Fantastic Beasts Tackles Fascism—with White, Straight, Cis Heroes
'Fantastic Beasts' Tackles Fascism—with White, Straight, Cis Heroes
Despite effectively showcasing the dangers of fascism, J.K. Rowling consistently fails to represent the real-world victims of a horrifying ideology.
Warning! Major Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald spoiler ahead!
Despite its 1920s setting, seeing Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald this weekend felt like a prescient experience. Even with many storytelling flaws, the second prequel film to the Harry Potter franchise succeeds in providing an excellent metaphorical representation of how fascism and fascistic rhetoric takes root inside society and eventually cultivates mainstream credibility. One could even argue that the entire Harry Potter franchise has been J.K. Rowling’s exploration of fascism—how its ideology forms and spreads as well as how its trauma and influence continues to be felt (both politically and personally) even decades and generations after it's been eradicated.
Yet, Rowling’s mastery at symbolically portraying the horrors of fascism has been consistently marred by her inability to effectively include those who are most vulnerable to fascism, notably those of the Jewish faith, people of color, queer communities, and other minority groups. It’s a flaw that becomes more noticeable as the wizarding world continues to expand, and one which plagues the latest Fantastic Beasts film to the point of ultimately undoing all of her work throughout the film to create a timely allegory.
In the film, the titular Grindelwald (played by a not-uncoincidentally-pale Johnny Deep) has built a network of followers drawn to his belief that the magical community has a right to dominate those without magic—muggles—because they are believed to be subhuman. Grindelwald’s followers are completely devoted to this way of thinking, so much so that we see them murder a muggle family and baby without hesitation. These early followers of Grindelwald have dehumanized muggles to the point of being "beasts of burden," a comparison Grindelwald uses while calling for a "merciful" genocide of the non-magical community.
All of this conveys early elements of fascistic ideology, which, as outlined in cultural theorist Umberto Eco’s 1995 essay "Eternal Fascism," tends to find its initial bedrock of followers through ideals of hate, the fear of difference, and the dehumanization of the "other." Yet, the film goes beyond the simple opening salvo of fascistic development by showing us the deeper dangers presented by Grindelwald’s growing movement.
Grindelwald remains entirely aware that rhetoric based purely on hate can only sustain growth for so long. Knowing this, Grindelwald holds a rally for the magical community to hear his ideas, which becomes the setting for the film's climax. In this chilling scene, Grindelwald successfully reframes his ideology from one of hate into one of political hyperbole. During the rally, he states that he does not hate muggles, but instead simply believes to them to be of "differing value." Moving further, Grindelwald exploits other elements of fascism as outlined by Eco’s famous essay.
Grindelwald appeals to a frustrated middle-class by manipulating a government officer into attacking one of his followers, thus providing evidence to his followers of the current government’s "violent" tendencies against "peaceful" objectors. Additionally, he places wizards as the heroes of his world order, stating that their superiority gives them a right to rule over the muggle population. He hypes the threat of the enemy by displaying images of the forthcoming World War II and the atomic bomb to show that muggles should not be allowed to control the Earth.
All of these tactics, as well as other fascistic rhetoric that Rowling excellently weaves into Grindelwald’s portrayal, showcase how tempting fascist rhetoric can be to those who do not recognize its true implications. This naiveté in the face of evil is demonstrated in the film itself when one of the franchise’s main heroes, Queenie, joins Grindelwald’s campaign to fight for the right to marry her muggle boyfriend, despite Grindelwald’s main objective being the ultimate genocide of the muggle community. Grindelwald has successfully obfuscated his goals behind so much hyperbole that Queenie joins his movement, despite it being at odds with her own best interests. Queenie’s decision also shows how the expansion of fascism can be upheld by those who support from their position of privilege rather than understanding their own lack of privilege.
This happens in real-world movements, both fascistic or not. Think of how white women voted predominately for Republican candidates in the recent 2018 midterm elections, despite so much Republican ideology being rooted in misogyny. There were some Jews in Germany who supported Hitler during his rise to power. Log Cabin Republicans continually support the growing fascistic tendencies of Donald Trump, despite Trump’s continued efforts to harm the LGBTQ community. Yet, Log Cabin Republicans still point to the infamous picture of then-candidate Trump holding a rainbow flag that says "LGBTs for Trump" as proof that Trump truly has the community’s interest at heart, instead of recognizing it as the shameful pandering that it truly was. Too many think that we will recognize fascism because it will come wearing jackboots and a red arm-band while making the Nazi salute. But sometimes fascism shows up holding a rainbow flag.
The Crimes of Grindelwald's place as a prequel to the Harry Potter franchise also helps demonstrate how fascism continues to spread through generations as Grindlewald’s beliefs echo the future Voldemort’s rise to power. A scene where Grindelwald and his followers kill a family and their young baby echo the fate that would befall the Potter family at the hands of Voldemort decades later. When Voldemort eventually gains control of the magical government, he segregates "pureblood" wizards from "half-bloods" or "mudbloods," those who were born to one or more muggle parents. Indeed, the very concept of "purebloods" versus "mudbloods" in the present day is a lingering remnant created by Grindewald’s movement of the 1920s. Voldemort also instates iconography reminiscent of Nazi Germany, from black uniforms to distinguishing tattoos that represent positions within Voldemort’s power structure. These echoes of the past are not just effective call-backs (or call-forwards in this case) but have real-world precedent. Take one look at any white supremacist rally to see the lingering presence of the swastika or the repeated use of "heil" before Trump and Hitler’s names.
I point out these examples to show that J.K. Rowling clearly has an understanding of the potential dangers of allowing fascistic ideology to fester within a society. She also knows that fascism comes with real costs, which she demonstrates through the death of Harry Potter’s family, the attempted genocide of the muggle community, the vitriol thrown at Hermione’s non-magical heritage, the torture of Neville Longbottom’s parents, and the price in blood paid during the final battle between Voldemort and Harry Potter. So why is it that, despite her clear understanding of fascism, Rowling continually fails to include those who predominately pay that price in her narratives?
Almost every major hero in the Harry Potter and the Fantastic Beasts franchises are straight, white, secular, and cisgender, as well as often being men. Think Harry Potter’s Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger, Neville Longbottom, Luna Lovegood, The Weasely Family, Sirus Black, Remus Lupin, Hagrid, or titular Harry Potter. Or think Fantastic Beasts’ Newt Scamander, Jacob Kowalski, Queenie Goldstein, Theseus Scamander, or Porpentina Goldstein. Yet we know that straight white secular cisgender men have historically been the least likely to suffer at the hands of a fascistic regime. Not to say they can't or have never suffered during fascism, but that throughout most of western history, the primary victims of fascist ideology have consistently been those who fall outside those identities.
While diverse characters do exist in the wizarding world, we typically only find them on the fringes of the narrative. In the main Potter franchise, we had Cho Chang (a quickly forgotten love interest), Kingsley Shacklebolt (a tertiary Order of the Phoenix member) and a few of Harry’s classmates. It’s even been noted that characters of color speak, on-average, for about 30 seconds each throughout the entire film franchise. There have been efforts at "racebending" certain characters in the Potter series, such as when a black woman was cast as Hermione for a play, but all the films and primary art for the series typically portray these characters as white. Additionally, despite Rowling’s retroactive reveal of Dumbledore’s homosexuality, we never had an explicitly queer character appear in the books. Religion was also completely ignored within the franchise, thus stopping the potential for Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Catholic or other characters from diverse faiths to take part in the magical world. The closest we get to a multi-cultural exploration of the Harry Potter world comes during the Quidditch World Cup of the fourth book, where we hear mentions and get brief cartoonish glimpses of other cultures.
The same remains true for the "globe-trotting" Fantastic Beasts franchise, which has so far limited itself to the western nations of America, Britain, and France. We also get no differing religious groups in this franchise outside of the child-abusing, Catholic muggle step-mother in the first film. There are a few tertiary characters of color, such as Nagini, an Asian woman whose entire role in the plot appears to be being Ezra Miller’s sidekick who eventually ends up as Voldemort’s pet snake, and Seraphina Picquery, who at least has the distinction of being a black woman holding a high political position in 1920s America.
The Crimes of Grindelwald does, however, feature prominent roles for two characters from communities who would be primary targets within a fascistic political structure: the aforementioned queer Albus Dumbledore as well as Zoë Kravitz’s biracial Leta Lestrange. To note, one could also argue that Jacob Kowalski, played by Jewish actor Dan Fogler, represents a prominent Jewish character, but Kowalski's religious beliefs are never addressed, and could just as easily be read as Polish-Catholic.
Similarly, the Dumbledore of the Fantastic Beasts sequel continues to be plagued by the problems of his older-self from the books, namely that he is never explicitly noted to be gay. One would presume that was done to save the film’s international box office numbers from being "ruined" by gay representation, an outdated and frustrating argument. Crimes of Grindelwald tiptoes as close to the line of stating Dumbledore’s gay identity as they can get without actually straying over it. According to Potter canon, Dumbledore once had a boyhood romance with Grindelwald. In the film, when someone states that Dumbledore and Grindelwald were "as close as brothers," Dumbledore interjects that they were "closer than brothers." Later, when Dumbledore looks into a magical mirror that shows his heart’s desire, he sees Grindelwald’s face looking back at him. While these scenes clearly nod to Dumbledore’s queerness, they are intentionally filmed to be open to interpretation so that those who do not wish to see Dumbledore’s gayness can simply ignore it. It’s queer-baiting in prime form, recalling the unfortunate days of the Hollywood’s Hays Code. As a result, we still are left with zero queer representation of actual consequence within the franchise.
Lita Lestrange, a half-black, half-white witch, presents an initially more intriguing representation of a minority group, as she is the franchise’s first sympathetic Slytherin and non-white pureblood character, but she ultimately remains a problematic form of representation. During the film, we learn Leta was born of the kidnapping and rape of her black mother by her white father. This revelation comes during one of many convoluted exposition scenes and ultimately plays no major role in the plot other than to feed into Leta’s "tragic mulatto" storyline. As noted by The Mary Sue’s Princess Weekes, the "tragic mulatto" is a racially-defined stereotypical character trope where a mixed-race character can’t find a place within the world due to their biracial identity. As a result, they typically die for those who better fit into the narrative’s binary institutions. In Crimes of Grindelwald, Leta ultimately sacrifices herself to save the two Scamander brothers from Grindelwald after spending the entire movie deciding which side she wants to fight for—as well as which Scamander brother she really loves. The character ultimately comes across as ineffective and indecisive, becoming yet another example of a character of color sacrificing themselves to save white heroes.
In the end, outside of straight, white, secular cisgender men and women, the only major minority-representing characters in Crimes of Grindelwald’s storyline both succumb to antiquated and offensive storytelling tropes that consistently work to prevent them from showcasing their diversity and difference in favor of the "norm" of whiteness and straightness.
So why does all this matter? I hear the critics of my argument already: "It’s a metaphor for fascism, not actual fascism. It’s not like wizards and witches actually exist, so what does it matter if they are straight white secular cisgender men or not? She can still talk about these ideas in metaphor and still be effective!"
This viewpoint is flat out wrong. True, Rowling can write about fascism if she wishes, yet the inclusion of diversity in fascism narratives remains important. Firstly, including real-world diversity and issues reinforces the ultimate effectiveness of your narrative. Think of the X-Men franchise, a series which deals with similar themes of fascism and prejudice. The very first X-Men film literally opens in a Nazi concentration camp. We are also given the character of Magneto, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who personifies fear, anger, and pain. When Magneto talks about fascism, we know that he understands it firsthand. His inclusion adds depth and weight to the narrative. It provides the story with true stakes and reminds us how a movie about mutants with insane superpowers can still be about something meaningful.
Think about how effective it would be for an openly queer Dumbledore to relate his experience as a gay man to the ideology of Grindelwald. Or how a black woman living in 1920s America could give a unique perspective on the horrors that could easily befall the wizarding world. These versions of the characters would know from direct experience what fascism or hate-fueled rhetoric can ultimately lead to. It would directly root the Fantastic Beasts story in something truly meaningful, while also providing more realistic portrayals of these characters.
Yet, beyond crafting a more effective, realistic narrative, inclusion in storylines about fighting fascism matters because communities who are so often the victims deserve to have agency in the fight to stop an ideology whose aim is to destroy us. In the real world, we play a very real part in both the suffering but also the ultimate destruction of fascistic movements. We are not just passive bystanders. By ignoring both our victimhood as well as our ability to take part in the eventual overthrow of fascistic rhetoric, Rowling erases the fights that are too often won with the blood of those who have suffered the deepest.
Fascism is often about the destruction of diversity in order to create a hegemonic society devoid of difference and, thus, descent. So, if J.K. Rowling wants to tell the story about the power of diversity over hatred, then it follows that her storylines should be, well, diverse. Yet, Rowling continually fails to learn from her writing. With three more movies in this already strained narrative forthcoming, Rowling needs to find ways to include those most vulnerable, lest she is caught in the same trap she attempts to warn against.