Posted on Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016 by Angie Han
Like Harry Potter, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a fantastical adventure grounded in real-world themes of prejudice and acceptance. Like Harry Potter, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them uses a powerful dark wizard to stand in for the tyrants and hatemongers who’ve rained down terror on minorities throughout history. Like Harry Potter, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them hinges on a group of more open-minded heroes, some of whom belong to those metaphorically marginalized groups themselves.
And also like Harry Potter, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does all this with few actually oppressed minorities in sight. It’s time for the Potterverse to open up and become more inclusive. (Spoilers ahead for Fantastic Beasts.)
Fantastic Beasts Is a Metaphor for Oppression
Fantastic Beasts borrows heavily from modern history, particularly when it comes to race and intolerance. Grindelwald promotes wizard supremacy as being “for the greater good,” arguing that Muggles and other races would be better off under the rule of their magical superiors. While not all wizards subscribe to his ideology, there’s clearly some everyday tension between the magical and non-magical communities in America, with Grindelwald’s followers eager to incite a race war and the No-Maj Second Salemers equally determined to stamp out the wizards. At one point, Newt and Tina have a conversation about, basically, wizard miscegenation, with Newt sniffing that MACUSA’s laws about wizard/No-Maj relationships seem “a bit backwards.”
The film leans heavily on recognizable LGBTQ themes as well. Credence is born with magical powers, but belongs to a family of anti-magic fanatics. He’s spent most of his life trying to repress his abilities, which has made him very scared, very angry, and very dangerous. Graves essentially seduces Credence into working with him, making the younger man feel special instead of freakish and comforting him with false promises of happiness and glory. Their scenes together are riveting but also deeply uncomfortable, shot through as they are with an almost sexual tension. (As Jackson Bird notes in this video at ScreenCrush, it brings to mind “very old and very dangerous stereotypes of gay people” as child predators.)
While the parallels aren’t quite perfect, they’re unmistakable and impossible to ignore. But again, everyone involved appears to be straight and white. The only notable characters of color in Fantastic Beasts are MACUSA president Seraphina Picquery (played by black actress Carmen Ejogo), who plays a very minor role in the adventure; and Newt’s old friend Leta Lestrange (played by black actress Zoë Kravitz), who is only seen in a photograph. Nor is there any suggestion that the main characters are anything other than cisgender and heterosexual. Newt and Jacob have opposite-sex love interests in the form of Tina and Queenie; if any of them are bisexual, there is no hint of it in the movie. And for all the weird subtext between them, Grindelwald and Credence’s sexualities don’t really come up.
… But It Excludes Oppressed People From the Narrative
To be sure, the Potterverse treats most of these Muggle divisions very gingerly. As far as we can tell in Fantastic Beasts and Harry Potter, wizards don’t seem to care at all about skin color. Heck, Fantastic Beasts casually shows a black female MACUSA president nearly a century before we No-Majs elected Barack Obama. The racial divide in the wizarding community seems to have more to do with the “purity” of one’s bloodline than nationality or ethnicity. It’s tougher to say how wizards feel about LGBTQ characters, since there really aren’t any — aside from Dumbledore, that is, who was only revealed as gay after all the books had already been published, and who is referenced but never appears in Fantastic Beasts.
But the Potterverse is being created and consumed by people who exist in a reality where things like race and sexuality matter a great deal. We understand Grindelwald and Voldemort as stand-ins for genocidal rulers like Hitler, and the experiences of their victims as references to the trials that we, our loved ones, and our ancestors have suffered. We process Credence’s journey as that of a closeted young man’s, and relate to his pain and fury on that level. And yet, non-white, non-straight people are essentially invisible in the Potterverse. By centering metaphors for POC and LGBTQ struggle on straight white characters, the Potterverse is erasing POC and LGBTQ people from our own narratives.
It’s a baffling and frustrating omission. Here is a franchise that purports to be all about tolerance and acceptance, but struggles to extend its empathy toward metaphorically repressed people to actually repressed people. Even in this anything-goes fantasy universe, populated by Nifflers and Bowtruckles, Legilimens and Aurors, it’s apparently asking too much to imagine lesbian witches or Latino wizards. It’s nice that the Potterverse preaches tolerance and denounces bigotry. But without any significant LGBTQ or POC characters to empathize with, those themes are purely theoretical. Bringing in LGBTQ and POC characters would allow the franchise’s warm and fuzzy message to hit that much harder.