How and Why J.K. Rowling’s ‘Nagini’ Character Reveal is Touching on Racist Tropes About Asian Women
Enter “The Dragon Lady.”
Let’s get this out of the way: no matter how the character of Nagini is handled in the second Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie, I will not be watching it in theaters. I am not going to give my hard-earned money to a movie franchise that willingly continued to have Johnny Depp, a man who abuses women, cast in a prominent role. There’s simply no excuse for supporting or defending Depp.
If you pay attention to Harry Potter related news, you’ll have seen a sharp spike of frenzy a few days ago[September 25th, 2018], due to the release of the latest Fantastic Beasts trailer. A lot of this frenzy is actually backlash, as it was revealed that Voldemort’s pet snake Nagini, who served as a vessel for a fragment of his soul — was actually originally a woman, played by South Korean actress Claudia Kim. This backlash isn’t coming out of nowhere, and it ought to be understood.
Some other caveats before I continue:
- I don’t blame Claudia Kim for being cast as Nagini, or being excited about her role.
- I assume Claudia Kim is a wonderful actress, and I wish her all the best in her career.
- Yes, you can criticize a movie’s choices before it comes out, based entirely on the trailer. This is the point of a trailer — to ask you to favorably judge the movie as worthy of spending money to go see in theaters, and maybe buy later on DVD or BluRay.
The Nagini reveal has layers to it, layers that might only make sense if you’re pretty familiar with the world of Harry Potter. We thought we already knew Nagini, as Voldemort’s pet snake, and final horcrux. We met the snake in the book series, and we know the snake is heroically beheaded by Neville Longbottom, allowing Harry Potter to defeat the dark wizard Voldemort.
We knew lots of things about the snake Nagini, actually. We knew that if you were scared of snakes this was a terrifying one — her venom prevents wounds from healing. We knew that Nagini could be possessed by Voldemort (or Harry) because she was a horcux. If you were also educated in various world religions, or had just played Dungeons and Dragons one time, you knew her name was a reference to the Naga/Nagini creature. We knew Nagini almost killed Arthur Weasley, killed Severus Snape, and wore the outer flesh of Bathilda Bagshot in some nightmarish puppetry scene. This bears stressing: we knew her as a snake. A pet. A servant. That is exactly what Pottermore’s website calls her.
“Lord Voldemort’s pet snake and loyal servant.”
The new trailer reveal was accompanied by JKR’s tweets on the subject, identifying the Nagini reveal as a secret she’s kept for “20 years,” and that this character eventually becomes a snake permanently. In fact, she is a “maledictus,” which is a form of curse passed only from mother to daughter that dooms a woman to become a beast and lose her humanity.
Which bring me to my first point: Does J.K. Rowling not have a single friend who could have pointed out the problem with making an Asian woman end up in permanent servitude to an evil white guy?
This is just layer one of the problem here — the easiest layer is just that we, as viewers, already know the outcome. It’s not just that Nagini will end up a snake forever, it’s that she’ll become a servant to one of the most evil men in wizarding history.
“…He certainly likes to keep her close and has an unusual amount of control over her, even for a Parselmouth.” — Dumbledore, referring to Nagini.
Her story ends with her murder in the form of a snake — when her humanity is long gone, and her individuality is stripped away as she becomes most important for being a vessel for Voldemort’s soul. Even as a beast, her body will be invaded and possessed.
Author Ellen Oh sums this up:
I feel like this is the problem when white people want to diversify and don’t actually ask POC how to do so. They don’t make the connection between making Nagini an Asian woman who later on is the pet of a white man. So I’m going to say it right now. That shit is racist.
There’s no skating around it — Nagini’s entire being ends up becoming about her servitude.
Her “fact file” on the Harry Potter website Pottermore reads simply:
Hobbies: Doing the bidding of her master.
Death: Killed by Neville Longbottom with the sword of Gryffindor.
Given that Claudia Kim is seemingly the only Asian character of this film, never mind Asian woman, this stands out like a sore thumb.
Again, to quote Ellen Oh:
It’s important to see context. If the only Asian character in FB is Nagini, her timeline becomes horrifying. If she is one of many, then it is still horrifying but at least we can say she’s the bad guy. It’s the overall lack of representation that makes it stand out. [x]
It feels racist to us bc all of our lives we only ever see stereotypes and the exotic Asian woman who is fetishized by white men is a real thing. It feels gross and creepy knowing Nagini is now an Asian woman Voldemort kept as a pet. [x]
It looks racist to have an Asian woman die while living as a dehumanized servant (slave) to a white man, one whom Rowling herself identified as “of course a sort of Hitler.”
There’s also another layer of misogyny embedded in this — the idea that there is a curse which only affects women and ends in their eventual total transformation into a “beast.” It’s a complex issue, and I believe in the hands of many authors, it could be an interesting subversion or commentary on the role of women in “fairy tales,” and therefore fantasy as a whole.
In all honesty, I don’t necessarily object to the concept of the maledictus curse in general. I think the idea could be really interesting. So many fairy tales include motifs of human to animal transformation, and the use of that idea isn’t exactly unique. For folk and fairy tale geeks, this translates to the Thompson folklore index, which would probably place this kind of curse under “Magic, D. 190 Transformation: Man to reptiles and miscellaneous animals.” [Side note: I don’t know where this falls under the Arne-Thompson or ATU indices, but my point is simply that this is extremely common as a concept.] I think plenty of women authors could write about how transformation, loss of bodily agency, and dehumanization affects women — either by turning these notions on their heads, or critiquing the misogyny of society telling us to fear “monster women,” and labeling certain women as “monstrous.”
But a good subversion of “these women are cursed to become literal beasts,” doesn’t end in making them a vessel for the soul of an evil wizard, follows his commands, and then ultimately dies in the service of evil. It also, notably, doesn’t leave much room for critical commentary on this kind of curse. At best, we’ll probably get an acknowledgement in universe that a blood curse that turns women and their daughters into animals is tragic. It makes for a story about victimized women, but it falls short of the capacity to do much with that story, because again, we know how Nagini dies — as a scaled carcass of her former self.
At the end of the day, this is just another straw on the camel’s back. A thoughtful writer could carry it out, and make it meaningful. Stories can be complicated, and impact can in fact, be affected by the telling.
If J.K. Rowling was the kind of writer to seek out sensitivity readers, maybe they could have massaged this character reveal into something more thoughtful. Not perfect. Not something that would please everyone. But certainly a more thoughtful and nuanced depiction of this character. Something that understood, on a basic level, that if you reference a being from someone else’s religious tapestry, you ought to put in a little effort to get it right.
This could’ve stopped Rowling from not only blatantly misappropriating Native American culture in her creation of Ilvermorny, but maybe also stopped her from misattributing the origin of the Naga myth:
“The Naga are snake-like mythical creatures of Indonesian mythology, hence the name ‘Nagini.’ They are sometimes depicted as winged, sometimes as half-human, half-snake. Indonesia comprises a few hundred ethnic groups, including Javanese, Chinese and Betawi. Have a lovely day.”
The problem is the Naga/Nagini myth originated in India, not Indonesia. The word Naga is Sanskrit for serpent [नाग]. The female Naga is a Nagin, or Nagini. As a concept, it spread to other countries in South and South East Asia from India, and in fact almost every hit on google confirms this. Wikipedia attributes its origin to India. Even the slightest bit more research would show that nearly every source confirms the Naga originated in Hinduism, and also showed up in Buddhism and Jainism. Some of the sources I looked through are even recent enough to cite Rowling’s use of the word “Nagini” in their own description of the Naga, like in the UXL Encyclopedia of World Mythology —
Nagas in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Nagas are mentioned in the Hindu epic the Mahabharata and are considered to be the ancestors of certain groups of Indian people. One area in northeastern India is known as Nagaland, and its many tribes are collectively known as Nagas. In Western culture, a race of serpentine beings appeared in the Warcraft video game universe and in Dungeons and Dragons role-playing games, and Marvel Comics features a snake-person villain called Naga who was introduced in the Sub-Mariner comic series in 1969. In the Harry Potter series of books by J. K. Rowling, Nagini is the name of the serpent servant and companion of the evil Lord Voldemort, Harry’s arch-enemy.
“Nagas.” UXL Encyclopedia of World Mythology, vol. 4, UXL, 2009, pp. 729–732. World History in Context.
So it’s not terribly surprising that the word for a half-woman, half-snake “Nagini,” actually refers to a woman who is also a snake. As far as reveals go, this is pretty standard for Rowling, who named her werewolf character Remus Lupin, which is almost the same thing as stamping “Wolfy McWolferson,” on the guy’s forehead.
But there’s other important things to take away from this Encyclopedia entry. Namely, that Nagas are from India, that Nagas are in the Mahabharata which is an ancient text, and that there is a place in India called Nagaland. Also that many tribes call themselves “Naga.” This is something remarkably important to people — I use the word “religious” and “religion” to make a point here, that say, the fact that the Hindu god Vishnu subdued the naga Kaliya is still important to people.There are in fact, Naga in Indonesia (Wikipedia will also tell you that) but the origin of them is elsewhere.
So why cast a South Korean woman to play the role of a South or South East Asian being?
Doesn’t that seem strange? It’s not as if Rowling has never before weighed in on casting choices. She’s also had a large amount of creative control in script-writing for these newer films. If her character is based on an Indian or Indonesian religious figure, why not cast accordingly?
Rowling insisted her entire Harry Potter cast be British, so the idea that she couldn’t have asked that Fantastic Beasts character Nagini be South Asian seems far-fetched.
Stacked on top of all of this, there is one more problem of the character of Nagini that can’t simply be waved away. Beyond the lack of varied Asian representation, the fact that an Asian woman character is cursed into dehumanization and servitude, beyond casting that doesn’t match what part of Asia the “Nagini” is from — there is the image of the Dragon Lady.
Enter the “Dragon Lady.”
In a twist of irony, the Dragon Lady archetype/stereotype of East Asian women first hit cinema screens in the 1920’s and 30’s — contemporary to the setting of the Fantastic Beasts franchise. More than just an “Asian vixen”, the Dragon Lady stereotype capitalized on the racial fears of Yellow Peril, and the sexualization of Asian women. Plain and simple, it is a racist trope. Its manifestation is popularly associated with the actress Anna May Wong, particularly in her role in the 1931 film, Daughter of the Dragon.
The association with scales, snakes, and dragons are all to emphasize a racial mystique, the exoticism of the orient, and the dangerousness of the “Dragon Lady.” The character is typically sexualized in some way, she is othered, and she is typically a bad guy.
Dragon Lady Stereotype: The Dragon Lady is an ethnic stereotype of East Asian women found in America and other Western societies. The Dragon Lady stereotype is one of the major East Asian woman archetypes utilized in American fictional works in literature, media, and theater and is defined as a strong, deceitful, authoritarian, or mysterious woman of Asian descent. Dragon Ladies are also calculating, clever, and sexually alluring exotic woman determined to seduce white men.
Welch, Rosanne. Women in American History: a Social, Political, and Cultural Encyclopedia and Document Collection [4 Volumes], edited by Peg A. Lamphier, and Rosanne Welch, 2017.
The name of this stereotype trope comes from a comic series called Terry and the Pirates by Milton Caniff which featured a villainess called the Dragon Lady:
Perhaps to today’s viewer, the above illustration doesn’t look too different from other femme fatale illustrations. And for the most part the image of the Dragon Lady in this comic isn’t that different — with a wasp waist, form-fitting dress, shiny curls, sharp cheekbones, and pouting lips. The racial visual shorthand of her image are constrained to her face, with slanted, barely open eyes. For someone unfamiliar with racial caricatures this could almost be unnoticeable, until you compare the drawings of the Dragon Lady with other women in the same comic:
The difference is almost entirely in the drawing of the eyes, which resemble the woman beside her, albeit with eyelashes and without skin colored a literal yellow. Every other Asian character in this comic has yellow skin, created in the heyday of Yellow peril comics of World War II.
Combined with the fact that Nagini is a villain of some sort — after all, she ends up a loyal servant of Lord Voldemort — there is the fact that her introduction is going to be as part of a Freak Show, a circus performer. And sure, there is the fact that a circus can be a wonderful place for the marginalized of society to find acceptance and safety. There is something powerful about the potential of reclamation of one’s status as a “freak,” a sideshow act. But there’s also the fact that being marginalized can be exhausting, demeaning, and oppressive.
“Nagini assisted with many of Lord Voldemort’s murders.” — Pottermore, ‘Everything You need to Know About Nagini.’
The circuses of the 1920’s and 30’s aren’t just places to find a ragtag family, they’re also the peak of societal racism and ableism of their time, something visible even in the Circus Arcanus poster:
P.T. Barnum gained fame by purchasing a Black woman named Joice Heth, and claiming she was 160 years old, and the “mammy” of President George Washington. Albino African American brothers Georgie and Willie Muse were kidnapped, told their mother was dead, and displayed as freaks — described as “ambassadors from mars.” It’s worth noting that the Crimes of Grindelwald may be referencing Georgie and Willie Muse, as the latest trailer also displays what appear to be two albino black men in matching gold outfits. Whether this a direct or indirect reference is unclear — and whether or not it’s a sensitive one can probably only be gleaned when the film is released.
The Bertram Mills Circus featured the racial costume of “Koringa the only Female Fakir.”
Human zoos and circus sideshows were a world of racism on display, where sometimes a “freak” was simply the racial drag of yellow face or black face, or being a person of color.
In this sense, the role of Nagini could be considered period accurate racism — there were “Snake Ladies,” in circuses of that era, and Asian women were often put on display for white crowds in America and Britain. But like author Ellen Oh pointed out, with a lack of other Asian characters in Fantastic Beasts, this means the only Asian character thus far will be one relegated to a freak show act. Because there is no other representation here, the only narrative is one that is at best, a bleak tragedy, and at worst a villain origin story which doesn’t have room to truly deviate from an ultimately subservient ending.
The problem isn’t that racism exists and should be commented upon —
Asian women don’t get equated with snakes and dragons in a vacuum, the implication and transformation has meaning, especially when so much of Harry Potter presents itself as allegorical. The problem isn’t that racism exists and should be commented upon. The problem is that there is only one story, and it’s one that ends with an Asian snake woman going on to murder a lot of people. The racist trope exists whether or not the intent was to be racist, and the ending colors in the context in a way that cannot be ignored.
– the problem is that there is only one story, and it’s one that ends with an Asian snake woman going on to murder a lot of people.
This criticism is just the tip of the iceberg. The Korean twittersphere has been very vocal in their response to the Nagini reveal, and it’s worth reading through. Thanks to Twitter user @skimcasual [Ko-Fi], there are several tweets available in English translation.
Among the more critical tweets:
“It’s hilarious that the one magic school in Asia is on some far off island on Japan. She somehow missed all of China and missed all of India and put it on.. japan? Lmao. If any Koreans show up [to]FanBeasts, they’re definitely Imperial Japanese Sympathisers.”
Skimcasual’s translation notes: “Being accused of being a Japanese Sympathizer in Korea carries about the same weight as being called a Nazi in the Europshere.”
For real, JKR’s racism is so thick. She really thinks literature is free of real world symbolism? The Asian woman character is a cursed snake lmao. We didn’t forget how the movies turned Lanvender Brown white from being Black.
There will be people who don’t object to Nagini’s story. As I said at the beginning of this piece, I believe Claudia Kim is a talented actress. I hope she gives a great performance and gets many other kinds of job offers.
A true optimist will suggest that the movie can dedicate enough time to a new character to give us an artful take on the tragedy of being a maledictus — and of being a Korean woman whose homeland has been invaded and occupied by Imperial Japan. If everything goes right, we will still be left with the uncomfortable truth of one of two major East Asian women in the Harry Potter universe becoming a literal murderous snake.
Best case scenario.
Note: This essay was written quickly, drawing from some of my own personal blog posts on the same subject. All writing that is not mine is always in quotations and sourced! If you enjoyed this, please clap! Thanks.