How Fantastic Beasts Failed At Representation, And What J.K. Rowling Can Do About It

How Fantastic Beasts Failed At Representation, And What J.K. Rowling Can Do About It

I come not to bury J.K. Rowling, but to praise her. Harry Potter was an honest to god phenomenon, impacting my generation in roughly the same way Star Wars did for the one before us. The world she created fascinated us and the fandom was deeply invested in the story. But in her rush to expand the Wizarding World beyond Wizarding Britain, Rowling has run into the limits of her experience and knowledge. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Where the details sprinkled throughout the books enriched the world, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald falls apart in the details. It falls apart everywhere else, too, but it’s the little things that show the cracks the most. It’s every single place where Rowling, writing the script, and David Yates, directing, fail to recognise that they’ve rushed headlong into representing cultures not their own. And it isn’t even a new issue for her.

Part of the problem here is timing. It was never forgivable to relegate LGBTQ+ and POC characters to stereotypes, but not anticipating backlash is unthinkable in 2018. That problem is compounded by Rowling positioning herself as progressive on representation, setting herself up for failure when she makes basic mistakes and then getting defensive when they’re pointed out. And finally, it’s the sheer number and ways that she gets this wrong.

This has been the case since the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out. Rowling’s been retconning her work to be more “inclusive,” in increasingly clumsy ways, since she announced Dumbledore was gay just months after that book was released. Since the end of the Potter books proper, the author has been building the Wizarding World outside of Britain, and it’s shown her blind spots in stark relief. In the run up to the first Fantastic Beasts, Rowling laid the groundwork for a movie set in America with a bunch of worldbuilding in Pottermore essays.

The “History of Magic in North America” essays are rife with basic mistakes about the history and culture of the United States and extremely tone-deaf references to Native Americans which range from leaning into the “noble savage” stereotype to what certainly appears to be appropriation. She takes liberally from Native mythology for the names of the houses of the American wizarding school—a school founded by a white witch whose family comes from Britain, it should be noted. Rowling, in both these essays and the Fantastic Beasts movies really wants to make Muggles and Wizards/Witches into an allegory for racism, with America the bad example. But she simply doesn’t have enough of an understanding of race, in the U.S. or elsewhere, to make this work. She attributes American magical laws, casually calling it “segregation,” to how non-magical Americans have hunted magical ones, giving historical reasons that have no equivalent in the history of racial segregation.

She also wrote about the “eleven long-established and prestigious” wizarding schools. Three of those schools are in Europe. One is in South America, one in Asia, and one in Africa. The Brazilian School—Castelobruxo—explicitly takes kids from all of South America, leading to the idea that there’s one school in all of South America worth talking about, is located in the Amazon, and specialises in “Herbology and Magizoology.” Those last two bits especially read as Rowling basing a whole school on the specials about the rainforest she watched on TV. Uagadou—once again a school that teaches an entire continent, this time Africa—is described as turning out students who turn into animals, scaring other witches and wizards. Regardless of whatever else her reasons are, there are good, historical reasons for a British author to not imply that Africans are particularly good at turning into animals.

Lastly, she covers the Japanese school of Mahoutokoro, made out of “mutton-fat jade,” which is the Chinese name for it. She also talks, in terms extremely stereotypical, about how this small Japanese school is renowned working its students very hard academically and makes them very into Quidditch, as the result of learning the game from a Hogwarts (i.e.. British) student who ended up there by mistake. This article also contains the unintentionally hilarious phrase “To ‘turn white’ is a terrible disgrace.”

All of it—the Pottermore essays, Rowling’s twitter, and the movies themselves—scream of a white woman who wants to be inclusive, wants to make some sort of allegory, but has none of the sensitivity or experience to land them. It’s a laudable impulse, that needs a lot more self-awareness to be done correctly.

Sensitivity readers read book manuscripts and make notes for writers on all sorts of things: race, gender, sexuality, disability—anything outside the experience of the author. It’s not, as some have argued, censorship. It’s not any different than doing historical research for historical fiction, or physics research for hard science fiction. They help writers be authentic in their representation of others.

This isn’t saying that Fantastic Beasts needs to be written by committee, it’s saying that the things that came easy in Harry Potter because so much of it was within Rowling’s white, straight, British experience may require extra work now that she wants to tackle things outside it.

This kind of help does not need to be confined to books. “Sensitivity readers or an equivalent are useful for all kinds of art, not just prose fiction. And Rowling should definitely have employed them for this project,” speculative fiction writer, media critic, and writing instructor K. Tempest Bradford told me via email. But, she continued, “There’s a long history of white writers having sensitivity readers, ignoring their advice, then using them as a shield later.”

Listening and being open-minded does seem to be the key. Bradford is not alone at pointing out the history of being ignored. Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature told The Guardian that she found writers unwilling to listen and more interested in arguing with her, causing her to stop acting as a sensitivity reader. And even a reader who had mostly good experiences with writers mentioned some getting “slightly defensive” to Slate. This, based on Rowling’s tweets and interviews, could be the hardest part.

Rowling would not necessarily need to spend a ton of her money to improve. The resources are out there. Any writer can do a little bit of work to get better. “There are a ton of resources on our website that writers can delve into in addition to reading the book Writing the Other and taking the classes. The resources are free, though, and give you the fundamentals. Research, listen, get feedback, don’t be a jerk if you get it wrong,” advised Bradford.

Saying that this might help make Rowling’s writing better doesn’t mean, as opponents fun of strawmen might argue, dismissing, say, the original books because Rowling is a woman and her protagonist a boy. As Dhonielle Clayton, author of The Belles, chief operating officer of We Need Diverse Books, told Vulture, “Any premise can be interesting, it just has to be written well.”

The fundamental problem with Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is that it is not written well. Working with sensitivity readers is one, basic thing that Rowling could do to improve that. To take some of the money and position that the success of Harry Potter gave her and reinvest it in her writing. Be more willing to have representation not on her terms, but those of the groups she wants her stories to represent.

The treatment of Albus Dumbledore—Schrödinger’s Gay—is emblematic of all of Rowling’s post-Deathly Hallows mistakes. Rowling went ahead and declared that Dumbledore was gay and had been in love the dark wizard Grindelwald in 2007, months after the last Harry Potter book had come out and with not a single bit of in-universe representation.

This thing, where creators demand credit for LGBTQ+ representation in films by declaring a character’s sexuality but not actually including it in a film, was less frustrating then. But we’ve now had LeFou in the live-action Beauty and the Beast, Trini in Power Rangers, or Lando in Solo, just to name a few, all characters declared as gay or, in Lando’s case, pansexual, in interviews but not explicitly shown as such in their films. All situations in which it has been pointed out that this is not sufficient.

And so, when it became clear that the sequel to Fantastic Beasts would be tackling Dumbledore and Grindelwald, it seemed obvious that their relationship—which Rowling had put out into the world herself, with no pressure—would be central. But director David Yates then said that Dumbledore’s sexuality wouldn’t be “explicitly” mentioned in the film, echoing Beauty and the Beast’s not-too-far “gay moment.”

Ultimately, this weakened The Crimes of Grindelwald, because not “explicitly” going into the history of Dumbledore and Grindelwald and just hinting at it makes their motives completely opaque. The words “we were closer than brothers” and a scene of Dumbledore standing in front of the Mirror of Erised (which, fans and no one else might remember shows your greatest desire, hence the name, “desire” spelled backward) and seeing a floating Grindelwald head is not enough to explain why Dumbledore just lets his fascist friend go about his business.

The Mirror of Yag scene requires viewers to go into the movie knowing a) Dumbledore is gay b) that he was in love with Grindelwald and c) remember what the Mirror of Erised is and what it does. For a movie that explains everything, out loud, to its detriment, this moment is meaningless to all but the most dedicated fans.

Then, of course, there are all the issues of desexualizing a canon gay character to make him more palatable, the unfortunate implications of coding the villain as gay, and the even more tired trope of the tragic gay romance. These are all issues that should have been flagged in the first draft.

And it’s only the tip of the iceberg—to use an appropriate phrase, given that the Titanic might make the world’s weirdest cameo in The Crimes of Grindelwald. Rowling’s script makes these kinds of onion-layered mistakes so often, and with so little time and care, that it’s bewildering.

Then there’s Queenie Goldstein—related to a character that Rowling has said is Jewish, and coded Jewish by her name and the neighbourhood in New York that she lives in (although, who knows if Rowling picked up on the Lower East Side’s 1920s demographics, she’s woefully under-informed about so much else in American history)—falling for the rhetoric of Grindelwald, who is absolutely meant to parallel Hitler, down to a vision of World War II that Grindelwald projects as something muggles will do in the future and why they must be stopped. And her love interest, Jacob Kowalski is a Muggle, but, importantly, also Jewish. And her desire to be allowed to love him is supposedly what drives her to Grindelwald’s side in the first place. Despite it being obviously ridiculous that a person who thinks muggles are inferior to wizards would be supportive of her relationship with Jacob, Queenie apparently thinks Grindelwald’s assault on the status quo includes allowing her to marry Jacob even though, as the movie itself makes clear, that’s an American law and not the law in Europe.

Rowling clearly wants to make a point about how even sympathetic characters can get drawn in by the promises of a demagogue and a point about how repressive governments (Magical America is very intolerant of Muggles) can make a fascist demagogue attractive. Queenie, facing legal discrimination against her relationship, becomes a follower of Grindelwald, or as he often described by fans “wizarding Hitler.” It’s all very muddled and confusing, and the added layer of a Jewish character being the vehicle for Rowling’s musings on naïveté leading people to join the wizard nazis, adds unnecessary grossness.

Rowling also completely missed the implications of having an Asian woman—the only Asian character of substance in this film—turn out to be a literal snake. Something else a sensitivity reader could have assisted her with. The author got defensive about this on Twitter, saying that it was based on Indonesian mythology. Here’s what, again, she does not get:

  1. Indonesian mythology is not hers to rifle through to pull ideas from without great care.

  2. The Crimes of Grindelwald calls what happens to Nagini “a blood curse” and she’s literally on display in a circus. This is analogized to Credence’s Obscurial nature, but the racist implications of the circus owner calling it a “curse” and saying that she’s doomed to be turned into a creature are never addressed.

  3. Regardless, there are very real concerns with associating Asian women—which Hollywood has long depicted as cold and sexually manipulative “dragon ladies”—with a giant snake. Especially since we already know she is bound to join Voldemort and be evil.

  4. Nagini is passive throughout the whole movie, just following Credence’s lead, which is a whole other Asian stereotype that should have been caught.

At the end of the movie, we learn that Leta Lestrange exists because her father, a pureblood white wizard with a French name and a family mausoleum in Paris, decided he wanted a Senegalese witch. He used the Imperious curse to make her leave her family against her will and, presumably, to force a marriage and rape her. France and Senegal have exactly the kind of history that makes this plot point especially horrifying. And it is mentioned in an infodump by one character in five minutes.

If Rowling had sensitivity readers at any point in her career, she might have been more able to spot these issues and known to go ask someone for a gut-check. But Rowling is writing all of these things at the point in her career where no one from Warner Bros. or a publishing house is going to flat out tell her what to do in the Potterverse. She’s too big now. So she has to make the effort to change. And if she, as all her tweets keep indicating, really does want this world to be inclusive, properly inclusive, then hiring sensitivity readers is a very basic thing she can do. She could and should have done this the very first time she put pen to paper and started writing detailed descriptions of cultures and people she did not know much about. The Pottermore essays from years ago prove that. And The Crimes of Grindelwald show her writing problems are getting worse, not better.

This doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy the original books. It does not mean we declare this universe and Rowling a lost cause. With at least another movie coming, possibly three more, there is ample time for this to get better. With luck, we will look back at The Crimes of Grindelwald as growing pains.

We loved Rowling once, and not without cause. And we can again. Harry Potter has its place in pop culture history. For the rest of the Fantastic Beasts sequels to do the same, more care has to be taken.

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