Why Casting Nagini as an Asian Woman in 'Fantastic Beasts' Is So Offensive

The decision has spurred more conversations about J.K. Rowling’s proclivity for retroactively introducing diversity.

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Sep 27 2018, 4:00am

Still via ‘Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindewald’ trailer

The new trailer for Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald included a highly anticipated character reveal, one that many fans did not want. It turns out Voldemort’s snake Nagini— the vessel of one of his final horcruxes—was an Asian woman all along. On Twitter, J.K. Rowling claimed to have been holding onto this secret for 20 years, and exclaimed that Nagini was not an Animagus but a Maledictus. In muggle-speak, an Animagus is a witch or wizard who can choose to take animal form by will. For example, Sirius Black as a black dog or Peter Pettigrew as Ron Weasley’s pet rat, Scabbers. A Maledictus is a woman who is cursed to permanently become an animal—meaning the Asian woman Nagini is effectively trapped inside the snake.

There is no way to anticipate the plot of a movie that has been kept so tightly under wraps, but the trailer itself already perpetuates a number of harmful stereotypes about Asian women. Nagini, played by Claudia Kim, is in a cage while an audience watches her transform into a snake, echoing historical strains of the sexy, dangerous "dragon lady.” She also quite literally houses a piece of Voldemort’s soul, acting as a guarantor of his immortality, thus reifying the trope of Asian women as submissive. It is doubly hurtful because Nagini will be the second character of significance in the Harry Potter universe to be of East Asian heritage, following Cho Chang as Harry’s early love interest.

Rowling is no stranger to revising her old works to the tune of inclusivity (to the point where it has been satirized on Clickhole). A genuine desire to diversify and feature the marginalized is a good goal, and some of Rowling’s attempts have been nominally positive, like casting Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and saying that she “loves black Hermione.” While insisting that Hermione isn’t white is incredibly dubious—especially after casting Emma Watson for an eight-movie run and writing passages that include phrases like, “Hermione’s white face”—the decision to recast Hermione as a black woman in the play, and defending her from racist attacks, is a step in the right direction.

But Rowling’s attempts at diversifying via revisionism are ultimately both stressful and painful, because she cannot literally rewrite the books and films to include scenes, dialogue, and exposition that would whisper these nods into concrete reality. Just because something is plausible does not mean it happened. If Dumbledore was truly gay, then he spent the entire seven books in the closet. There were no solid markers to confirm a lived experience of homosexuality, no representation that might suggest to young, gay readers that they too could grow up to be the world’s most powerful wizard. To claim that kind of power in retrospect is not only goofy, but deeply disrespectful.

By the same token, it is no small tragedy to have to reimagine so many pivotal moments of the original books and films with Kim’s Nagini in its place. Nagini winding through the dead and dying during the incredible battle of Hogwarts. Nagini being stroked under Voldemort’s cold hands. Nagini biting Snape to death, preceding the film’s most emotional, heart-wrenching reveal of Snape as one of the series’ true heroes. Nagini being repeatedly “milked” by Voldemort in the books. Perhaps the film will attempt to dull these facts through some narrative trick, or by breaking Asian-woman-Nagini free of her shackles? Voldemort was notorious for enslaving his Death Eaters by threatening them with death—but perhaps Nagini is just a slave to her snake body and not to Voldemort himself? This casting is anathema.

Many of us will still watch this film out of reverence for the series that defined our childhoods. I loved, and still love, the original Harry Potter—a series of tomes and a cinematic universe that touched every element of my young life, and became a shared language between me and my friends. So much of fantasy’s origins are eurocentric, following shock white characters as they solve some of the world’s most complex dilemmas. We cannot change that past, and that does not rob our favorites of their greatest qualities. Harry Potter will always stand as one of the most resilient masterpieces in childhood literature. But the constant desire to revise its cast into 2018’s rightful expectations of inclusivity diminish from the very real need to center diverse voices completely. And reimagining Nagini as an Asian woman is, frankly, an incredible insult.

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