By Jules Stigers & Kassandra Moreno
The Harry Potter saga began in the late 1990s and exploded in popularity with a total of 7 novels by British author J.K. Rowling and 8 films, covering the journey of the young wizard Harry and his companions to defeat the dark Voldemort and his army. As the storyline picked up and the plot thickened with battles, the Hogwarts students created a secret wizarding organization within their school dubbed “Dumbledore’s Army” to combat evil. This organization persists in the latter half of the books and movie, and the core characters that comprise Dumbledore’s Army are featured above — all of whom played at least minor roles throughout the story. Note that only four out of the fifteen students are people of color, the other eleven members are all white. While that proportion does not deviate from the norm of London’s demographics when the first books and movies were being produced according to the United Kingdom’s census, it certainly does not reflect the global audience that the Harry Potter franchise caters to (Race Disparity Unit, 2020). It also fails to reflect the demographics of London’s population when the latter half of the novels and movies were being produced; thus, there is a considerable amount of disproportionate representation in the Harry Potter series. Demographics aside, it is the manner in which Harry Potter represents these minority characters that demand attention. The producers of Harry Potter failed to accurately represent the ethnically diverse members of Dumbledore’s Army — Parvati and Padma Patil (the Patil Twins), Cho Chang, and Dean Thomas — by downplaying their cultures, relying on stereotypes and tropes, and minimizing their roles in the films.
Patil Twins: Downplaying of Minority Cultures and Characters
The Patil twins — Padma and Parvati — make up half of the members of Dumbledore’s Army that are also people of color. The girls are of South Asian descent, generally assumed to be Indian, and they have been around throughout the entire series. The film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire received a lot of backlash from viewers who were dissatisfied with the portrayal of Padma and Parvati during the Yule Ball to which they accompanied Ron and Harry as dates.
Aside from the truly sad way they were treated by their dates, many fans criticized the costume designers for their tacky attempt at dressing the girls in traditional Indian formal attire. The dress robes as pictured above were intended to be lehengas, but fans complained that they looked more like cheap t-shirts with awful color schemes and accessorized with bracelets from a dollar store (Jha, 2016). The poor quality and execution of their costumes was unexpected given the size and popularity of the Harry Potter franchise, so it could not be attributed to a lack of budget; furthermore, the Harry Potter fanbase is incredibly diverse, so the producers cannot rely on an excuse of targeting a white-only audience. Many viewers found the Patil twins’ ball attire to be offensive and were disappointed by the producer’s lack of effort in the representation of South Asian women (Patel, 2016).
Indian formal attire in reality is detailed and intricate with beautiful colors and designs, adorned with gold jewelry. Above is an example of a lehenga choli offered at an Indian online clothing retailer that resembles the concept behind the Patil twins’ outfits. In comparison, this outfit has richer color and more details. It would have made a statement if the twins had worn attire along the lines of this outfit, and girls around the world may have been able to relate to the characters on screen. As for why the team filming Harry Potter decided on these costumes, it could be attributed to the lack of diversity on set and the accompanying ignorance of minority cultures and attire, primarily the cultures of South Asia with India in specific. For example, if there were more Indian women on set, it would have been more likely that someone would point out how the twins’ ball gown could be viewed as offensive by South Asian viewers and even directed them to some better examples of traditional Indian formal attire.
Another possible reason for the slip-up is that the twins needed to be downplayed in order for Hermione to make her grand entrance. Negative feelings regarding Padma’s and Parvati’s dress robes were only magnified when Hermione appeared in a stunning dusty pink fringe ball gown as pictured above. It becomes obvious by comparing this dress to those of the Patil twins, that the design team spent a lot more time working on this outfit as it looks of much higher quality. Granted, this is understandable given the fact that Hermione is one of the main characters in the series, but this fact still stands. This scene is intended to be a major turning point in Hermione’s character development because this is the moment when she changes others’ perception of her. It is possible that the Patil twins’ dresses were purposefully neglected in order for Hermione to have the impact the producers were shooting for (Patel, 2016). Understandably, it would have been difficult for anyone to outshine Padma and Parvati if they showed up in dresses similar to the gorgeous pink lehenga as featured from before. Whatever the reason, what occurred was an insult to South Asian views and an injustice to the Patil twins on their special night.
Film and media often portray Asian women as stereotypically desirable, sexual, and exotic; however, there is a variance to this depiction found in the portrayal of brown women. The wars with Asian countries in the Middle East, primarily Iraq and Iran, further reinforced a danger and a fear of brown people in Western media and film which took many forms, such as the need to “liberate” brown women from their men and religion or the portrayal of all brown people as terrorists. While Muslim and Middle Eastern groups lie at the heart of this negative depiction, “brown people” describes a far larger range of peoples and cultures. One of which often is targeted by association: South Asians (Rajgopal, 2010, p. 150). While it remains unknown if this proliferate fear of brown people affected the team on set to poorly execute the twin’s portrayal at the Yule Ball, it still contributes to the concept that brown women are undesirable or dangerous. Finally, the comparison between the Patil twins and Hermione feeds into a dangerous trope of Asian women being more suitable for sexual and lover roles and white women being more suitable for wife and setting-down roles, almost as though Asian women are fun for the time, but white women are the end goal. While it is unlikely that Rowling and the producers of Harry Potter intended to convey this message, they inherently reinforced this trope by portraying Hermione as “the best option” when the two main male characters had Asian dates to the ball.
Cho Chang: Tragic Trope of Asian Women Falling for White Men
Cho Chang is a character that has received a lot of heat over the years, primarily due to her basic, stereotypical name that does not even hint at her ethnicity. Cho is an Asian woman who, as the only East Asian character in the series, takes on the representation of people from all East Asian countries — China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Mongolia, and Macao. This has led to many critiques because these countries and their respective cultures and peoples are incredibly diverse. No one character can represent all of East Asia without relying on broad stereotypes (Lu, 2018). While this shallow attempt at diversity and representation of minority characters is a clear problem, there is another pitfall Harry Potter encounters: the trope and tragedy of an Asian woman falling in love with a white man. It employs the stereotypes of a hegemonic man — white, strong, dominant, often a soldier — and the “Lotus Blossom.” The Lotus Blossom is an ambivalent dialect for Asian women in film, who are beautiful, gentle, nurturing, sexually knowledgeable, and submissive. In this trope, the Lotus Flower falls in love with a hegemonic white man who ultimately abandons her for a hegemonic white woman. The Lotus Blossom often bears her lover’s child, continues to wait for him to eventually return, and kills herself upon realizing that she has been left behind (Lotus Blossom or Dragon Lady, 2015). For this reason, this trope is considered a tragedy. Other examples of characters and works that utilize this trope are Madama Butterfly and Miss Saigon.
Madama Butterfly is a popular opera created in 1904 by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini that is still frequently played today. In this opera set in Japan, American naval officer Pinkerton honeymoons with his young, Japanese bride Cio-Cio-San (Madame Butterfly). Pinkerton takes advantage of Japan’s lax marriage laws, marrying and sleeping with Cio-Cio-San, all while intending to return to the United States to get a “real” American bride. Cio-Cio-San is a dainy, poor, 15-year-old geisha who genuinely loves Pinkerton, even abandoning her ancient religion to convert to Christianity. Pinkerton abandons Cio-Cio-San and their unborn son with a promise to come back soon, only to return to the devoted Cio-Cio-San three years later and introduce his new American wife. Cio-Cio-San commits suicide via seppukku, leaving behind her three-year-old son (Cantoni & Schwarm, 2014). The scene pictured above taken from the Metropolitan Opera’s showing of Madama Butterfly in 2017 captures the tragic moment of Cio-Cio-San’s suicide.
Miss Saigon is a musical set in 1970s Saigon during the Vietnam War. This musical was actually based on Madama Butterfly, which explains the prevalence of the tragedy of an Asian woman falling in love with a white man trope in its storyline. In Miss Saigon the Lotus Flower takes the shape of the beautiful Kim, a 17-year-old orphan working in a brothel, while the hegemonic man is played by American sergeant Chris. Chris takes Kim’s virginity and promises to bring her back with him to America; however, it seems this did not happen because he is revealed returning to Vietnam three years later with his new wife in tow. When Kim discovers that Chris has remarried, she shoots herself, leaving behind her three-year-old son (Nguyen, 2018). The photo above features Kim and her child struggling to survive after being left on their own.
While Cho Chang’s character and story do not follow the exact same path as Madama Butterfly and Miss Saigon, there are a number of similarities that carry over. First, Cho is Asian, particularly East Asian. She is also a young woman. While Cho does break some Asian stereotypes such as the fact that she plays a sport, she is also fairly reserved, intelligent, beautiful, and is mostly characterized by her romantic relationships with the main males characters — Cedric and Harry (Lu, 2018). In these ways, she fits the stereotype of the Lotus Blossom. While she fortunately does not commit suicide, Cho’s storyline can still be defined as a tragedy as she becomes the victim of abandonment in a doomed love triangle between two white men. Her boyfriend Cedric (pictured above dancing with his date and then-girlfriend Cho at the Yule Ball) is murdered, leaving her to deal emotionally with his sudden absence. Harry, finding her constant crying annoying, decides to distance himself emotionally from Cho who is struggling with the death of her boyfriend and the accompanying guilt of falling in love with Harry. She is ultimately left alone to deal with her depression, and only shows up as a minor character from that point onward in the series.The media we intake shapes our view of the world, its truths and normalities. The prevalence of the Lotus Blossom stereotype is not only misleading, inaccurate, and outdated, it also presents dangers for Asian women today. In their research article exploring the portrayal of Asian women in cinema and television news, Rajgopal (2010) claims that the “cinematic representations of Asian women as exotic creatures who were eager to please the men” has shaped common perceptions of Asian women today, “even today contributing to the risk of sexual assault upon them.” This is due to the “representation of them as being somehow ‘asking for it,’ and not quite as decent as the wholesome white woman.” They go on to explain that in reality, “this picture of the worldly, passionate, and exotic Asian woman” is in fact “a world away from the reality of most Asian women, who are brought up to lead sheltered lives with little contact with the opposite sex until they are married” (p. 149).
Dean Thomas: Minimization of Black Characters in Film
Hollywood is well-known in its underrepresentation of racial minority groups on screen and behind the scenes, and this is also prevalent with the Harry Potter movies. Dean Thomas is a character more well-known in the novels as opposed to the movies. Regardless, he plays a minor role in the films and is present from the very beginning as a fellow classmate in House Gryffindor and as one of the members of Dumbledore’s Army in the latter part of the series. Dean Thomas is the only confirmed Black student at Hogwarts. He plays a much larger role in the books as Harry’s best friend, love rival, and ally. Although Dean’s race was not the reason on the surface to have his role minimized, it is disappointing nonetheless to see a Black character’s story cut (Flotmann, 2013).
Unfortunately, Dean Thomas’s backstory was completely omitted from the films Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part I and Part II), and his role was drastically minimized on screen compared to the role he played in the novels. In the books, readers learn about the aforementioned backstory of Dean Thomas, about how his father was tragically murdered while attempting to flee from Death Eaters (Voldemort’s army). In the movies, however, this was cut from the script and instead replaced with the backstory of Neville Longbottom, a white, male character who got to keep their main role in the Deathly Hallows plot. The producers claimed that they chose to include Neville’s backstory which revolved around his parents being tortured to the point of insanity by Death Eaters over that of Dean Thomas because it was more relevant and significant to the plot of the main story (Ford, 2016). Echoltz (2002) in their article on the disproportionate representation of minority groups in film and media describe this all-too-common reality for Black actors, explaining that “[f]indings from works spanning over half a century indicate that women and racial/ethnic minorities are disproportionately excluded from films and prime time pro- gramming and play less significant roles than white males when they do appear. This research suggests that women and minorities are under-represented compared to their actual presence in society and when portrayed they are cast in stereotypical roles” (p.305)
When the first Harry Potter movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in 2001, the demographics in the movies closely aligned with the demographics of London in the same time period. This realism could provide the producers with an excuse for the lack of diversity on set, even if they primarily target a global audience. However, that excuse cannot hold true for the later movies. The last Harry Potter movie Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II was released in 2011, and according to the United Kingdom’s 2011 Census, “the most ethnically diverse region in England and Wales was London, where 40.2% of residents identified with either the Asian, Black, Mixed or Other ethnic group” (Race Disparity Unit, 2020). The percentage of diverse characters near the end of the movies was nowhere near 40%, ruling out the “realistic” theory. The producers of Harry Potter failed to accurately represent the ethnically diverse members of Dumbledore’s Army: they made a joke out of the South Asian heritage of Parvati and Padma Patil by dressing them in embarrassingly cheap “traditional” dress robes, they not only used Cho Chang as a personification of overgeneralization for East Asians but also had her follow an outdated Asian trope, and they completely omitted the large role and backstory the only relevant black character Dean Thomas played in the movies in favor of another white character. Needless to say, Harry Potter failed its racially and ethnically diverse audience and characters in the representation department.
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