SPOILERS for the trailers for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald and the entire Harry Potter series in the post below.
Okay, folks, we need to talk about the new Fantastic Beasts trailer. Specifically, we need to talk about Nagini.
Nagini is usually known as Lord Voldemort’s pet snake, the only living creature he cares about. In one of the later books, Dumbledore tells Harry that she is “no ordinary snake,” and I think a lot of us took that to mean that she was a Horcrux (an object or being that harbors a piece of someone’s soul, in this case Lord Voldemort’s) or that she was a snake who had some magical tendencies (kind of like Hedwig, Harry’s owl, or Crookshanks, Hermione’s cat).
However, the new Fantastic Beasts trailer shows that Nagini was once a young Asian woman (played by Claudia Kim), and J.K. Rowling sent out some tweets this morning confirming that Nagini was once a human witch. According to JKR’s tweets and the Harry Potter Wiki, Nagini is a Maledictus: “a female individual whose blood had been cursed from birth, and would eventually lead her to turn into a beast.” The HP Wiki goes on to say that though the type of beast the girl/woman turns into varies from curse to curse, the Maledictus blood curse is always passed down from mother to daughter. In a lot of ways, this revelation comes across as a magical variation on a genetic disease or condition like hemophilia or colorblindness. (Except that those are passed from mother to son, with daughters being carriers of the condition, unless the father has that condition as well.)
Some people are freaking out about how such a genetic condition would work, but I’m not worried about that. I don’t need the fantasy stories I watch or read to make sense on that level. I am, however, worried that this revelation about Nagini is full of Unfortunate Implications related to dated, backwards tropes about Asian people, especially the Dragon Lady and Yellow Peril tropes. These tropes allow Asian characters to be othered as dangerous, mysterious, and villainous, which is what Nagini becomes by the time she becomes Lord Voldemort’s hench-snake.
In addition to the unfortunate racial implications, the “blood curse that’s only passed from mother to daughter” part of the Maledictus condition invokes a very dark, dangerous sort of sexism. I was discussing this on Facebook with an acquaintance who shared this news about Nagini, and she said that she’d been listening to the Lore podcast a lot recently, and she’d been learning from that podcast, which discusses the history of folklore, how ideas like curses unique to women could be used to justify the subjugation, abuse, and murder of women over the centuries. An example of what she was talking about is Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden, since she took the fruit from the forbidden tree from the snake and gave it to Adam. Thus, because of the fact that Eve, a woman, sins first in this creation myth, women were viewed as inherently sinful and thus needed to be subjugated by men.
An important point that goes along with this history of using women’s roles in myth and folklore to subjugate and control women is the meaning of Maledictus. It’s a word that J.K. Rowling made up, of course, but like many of her magical terms and spells, it’s derived from Latin. The HP Wiki page for Maledictus (linked above) states that “mal” means “‘bad,’ ‘wrongful,’ or ‘ill'” (that’s why it shows up in the names of people like the Malfoys and the Disney villainess Maleficent) and that “dictus” means “‘spoken'”, so “Roughly translated, Maledictus could mean ‘spoken ill of’ or ‘cursed.'” (Interestingly, the HP Wiki points out that this word is masculine, but applies only to females, so shouldn’t the word be Maledicta?) This is interesting to me because after I had that Facebook discussion, I grabbed a scholarly book that I have from my college years: Spellbound: Women and Witchcraft in America, edited by Elizabeth Reis. I flipped it open to Jane Kamensky’s essay, “Female Speech and Other Demons: Witchcraft and Wordcraft in Early New England.” It details how female speech was policed in 17th century New England (including during the Salem Witch Trials) and how women were often accused of witchcraft based on what they said and how it was out of line with the purity and piety that was expected of women at the time. Women could be accused of cursing other people with their speech and causing them to act strangely. This definitely ties in with the meaning of Maledictus and with the general concept of a blood curse. However, I don’t think that J.K. Rowling was trying to evoke this sort of thing, but the parallels between the concept of a blood curse and how women were actually accused of witchcraft are a bit creepy to me.
I think what bothers me about this new information concerning Nagini is that JKR clearly knows her stuff when it comes to folklore, at least in terms of how the beings and creatures operate, but she doesn’t seem at all aware of how folklore and mythology are wrapped up in cultural norms and expectations. Did she not realize that having a Asian female character be permanently cursed to turn into a snake and stay that way is full of backwards stereotypes for Asian women, Asian people in general, and women in general? Heck, I’m a goofy little white lady, and I can see that. Granted, she doesn’t have a great track record with portraying minority characters in general. She never disclosed Dumbledore’s sexuality in any of her books, and just about all of the students of color at Hogwarts are minor or bit characters. In fact, the most prominent Asian character in the Harry Potter series up to this point has been Cho Chang, a Chinese-British student a year ahead of Harry whom he has a crush on and briefly dates. The relationship doesn’t last, though, and Cho Chang is often reduced to crying over her dead boyfriend, Cedric Diggory. Here’s a poem by Rachel Rostad (originally a spoken word poem, but I can’t find the video) about how horribly treated and underserved Cho Chang is as a character. As far as I can tell, JKR thinks that just by having POC characters in a certain environment, that equals good representation. She doesn’t understand that POC and LGBTQ+ and other types of marginalized people need to be represented as protagonists, not just antagonists and window dressing.
Now, with this essay, I’m not saying that J.K. Rowling is a bad and/or immoral person, or that we should boycott the entire Harry Potter/Wizarding World franchise. I know that it’s a popular concept on the internet to avoid anything that we consider problematic, but I don’t know that that does any good in the long run. By actually watching the onscreen portrayal of Nagini and Claudia Kim’s performance, we can learn what to do and what not to do when we portray Asian characters and POC in general in fiction. I mean, I’m a wacky white lady writer, and I want to learn how to write POC and other people who aren’t like me in solid, appropriate ways, so I need to see how it can be done well, and how it’s often done terribly. Also, if we avoid uncomfortable things forever, we never learn to analyze difficult situations or grow as people. So while I do not like this decision regarding Nagini and her backstory, I am still looking forward to the upcoming Fantastic Beasts film.