How do we talk about the Nagini casting in Fantastic Beasts?
When the final Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald trailer revealed that South Korean actress Claudia Kim’s character in the film was none other than Nagini, Lord Voldemort’s serpent and future Horcrux, it felt a little out of place.
Firstly, 'nagini' is Sanskrit for 'female serpent', and refers to a divine race of half-human, half-snake creatures in Hindu and Buddhist lore. However, Claudia Kim is clearly not an Indian actress. While author J.K. Rowling has stated that Nagini was a Maledictus, a blood-cursed female who eventually permanently turned into a beast, there was very little to show Nagini’s former human nature throughout the original Harry Potter novels. Most of the evidence stems from new material J.K. Rowling released on Pottermore.com, where she releases updates about the Wizarding World periodically. Apparently J.K. Rowling has been holding this secret about Nagini for 20 years.
So what should be an exciting reveal for fans of Harry Potter across ages comes across as another divisive and piss-poor attempt by J.K. Rowling to make her franchise more diverse and “woke” by throwing a non-white character that minorities can praise her for. Not only is Rowling appropriating another culture by not casting an Indian actress to play Nagini, but Rowling perpetuates problematic Asian and female stereotypes that you’d think would be abolished after the release of Crazy Rich Asians. As a performer in the Circus Arcana, Nagini embodies the exotic “Dragon Lady," and her destiny as Voldemort’s pet contributes to the submissive, weak woman stereotype. It feels far from exciting; it feels like she’s jumping on the new diversity-in-Hollywood bandwagon and cheating her way into staying on it.
This is also not the first time J.K. Rowling has done something like this. Rowling has been criticized before for her creative choices and retconning much of the Wizarding World. She’s been criticized for making Dumbledore gay three months after the release of her book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and then neglecting to include this information in the script for The Crimes of Grindelwald. She’s been criticized for appropriating Native American cultures in her writing on Pottermore. She’s been criticized for defending her casting Johnny Depp, accused of domestic abuse by his ex-wife, as the titular character Gellert Grindelwald. The list goes on and on, and it never seems to end. As a lifelong fan of the Wizarding World, it is incredibly tiring to see her get into issues like these again and again.
Most relevant to this issue, she’s been criticized for her portrayal of Cho Chang, Harry Potter’s first love at Hogwarts. A member of Ravenclaw, the “nerdy house,” Chang repeatedly falls for white men, formerly dating Cedric Diggory (played by Robert Pattinson) before falling in love with Potter. Unfortunately, with Nagini, it eerily feels like Rowling is repeating herself within the Wizarding World.
However, what frustrated me the most was not how my favorite childhood franchise was becoming more and more problematic. It was not my realization that one of my favorite authors and creative inspirations was actually incredibly racist and couldn’t adjust with the times. What frustrated me the most was how people were talking about it.
A lot of Asians voiced their opinions online on their disappointment with Nagini’s representation, but most tweets that I’d seen of people who were frustrated by this came from white people. They agreed that Nagini’s portrayal was problematic, but they made a point to show how they were sick of J.K. Rowling retconning Harry Potter once again. Some criticized the concept of a Maledictus itself, failing to recognize it as an aspect of world-building that J.K. Rowling incorporated. Articles written by white women — or white men — talked about the larger problem with the Fantastic Beasts franchise that Nagini’s casting adds to. One Twitter thread that sent me over the edge was a white woman author who pointed out, “Here are some books that are actually diverse that you should read,” taking the problem in a different direction. She later set her account to private. The overwhelming reactions I had seen from Caucasians about Nagini, frankly, just pissed me off.
Make no mistake: Nagini feels like a step back of all the progress that Asian representation has made in the past year. What frustrated me was the amount of white perspectives that I had seen telling me that my own representation through Nagini was wrong and unjust, making Asians feel like damsels in distress to salve Caucasians’ white savior complex.
However, what is also frustrating is these perspectives snuffing out a glimmer of hope for The Crimes of Grindelwald. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, it is impossible to hide Claudia Kim’s excitement over playing Nagini.
“You’ve only seen her as a Horcrux. In this, she’s a wonderful and vulnerable woman who wants to live,” Kim says. “She wants to stay a human being and I think that’s a wonderful contrast to the character.”
There is a chance that Nagini in The Crimes of Grindelwald truly ends up being a fleshed-out character that enriches the stories of Newt Scamander, Albus Dumbledore, and the rest of the wizarding crew. But Nagini’s representation in The Crimes of Grindelwald feels flawed from the start, and the divisive discussion around everything regarding Nagini adds to the many clouds looming over a potentially problematic film.
This problem is not new to Nagini’s casting; in fact, it has probably arisen in almost every discussion of controversial racial casting. How we talk about representation and how we present diverse representation in Hollywood is not as heavily discussed as representation in Hollywood itself, because it feels like an incredibly touchy subject to talk about. In talking to my friends about this article — both white and non-white — I’ve prefaced my thoughts with “I’m not trying to sound like a douchebag.” Gatekeeping discussions about diversity feels hypocritical to the entire point about diversity, yet spreading misguided, misinformed, and misunderstood perspectives bring the conversation level and movement down as a whole.
Does this mean that we should only trust Asians to properly represent the Asian experience? Well, hearing perspectives from said Asians brings a refreshing authenticity to the story. Filmmaking, however, is meant to be creative; inspiration can be taken from anywhere. What is important is to achieve a level of understanding through education and communication. Including diverse viewpoints is incredibly integral in achieving this goal, eventually helping to foster a more inclusive environment for generations of creators to come. Enriching those diverse viewpoints with more knowledge and awareness of global cultures is the first step toward making that happen.