Column: Retroactive representation isn’t real representation
When creators refuse to put representation into their works, they are only hurting themselves and their fans.
Nov. 08, 2018
The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.
Abigail Ruhman is a freshman journalism and political science major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about student life, politics and social issues for The Maneater.
As another kid who lived in a closet (sure, it was a metaphorical closet, but you get my point), Harry Potter’s story meant a lot to me. But there were still a lot of problems with the series. The biggest one in particular is the author, J. K. Rowling.
The fact that the “Harry Potter” series was about witchcraft in the late 1990s caused some controversy, yet it slowly became a pop culture phenomenon. Most of the resistance came from religious communities that tried to ban the series in schools so much that it made the most challenged book list for 1990-1999, despite only being released so late in the decade.
In the face of that controversy, Rowling was considered progressive because of some of her characters. Unfortunately, it was all just a facade.
One of her most beloved characters was Hermione Granger, a strong female role model who was celebrated for her intelligence rather than her looks. As the intelligent one of the group, Hermione acted as the voice of reason. She was also independent and strong-willed, which was showcased when she was sorted into Gryffindor, the house that valued bravery most.
Ironically, it was her looks that have upset many fans and also where Rowling started retroactively editing her own storyline.
When Hermione was introduced in the books, Harry said, “She has a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth.” The vague description lead many fans to think that Hermione should have been black. Rowling responded by tweeting that there was no specific skin color listed for the character.
The use of race-neutral language gave off the illusion of progressivism. According to award-winning science fiction author Kameron Hurley, writing in “race-neutral” words does not count as representation. Since the default is considered white, writing neutrally doesn’t actually mean that the character becomes racially ambiguous.
The casting in the movies didn’t help Rowling’s case. When Emma Watson was selected for the role, it confirmed what most people assumed: Hermione was white.
Rowling was also under fire for appropriating Native American culture. The Navajo legend of skinwalkers explains that they are people who turn into animals.
Rowling discussed them in her new online series, the “History of Magic in North America,” which lead to many questions from fans. When she responded to some on Twitter, Rowling stated, “In my wizarding world, there were no skinwalkers.” She then explained that it was a myth to demonize wizards.
Dr. Adrienne Keene, an Assistant Professor of American Studies at Brown University, responded to the tweet, “It’s not ‘your’ world. It’s our (real) Native world. And skinwalker stories have context, roots, and reality … You can’t just claim and take a living tradition of a marginalized people…”
Experts and fans explained that not only did she trivialize traditions by comparing them to magic, but she also generalized Native Americans. Rowling didn’t explain that skinwalkers were a Navajo legend, and treated the indigenous community as one group with a single set of beliefs.
Rowling may have included diversity on her social media, but she failed at putting it into her literature. She didn’t stop at race though.
She also claimed that she always thought of Dumbledore as gay, but failed to include this in the books. A younger version of the character is set to be introduced in “Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald.” Despite the film being released after Rowling announced he was gay, this will not be depicted in the film.
According to Independent, Rowling explains that Dumbledore’s sexuality will be addressed later in the five-movie series. Fans expressed their disappointment in Rowling for failing to include actual diversity within her film. Diversity has failed to make it into Rowling’s writing, and fans are sick of waiting. The latest two films were her chance to act on her statement of diversity, and she failed to do it.
Representation doesn’t count if you have to go outside of the story to learn about the diversity, but her edits have also lead to problematic representation.
The newest addition to the wizarding world, “Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald” introduced a plot twist that accidently turned problematic. Voldemort's enslaved snake, Nagini, used to be a circus performer who turned into a murderous snake. It is also played by one of the few women of color within the films. Fans are upset by the use of an Asian actress to portray such a murderous snake.
Rowling wasn’t the only writer to edit after the fact. Nickelodeon has done the same thing with “The Legend of Korra.” At the end of the series, the two female leads walked into the spirit world the way people typically ride off into the sunset.
Bryan Konietzko, the co-creator of the animated series, confirmed that they were indeed a couple. While the fact that a Nickelodeon creator confirmed this was a huge step, the fact that the romantic relationship was never displayed on screen was a major downside.
Retroactively adding diversity doesn’t count as representation, and can even leave negative connotations. While Rowling pushed the bar by including witchcraft, she failed at being inclusive of different minority groups until after the fact. Unfortunately, “The Legend of Korra” followed in her footsteps.
Claiming these stories provide diversity only leaves communities that need representation disappointed — and that’s not something you can fix with the wave of a wand.