Alohomora: unlocking the themes behind J.K. Rowling's fake diversity

Alohomora: unlocking the themes behind J.K. Rowling's fake diversity

Addison Crane

For The QC

Like most people, my love affair with Harry Potter and associated works started at a young age. I think it was the fact that the series was forbidden in my household that it caught my attention, leading me to stay up all night reading borrowed copies of the series. In my adulthood, my love hasn’t faded: I have brought my wand to school with me every year of college, and I’m ready at a moment’s notice to defend people who belong to the Slytherin or Hufflepuff houses. 

However,  J. K. Rowling, the author of these works, has been more than disappointing. She is politically liberal and calls herself a feminist, but her politics are  pretty watered down, in my opinion. Fans have been begging her for more representation, and, since the original series has ended, it seems like Rowling has delivered more diversity, but many fans have noticed a troubling pattern: Basically, Rowling receives backlash for not including enough diversity, and then she reveals that a character was actually a different race or sexuality after the fact. 

Most recently, Rowling revealed that Nagini was a Korean woman suffering from a blood curse in the final trailer for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Crimes of Grindelwald. This movie has already had immense backlash against Rowling’s refusal to recast Johnny Depp, who has been accused of domestic violence against his ex-wife, as the title character Gellert Grindelwald. Rowling defended this decision: “The agreements that have been put in place to protect the privacy of two people, both of whom have expressed a desire to get on with their lives, must be respected,” she said, “The filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny [Depp] playing a major character in the movies.” Another cause for backlash within this spin-off series was the fact that the first film was set in 1920s Harlem with only one black character, Seraphina Picquery, portrayed by actress Carmen Ejogo. 

At a glance, the trailer might not seem as problematic as the recent news portrays it. Creedence, another character from the first Fantastic Beasts movie, whispers “Nagini,” and you see a caged woman, played by South Korean actress Claudia Kim, bend backwards and turn into Lord Voldemort’s infamous pet Nagini. 

While I mentioned before that Harry Potter is extremely important to me, my Asian heritage is even more important. This past August there were three movies with at least one Asian actor in a lead role (Searching, Crazy Rich Asians, and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before). This is important because we are still severely underrepresented. As of 2016, Asian actors only made up 1 percent of lead roles. And yellowface, defined as a non-asian actor portraying an Asian person, is still happening in recent times. There have been sixteen films including actors in yellowface that came out between 2005 and 2015. 

So, making Nagini an Asian woman is good, right? Not quite. Like most things, it’s a bit more complicated than that. In the books, Nagini is an Albanian (a southern European country) snake, which shows how Rowling is pulling diversity out of thin air. But also, because Rowling tends to add diversity after criticism, she often doesn’t represent the people she’s adding in at all. 

Rowling responded to backlash through Twitter by saying: “The Naga are snake-like mythical creatures of Indonesian mythology, hence the name ‘Nagini.’ They are sometimes depicted as winged, sometimes as half-human, half-snake. Indonesia comprises a few hundred ethnic groups, including Javanese, Chinese and Betawi. Have a lovely day [snake emoji].” Rowling grouped so many diverse cultures within Asia and erased them by viewing Asia as just one thing. 

The continent of Asia contains 48 countries and makes up around 30 percent of the Earth’s land. There are so many diverse cultures within the Asian continent including the Middle East, India, South Eastern Asian countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, East Asian countries like Japan and South Korea, and so much more. Obviously, those are only a few examples, but the point is that Rowling cannot just decide that all of Asia is the same. A prominent Chinese population in Indonesia does not mean that Nagini is Korean. Contrary to popular belief, China, Japan, South Korea, etc. aren’t all the same. Another problem is racial stereotyping. Saying it’s “pretty messed up” for an Asian woman to become the pet of Lord Voldemort, the wizarding world equivalent of a white supremacist trying to eradicate anyone who isn’t a pure blood, would be a major understatement. 

As a South Korean woman herself, second-year Sarah Morgan said, “There’s already a really annoying stereotype that claims Asian women are submissive and subservient to their male counterparts, and I feel that this casting choice perpetuates this stereotype.” Sure, it might not seem like big deal if you are not Asian, but it is for people who are affected by this stereotype. Having an Asian woman become a submissive pet perpetuates stereotypes we already have to live with everyday. Rowling’s feminism cannot just stop with her needs. She needs to fight for all women — not just women that look like her. 

There are so many more problems with J. K. Rowling’s false diversity that I have not touched on, but I’d never stop talking if I could list all of them, and I have to end somewhere. I’ll leave it with this: If J. K. Rowling was actually interested in accurately representing marginalized people, she would’ve included more than a handful in the wizarding world universe, she would have actually made sure to represent them at the time instead of adding these details as afterthoughts years after the original series came out, and she would continue to put careful thought into what she adds to the series and spin-offs and who she casts in it. My best advice for her would be that, in the future, instead of deciding on her own how to represent minorities, she should actually consult people within those minority groups on how to write characters that reflect them.