Making Men un-Fantastic

As someone who has grown up reading and falling in love with the Harry Potter universe, re-looking at these books through a critical lens and examining carefully the gender and racial stereotypes they re-inscribe has been both, a fascinating and a personally trying exercise.

The Harry Potter franchise is no stranger to queer critiques. Whether it was the beloved J.K.

Rowling’s outing of Dumbledore that inevitably played into the trope of a tragic “dead gay” character, or her much contested queer baiting in the Cursed Child sequel, the books, the films and even the video games, have been put under scrutiny time and again. As someone who has grown up reading and falling in love with the Harry Potter universe, re-looking at these books through a critical lens and examining carefully the gender and racial stereotypes they re-inscribe has been both, a fascinating and a personally trying exercise.

All this, in spite of JKR’s much quoted mantra of “love” and the all-encompassing power it holds as a force to restore, rehabilitate and redefine structures of family, loyalty and friendship. We root for Severus Snape’s undying love for Lily Potter for instance, because it offers us all the ingredients of an imperfect and non-conforming desire. It betrays loyalties of blood and boundaries of belonging, telling us instead, that a little kindness can go a long way in defying our political allegiances and social differences. All this, in spite of the resilient bonds of empathy that work against the oppressive regimes within the wizarding world itself, every time for instance, a witch or a wizard chooses to treat a house elf as anything other than a slave.

But these instances of compassion and selflessness do little to offset the ignorance that plays out through a persistent lack of representation within the overarching narrative itself. Perhaps one of the most devastating critiques of the series I have come across is from another beloved writer, Bell Hooks, when she points out that the popular appraisal of the Harry Potter books is in large part due to the way in which it centres its white protagonist as an “underdog”, giving popular culture yet another myth to pedal forward a tale of “good masculinity” against an “evil masculinity”— “It was adult, white, wealthy males in this country who first read and fell in love with the Harry Potter books. Though written by a British female, initially described by the rich white American men who “discovered” her as a working-class single mom, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are clever modern re-workings of the English schoolboy novel… The Harry Potter movies glorify the use of violence to maintain control over others. In Harry Potter: The Chamber of Secrets violence when used by the acceptable groups is deemed positive. Sexism and racist thinking in the Harry Potter books are rarely critiqued. Had the author been a ruling-class white male, feminist thinkers might have been more active in challenging the imperialism, racism, and sexism of Rowling’s books.” (Bell Hooks, The Will to Change)

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So why would I try and salvage a tale so irrevocably enmeshed in a majoritarian patriarchal discourse? Mostly because I can’t help going back to it from time to time—not only to keep up with the latest franchise instalments—but more so because no story ends with its conclusion. Especially in such a case, where the HP “fandom” is ever expanding, the debates over its contents still alive and current, and its own creator continuing to destabilize the “canon”. In fact, it was in light of the above critique by bell hooks, which threw our protagonist, Harry, under a scanner highlighting his “white male saviour complex” that I began to wonder what hooks might have to say about Newt Scamander, from the two films that so far constitute the recently released Fantastic Beasts prequels.

Pop Culture Detective, has previously posited the idea that Newt is not our usual masculine hero, but instead “the kind of character that would be typically relegated to side-kick status”. He is portrayed as uniquely “hesitant, vulnerable, yet confident” and defined by his ability to connect with the titular “beasts” of these films. I would also argue that this “hesitance” does not mark him as merely socially awkward, and hence, an underdog protagonist we are naturally inclined to sympathize with.

Rather, it is in the fact that Newt takes his time to build a bond, to nurture his relationship with other witches and wizards, that we see a more sustainable and conducive possibility of forming friendships. Newt is not “gifted” in the same ways Harry was, nor is he endowed with a pre-ordained destiny. Unlike the canonical universe, which had to continuously create opportunities to claim Harry is “extraordinary” or “fiercely talented”, singling him out as the “chosen one”; Newt is simply remembered for being empathetic. In The Crimes of Grindelwald for instance, Newt is told that he “could never meet a monster [he] doesn’t love.” One could argue that we are still letting Newt take the centre-stage, but there is a key difference in the way this character confronts any situation, and the way Harry did. Harry’s reluctant acceptance of the help he received from his friends in combating the big baddies of his universe comes too late—and every instalment ultimately leads him on to a final act of solo bravado. Take away his wizarding robes and his wand and give him a cowboy hat and a pistol, a lot in the original series would resemble the traditional Hollywood spaghetti western. But when it comes to the final word in the Fantastic Beasts universe, the final act is always a mixed and shared response. It is never a clear victory, and neither a solitary act of heroism. It is marked by loss and lamentation, for what could have been dealt without violence. And for all their glorious visual theatricality, these films reserve a large amount of their magic for the literally fantastic world their beasts make for themselves.

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Why do we need to talk about men again when the worlds of fantasy fiction are finally paving way for women protagonists? Doctor Who, Star Wars and the DC/Marvel universe—some of the biggest players in the entertainment industry globally, have finally and rightfully given the stage to women, have also made advances towards ethnic inclusivity, and entertained the possibility of understanding varied sexual desires. All things which are brilliant, well and good.

But in the face of such counter-narratives—powerful representations made possible through years of feminist and queer critiques—we are also left to face an equally fierce patriarchal backlash. And while our activism may try and take our attention away from the chauvinist and toxic behaviour we see breeding among men and boys, this “backlash” only provides incentive to let it grow and fester. It is for this reason that affirmative representations of a “feminist masculinity” (as paradoxical and impossible as the term may sound) must be identified and encouraged—only then can we hope for a world full of supportive allies.

Even more so because such representations are rare in popular culture, consumed and replicated by the larger public as indiscriminately as it is. Newt and the Fantastic Beasts films offer us an interesting opportunity to contradict the very narrative that the wizarding world has so far reiterated. At the core of his character is an essential truth that all allies need to embrace: we don’t root for Newt because he is the underdog, we root for him because he roots for the underdog.

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Ishan

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