The Nagini Controversy: Optimism Is Underrated
SPOILERS AHEAD: PROCEED WITH CAUTION
The reveal that Claudia Kim will be portraying Nagini as a Maledictus in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald has created quite the controversy in the Harry Potter fandom. Fans have been asking many questions regarding Nagini’s reveal, but let’s focus on the following inquiries: Is it problematic to cast an Asian actress as a potentially evil character? Does casting a Korean woman in the role of a magical creature that originated in Indonesia suggest a harmful implication?
Personally, I was surprised by the number of fans calling out J.K. Rowling. Before the reveal, I was intrigued by the strange woman in the trailer. I was never completely satisfied with the minuscule amount of information Rowling provided for Nagini in the Potter series. Voldemort’s affinity with the snake was unusual. I always wondered if the snake was a familiar, an Animagus, or some other mystical being. The Maledictus reveal justified years of suspecting there was more to the character, and my head began racing with the character development possibilities.
As a child, my perspective and capacity for empathy were broadened by Rowling’s nuanced depiction of Severus Snape and Albus Dumbledore. Along with opening my young eyes to themes of tolerance, love, and friendship, she was the one who taught me everyone is deserving of acknowledgment of his or her humanity, no matter their mistakes.
Diversity is, of course, very important. But while people are debating over the amount of representation Rowling achieves in her work (and how problematic it is when she does), fans are forgetting the wonderful lessons that drew them to the material in the first place. Rowling’s overarching themes have always inherently preached the importance of justice and equality. How could this woman who improved and shaped many of my worldviews on such matters cause others to question her intentions? After being accused of conflating multiple distinct Asian cultures into one, Rowling matter-of-factly defended the reveal:
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 🐍
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) September 26, 2018
In true Rowling fashion, it appears she had Nagini’s story mapped out for years. I doubt that Nagini’s development was decided in conjunction with Crimes of Grindelwald. Her response shows research and good intentions. Nagini’s name has always been derivative of the mythology Rowling cites.
I have complete confidence that Rowling will deliver a dynamic character in Nagini and feel optimistic about Kim’s performance as the compelling snake. Many are concerned that Nagini being played by an Asian actress has malevolent connotations. However, even though we know how Nagini’s story ends, we don’t know how it begins. Credence and Nagini seem to be connected in the trailer and we have yet to see where Credence’s character arc leads. Nagini’s eventual transformation into a permanent snake could include a hero’s sacrifice, for all we know.
In the reveal, Kim said that it was “emotional” for her to say her character’s name at last. Her eyes seemed to glow with excitement in interviews. In the midst of an exorbitant amount of scrutiny, I have to wonder if it’s equally problematic that we as viewers are setting limits for actresses. Just because an actress comes from a certain culture, are they banned from social acceptability if they play roles that are potentially “evil” or conflict with mythology origins? Or is it just the writers who bear the weight of the controversy? Sometimes antagonistic roles are the most exciting and unique. Kim could bring something to the role that no one else could.
I feel wary about the intense backlash to any sort of attempt Rowling makes to diversify the wizarding world. Due to the impossible nature of pleasing everyone with representation, will writers (and possibly Rowling) become too scared to try? Shouldn’t we be celebrating diversity instead of dissecting it with visceral reactions? Does it matter that Rowling has changed this instance of mythology as she has with plenty of other creatures before? Should we be enraged by her versions of merpeople, sphinxes, kelpies, and leprechauns? She’s been creating her own Potter mythology for over 20 years. Rowling is an icon held to impossibly high standards with her creativity and leadership. She can’t possibly cater to everyone’s wishes, but I admire her for growing and trying to make her work more inclusive and meaningful.
I, for one, am more concerned with plot and the thrill of once again experiencing the world of Harry Potter. I’ll be at Crimes of Grindelwald in full gear, ready for a magical ride.
Let’s discuss the matter. What do you think of this contentious issue?