a great decision from Rowling. I’ve also seen a lot of white people make one-tweet reactionist jibes that actually go full-circle and seem a little offensive in themselves.
For example, I don’t think it’s offensive to cast Asian people as villains, as some people have stated. In a film landscape that is increasingly telling the stories from both sides, antagonistic figures now make-up a solid portion of the cast. If you exclude Asian people from auditioning for antagonists, then you’re denying them the potential to work and earn money — Which is horrendously backwards and racist.
Should people of all ethnicities be considered for all roles in a film? Yes, absolutely. But should we be attacking Asian actors for taking a huge pay-day and appearing in one of the biggest blockbusters of the year? No, that’s so offensive and is actually an example of race-based classism.
Also it’s important to note that she is playing the henchman role of this movie. A role that is usually played by a ripped, white dude. The connotations of her being a sidekick to a white man are not great, but one of the positives is that she’s breaking new ground as far as her role is concerned. It’s cool to see new people in traditionally archetypical roles, and it’s even cooler (I think) that she’s female.
I can’t speak for people from Asian cultures, and that’s why ultimately we need to wait to hear what Claudia Kim has to say, and not J.K Rowling. I can speak for liberal-minded white people though, and I’ve seen some dangerous comments this morning from people who think they’re saying the right thing, but in doing so are actually making some fairly dangerous suggestions.
We need to be allies in situations like this and nothing more. Sure we can voice an opinion, as I have this morning, but ultimately we need to let Asian voices be dominant in this instance.
If this film was cast ten years ago then the cast would be entirely white because that’s the demographic Hollywood executives will have been playing to. The immediate connotations of casting an Asian woman as subservient to a white male are bad, I won’t deny that. But in the long-term this is a talented, Asian actress who wasn’t forced against her will to audition, and beat-out other people in the process, to play a major role in a major blockbuster.
It’s not ten steps forward, which it could be if WB actually tried, but it’s surely also not a step backwards for representation.
There are many hills to die on as far as J.K Rowling-hate is concerned — the Depp dilemma or the fact that Dumbledore won’t be openly gay in the new movies. However, this really doesn’t feel like the place to make a stand. Unless, of course, Claudia Kim says otherwise.
Today is Thursday, September 27th and please look at the poor representation in your favourite franchises before throwing stones.
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