I had planned to take a break from the blog this week. I’ve been busy with the holiday season and wanted to take a bit of time, but then this happened.
Or, more specifically, the uproar by morons over this innocuous casting decision happened.
Fair warning – this post will get angry. Very, frustratedly, mind-bendingly angry.
Full confession; like many of my generation I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter series. My copies of the books are tattered from multiple re-readings, I endured the excruciating wait between Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix by writing fan-fiction, and I had a well-documented crush on Sirius Black. I know all of the words to the Hogwarts school song. I listen to the audiobooks when I can’t sleep. I was sorted into Gryffindor on Pottermore, and own a pair of Gryffindor leggings.
Like many readers, I brought my own interpretation and ideas to my imaginings of the magical world. For example, the first time I read Chamber of Secrets I imagined Dobby being blue. I don’t know why; it didn’t say anywhere that he was or wasn’t blue. Rowling describes his bat-like ears, huge green eyes and long nose. It wasn’t until I saw the previews for the 2002 film adaption of CoS that I realised that he was never described as having blue skin in the books – I even went back and checked. My mental image of Ron was tall and rail thin like one of my cousins, whereas Rupert Grint wound up rather stocky. The look for Richard Harris’ Dumbledore was dead on how I imagined, but the voice wasn’t right. Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall was exactly on target, though.
My point is that everybody brings a portion of their own experience and ideas to fiction, as both writers and readers. I’m a white girl who grew up in a predominately white part of suburban Australia, and I’ll confess that, unless otherwise indicated by the writer, my default setting for imagining characters was ‘white.’ This includes Hermione Granger, especially because I identified with her so much while growing up. People who lived different experiences than mine may have had an entirely different idea of what Hermione looked like; it wasn’t until I was much older that it even occurred to me that she might be black. But the fact is that bushy brown hair, large front teeth and high intelligence are the only real identifiers we are given for Hermione – the rest is up to us. Plenty of children of different ethnicities had, in fact, placed themselves in the role of Hermione in the same way I did.
So, when I saw the casting announcement for Ron, Harry and Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, my first response was “awesome!” When I read about the credentials of the three actors and realised that Noma Dumezweni was in Dr Who I thought, “she’ll be brilliant!” And when I saw the uproar in the comments sections and on twitter, my reaction was “…of course” topped with an eye-roll and an exasperated sigh. Then I went to pace in the angry dome and swam a few rage laps at the local pool (one of those actually happened).
As I have stated time and again on this blog, representation MATTERS. It’s important. While reading this awesome Buzzfeed article I stumbled upon a quote by Pulitzer winning writer Junot Diaz:
“There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in the mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at a cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”
You can listen to the full quote on the FanBrosShow podcast here.
To turn around and say to people “no, your imagination is wrong, Hermione can only be white” is to take away this reflection of themselves. I connected with Hermione because I was picked on for being moderately intelligent and unapologetic about it. Many non-white readers connected with Hermione because of this and/or a much deeper reason – her muggle-born status.
As much as I hate to assume that everyone notices the same clues when reading, it’s hard to miss the glaring allegories in the Harry Potter series. We have Remus Lupin, shunned from society and trying to deny himself the right to happiness and love, as an allegory for AIDS patients. Half-giant Hagrid as a lesson about judging people for the content of their character rather than their parentage or appearance. Dementors are representative of depression. The bigotry against muggles is an allegory for racism and xenophobia.
Hermione, like many witches and wizards, is muggle born. As her parents were non-magic folk, there are many who believes this makes her blood ‘un-pure’. This topic is first raised in Chamber of Secrets, when the pure-blood Draco Malfoy calls Hermione a ‘mudblood,’ an obvious ethnic slur. That Hermione is an incredibly powerful and talented witch, or that wizards would have died out if they hadn’t started shacking up with muggles to diversify their genes, means nothing to pure-blood zealots.
When Lord Voldemort rises to power in Deathly Hallows, he and his Death Eaters take over the government and start weeding out muggle born wizards and witches. He also makes the muggle studies subject at Hogwarts compulsory for all students, and they are forced to listen to propaganda about how muggles are stupid and dirty, and the natural order is for wizards to be on top. This propaganda is analogous of Hitler and Nazi ideology, as well as right-wing KKK ideas regarding the separation of the races.
Pretty bloody obvious, right? So it’s understandable that people of a non-white background would connect with a character who is constantly maligned because of her roots, and is give lower status in society, regardless of her talent. Add to this that she’s trying to convince house elves – essentially a race of slaves – that they deserve fair wages, time off and proper clothes to wear. Hermione is a fictional civil rights icon trying to unionise slaves, and people want to deny the idea that she could be black? Did these people miss the message of the series entirely?
In my perusal of the social-media feedback regarding Hermione, I have seen five major arguments as to how she can’t possibly be portrayed by a black actress. I will now proceed to systematically tear every one of these arguments to shreds like Ron attacking the breakfast buffet.
“JK’s only doing it as an afterthought to be PC, like when she said Dumbledore is gay after the books came out.”
J.K Rowling has stated on twitter that she loves the idea of a black Hermione. Many cynics have said that she only did this to be politically correct, and that she obviously didn’t write Hermione as a black character.
Firstly, if you are familiar with the books at all you would know that J.K Rowling has progressive, left-wing views. She’s not trying to appease anyone, she’s just open minded. No, she didn’t write Hermione specifically as a black character, and probably didn’t have that in mind, but she hasn’t come out and said flat-out that Hermione is black. She never said that she’s white, or any other colour. The whole point is that we bring our own ideas and imaginations to the text. J.K is supportive of a black Hermione because there is no reason not to be.
And while I’m here, to those who are cynical regarding the “Dumbledore is gay” revelations…
Have you EVER spent any time with a creative person, particularly a writer? Because if you had, you’d know writers create hugely elaborate worlds and have plenty of facts about their creations stored away in their heads that just don’t make it into the final publication. J.K first revealed Dumbledore’s sexuality during a table-read for the Half-Blood Prince movie, where they’d put in a line where Dumbledore reminisces about a girl he used to love. J.K had to let them know to change it, because it had just never come up before. Still not convinced? Watch this vid from about the 29-minute mark.
If you still have problems with Dumbledore’s sexuality, fine. Just imagine him as straight, the same way that other people may imagine that Hermione is not white. It’s your imagination, you can do whatever you like!
“Then why was Emma Watson cast in the films?”
A great deal of people are asking “Why was Emma Watson cast in the movies if Hermione is black?”
Firstly, as stated above, her race was never specified in the books, so she could be any colour.
Secondly, I’m willing to bet a lot of people were disappointed (but not surprised) that Hermione was played by a white girl – we don’t always get what we want, even though it may seem that way to the privileged in society.
Thirdly, the films are an ADAPTATION of the books; they’re not cannon. There’s no Peeves in the movies either, does that mean he suddenly doesn’t exist in the stories?
The play is a sequel to the books, not the films. The performance is also an ADAPTION of this play based in the world of the books.
Fourthly, the realm of theatre is far more open to casting decisions being based on acting ability rather than race and gender. If a grown woman can historically play a prepubescent Peter Pan on stage, then a black woman can play Hermione.
Fifth, if we’re going purely on looks, Emma Watson wasn’t right for the part either.
Yup. I said it.
Hermione is meant to be relatively plain, not pretty; her allure lies in her brains and personality. J.K herself says in this amazing documentary-
“…I was more worried about [the casting of] Hermione than anyone else. I thought, you know, ‘are you gonna get a girl and put her in glasses because that shows she’s clever?’ How many times have we seen that happen? And then I spoke to Emma on the phone and she was very young, I think she was ten, and I thought ‘you are going to be able to play a very bright and articulate girl with conviction because that’s who you are’ […] in creating Hermione I felt I created a girl who was a heroine, but she wasn’t sexy, nor was she the girl in glasses who’s entirely sexless, you know what I mean? She’s a real girl!”
Emma Watson, we can all acknowledge, is far from plain. But she works as Hermione because of her personality. In an interview special she did with Daniel Radcliffe (here) J.K says,
“It’s really lucky that I spoke to Emma on the phone before I met her, because I fell absolutely in love with her. She said to me ‘I’ve only ever acted in school drama plays before and oh my god I can’t believe I got the part!’ and she spoke like that (very fast) for sixty seconds at least without drawing breath, and I said ‘Emma, you’re perfect.’ And then when I met her and she was this very beautiful […] girl, I just had to go, okay, it’s film, deal with it. I still see my gawky, geeky, ugly duckling Hermione in my mind.”
“But J.K Rowling drew pictures of Hermione as a white girl! And she’s white in all the cover art!”
So? That doesn’t preclude an adaptation from re-imagining Hermione as black. L Frank Baum didn’t necessarily write any black characters in the Wizard of Oz, but The Wiz is still a hugely successful and popular interpretation of his work.
I’ll say it again, we’re not saying Hermione can’t be white, but there are plenty of open possibilities regarding her ethnicity. As soon as an artist puts work out into the world it’s open to all manner of interpretation, despite what the author originally planned, because we all bring our own experiences to the text. As much as I hate saying it, The Author is Dead.
J.K Rowling is fine with it, why can’t you just be cool?
“HA! But what about this passage from Prisoner of Azkaban?”
“White face” indicates fear in this instance, not race. Besides, if you’re going to play that card, I’m going to play this one from the same book.
Sure, she could have got a tan from being on holiday. Or maybe not. But if you get to pull that bullshit then so do I.
“It’s just not how I pictured her.”
And that’s fine. But I didn’t picture Dobby as being white, either. I pictured him blue.
Some people do picture a black Hermione when they read the books. Now, they’re finally getting some damn representation.
It doesn’t hurt you in any way at all.
Fucking deal with it.