Gentle reader, we are both on the internet in 2019, so I assume you too have absorbed a lot of essays about Why It Is Important to Have Representative Media. This is so true and well-trodden that I must glide over it and write this essay about something else entirely.
I’ve been thinking about how diversity helps us reframe and reimagine older cultural works, written in even more exclusionary times and places, and also I have been thinking about the Stratford Festival’s 2018 production of The Music Man (directed by Donna Feore).
If you’re not familiar with the plot of The Music Man and do not have a Theatre Kid™ in your life to explain it, I am here to help. It is a Broadway musical about a con man called Harold Hill who rocks up in River City, Iowa, intending to sell uniforms and equipment for a boys’ marching band before skipping town. Imagine Footloose, if Kevin Bacon wanted to sell you a tuba instead of spreading the joy of dance.
Harold promptly falls in love with the town’s librarian, Marian (I know!), which gives him a reason to stay in town – except that he lacks the requisite musical skill to teach River City’s new boys’ band to play, and the townspeople inevitably find him out.
In the Stratford production, this was the moment at which the production rose from charmingly classic to vividly contemporary. As the people of River City discover the con and start grimly looking for tar and feathers with which to enact justice on a captive, terrified Harold Hill, played by Daren A. Herbert, you remember that The Music Man’s quaint Main Street U.S.A. set is a recreation of the American Midwest in 1912, and Herbert’s version of Hill – unlike, say, Matthew Broderick’s – is a black man explicitly living in a time and place where lynching is an extremely concrete reality.
Suddenly, this anodyne mid-century musical has much higher stakes, and resonates more deeply with a 21st-century audience – and not a word of the script has been changed. It’s an absurdly effective dramaturgical decision, and it works because of, not in spite of, the diversity of the cast.
Often, diverse casting has little effect on the interpretation of the text. Twelfth Night, for example, is set outside of real-world geography and history, and so a modern audience (ideally) shelves their ideas about race at the door, and this is fine. The Music Man is fixed in its time and setting and doesn’t have this luxury, but it has the advantage of a built-in context that much of its audience will understand. (This is why so many productions of Shakespeare are ‘set’ in 1942 Paris, 1920s New Orleans, or whatever: it’s an easy way to help your audience interpret what’s happening using pre-existing knowledge, and also justifies cool costumes.) The fear is heightened, but if you don’t know anything about Progressive-era race relations, the script still works as written.
These choices make worn-out texts feel more interesting, closer to reality, and ultimately better. Rather than rendering performers’ identities and experiences abstract, asking the audience to believe they don’t matter, thoughtful and diverse theatre-making can make race, gender, disability, or sexuality central to the audience’s understanding of an old cultural text, revealing secrets we never knew it was keeping.
With the release of the newest Harry Potter film, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, wetake 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.
Some Harry Potter readers today assert that J.K. Rowling’s universe is not accurately diverse enough. Population research yields an interesting dialogue about the demographics in the series, but representation is an even more complex issue.
I’m about to do something which may surprise you: I’m going to criticize Harry Potter.
During my life I’ve spoken with many friends about my favourite book series, and in the last few years especially, the issue of diversity often looms large.
In Harry Potter the possibilities for discussing diversity are endless, from ethnicity, to LGBTQ+ inclusion, to gender, to species.
Today, I’d like to talk specifically about ethnic diversity. Why are there only, like, five* non-white kids at Hogwarts? (*Seven, but who’s counting?) The fact that there are so few minority characters isn’t ideal for the most popular book franchise of the twenty-first century so far. Even in the 1990s when the Harry Potter books are set, shouldn’t there be more diverse characters to represent the society the novels portray?
I definitely thought so … and then I embarked upon some research for this article and found this thread on Reddit, in which a fellow fan argues that the Harry Potter universe accurately reflects the ethnic demographic of the United Kingdom at the time. In the census for 1991, the year Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone begins, 94.1% of Britons identified themselves as white, 5.9% as non-white.* (I don’t think the census asked about mixed ethnicity, since it was the first UK census to collect information about ethnic background.)
With the 40 students in Harry’s year (5 of whom are non-white), that places the white population at 90% and the non-white population at 10%, which is actually almost double the proportion of non-white people in Britain at the time. What?!
Indisputably, Harry Potter is a product of its time. Though author J.K. Rowling’s illustrated demographic fits the temporal setting of the story, it doesn’t accurately represent its readers, who span the world over. Readers aren’t going to see the current population (of either Britain or the world) represented in the novels; they’re going to see the population of Britain 20 years ago. And with such a diverse present-day audience, we’re now left with a disparity in terms of ethnic representation.
I would therefore argue that the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in the number of non-white characters featured in the story, but rather the significance J.K. Rowling gives (or doesn’t give) them in the narrative. Let’s count the confirmed non-white students mentioned at Hogwarts in the books:
How many of these students have a major part in the story? None, really.
Cho Chang, Harry’s one-time love interest, features prominently in Order of the Phoenix but isn’t central to the other books. Rowling has received major criticism for her portrayal of Cho, with accusations of cultural ignorance in choosing her name, negatively depicting the only East Asian character in the books, and more.
Dean Thomas, who is Black, is consistently present as one of Harry’s friends; he shares a dormitory with Harry and Ron, and dates Ron’s sister Ginny for most of Half-Blood Prince. Dean has a rich backstory which was originally included in the books but didn’t survive the editor’s cuts. His story, in which he eventually learns his wizard father was killed fleeing the Death Eaters (Lord Voldemort’s followers), was omitted in favour of Neville Longbottom (a white character, interestingly) avenging his parents after Death Eaters tortured them into insanity.
The whiteness of Harry Potter goes beyond Hogwarts, too. Kingsley Shacklebolt, a Black wizard who is a powerful Auror and future Minister for Magic, is praised throughout the last three books, but he’s still a fairly minor character. There are also no identified South Asian characters in the Harry Potter universe apart from the Patil twins, and Latin American characters are non-existent. And I haven’t even started on mixed ethnicity: as a half-Indian (Goan) myself, I’m no stranger to the erasure of mixed identities. In fairness, delving into the specifics of minor characters’ heritage might have been a bit technical for a 1990s children’s book series. Relating this back to demographic research, there are deeper-rooted issues regarding the historical exclusion of mixed ethnicities on censuses in general (which could fill a whole other post, I’m sure).
All the main characters in Harry Potter are white. We’ve gone over historical demographics, but we should be asking a critical question here: why didn’t Rowling write any of the main characters, or even the major supporting characters, non-white?
After Hermione was portrayed as Black in the broadway play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (a play that was approved, but not written, by Rowling), the author stated on Twitter that she “loves black Hermione”. I personally feel that Rowling latched onto the casting to retroactively interpret her novels as more inclusive than they were when she wrote them. Yes, she seems to support diversity now, but my reading of Rowling’s character descriptions has me convinced that she never wrote Hermione as non-white.*
It’s easy to approve a casting choice and take credit for diversity, but it’s a pretty passive act. In terms of the heavy lifting, Rowling hadn’t originally made strides to portray ethnic diversity in her books. Given all we’ve considered, that seems fair since she wrote the books in the 1990s – even in 2001 when the first film was released, Britain was still 90.9% white. Nevertheless, the later films, made 15 to 20 years after the books take place, haven’t increased ethnic diversity in the casting despite the chance to broaden the demographic for a contemporary audience. And it doesn’t change the fact that none of the non-white characters were given major roles in the books.
Are questions of ethnicity more prevalent here in Canada (and the United States)? Possibly, since both nations were built on mass immigration. Does that mean North American readers scrutinize diversity more than those in Europe or worldwide? Maybe.
What do you think? Should the Harry Potter films have tried to reflect today’s population to bridge the gap between the whiteness of Britain in the 1990s and its current demographic? Should we throw the idea of accuracy out the window? Going forward, what should the cast of spinoffs like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them look like? Are J.K. Rowling’s efforts at diverse representation tokenistic, or am I not giving her enough credit?
Who knows, maybe in 20 years we’ll get a remake that fulfills all its potential for representation, and the concept of a “diversity quota” will be so outdated that it’s laughable. Only time will tell.
*As of the last census in 2011, 81.9% of the British population identified as White British.
*My reasoning regarding Hermione’s race, and my argument that J.K. Rowling is opportunistically interpreting her past work, is as follows:
“Hermione’s white face was sticking out from behind a tree.” This quote from Prisoner of Azkaban describes Hermione in a state of fear, and while it may be a turn of phrase for a stricken expression, it seems odd to describe a Black person having a white face no matter how bloodless or pale they’ve gone. There are countless other ways to describe fear or panic.
“… Ron looking incredibly freckly, Hermione very brown, both waving frantically…” Ron and Hermione have both just returned from holidays in sunny places; Ron from Egypt, Hermione from France. I’m certain Rowling is describing Hermione’s tan here, which implies that her “very brown” face is darker than her original skin tone.
Hermione appears as white in book covers. J.K. Rowling has the power to veto such a portrayal if it is inaccurate, and as Hermione’s race would be such a major difference, she would have noticed and corrected it.
Rowling approved white actress Emma Watson’s casting as Hermione for the films despite overriding other more minor character details (she told writers to remove a line where Dumbledore mentions a girl he once dated, since Dumbledore is gay!). She would have instructed casting directors re: Hermione’s appearance.
This sketch by Rowling, like all others by her, depicts Hermione with fair skin.