With the release of the newest Harry Potter film, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, we take another look at representation in author J.K. Rowling’s works in this installment of the Critiquing Harry Potter series.
“Strong women” is a phrase we hear a lot, especially regarding film and literature. The desire to see strong women in entertainment (and the misunderstanding of what a “strong” woman actually is) sets up unrealistic standards for female characters and their real-life counterparts. Irrespective of these confining notions, empathy and vulnerability are traits that make women strong, not weak. A profound emotional complexity encapsulates what it means to be human, to live, and to persevere through adversity.
J.K. Rowling has promoted female complexity to an extent through Harry Potter characters such as Hermione Granger, Ginny Weasley, Nymphadora Tonks, Luna Lovegood, Cho Chang, Fleur Delacour, Angelina Johnson, Minerva McGonagall, Lily Evans, Molly Weasley, Narcissa Malfoy, Bellatrix Lestrange, and even Lavender Brown, all of whom have diverse personal attributes that make them uniquely human. Some are leaders, some are learners, some warriors, and some nurturers, but all of them feel. So do men, of course – yet male emotion is sadly suppressed as weakness in our society.
Critically examining all aspects of Fantastic Beasts would take days, so keep in mind that I’ve tried to confine the scope of my analysis to gender here. Given that J.K. Rowling is a woman writing in the 21st century (though her latest story is set in the 20th), I’d expected her to feature a female lead this time around. Despite the many complex female characters in the Harry Potter books, Rowling never struck me as going all the way to give women full representation. The majority of the major characters are men, after all, and the few women who are given significant roles are almost all white. In today’s political climate, the time is ripe to focus on feminism and gender equality. Some might argue that it’s Rowling’s responsibility as an influential woman to present more female role models, and I won’t even get started on non-binary characters because that evidently seems too much for Rowling to consider. Ezra Miller, who is a queer actor, does play Credence Barebone in Fantastic Beasts, but Credence is referred to as male in the films – we don’t have any evidence that Rowling understands or wants to include the lived experience of genderqueer individuals. Instead, Rowling safely elected to feature Newt Scamander, widely acclaimed Magizoologist – and a dude.
If the secondary characters were all female it might be less of an affront that Rowling went with a story about another man, but I can’t really defend her there. Just like Harry, Ron, and Hermione, Newt is surrounded by other male leads. In The Crimes of Grindelwald specifically, we have No-Maj (Muggle) Jacob, Newt’s brother Theseus, Credence, and then the big ol’ showdown between future Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore and European powerhouse tyrant Gellert Grindelwald, the darkest wizard on the world stage before Lord Voldemort’s time. As you can see, lots of testosterone floating around.
Of course, the Goldstein sisters Tina and Queenie figure into the storyline, this time alongside Leta Lestrange and *SPOILER ALERT* Nagini (to whom I’ll probably devote a whole other post in the future). It’s not that the women are there, however, that checks the proverbial box of so-called gender parity; as I argued in my article on ethnicity, it’s what they do that matters. In the first Fantastic Beasts film, Newt and Jacob were the top-billed characters in the plotline, with Tina and Queenie playing supporting roles. Likewise, we know that the Dumbledore-Grindelwald relationship takes centre stage now. J.K. Rowling could just as easily have chosen a witch to work with Dumbledore for this spinoff series, but she didn’t, and men are still at the centre of the action. It strikes me as a bit disingenuous for a self-declared progressive female author, but I suppose our society influences our implicit expectations. All I can say without spoiling the film is that our girls Tina, Queenie, and Leta’s storylines heavily feature men and aren’t explored as in-depth as I would like.
There’s one possible upside apart from Newt’s own emotional vulnerability: Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s confrontation and the unravelling of their past. Such an interplay could do much to highlight LGBTQ2+ representation and men’s emotional depth if it’s properly explored. It is a shame that the only gay relationship we may see is an abusive and manipulative one, but nevertheless, this franchise will be very telling as to whether J.K. Rowling truly believes in diverse representation or is just trying to ride the wave.
So far she’s demonstrated a shocking hesitancy to give female, non-binary, or trans individuals representation, and I doubt we can expect anything that doesn’t feature a male lead from her soon.* For now, even as far as women – complex, wonderful, and important as they are – are concerned, I’m not convinced Rowling’s in it for the long haul. If she is, I’d like to see more action and agency from her non-male characters front and centre.
After all, actions speak louder than words, and Rowling’s approach to gender isn’t quite loud enough for me.