Though boomers may be quick to cry out about our generation’s love affair with avocado toast, true millennials know that our hearts belong to Harry Potter. Whether it’s the movies, books, or countless other manifestations of the Potter-verse, J.K. Rowling’s world of wizardry has continually courted our affection for the last two decades—though that love may be beginning to wane.
This past weekend saw the opening of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the sequel to 2016’s Potter spinoff, which, despite coming from one of today’s most beloved fictional worlds, marked a franchise low in terms of box office openings. These numbers may be shocking given just how much and how long we’ve been collectively taken with Harry Potter, but become quite unsurprising when they’re considered as a reflection of the countless major blunders the film has had in the increasingly-important areas of diversity and inclusion.
Let’s start with the fedora-wearing elephant in the room, Johnny Depp. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the film over the course of its production, Depp’s casting as the titular Grindelwald came in the midst of allegations of domestic abuse surfacing from his ex-wife Amber Heard. It wasn’t just his involvement that courted controversy, however, but J.K. Rowling’s refusal to recast—and outspoken support of—the alleged domestic abuser.
Rowling (who, in addition to writing all seven Harry Potter books, is also the principal screenwriter of Fantastic Beasts) initially responded to fans inquiring about Depp’s casting with a hearty, ignorant pressing of the “block” button, before later releasing an official statement where she shared that “the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.”
More controversy arose in the casting of Korean actress Claudia Kim as Nagini, a character who, despite appearing as a human in the film, had until now existed solely as Voldemort’s equally-villainous pet snake. The choice garnered criticism from fans who believe that giving Nagini an origin story as an Asian woman, despite perhaps being an attempt at increasing the basically-nonexistent diversity quotient in the Harry Potter universe, ultimately has racist and sexist implications for how her character is later portrayed in the main franchise:
I feel like this is the problem when white people want to diversify and don't actually ask POC how to do so. They don't make the connection between making Nagini an Asian woman who later on is the pet of a white man. So I'm going to say it right now. That shit is racist.
— Ellen "We Will Keep Fighting" Oh (@ElloEllenOh) September 25, 2018
These instances of ignorance are far from isolated incidents, unfortunately: their narrow viewpoints reflects the larger history of whiteness that has pervaded Rowling’s franchise since its inception, with the rare character of colour, such as the beautiful, type-A Cho Chang or gossipy Patil twins, having little substance outside of their race and the stereotyped qualities implied by it.
Though Rowling has, since the ending of the main series, made a concerted effort to retroactively diversify major characters in the Potter universe through open-endedly musing that Hermione wasn’t not-white, or Dumbledore’s queerness (a til-now-incidental claim that, despite being made over a decade ago, has not been explored in depth until this film), these attempts come off not only as shallow tokenism but superficial and disingenuous.
Condemning these attempts at diversity as superficial may seem like a bold or unfair claim, but one only need consider the irreconcilability between the peppering of these aspirations of inclusivity in the film and the involvement of an alleged woman-beater such as Depp. If Rowling & Co. truly cared about using this film as a way to change the shape of the Potter universe into one where wizards of all colours, genders, and sexualities were welcome, then the first step in achieving this would be the removal of someone, like Depp, who makes these safe and inclusive worlds impossible to achieve.
Ultimately, Beasts’ box office shortcomings do not show, as some Star Wars fans would love to have you believe, that audiences don’t want diversity—rather, it shows that they really want diversity, and Beasts’ brand of surface-level inclusivity, further undermined through factors such as Rowling’s casting and support of Depp, isn’t diversity at all.