There is Nothing Magical in Reinforcing Asian Stereotypes

For books all about ending discrimination and being more inclusive, the Harry Potter series perpetuates harmful stereotypes and lacks diverse representation.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I grew up reading the Harry Potter books. Like most of J.K. Rowling’s fans, I was quickly and completely consumed by the quirky fashions, dazzling heroes and heroines, and fantastic beasts of the Wizarding World.

But now that I can better comprehend the underlying messages of the novels, I realize that the development of the few characters that represented the Asian population was executed very poorly. The way Rowling portrayed Asian characters seemed careless, as she didn’t elaborate on their ethnicity at all, making it seem like she was just adding them for the sake of increasing diversity among her characters. Her efforts to include Asians in her writing are commendable, but even with good intentions, she manages to box Asian characters into their stereotypical roles.

Considering that the franchise primarily caters to younger, more impressionable audiences, Rowling should have put more thought into whether or not the characters should have been Asian and the implications that their actions have for the image of the community that they stand for.

Cho Chang and the Patil twins, Padma and Parvati, are presumed to be the only characters of Asian origin in the original Harry Potter series, even though it isn’t ever specified that they are Asian. It is problematic that the only indications that they are Asian are their stereotypical Asian names, and Rowling doesn’t make any more substantial references to their ethnicity throughout the books. Rowling’s creation of Cho Chang’s character evidently wasn’t carefully thought out, as even the character’s name makes no sense. Cho is a Korean surname, while Chang is a common Chinese surname. The two names would most likely never be found together because they are both last names and are ethnically inconsistent. This confusing mash of names only points readers to the general conclusion that Cho Chang is Asian, but never specifies her ethnicity. Establishing clear ethnic identities for the few people of color in the novels is important because, in the case of Asian identities, being Chinese is very different from being Korean or Indian. The failure to make this distinction perpetuates the Western perception that Asian ethnicities are homogenous when they are absolutely not.

Cho Chang’s character revolves solely around her relationship with Harry Potter, and her only purpose is to be Harry’s first love interest. Her portrayal is very consistent with the stereotype surrounding Asian women, making them out to be meek and dependent. She is cast into the damsel-in-distress trope after her boyfriend’s death, and Harry is the person she relies on to find comfort and resolution for her grief. In “The Order of the Phoenix,” Chang is seen constantly crying, being reduced to a weepy mess in the one book of the series in which she is relevant. One of the protagonists of the novel notes, “Cho spends half her time crying these days. She does it at mealtimes, in the loos, all over the place.” This description exaggerates her emotional vulnerability to a comical extent, and it makes it difficult for the reader to take her seriously as a character and as an Asian woman.

Chang’s lack of character depth is often attributed to her status as a minor character, but that isn’t justification for her being written so one-dimensionally, since many of the white minor characters receive thoroughly developed character arcs. For instance, Percy Weasley, who only makes a few appearances throughout the series and is largely characterized by brief comments made by more prominent characters, shows just as much character development as the protagonists. Weasley is portrayed as a very obnoxious and entitled character at first, and many of his decisions are driven by his shame about his family’s disfavored status as “blood traitors.” He chooses to work for Britain’s wizarding government, feeling pressured to succeed and redeem his family name. In the midst of war, Weasley chooses loyalty to a corrupt and oppressive government over loyalty to his own family, believing that he is doing the right thing. Ultimately, he realizes that he is loyal to his family above all and displays a massive amount of courage by standing up to his superiors. Despite his sparse appearances in the novels, Percy Weasley’s character arc is incredibly complex and moving, whereas Cho Chang’s character building has none of that intricacy, and she is instead characterized in favor of a prevailing stereotype, which is inexcusable.

The stereotype that Chang embodies persists in the spin-off series, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” Rowling recently revealed that the snake, Nagini, from the original Harry Potter series, was actually an Asian woman before she became the main antagonist’s pet snake. This news triggered a massive internet debate, with some believing that there was no harm meant in casting the role of Nagini while others deemed it a blatantly racist role. In any case, Rowling’s decision to make Nagini an Asian woman was not sensible, as it maintains that same “subservient Asian woman” characterization established in the original series, except this time the correlations between the character and stereotype are glaring. Nagini is an Asian woman cursed to become a snake, so her character is literally dehumanized. She also eventually becomes a faithful servant to Voldemort and does his every bidding, which takes this stereotype to a new level. This characterization is especially problematic when it happens multiple times because Rowling fails to broaden her representation of Asian women and instead imposes the same narrow characterization on all of her Asian characters.

Many people believe that the controversy surrounding Nagini’s backstory and the racial representation in Harry Potter is overblown and that illogical interpretations are being made from the young adult series. However, Harry Potter’s wizarding world was written using the injustice of the blood purity hierarchy and oppression of magical creatures to paint a metaphor for racial discrimination. The values that Rowling writes into the story in the context of the liberation of house-elves and the delegitimization of the blood purity hierarchy are about being more inclusive and accepting. Yet she never actually succeeds in being inclusive in terms of her representation of people of color or any other oppressed group. She placed the handful of characters of color in pointlessly minor roles, and, like in the case of Cho Chang, did not represent their cultural identities. She retroactively decided to make Dumbledore, one of the most prominent heroes of the story, gay without actually writing his experiences as reflective of the reality of being gay in a narrow-minded society or writing about his sexuality at all. Her value of embracing others regardless of their differences is not upheld in reality, and thus the young people who read her books can’t really appreciate this value outside the context of Rowling’s metaphors.

If writers and filmmakers make the conscious decision to include underrepresented groups in their work, they incur the responsibility to represent them realistically by giving them varied characterizations instead of giving a different name to the same character time and time again. If characters representing a minority group are included, they should be there because they are meant to make an impression on the audience or tell a story with their heritage as just one part of a more complex and developed character. Otherwise, these characters exist for the sole benefit of the creator to be seen as “socially conscious” rather than to benefit underrepresented groups. This nuanced representation would make inclusivity less of a fantasy and more of a reality.