Why Fans Are Concerned With a Certain “Fantastic Beasts” Character
SPOILERS AHEAD: PROCEED WITH CAUTION
While some fans responded with excitement to the confirmation of a fan theory that the Maledictus, played by Claudia Kim, in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, is, in fact, Voldemort’s serpent, Nagini, there are some who have their concerns regarding her characterization. Firstly, nāgini, derived from Sanskrit, is a female counterpart to nāga – a deity that takes on the form of a snake. So the name’s etymology raises questions about the casting of Claudia Kim, rather than a South Asian woman, in Crimes of Grindelwald.
This, however, is the least of people’s concerns. Fans have been disillusioned with J.K. Rowling’s creative decisions for quite some time now, and this new controversy is just the latest in a string of recent grievances. Fans’ concerns come from a desire for meaningful, not just tokenistic, representation in the wizarding world (I’m looking at you, Cho Chang). Representation, when done well, can reduce racial stereotypes, biases, and cultural misunderstanding. When done poorly, it can reinforce, rather than challenge, stereotypes – and that is why people are concerned that Nagini is being played by a Korean woman.
Voldemort’s pure-blood ideology has often been perceived as an analogy to Nazism (although I think that Grindelwald is more representative of Nazism than Voldemort was) – his Death Eaters are clearly meant to parallel the Ku Klux Klan. In Western media, Asian women are often hypersexualized and submissively portrayed – harmfully so. Knowing the tragedy of Nagini’s life, some fans feel that retconning the wizarding world’s canon by making her human perpetuates these stereotypical portrayals of Asian women. We know from the Harry Potter series that Nagini literally becomes an object – a Horcrux – and she is depicted as being subservient to Voldemort.
The portrayal of an enslaved Asian woman as an evil white man’s pet snake certainly raises a few questions, but I think we should all slow down. Fans’ concerns should be taken seriously, and Fantastic Beasts is not immune to criticism. However, at this point, we don’t know anything else about Nagini, apart from the fact that she befriends Credence and is played by Claudia Kim. I previously suggested that we should give Rowling “the benefit of the doubt” regarding the explicitness of Dumbledore’s sexuality in Crimes of Grindelwald. Footage of Dumbledore standing in front of the Mirror of Erised in the recent trailer, as well as the previous one, for Crimes of Grindelwald seems to have dissipated fans’ concerns regarding the portrayal of Dumbledore’s feelings toward Grindelwald.
While fans are concerned with the revelation that Nagini was a Korean woman, we don’t know if Voldemort even knew that the snake he seemed to care for more than any other character in Harry Potter used to be human. I doubt that Voldemort chose to befriend Nagini because she was a Korean woman. As Dumbledore suggests in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, his affection for Nagini stems from her, as a serpent, being symbolic of his Slytherin heritage.
Moreover, the revelation that Nagini was a woman who was cursed to permanently transform into a beast raises questions about Voldemort. From the way he’s portrayed in Harry Potter, it seems that Voldemort is incapable of empathy. However, Nagini’s identity might add a bit of complexity to Voldemort’s personality. After his first attempt to kill Harry Potter failed, Voldemort was ripped from his body and had to force himself “sleeplessly, endlessly, second by second, to exist” (GoF 33). Voldemort, without a body of his own, was reduced to possessing animals – often snakes – to sustain himself. Did Voldemort see himself in Nagini? Is that why he was so fond of her? It’s strange to think that Voldemort had the capacity to feel empathy for another being.
Ultimately, I’m not saying that fans don’t have a right to be concerned with creative decisions, such as Nagini being a Korean woman. However, I would advise people against being reactionary in their outrage. We know very few details about Nagini’s role in Fantastic Beasts – so let’s just wait and see what transpires.