The Social Cut | The Author Is Dead – Or Is She?
The Social Cut is a monthly column by Rishika Aggarwal that critically analyses various media shows, movies and documentaries, from an intersectionalist feminist standpoint.
In 1967, French literary critic Roland Barthes argued for what he termed ‘the death of the author’ – that is, that the biography and intentions of the author are irrelevant, and that the writing and the author are unrelated.
But in the 21st century, with everyone – including all your favourite authors – having easy and quick access to social media, the question that pops out is ‘can the author ever be (metaphorically) dead?’
Perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon is the curious case of J.K. Rowling and the ever-expanding Harry Potter universe.
Rowling’s refusal to give up creative control of the Harry Potter universe even after completing the series was perhaps most famously introduced when she revealed Albus Dumbledore as having been gay during a speech at Carnegie Hall in 2007. At that point, that revelation was a welcome example of inclusion in a series that was – and is – notoriously full of straight, white characters.
Still, while our understanding of inclusivity and empathy towards other cultures has evolved since 2007, it often seems as though Rowling’s has not.
The announcement of the website Pottermore, the website that offers visitors new and previously unreleased writing by Rowling that pertains to the Wizarding World (among other things) was initially met with much excitement, as was the announcement of the Fantastic Beasts series and the fact that Rowling was to be the one to pen the scripts, unlike with the much-maligned Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
However, in order to prepare for the first installation of the Fantastic Beasts series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Rowling started dropping information about the history (from the 14th to the 17th centuries) of the American side of the Wizarding World, where the movie was based. Among these pieces of information was the fact that in-universe, ‘skin walkers’ were wizards who were Anamagi (having the ability to turn into an animal). She was further criticized for lumping all Native American cultures into a singular, homogenous group, and appropriating their stories for her own benefit, as demonstrated with the case of the skin-walker stories.
She was further critiqued when she revealed that the list of magical schools in the Harry Potter universe numbered 11 – and that of the 8 that have been revealed, 4 are in Europe, while the other continents have only one each. This is particularly relevant when one considers the facts that Rowling strongly rejects the existence of any other schools, and says that home-schooling is minimal, while also ignoring the history of regions (and population figures) – it is unlikely, for example, that Asia is home to the smallest wizarding school while having the highest population, or that there would be no inter-continent conflicts with placing the Asian and North American schools of magic in Japan and the U.S.A respectively – a short history of either of those countries, or simply a focus on current events, would show why that would be problematic.
The latest criticism faced by Rowling comes as a result of the last trailer to the upcoming second installment of the Fantastic Beasts series, The Crimes of Grindelwald. The trailer reveals that the snake Nagini who, in the books, is one of the vessels for the Nazi-inspired Voldemort’s soul and one of his constant companions (one can go so far as to call her a servant) is actually a woman who was a circus exhibit, and who was cursed to eventually turn completely into a snake.
This character is played in the movie by South Korean actor Claudia Kim, a casting choice that Rowling has defended. While it does provide the movies – and the larger Wizarding World – with some much-needed diversity, it does bring with it a host of other problems. Not only is the companion/servant of an aforementioned Nazi-themed villain a woman, she is a woman of colour. Not only is she a woman of colour, she is a character whose name is derived from the mythology of India and the Indian sub-continent, while also being played by a character whose heritage is neither of those regions.
The fact remains that Asians are not interchangeable – and the concept of having an Asian woman character in a notoriously white-dominated universe by making her a circus exhibit who not only loses her humanity and becomes completely an animal, but who is, in the books, beheaded and killed after she has eaten people, is problematic at best.
Rowling previously attracted praise for her support of the casting of black actress Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger in the West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and constantly references minor characters in the books when answering fans on Twitter who question her regarding diversity in the books.
At the same time, the casting of Dumezweni was merely supported by Rowling, not caused by her, and retroactively assigning backstories to minor character who often appear for no more than a line or two in order to appear to be inclusive cannot be termed to be true inclusivity.
Barthes once argued for the death of the author, but Rowling proves that in the modern day, as she tries to perform inclusivity despite being continuously reprimanded for her refusal to consult people from other cultures before making choices that are difficult to swallow, that can be difficult – and as we come closer the release of The Crimes of Grindelwald on 16th November 2018, we should consider the argument that her Wizarding World is worse off for it.
Rishika Aggarwal is a Volunteer Researcher at One Future Collective.
Featured image: Warner Brothers/Bleeding Cool