When Asian women are objectified and dehumanized, this reinforces the idea that Asian women lack agency.
By Linh Cao
Worldbuilding is tricky. Creators have to spend hours researching before they can even begin writing. And once they start writing, they might run into a obstacle that can only be addressed via more research. After the story is written—what then? The real world isn’t stagnant. The readers grow as people. One would assume the author does so as well. But once stories are written, they’re done. It’s been told and you can’t take it back once it’s out there in the world, rattling around in the global conscious. And any attempt to make changes to it will often be met with scrutiny.
When it was announced that Claudia Kim was cast as Nagini—Voldemort’s snake in human form—in the upcoming “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”, people of color worldwide understood right away what the implications would be. Some supported the casting, on the tail of “Crazy Rich Asians” and the Asian American representation movement, saying that “all representation is good representation.” But what if that representation meant she would be a cursed, possessed object for wizard Hitler?
Up until this creation (and I truly do believe JKR decided this recently), Nagini was the pet snake and a horcrux to Voldemort. Neville Longbottom ultimately beheads her, which is seen as a satisfying victory for those who oppose the Dark Lord. Some supporters of the casting think we’re angry and disappointed because a woman of color is cast a villain. No. We’re angry and disappointed for two reasons.
- No care was taken to understand the ramifications of casting a woman of color as a white man’s pet.
- The lack of research and thought put into Nagini’s character and her curse.
To understand the first reason, readers must understand how power and privilege work and how Nagini’s casting fits into the current real world we live in. Asian women are hypersexualized, objectified, and seen as either meek and quiet or as dangerous “dragon lady” types. People view us in this regard because of stereotypes perpetuated by white media, and because of where we sit at the intersection of Asian and woman. To cast Voldemort’s pet turned horcrux as an Asian woman plays into many of these stereotypes. She’s literally objectified by being turned into a man’s physical possession.
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The issue goes even beyond objectification. When Asian women are objectified and dehumanized, this reinforces the idea that Asian women lack agency. This is where Asian fetishes come from. Dehumanization leads to disposability. When Asian women are seen as disposable, we are more susceptible to sexual violence. While sexual violence and intimate partner violence is not an issue specific to Asian women, our race plays a huge part in the way we experience violence—just as race plays a huge part in Nagini’s casting.
There is a group of men in the Asian diaspora community whose rhetoric accuses Asian women of being race traitors, and it is becoming more and more commonplace. They believe Asian women have more power than Asian men and that we are using white mens’ fetishization of us as a means to gain access to white power and help white supremacist causes. They are against interracial relationships between white men and Asian women, claiming that these partnerships endanger “Asian purity,” when what they really mean to do is control Asian women’s bodies out of a sense of paternalistic entitlement. If their faces and skin didn’t look like mine, you’d think they were white Men’s Rights Activists. On Twitter, we call them MRAsians (sometimes stylized as MRAzns). Their “activism” can be insidious. They often co-opt and weaponize social justice language in order to repackage misogyny under the guise of being “woke.” They push for the representation of “hot” Asian men in media. Because they believe hypersexualization and objectification gives you power, they hope to gain some by objectifying themselves in mass media. It can also be insidious by way of equating legitimate Asian American women’s issues with Asian American male “emasculation”. This false equivalency suggests that Asian men’s “suffering” is on par with Asian women’s. This is simply untrue. Male privilege will supercede any power women have, regardless of race. This is true in our respective home countries in Asia and this is still true in the diasporic community.
These men have done serious harm to Asian women on Twitter, from doxxing women simply for having white friends to shutting down crowdfunding campaigns meant to support survivors of sexual assault. So when a high-profile movie like “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” casts an Asian woman as a literal object, weapon, and pet to the magical world’s version of nazis, the message will have dangerous real life repercussions. In a way, it could serve to validate the MRAsian-imagined crisis (if only in their minds) of Asian women doing whatever it takes to gain power in a white supremacist society, such as accepting this dehumanization now in order to receive power later. These stories don’t exist in a vacuum. Without paying attention to race-specific intercommunity dynamics or doing your research, you risk inadvertently supporting toxic ideas with what you create.
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When Twitter user Jen Moulton called out J.K. on casting Nagini as a Korean woman only to win “woke points” for improving the diversity in her stories. J.K. Rowling responded with an explanation of the Indonesian roots of the Naga, which Nagini is named after. Naga are human-snake hybrids, which would imply J.K had wanted Nagini to be a human woman all this time. Conflating a Korean woman and Indonesian mythology creates Asians as a monolith and disrespects their unique significances in their respective cultures.
J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series has been critically acclaimed for her world building. She has spoken about her process before, about the folders of research she had accumulated over the years. As someone who grew up with the series (I was just in elementary school when “Order of the Phoenix” was released) and wanted to be a writer when I grew up, her stories and process fascinated me. I saw her as the ideal writer role model. It wasn’t until the release of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” that I saw the light of her halo start to dim. The founding of Ilvermorny and the beginning of magic in the Americas barely incorporated Indigenous folks at all, despite them being here before the Europeans came. The only mention of Native magic is the concept of Skinwalkers. There is no mention of which tribe(s) these Skinwalkers are from, which implies she believes all Native folks have these same beliefs and are therefore the same. A pattern emerges. Her conflation of Native American cultures into one concept is not only disrespectful, but violent. Indigenous erasure is violent. It was the first time I had realized as a young lifelong fan of “Harry Potter” that her stories were incredibly Eurocentric, and have been since book one.
Because “Harry Potter” exists in the world of fiction, non-writers believe that means everything goes. This is not necessarily true. What is created must still make sense and follow the rules set by the writer when they decided to create the world. The rules they choose to follow will always have consequences in our real world. If her stories have poorly-written characters of color, then her stories will perpetuate racist stereotypes that will actively harm people of color. If her stories of magic in America don’t respect the cultures of Indigenous folks (who, by the way, are still here!), then it also actively harms them.
By using Indonesian mythology to explain why a Korean woman was cast as Nagini and by casting an Asian woman as a white man’s pet, J.K. Rowling has failed to properly do her research. And by not taking the many opportunities to learn from her mistakes over the past two decades of Harry Potter’s existence: she has failed at being a good writer, because good writers learn from their mistakes.
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I’m not saying that J.K. should stop trying to create characters that aren’t just straight, cisgender, and white. Post hoc worldbuilding doesn’t have to be bad. Just because she didn’t know better while writing the “Harry Potter” series doesn’t mean she can’t work to respectfully diversify the world of “Fantastic Beasts”. We all grow and change, and our creative work naturally grows and changes with us. The key is to be able to do it in a way that serves the story and the people you’re looking to represent.
When setting “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” in Harlem, it would have served her well consult with Black experts on the Harlem Renaissance. When writing the founding of Ilvermorny, it would be beneficial to reach out to the Indigenous tribe whose ancestors would have lived in the area that Isolt settled in. It would have been even better yet if she had learn what the tribes’ folklore is and meaningfully and respectfully represent it in Isolt’s story. When deciding to cast an Asian woman as Nagini, I wish she had reached out the Asian diaspora community, specifically Indonesian and Desi folks. There are a lot of folks who have been talking about Asian American representation in Hollywood for a long time. Surely at least one of them would have been more than happy to consult.
Or we could have kept Voldemort’s pet snake a snake and left it at that. That’s always an option too.
Author Bio: Linh is a Vietnamese-American writer based in the Bay Area. Her work has been in online publications such as Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Femsplain. In her free time, she likes watching anime and playing video games.
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