The trailer for the new Fantastic Beasts movie has revealed that Voldemort’s pet snake Nagini, is in fact, an east Asian woman trapped in a snake’s body and that the part in the film is played by South Korean actress Claudia Kim.
While I have nothing against Asian women playing sexy seductresses in Hollywood or any other part for that matter, do we really need to see another one of these?
The introduction of Nagini as a lace-wearing east Asian woman in the latest JK Rowling adaptation is once again playing to the hyper-sexualisation depiction we all know so well.
For when the reality is that so many good roles are not going to Asian actors, giving them yet another part that perpetuates a stereotype needs serious justification – particularly in a movie as influential as one penned by Rowling, which is certainly not short on choice.
Some have commented that Nagini’s casting was an afterthought on Rowling’s part, given that the cast, which includes Johnny Depp and Jude Law, is what you might expect for from a classic adaptation of a children’s book – very white.
But instead of bringing “diversity”, Kim’s appearance as a snake woman seems to be as much about adding exoticism to a very British film about magic and beasts as a sense of integration.
On Twitter, Rowling has supposedly defended her decision by explaining the origins of Nagini.
The word ‘naga’ comes from the Indonesian word for snake and she says the serpent has been an Asian woman all along.
But she barely addresses the issue of representation, merely adding: “Indonesia comprises a few hundred ethnic groups, including Javanese, Chinese and Betawi. Have a lovely day.”
The “snake-turned-beautiful-woman” legend is indeed deeply rooted in Asian mythology and still prevalent in popular period dramas today.
Such parts often belong to the protagonist and are well developed, as well as being minor roles or gratuitous window dressing.
But for children growing up in the West following the Fantastic Beasts movies, who aren’t privy to Asian folklore or greater breadth, all they might remember is that the evil snake turned into an attractive Asian woman and that she wore black lace.
It’s not all that different to the depiction in movies watched by their parents.
So while Kim may sit alongside fellow cast members in interviews, in the viewer’s mind, she’ll likely be remembered as “the foreign one” behind a long line of Asian actresses cast for their exoticism.
Authors, directors and producers need to not only engage in talking about representation in the media but actually apply it: showing it to us on the big screen. And not failing to respond sensitively to questions about gender and ethnicity as if they are wildly irrelevant, as Rowling did on Twitter, following the trailer’s release.
Until Asian women and men are being given meaningful roles in western films, there’s no excuse for anyone to be so insolent about representation.