Fantastic Beasts and Not-So-Fantastic Feminism

Our latest glimpse of the wizarding world in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them definitely passes the Bechdel test. It has multiple female characters who drive the plot, have their own narrative arcs, and talk about things that aren’t men. But that alone doesn’t earn it a stamp of feminist approval.

Also, there isn’t—and shouldn’t be—a stamp of feminist approval. It’s gotten far too trendy to label any movie with any woman “feminist” and call it a day. Hollywood does not have a great track record for portraying women (not to mention employing them), so anything that breaks that mold may seem like cause for celebration. But the situation is still pretty grim. (Take a look at Chapter 2 of Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once for the oh-so-dismal stats.)

Against that landscape, Fantastic Beasts isn’t so bad. Tina has a career she cares about, and she’s almost painfully ethical. Her sister Queenie is a legilimens (she can read minds), and she gets the others out of tight spots on multiple occasions.

Those facts are fabulous. But the movie could have been just as good without (spoiler alert) both of them falling prey to the love bug at the end, and beyond that, without making Queenie a witchy twist on the stale Marilyn Monroe trope. (Happy birthday, Mr. President. And now, some telepathy.)

Our very first glimpse of Queenie, she’s peeking out (from wall and from negligee) and Tina tells her to get some clothes on. Moments later she informs a quivering Jacob, “That’s okay, most men think that when they first see me.”

Sure, they probably do. But that diminishes her very cool mind-reading ability and other magical skills. For the rest of the movie, her telepathy, spell-casting, and doing-the-right-thing-ness are all eclipsed by lines like “But we made them cocoa” and “It’s full of lady things, wanna see?” (Which, to be fair, is a brilliant move. But kick some ass already!).

It’s great that Queenie is relentlessly self-confident and unapologetic about her sexuality. But the movie wouldn’t have suffered if she’d been a bit less breathy and spent a smidgen less time mooning over Jacob. She’s a powerful witch: why can’t we focus on that rather than talking about her “sexy wand”?

As for Tina, two main moments stand out.

First, when she’s about to be executed by gravity-defying mercury goo showing a home video of her memories. Why won’t she jump? The magical silvery lava is literally going to kill her within seconds, so it doesn’t really matter whether it corrodes her via the chair she’s on or whether she falls in mid-jump.

Sure, actively jumping to your death is probably pretty scary. But what it looks like is a slightly-too-long moment of feminine fear built in to boost the growing romantic connection between Tina and Newt. No one would be unafraid in that situation, but if it were a dude fighting that lava, there probably wouldn’t have been a gratuitous touchy-feely moment to tie up the scene.

And then the end. She thanks Newt for the best present ever: helping her get her job back. Huzzah! Career lady on the move! But then come the waterworks (or at least, delicately restrained emotion), awkward promise of a future visit, and even more awkward little skip-jump as she walks away.

It’s not worth casting blame on Tina Goldstein, or Katherine Waterston (the Tina actress), or even J.K. Rowling. And maybe it’s not so bad—career girls are entitled to their loves and lusts, too. But it points to the Hollywood requirement of slapping a love story onto what would work perfectly well as a magical romp in an alternate reality. And even if Newt is on the same page, by making Tina the centerpoint of that budding romance (complete with feminizing moves like tears and skip-hops), the movie makes romance the bottom line that audiences walk away with—even moments after Tina gushes not about her new boyfriend, but about getting her job back.

Tina and Queenie are both strong characters — in terms of fictional representations and well-rounded, believable women. The fact that there’s black female president Seraphina Picquery at the head of MACUSA is even more proof the wizarding world is more progressive than us no-majs, even in the 1920s (though it might have been nice if she’d had more screen time).

In that sense, maybe these points are quibbling, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth talking about. Maybe one day we’ll get a movie with female characters who make it all the way through without needing romance or resorting to flirting to get their way. Even if getting their way means saving the day and—more or less—the world.