Typically, the news that a woman of color has been cast in a film franchise with historically limited representation of people of color would lead to praise.
However, last week’s trailer for “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” revealed that Voldemort’s pet Nagini is actually a woman trapped as a snake. Moreover, the human version of Nagini will be played by Korean actress Claudia Kim. In response, fans took to the internet arguing that the development was both racist and sexist. When examined more closely, Kim’s casting perpetuates stereotypes of Asian women as quiet and submissive. But more importantly, the decision is exacerbated by the lack of people of color in previous “Harry Potter” and “Fantastic Beasts” films, and is ultimately indicative of a failure of representation within the wizarding world at large.
Rowling has claimed on Twitter that the reveal has been in mind for twenty years, but the fact that she announced it after the conclusion of the initial “Harry Potter” series makes it a retroactive continuity. Known as a retcon for short, the phenomenon consists of pre-existing facts within fiction being altered or contradicted by subsequent work. It forces readers to rethink scenes from the “Harry Potter” books and movies.
According to Rowling, Kim’s character is a Maledictus – a woman with a blood curse passed from mothers to daughters that fates them to permanently transform into an animal. Making Nagini a cursed human woman is a bizarre choice simply from a narrative perspective – for example, in the fourth film, Voldemort’s henchman had to milk Nagini, an already odd plot detail made more questionable by the recent reveal.
But when considered more closely, the revelation isn’t just odd – it’s troubling as well. Nagini is Voldemort’s pet and is often depicted following his commands throughout the original films. In the trailer, Kim’s character is seen performing for other wizards in a cage. Beyond just dehumanizing a character viewers now know to be human, Kim’s casting as Nagini perpetuates certain stereotypes about Asian woman, who are often portrayed as exotic or subservient. As a snake and as a performer, her voice is quite literally silenced.
Not all the details of Nagini’s storyline have been revealed, so it’s unclear whether she retains her autonomy when in snake form and thus chooses to serve Voldemort. However, the fact that she is cursed inherently strips the character of some of her own agency, because she has no say in her eventual fate.
Rowling later posted on Twitter that she was referencing the Naga creatures from Indonesian mythology, which were depicted as half-human, half-snake. Fans were quick to unpack the problematic nature of that defense – the mythology Rowling references actually originated in India. Additionally Kim is Korean, not Indonesian, and Rowling’s answer seems to imply an interchangeable approach to Asian identity.
Kim’s casting must also be considered in the context of the wizarding world at large. Perhaps the decision to cast an Asian woman as a cursed snake would be acceptable if there were a bevy of other Asian women in the franchise. But Kim’s character is only the films’ fourth Asian character after Cho Chang and the Patil twins, three women defined narratively by little more than their ethnicities and their relationships with male characters.
Because the wizarding world is so desperately lacking in racial diversity, the inclusion of any people of color is further scrutinized – the burden of representation falls upon them. Kim as Nagini is the only Asian person in the film, and because she is stripped of her dignity, the choice feels especially insulting.
As an Asian woman who grew up as a huge fan of the wizarding world, I would love to see someone who looks like me interacting with the magic of my childhood. To finally get another chance to see an Asian woman in “Harry Potter” and to have her be reduced to an animal – and the violent servant of a murderous fascist– stings.
The wizarding world is obviously incredibly different from the real world, but fundamentally, Rowling’s wizarding world lacks the real world diversity that pervades the Muggle world, relegating people of color to small roles – retconning one character in no way solves that.
Rowling attempted something similar with Dumbledore, announcing after the conclusion of the “Harry Potter” book series that the Hogwarts headmaster was gay. Though the choice was certainly received more positively than Nagini’s development, some fans felt that it was a shallow move – a criticism that feels apt as the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise seems to have struggled to integrate Rowling’s verbal affirmation of Dumbledore’s sexuality.
Rowling’s best answer to the inescapable whiteness of the “Harry Potter” series could have been to make “Fantastic Beasts” a more diverse series, populated by characters of color, heroic and villainous. Instead, the majority of the characters in the new franchise are also white, with people of color still only on the periphery of the stories Rowling chooses to tell.
Kim’s casting isn’t just an issue within “Fantastic Beasts” and the world of “Harry Potter” – it is merely a symptom of a larger issue that pervades the entire wizarding world, a symptom of a problem Rowling still hasn’t figured out how to recompense.