Twenty years after the first Harry Potter book was released in the United States, the franchise still has the power to amaze — and offend. To this day, J.K. Rowling’s series is still banned in some schools and libraries for promoting “witchcraft.” But with the release last week of a new trailer for the next film in the fictional universe, “Fantastic Beasts 2: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” Rowling is facing a different sort of backlash. This one shouldn’t be dismissed so easily.
At the heart of today’s Harry Potter controversy is a five-second clip in the “Fantastic Beasts 2” trailer showing South Korean actress Claudia Kim transforming into a massive snake. The scene apparently reveals the backstory behind her character, Nagini, who eventually becomes Voldemort’s pet: She is a “maledictus,” or shape-shifter, cursed to eventually become trapped in a snake’s body. That doesn’t sound too offensive or controversial, until you realize that Kim is one of the only women of color in the franchise beyond a few fleeting love interests, and that Nagini’s main role in the series is to sustain Voldemort with milk and act as a vessel for his soul. In that context, it is more disturbing that Kim’s role is reduced to playing a character who will become a white man’s pet — literally.
Amid the criticism, Rowling took to Twitter to explain the character, and only succeeded in making things worse. She suggested that she had based Nagini on a snake-like creature from Indonesian mythology and pointed out that “Indonesia comprises a few hundred ethnic groups, including Javanese, Chinese and Betawi.” That’s true — except Kim is not Chinese or Southeast Asian, and Asian ethnicities are not interchangeable. Rowling may have been trying to prove that her characterization was culturally sensitive, but she clearly missed the mark.
Rowling faced furious pushback for her ignorance, with many critics condemning the Nagini clip as racist. But it’s really just thoughtless, and entirely in keeping with Rowling’s own track record on representation and inclusion.
Sure, the Harry Potter series has included a number of characters from minority backgrounds: Dean Thomas, Cho Chang, Parvati and Padma Patil, to name a few. Yet these characters were never central to the plot or fleshed out in any way. They were often inaccurate stereotypes or tokens that acted as halfhearted nods to diversity. Cho Chang, for instance, is a mashup of two Asian last names that shouldn’t really go together, while essentially all we know about the Patil sisters are that they are of Indian origin.
It seems that Rowling is trying to make up for this lack of representation by adding diverse characters retroactively. In 2007, after the release of the final installment in the series, she suggested that headmaster Albus Dumbledore was gay, a twist many fans did not see coming. And when the West End production of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” cast black actress Noma Dumezweni, she hinted that Hermione might have been from a racial minority from the start, tweeting that “white skin was never specified.”
Perhaps these late nods to diversity are better than nothing. After all, the world has changed significantly in the two decades since Rowling first planned out her series, and pop culture has changed with it. I can understand the desire to update the series to close the gaps in representation. But the galling part is that Rowling seems to want to convince us that she planned these plot twists all along. Somehow, I doubt it.
Regardless of her initial intentions, a more diverse cast is a step forward from the dearth of diversity in the original series. But fans are also right to wish for thoughtful representation that does more than haphazardly introduce underrepresented characters. That sort of approach tends to result in exactly what this trailer seems to deliver with Nagini: exoticized, fetishized caricatures.
I’m open to being surprised by Nagini’s characterization when the film is released in November, and hope that Kim will be given more of a role than that of the doomed, trapped woman. But in the meantime, the backlash over Nagini is a telling reminder to writers everywhere that even a series as beloved as Harry Potter needs strong representation of diverse characters if it wants to stand the test of time — and that even J.K. Rowling can’t get away with flawed attempts to act woke at the 11th hour.