I really enjoy Harry Potter. It’s fun, it’s entertaining and is at it’s heart a very simple story of good versus evil. The movies are wonderful examples of film as art, with a truly phenomenal cast. Rowling completed the seven books in the series, but they do not represent the whole. There is the in universe books that are getting their own series- namely Fantastic Beasts and where to find them– there are numerous additional shorts written by the author and additional biographical information in the Pottermore website, as well as video games based on the franchise, Lego and now an eighth installment in the saga being presented as a two part play.
The characters have moved on a couple of decades in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the casting has been announced. There has been some anger about one particular casting decision and I have to say I agree with the anger, the frustration and annoyance people are expressing. The change is disgusting. How can you cast a non ginger person as Ron?…
…Wait, that’s not the casting decision making people angry? Did they cast a squirrel to play Harry? That must be it? No?
What is it then? Well, let me introduce you to the brand new Hermione Granger.
The backlash is because she is wearing Slytherin colours. No, of course its because she is not white and people are complaining because its the internet and its what they do. Dare I venture into the comments sections of articles? Well, I shall be brave for you dear reader. Here is some of the backlash, though there is much more if you care to spend time on any news site:
There have also been responses from people, particularly author JK Rowling herself, claiming that Hermione’s ethnicity is never mentioned in the books.
Now some people have attempted to dismiss this as poetic rather than practical- that it is implying the colour draining form her face as she faces a dangerous situation. This is a possible interpretation but seems like a retroactive attempt to excuse the mention of white face. I do not think that is particularly helpful. Hermione is implied to be white in the books – from the description above and the approved artwork- and although it is only one line in seven books, it is enough to suggest her ethnicity is Caucasian. The Harry Potter world has a serious problem with a lack of diversity, but attempting to retroactively change that isn’t the way to deal with the overwhelming whiteness of Western literature. It is a serious problem. Kamala Kahn, the new Miss Marvel is a brown skinned Muslim and a big deal was made of it. Non white protagonists are in a minority, and such a small one that it doesn’t even reflect actual diversity.
Now, with that out of the way, I want to say: it is not important how she is described in the books- as Jeremy over at Cinemasins says “The books don’t matter” when it comes to adaptations. If an actor is suitable for the role then they get the gig. Rowling would be better suited by admitting the troubling lack of diversity in the books rather than attempting to ignore the fact the character is at least implied to be white. But I say again, when it comes to casting this does not matter. Hermione can be played by an actor of any ethnicity if they are talented enough for the role. The racist reaction is repugnant but sadly not surprising.
The idea of a black actor cast as Doctor Who was met with equal hostility and he isn’t even played by a black actor. When it was suggested the amazing Idris Elba was in the running for the new James Bond there was uproar, though this is a franchise whose fans got angry over the latest Bond- Daniel Craig- not being a brunette. And of course there is the all female Ghostbusters line up. The Ghostbusters do not need to be male, they are a bunch of people who bust ghosts. If you can accept ghosts and ghostbusting then you can accept women.
Sadly the racial elements of Harry Potter are pretty troubling when you look at the characters portrayed. Lets take the character of Lavender Brown, Ron’s love interest from The Goblet of Fire. Lets look at her:
White, blonde, bright eyed. Lavender Brown. But lets look at her in previous non speaking roles in the franchise:
That’s a non white, non blonde Lavender there. The role was recast with a white actor when it came time for the character to take on a larger part in the story. Where were the white people angry and up in arms over this? This isn’t even casting a new actor in a separate production, this is literally changing the skin of a character already established as existing in that world.
Then there is Cho Chang. A name that just oozes whiteness doesn’t it? Of course not, and yet when this clearly Asian character was portrayed by an Asian actor there was again uproar. At this rate I’m surprised there wasn’t anger the Patel twins weren’t portrayed by Jedward. Harry Potter and many of its fans clearly have an issue with race and this is troubling. There is an assumption that unless clearly stated “this character is black/ Asian etc” then they are automatically white. Even when the name is clearly Asian. People tried to justify a white Cho by suggesting she must have been a white girl adopted by an Asian family because that is more realistic than an Asian girl being Asian! The fact that Cho also had a Scottish accent was another reason to take issue- yet, I live in Scotland and can attest to the fact there is a very high East Asian population.
Another important thing to realise is even Emma Watson does not fit the description of Hermione either and yet we accept her as the default. Watson has perfect hair and teeth unlike the character that Hermione is, with her hair and teeth being regularly mentioned aspects of the character. Watson looks nothing like the book description, but she was white so accepted. It seems that it doesn’t matter what an actor looks like as long as they are white. And white is clearly the right move for many people- even historical people such as Jesus (the myth debate is for another time people) are almost universally portrayed as white, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra is always portrayed as white, despite the fact she wouldn’t have been. She wouldn’t have been black either in all likelihood but she wasn’t white yet we accept her as such.
Again, white is seen as the default. In The Hunger Games the character of Katniss is described as having straight black hair and olive skin which might suggest someone of Mediterranean origin. And here is the actor playing her.
And the character of Rue in the same series of books is described as having dark brown skin, yet when she was played by a black actor there was again outrage because people assumed this character clearly described as a black character wasn’t portrayed on screen as white. When we say racism is dead we are lying. It is not dead, it is alive and well and just because we are not hanging black people from trees any more doesn’t alter that. The type of racism that exists today is the assumption and demand that characters be white even if they are clearly described as of a different ethnic background.
Now in many of these cases the ethnicity of the character is not relevant to the character, Hermione doesn’t need to be white any more than Captain Kirk needs to be, or James Bond or the Doctor. Hell, it is now established in canon that Time Lords can change gender and ethnicity after not only The Master becoming Missy, but the head of the Time Lord army changing from a white bald man to a black woman. I have seen several comments suggesting we would be angry if Othello was played by a white actor, and of course we should, but this ignores the fact that he has been played by white actors and more importantly his ethnicity is relevant to his character, a white Othello completely changes the entire story. So calling that out as an example is flawed.
Having a black actor portray Hermione actually adds layers to the character we have never considered. She now goes from a Muggle world where skin based bigotry is common into a world where this bigotry is replaced with another type of racism based on her Muggle lineage. We also have the character desperately fighting to free an enslaved race of House Elves, which now having a black actor adds an entirely new level to that struggle- Hermione understands slavery and its implications in a much more direct way and re-reading the character as black would be a very good exercise.
I for one am happy with this casting decision, it matters not that it is implied in the books she is white because this is the Hermione we have now and it is the one we should embrace as it brings much needed diversity to a non diverse world as well as creating the chance for some serious textual analysis of the novels from a new perspective.
Hermione is black, the Ghostbusters are women. The world has not gone mad, this isn’t PC run amok, this is much needed diversification of a society that has for too long insisted the default is white and in the case of Ghostbusters male. I am now more excited about seeing the play than I was before. But seriously? A non ginger Ron?