‘Fantastic Beasts’ Betrays Queer Narratives, And Harry Potter Fans Deserve Better
Harry Potter’s approach to diversity of all kinds has always been problematic at best and borderline offensive at worst.
Spoilers for Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.
Harry Potter was my introduction to queer narratives. Not the books themselves, obviously, because Twitter didn’t exist back then so J.K. Rowling didn’t have a platform to retroactively out her characters.
But I read an awful lot of very, very queer fan fiction in the years spent waiting for another book to be released. It was called “slash” fiction, and it was all coded and slightly hidden. In retrospect it almost exclusively depicted male narratives, pretty much ignoring female (let alone non-binary) expressions of sexuality. But on the other hand, there sure was a lot of it.
When I read the story of Dumbledore’s “friendship” with Grindelwald in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I read it as a love story (Rowling has said since that Dumbedore was in love with Grindelwald). Maybe my brain was clouded by the sheer quantity of fan fiction I was consuming, but Grindelwald felt like the closest Rowling came to writing an overtly queer character. It never even occurred to my 16-year-old self that almost a decade later I would be preparing to watch that narrative play out on screen. 16-year-old Alex foolishly thought Harry Potter was going to end in 2007.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the first film in a five-part epic which will focus on Grindelwald’s rise and fall. Set in America in 1929, the principal story of Newt Scamander and his suitcase of fun creatures, is overshadowed by the rising darkness of some unfathomable evil — an evil that turns out to be Grindelwald but which history tells us is also the rising tension which led to the Second World War. It’s likely these will turn out to be one and the same because Grindelwald is probably a Nazi.
Here, Grindelwald is played by Colin Farrell and later by Johnny Depp (accusations of domestic abuse sliding off him like water off the back of a duck) and spends much of the movie standing creepily close to a teenage boy in an alleyway, using the boy’s history of abuse to manipulate him.
Rather than the complex and tragic villain that I imagined, he is a character that plays into all kinds of dangerous tropes about evil, predatory queers.
Beyond the concern that the only gay characters we will see in this franchise are elderly men, emotionally manipulating young boys (*coughALBUSDUMBLEDOREcough*) is the concern that we will never expressly see a gay character. The attitude which J.K. Rowling (and the team around her) have to representing any kind of diversity isn’t something I can overlook anymore.
I don’t want to debate whether Fantastic Beasts makes a valid contribution to the universe, or whether the creatures look like how we imagined they would. I want to talk about the erasure of diversity in this movie and in Rowling’s work more broadly.
I think it’s irresponsible to love Harry Potter unconditionally in 2016. It is not a product of our childhoods anymore; it’s a living, breathing thing again. Like a giant niffler, its stuffing bullion into its pouch and sure, it’s cute, but it’s also clearly out of control and shouldn’t someone stop it before it breaks something important? We’re not kids anymore. We’re not passing notes in class theorising about Ron’s patronus. We’re adults, and it’s about time Harry Potter grew up as well.
Nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia is dangerous. Casting Johnny Depp as Grindelwald isn’t problematic because Harry Potter is a feminist text. Newsflash: it isn’t. Harry Potter’s approach to diversity of all kinds has always been problematic at best and borderline offensive at worst.
What is most troubling about these new additions to the canon isn’t that they stray from the spirit of the originals, but that they don’t. Fantastic Beasts is a story about oppression, set in ’20s America and the main cast features no people of colour. But hey, there’s one second-tier PoC and she’s the president! So it’s fine! This is, worryingly, pretty much exactly the way that Cursed Child has approached diversity.
While researching this article, I discovered that in 2003, just before the release of Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling sent cease and desist letters to fan fiction authors who were writing sexually explicit content. The letter specifically mentions the effect these works might have on “impressionable children”. As one such impressionable child, I’d just like it on record that Harry Potter fandom has done more to make me a tolerant and kind person than anything written by J.K. ever did. I think it’s about time the canon stopped trying to smother the diversity that its fan base have been inserting for years.
Saying this is all trivial, that Harry Potter is just escapism and there’s no harm in loving a fun movie, denies the power that Harry Potter possesses. It is a behemoth. It has changed our cultural landscape before and it can (and probably will) again. Rowling could produce literally anything she wanted, and it would jump to the top of the bestseller list. Warner Brothers could release anything even tangentially related to the franchise and it would make millions. Recent trends have shown us that representing diverse stories aren’t necessarily a ‘risky’ move anymore, and there is so little risk here it’s laughable. There are no excuses.
More importantly, as Harry Potter fans, we have immense power — a power that J.K. Rowling often seems to deny. We have a responsibility to hold this franchise to account and demand better. Growing up, Harry Potter was a gateway into all kinds of important conversations for me. I talked to my friends about death and morality and the nature of good and evil. If Harry Potter is going to continue to be a topic of discussion, it’s vital we think carefully about what those discussions are.