The Toxic-Masculinity-Destroying Magic Movie We Need Right Now
By Kaye Toal
The real hero of ‘Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them’ is empathy.
Men cry a lot in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. They cry while handing over beloved pets to bent-fingered trolls; they cry while saying goodbye to friends who won’t remember them tomorrow; they cry when they are betrayed by a person who claimed to have their best interests at heart. Men, I daresay, cry more than women in Fantastic Beasts. For a movie that isn’t an overt drama, that’s surprising — and refreshing.
The Harry Potter series revolves around the idea of love as a powerful force against evil — which means that it deals with emotion, on some level, but doesn’t require Harry himself to subvert typical boyhood masculinity. If anything, he has a very normal hero’s journey.
Harry is presented as a loving and kind person, refusing to use cruel or dark magic, but his kindness is the sort of kindness that’s allowable within the framework of masculinity: tied to courage and acts of bravery, an active kindness that is associated with a greater good or nobler cause.
Nursing an individual person back to health is not part of this masculinity, for instance, but standing up for someone who’s being bullied definitely is. It’s a positive but narrow vision of caring that still skirts around kindnesses that might be considered feminine — nurturing, mothering, soothing.
Empathy and its opposite — callousness, if you want, or ignorance, or bigotry — exist within a typical framework of toxic masculinity.
In this vein, empathy and its opposite — callousness, if you want, or ignorance, or bigotry — exist within a typical framework of toxic masculinity, a cultural insistence that to be masculine is to be strong and fearless and hard and to never cry, to never be gentle, or vulnerable, or soft, or weak. Empathy — actually experiencing someone else’s emotions as if they were your own — can be part of standing up for someone that’s been bullied, but it’s not required to be; you can stand up for someone because you know bullying is bad, not because you empathize with the target. Empathy is feminized, entrenched innately in the emotional vulnerability that is so anathema to toxic masculinity. After all, in order to empathize with an oppressed person, you have to admit that you’ve felt powerless, and feeling powerless is unacceptable within this framework.
But the core of Fantastic Beasts is a fact, and this fact is the bedrock of its world: Empathy is more valuable, and more powerful, than anything else. J.K. Rowling’s stories tend to reduce the driving force of good to a single emotional truth. In the Harry Potter series, it was love. In the world of Newt Scamander’s beasts, it’s looking like it might be empathy.
There are many different ways to be an empathetic, and therefore good, person in Rowling’s world. The ultra-feminine Queenie can literally read minds, but that power only makes her gentler and more sympathetic. Tina, anxious and more masculine in manner and dress, is removed from her job as an Auror because her desire to protect a boy whose witch-hating mother beats him overrides her professional caution.
The core of Fantastic Beasts is a fact, and this fact is the bedrock of its world: Empathy is more valuable, and more powerful, than anything else.
Perhaps most notable among the main characters, Jacob Kowalski — a non-magical Muggle, or No-Maj as Rowling is trying to force Americans to say — reacts not with fear or threat to his new magical friends, but with curiosity and open-hearted joy. In a world where magical people have laws against even interacting with non-magical people for fear of oppression and retaliation, Kowalski’s attitude is revolutionary. He cares so much about his friends and their world, even in the short time he’s known them, that when he finds out that his memories of them will be magically obliterated he weeps openly.
Kowalski, and other good men in the Fantastic Beasts universe, are notable for their empathy because it’s usually the domain of female characters.
People expect women to be portrayed as natural empathizers because women are always doing all the emotional labor for other people in their lives; fictional portrayals support the idea that this is not an unfair burden but the way of the world. But if Rowling’s vision for this world is founded on empathy, then her main character, Newt Scamander, becomes the ultimate embodiment of it — and antagonist Grindelwald, played by longtime alleged domestic abuser Johnny Depp in styling and makeup that looks like somebody’s high school OC from a bad Harry Potter Livejournal roleplaying community, becomes its toxic opposite.
Newt, played by Eddie Redmayne, cries several times over the course of the film and gives no indication that he thinks his tears are shameful. In a scene where he must trade one of his companion creatures to a man who runs the seedy underbelly of magical New York in exchange for vital information, he brushes away his tears almost defiantly; he doesn’t necessarily want to cause a scene, but he’s also not ashamed to cry. It’s as if Newt knows his emotions have value and power, and has long been uninterested in denying them. This is a conviction he’s spent a long time cultivating; throughout the film we’re given glimpses of his past, with heavy implication that the people surrounding him bullied, berated, and took from him emotionally. That, and his vehement insistence that humans are the worst and most dangerous creatures on the planet, speak to a vibrant emotional life and sense of self that took time to be certain of. It’s clearly more precious for that.
Newt prefers the company of his beasts to the company of people, and has strong views on what is and isn’t an acceptable way for a human to treat another human. He thinks it’s appalling that American magic folks have laws against marrying, befriending, and even interacting with non-magic folks; he thinks that Kowalski should have a choice between understanding the magical world and being forced to forget it. And he refers to himself as a mother to his baby beasts — their mama, their mum, which makes sense, given Rowling’s interpretation of empathy as a feminine trait. He is unabashed in his love for them, and unflinching in his conviction. He is a true Hufflepuff: loyal, kind, hard-working, and believing in real equality.
Newt is at obvious and immediate odds with the antagonist of the story, an Auror named Graves. Mr. Graves performs sympathy for disgraced ex-Auror Tina and care for the abused boy Credence so well that his reveal as (spoiler!) warmonger and genocidal maniac Gellert Grindelwald in magical disguise is genuinely shocking. Grindelwald is all that toxic masculinity promises. He doesn’t hesitate to use physical violence if he feels it’s necessary. He can’t process his own anger, and so takes it out on those around him. He sees people in black and white — something to be used, or something to be feared. Even if he feels love (and we have vague hints that he does, or will; Rowling has confirmed a romantic relationship between Grindelwald and Harry Potter headmaster Dumbledore), that love doesn’t have a channel through which to be expressed, and so it becomes secondary to his other traits, which read like a checklist of toxic masculinity: coldness, cruelty, violence, anger.
Grindelwald is all that toxic masculinity promises.
More than anything else, Grindelwald wants power. His desire for power, like that of evil overlord Voldemort in the Harry Potter books, is rooted in bigoted ideology, but it differs in that Grindelwald understands the power of empathy can be used to manipulate people. Voldemort never had much use for love, but Grindelwald wants to understand his targets, so he can use that understanding against them.
It makes him more terrifying, and slipperier, but the film doesn’t confuse him for an antihero — his actual beliefs, and the perversion of his empathy, are clear throughout. There is no good in Grindelwald. He is the ultimate avatar of toxic masculinity; he doesn’t truly believe in empathy, because he doesn’t believe in any kind of vulnerability. Grindelwald believes that the other tenets of toxic masculinity are the real goal: power, strength, control.
To have empathy, and to express it, Newt must act in ways that subvert the framework of toxic masculinity. He cries; he is nurturing, and kind; he has no issue referring to himself as “mama” or “mum,” and sees himself as a mother and not a father to his beasts. He is able to do what Grindelwald can’t: he is able to see people as people, and not just as their potential usefulness.
Credence’s abusive adoptive mother has forced him to suppress his magical power, which has curdled into a dangerous, volatile parasite called an Obscurus. Vitally, when Credence’s out-of-control Obscurus threatens Newt’s life, the lives of people he cares about, and frankly all of New York and all of the magical world, Newt does what Grindelwald can’t: he approaches Credence with compassion, with an interest in understanding his pain and saving his life. He almost succeeds.
It’s unfortunate that so much of the art Rowling creates is exclusionary and oftentimes outright racist — Cho Chang’s racist name, Lavender Brown’s recasting from a black actress to a white one once she became an important character, and the more recent frustration and hurt Native people have felt over her history of the American magical community. All of Rowling’s lessons play out through whiteness, despite ongoing themes of oppression and bigotry. It’s a wasted opportunity, considering that Newt’s story, and the lesson at its heart, is even more valuable in the context of today’s political climate. Anyone, after all, can see themselves as a hero overcoming the forces of evil; a bigot believes in overcoming the forces of evil just as much as an activist for social good. In the world of Fantastic Beasts, true goodness comes not from eradicating difference, but from understanding and feeling compassion for it — a lesson I hope Rowling’s fans take to heart.