Representation in J.K. Rowling’s original Harry Potter universe is, to put it mildly, piss-poor. While very few characters in the series have their race explicitly specified, whiteness is the assumed baseline unless stated otherwise.
And when it is stated, it’s weird: The most obvious examples are the painfully stereotyped, tragically undeveloped Cho Chang (pretty, smart, shiny black hair) and Patil twins (Indian, gossipy), as well as Dean Thomas (tall, black, from London). On the whole, the only non-white characters that appear in the series are written as clichéd, essentialized versions of a race, with little more in the way of actual personality.
Because you can count the number of people of color in Harry Potter on two hands (and one if we’re just looking at the Fantastic Beasts franchise), it was no small thing when Warner Bros announced that the Korean actress Claudia Kim would play Nagini the snake with its release of a trailer for the second film in the series, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. (Warner Bros did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
As the news hit the internet, some were surprised by the plot line, and accused Rowling of fabricating a human origin story for Voldemort’s companion—who has been a 100% serpent up until now—in order to kick up the diversity quota in a franchise that has been mostly white.
And, to be honest, she may well be. Rowling has a long and laughable history of claiming diversity in her characters after the fact. In 2015, when black actress Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione for a stage adaptation of Harry Potter in London, JK Rowling awkwardly suggested that Hermione could have been black all along:
The debate has gone beyond Rowling’s violation of the rules of good fantasy world-building (with the surprise storyline). Some have expressed qualms about the specifics of Nagini’s character, when played by an Asian woman. Some of these apprehensions are valid: In particular, writing the villainous Nagini as Asian suggests a feminized incarnation of the yellow peril, the “Dragon Lady“—a well-worn trope that portrays Asian women as predatory and aggressive.
Some have also pointed out that casting an Asian woman as an animal subservient to a white man (although traditional definitions of “animal” and “man” are rather loose in this narrative landscape) puts us in fraught territory—and smacks of an Orientalist fetishization of Asian women.
But to call Nagini’s character deferential is a stretch. If anything, Voldemort owes much of the horror of his character to her unfettered violence. And their relationship is largely co-dependent—not only does Nagini play host to part of Voldemort’s soul, but at one point he had lived off of her venom to ensure his bodily survival.
Of course, it would be easier to push back against the criticism if Kim weren’t one of just a handful of Asian actors in the franchise, as the writer Jeff Yang pointed out on Twitter:
And there’s arguably something to celebrate in an Asian actress’s casting in a villain role. It’s a first for Hollywood, which is just now discovering Asian people and their box office potential. The villain category only recently opened its doors to women, but still the meaty roles for complex female villains have mostly gone to white women—Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent, Cate Blanchett in Thor, and Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange within the Harry Potter universe, for example.
Clearly, the whole franchise has a long way to go before it can even begin to claim diversity. But blowback of this nature has forced actors to renounce roles, or caused production companies to cut them from the film. It would be unfortunate if the result of the internet’s outrage is a setback to Claudia Kim’s burgeoning career.
And I, for one, am looking forward to watching her dominate as an evil, magical snake.