On Nagini from Fantastic Beasts, and How Orientalism Surfaces Again and Again
The character names and story titles change, but one thing is always the same.
The moment I knew that Fantastic Beasts is not for me was most likely when it was announced the Asian school was named “Mahoutokoro” by JK Rowling, author of the popular Harry Potter series. The proposal for Fantastic Beasts was ambitious — to present wizards and wizard schools from around the world, such as in Asia and in South America. Considering how little of the vast amount of mythology and literature from Asian countries are translated into English, I assumed Rowling — who doesn’t speak nor read any Asian languages at a fluency where she could produce new literature about Asia — had a plan to co-write the parts of Fantastic Beasts that would be in Asia or involve Asians with an Asian author. Possibly someone who was bilingual and already popular in an Asian country for fantasy writing.
It was one of those names that only someone who was proud that they didn’t know Japanese or any Japanese people would think was a good idea. The name “mahoutokoro” is a combination of the words “magic” and “place”. Literally, “Magic place”. If I heard this name without context, I would guess it was the name of a child daycare in Japan, or the name of a TV program intended for preschoolers. Or possibly the name of a performance group that regularly puts on 30 minute musicals for young children in parks and department stores. The name was a joke. Childish. Unsophisticated. Unclever.
It was a disappointing reflection of how JK Rowling, one of the most famous authors of our time, considers Asian countries and Asian cultures to be a joke. She could see how her own culture is sophisticated, clever, mature, and serious enough to make thoughtful names like “Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry”, “Durmstrang Institute”, “Beauxbatons Academy of Magic” — all names that sound like they’re named after the last name of someone famous — but 59.66% of the world population that lives in Asia will rely on one school named “[Magic Place] School of Magic”.
The school being located on Iwojima — an island invaded by white people by murdering Asian people for reasons even white people admit was a waste of human lives — is another hint that she never stopped once to consider how Asians would feel about her writing, nevermind consulting a writer that’s Asian. It was apparent to me that she was writing her story only for white people to enjoy. How much people in Asia and Asian people might enjoy the story was a non-consideration.
Many of the white fans of Fantastic Beasts respond to my reaction with dismissal, or they downplay my observations on why Fantastic Beasts is only for white audiences. They’re unfamiliar with the idea that it’s unpleasant to see story after story where things white people are good at (or are known for creating) are painted as normal, while things people of color are good at (or known for creating) are painted as being weird, exotic, mysterious, unusual, rare, eccentric, or strange. This fascinating phenomenon is called centering whiteness, or white centering, where everything is assumed to be white or for white people, even when it’s not about white people.
White centering is why if you search on google images for “smiling woman”, the first dozen results are all women that look white. It’s assumed that the default woman is white, but the default woman is never assumed to be a woman of color. White centering is where people spend so much time relating to white people and how white people feel that they forget to notice people of color and what people of color think, feel, or do, as though we don’t exist at all. When a writer describes the globe through a white centering perspective, this is called Orientalism.
Orientalism is when white people describe non-white cultures despite not being members of those cultures, often to paint people of color as being unsophisticated, savage, or primitive compared to European cultures. It’s often a series of mis-observations and mistaken assuptions made by white people who don’t speak the languages spoken by the people of color they are attempting to describe, combined with the suspicion that people of color are not wholly people like white people, but closer to wild animals with a human shape. Simply put, Orientalism is white people showing what they think about people of color to more people than people of color ourselves, regardless of how outdated, harmful, or useless their white thoughts are to people of color.
I was (and still am) happy for my friends who enjoy Fantastic Beasts and JK Rowling’s other works, but personally I knew this author did not care for people like me. By picking a name like Mahoutokoro for a school, Fantastic Beasts had quietly told its fans “You can’t be a fan of Fantastic Beasts unless you pretend you don’t know Japanese”. I heard this silent rule of orientalism and decided not to be a fan of it until it wanted to include people who prefer to maintain that Japanese speakers and Japanese people exist while in a fandom.
Japanese as a language is not weird or ridiculous: The majority of white people are bad at Japanese, but that doesn’t mean Japanese is a bad language that should be ridiculed with an unrewarding school name like “[magic place] school of magic”. White people are good at a variety of things, but that doesn’t mean Japanese has to be easy for white people to learn for white people to treat Japanese as a proper language the way they respect European languages.
I expected Fantastic Beasts would have the run-of-the-mill Hollywood style orientalism if it reaches mahoutokoro in its story; complete with geisha, samurai swords, a bizarrely prominent display of red lanterns, a strange lack of any font besides Meiryo even on storefront signs, pan flutes, brocade bathrobes, repeated mentions of honor, sushi, chopsticks, accented near-nonsensical English instead of subtitles, kung fu, tacky interior design choices, unnecessary kanji, dusty unpaved streets and straw roofs, perhaps an Asian woman with a purple hair streak. Maybe she would have the chopsticks in her purple hair streak. Most likely she’ll be killed to make the viewer feel sorry for the white male protagonist and how much he had to struggle to kill her.
What I didn’t expect was for Fantastic Beasts to turn one of the enemies into a person and then to cast a person of color into that role and then to announce it as though that’s doing people of color a service. I considered this might be something Asians who don’t speak an Asian language might enjoy, as many Americans who don’t speak an Asian language also enjoy Airbender even though Zuko was the only character voiced by an Asian person, while the main characters (none of which are white) were voiced by white people. Or how many people were very excited for Lana Condor being cast to play Jubilee in X-men Apocalypse. But the school was still named as though nobody understands Japanese. There was also no announcements on what Asian writers were being invited to join the Fantastic Beasts movie team to write things Asians viewers would enjoy — Things that acknowledge the existence of the magical sorcery stories written by Asians that are familiar to many people in and from Asia, and would reward us as viewers for knowing popular stories written by Asians.
I had seen this happen before many times and fallen for it, where a movie feigned interest in having me part of its fandom as an Asian, but in the end it was only interested in my money.
I saw it in X2 with Lady Deathstrike, who had no lines to speak, therefore no personality to show who she is as a person. She was also mind-controlled for the majority of the movie and then killed by one of the protagonists, who has since lived on to feature in several of the X-men sequels and a solo film that focused only on their story in Logan (2017). Lady Deathstrike didn’t get to tell anyone if she had a family, what her goals in life might be, if she enjoyed or hated her high school years, if she was good at something like singing or a sport, or what kinds of friends she liked to keep: Things many of the white characters had a chance to show. All she got to do in the film was look East Asian, be expressionless, and then get killed by Wolverine who did not cry nor express any remorse in the film about killing a person, after killing her. Once she was dead, it was as though she never existed.
I saw it in Avengers: Age of Ultron. This film was subsidized by the Korean government to encourage the film to show South Korea in a positive light to its international audience, and it was filmed partly in Korea. In it was an Asian doctor named Helen Cho, who is incidentally played by Claudia Kim, who is the same actress who will play Nagini. Again, I don’t remember if Helen Cho had any family, if she had any hobbies, what kind of people she liked to keep around, what her goal in life is or what causes worry in her life, if she’s Asian American, or if she studied abroad to learn English and if she enjoyed it or hated it. Instead, she spends most of the movie being mind-controlled and what few lines she has are very brief, and entirely work-related. I paid money to see this movie, and the one character I should consider to be mine is utterly unrelatable as a human being.
It was the same story in Pacific Rim, where the one East Asian Woman character has no friends, no surviving family, no mention on her goals in life, what kinds of friends she likes to have, or if she is good at anything besides martial arts. A younger version of this character has 0 spoken lines and spends the majority of her time on screen looking Asian and crying. In the background was a mysteriously prevalent application of kanji despite there being few Japanese-speaking scientists in their headquarters that would need the kanji to function in the building. The majority of the scientists shown in the background were white.
For these movies, there is no Asian writers part of the movie team, and the writers in movie team are white people with no experience living in Asia or working for Asians. None of the core staffers that worked on the movie are part of the movie team because they are interested what kinds of stories Koreans like or Japanese people enjoy. Their priority was in satisfying what white people wanted to see in a movie, not on presenting a character that helps people relate to people of color by humanizing us in their stories.
This is a familiar pattern of orientalism that white writers follow when they are trying to write Asian characters into their stories, but when they do so for the benefit of white readers moreso than to create a medium that is welcoming to fans who are Asian. On the surface, writing in a character of color makes a story look inclusive; but upon deeper inspection, it becomes apparent that the writer is only interested in the illusion of inclusion to make their white readers feel good about liking a show with a few characters that look and feel like no actual person they know. This white audience doesn’t understand that what they perceive as being diversity is in fact a poorly or vaguely written character that looks like a person of color, but is not based on (nor reflective of) any actual person of color.
To writers of color, the diverse character in a white story comes off like a white person pretending to be a person of color. The character becomes a vessel for the author to express their modernized orientalism, and inadvertently the character the white author included to make the story appealing makes it less appealing to everyone except to people who only read stories that center whiteness. The poorly written character of color makes the fandom only welcoming to white people, and the rest of us are only tolerated as long as we pretend to not know any Japanese or other things people of color are good at that white people are bad at.
Despite Nagini being another mind-controlled, Asian-looking, white-written, fantasy-Asian character in a movie popular with white people, I’m not against Fantastic Beasts existing as a series of movies or the book series. I however take issue with how many of the people who see the movies, and read the books, won’t necessarily spend the time to watch a movie (or read books) made by the people of those diverse groups the series mentions in its story. To some people, the only exposure they will get that day, week or month to an East Asian Woman actor, will be Fantastic Beasts. The films that feature East Asian Actors that the majority of East Asians enjoy are seldom featured in US cinemas where Fantastic Beasts 2 will be played, unless it is pokemon. In this sense, Fantastic Beasts 2 will be defining what East Asian Women are like to more people in a single weekend than East Asian Women have ever been able to in that same time to the same audience.
Few will notice how strange and alien JK Rowling and Fantastic Beasts 2 is in creating an Asian character. Instead, most viewers will assume East Asian women are strange and alien. Most of those viewers have probably never considered that East Asians make movies, or that East Asian women write fantasy novels that are as entertaining as Harry Potter. Many have probably only read books authored by white people, and have never had a moment where they had to notice how many good stories by authors of color that they have missed reading. Many of us have never had the chance to pay to see a movie based on a book written by a person of color.
We hardly ever get to experience what we think about ourselves, but there’s lots and lots and lots of chances to see movies where white people show us what they think we are like. And in most cases, that is the only choice available, so our choice is either to stop paying to see movies, or to let a movie tell us only white people are normal, and that the rest of us are strange for not being born white.
Or we can stop paying to see these movies.