The Empty Space In The Progressive Mind

When all you can see is the blinding light of racism, everything else becomes dark. I just finished reading this piece on the forthcoming Harry Potter prequel and it was more than a little saddening.
View story at Medium.com

Before we get started, here’s the final trailer for The Crimes of Grindewald.

After a rather apologetic opening where she makes the PC necessary remarks about how she has nothing against the actress who plays Nagini, Ms. Miranda launches into this:

 

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.

I’m going to point out that, at this point, the movie and the related background have not been released. We don’t know Nagini’s story or why she did the things she did. Presumably she knew that the curse that she was born with would Change her and was taking steps to deal with her condition. She knew that she would become a monster. perhaps she tied herself to Riddle because she thought that he was powerful enough to contain the monster. Or she gave herself to Riddle without concern for the consequences  or concern for herself. Especially if she knew the monster was coming. Let’s be honest, when you are sure that you are going to lose everything, the one person who doesn’t reject you totally becomes your anchor.

Now as to Nagini being East Asian, rather than Indian or other West Asian, We know nothing of the backstory here. Ms. Rowling is absolutely right about snake people legends spreading all over Asia. It was not exclusive to India.

Ms. Miranda continues:

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.

We don’t know if Nagini is the only Asian character or not. We don’t know anything about the story at this point. There may be reasons why Naginini is the only Asian character in the story. Especially, as seems to be the case if the story doesn’t take place in Asia. I have this feeling that Nagini is the person out of place, the eyes that can Rowling can use to show us the rest of the world she is showing us.


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.”

Ms. Miranda insists that everything that Ms. Rowling does has to fit the correct path and be thoroughly researched and checked to make sure that correct women’s studies checkmarks are checked off. Otherwise Ms. Rowling is not only racist, but misogynist. As for afflictions that only attack women, has Ms. Miranda never heard of Breast cancer? There are afflictions and diseases that tend to only strike men or women for various reasons. As the time that I am writing this, we don’t know the details of the maledictus curse and why it only inflicts the female line.

After chastising Ms. Rowling for not getting Naga legends right, Ms. Miranda asks this question:

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.

Of course Ms. Miranda has the answer and doesn’t hesitate to tell us. It’s racism, of course. Far from being the total servant of Voldemort, Nagini is a Dragon Lady.

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.

Left: Anna May Wong in Daughter of the Dragon. Right: Claudia Kim in The Crimes of Grindelwald.

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:

Terry and the Pirates: Enter the Dragon Lady, by Milton Caniff.

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:

Terry and the Pirates panels, courtesy of Comic Book Plus archives. Far left: The Dragon Lady speaking about herself in the third person.

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.

The fact is that this is rather idiotic. The femme fatale Dragon lady type is hardly the type to give herself to anybody. When she shows up, she is in charge and you do what she wants or her sneaky Chinese tong types or Ninjas dispose of you. From what the trailer shows, Nagini is performing in a circus, for her own reasons. Hardly the Dragon Lady type. Of course Ms. Miranda has issues with that as well:

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:

Close-up of the Circus Arcanus Poster, with a black person trapped inside a cage with what appears to be a two-headed lion, surrounded by various other figures, some of whom are dressed in various ethnic costumes.

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.

Left: Photo of Georgie and Willie Muse from the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey combined shows. Right: Two men in yellow Nehru style jackets, apparently “breathing fire.”

The Bertram Mills Circus featured the racial costume of “Koringa the only Female Fakir.”

Posters, Left: Koringa: The Only Woman Fakir of the World; Right: Daughter of the Dragon.

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.

From the substance of her tirade, I am guessing that Ms. Miranda has never been to a circus. Nor has she seen great circus movies like Toby Tyler   of The Greatest Show On Earth in all likelihood. Let alone visited the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport. Circuses were the place where for once a year, ordinary people could experience the weird and the strange, along with feats of daring do and exotic animals. The sad part is that Ms. Miranda’s friends at PETA have put the last nail in the circus and the Greatest Show on Earth has stopped it’s trains forever.

 

Ms. Miranda said right at the top of her post that she will not be seeing the movie, because racism. The rest of the piece just shows that Ms. Miranda had only an empty place where there should be joy and heart. If all you can see is racism, sexism, misogyny and rest of the panoply of accusations of the perpetually outraged, then there is very little space for enjoying anything. Enjoyment requires giving a bit of yourself, the willingness to share your time with somebody who wants to share the wonderful thing that they have created. Ms. Miranda is too busy being outraged by the trivial.

 

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