Background Remarks: Grindelwald, Fantastic Beasts, and Gay Representation

Note:  This was how I introduced a discussion session about gay representation in Potterverse at MISTI-Con.  These remarks were meant to provide general background only and to get the conversation started, not to be analytical or comprehensive.  — LK

Delivered Saturday, May 21, 2017 at MISTI-Con.


Twenty years since Philosopher’s Stone was first published.  Seven books in the series, eight movies, three tie-in books, a stage play, and now a new film series.  Hundreds of characters.  And how many of them are identified as gay in canon?  Add in extra-canonical author comments, and the total rises to one.

How is it that the Potterverse, created by a woman who must know people of all sexual orientations, who has tweeted her support of LGBTQ people, is more heteronormative than the world at large to such an extreme degree?  Within Harry Potter canon, when Rowling has shown her characters to have any sexual orientation, it has been heterosexual.  Homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, any type of queerness — she simply has not named it.  Even if we take the lowest commonly accepted estimate, that 1.5% of the population is gay, that’s still a higher percentage than what Rowling has chosen to show.

She made headlines ten years ago with her unplanned announcement that Dumbledore is gay.  On the one hand, the way Rowling got hundreds of millions of people worldwide to love the humanity of a fictional character and then identified him as gay, as just one more aspect of his personhood, is exactly how to combat homophobia and reduce prejudice.  On the other hand, when you identify your one gay character casually, in an author appearance and not your official text, making it clear that you created gay characters but chose to keep that information off the page, that is a textbook case of marginalization rather than representation.

There’s a school of thought that holds that the author’s intent or personal background are not important for determining the meaning of a piece of writing.  Many within HP fandom have drawn strength from this stance to mold Potterverse to their own needs; many choose to ignore Rowling’s extra-canonical comments about the series, say they wish she would stop talking about closed canon and let it stand on its own, and form headcanons that they protect from contradictory author statements.  For example, some fans have spectacular headcanons about Professor McGonagall belonging to the powerful tradition of lesbian educators, and maintain these headcanons regardless of the heteronormative, celibate backstory that Rowling gave her on Pottermore.

This stance of selectively ignoring the author is useful, but it takes effort to maintain, because after all, the author is very much alive and still creating.  She is a cisgender white heterosexual woman, British, married, Christian, a mother, originally middle class, gifted — and the closer her stories stick to terrain that she knows, the more authoritative her writing feels.

For example, when she writes of Aunt Petunia’s kitchen, or interviews, or the dynamics of Hermione, Lavender, and Parvati beaming falsely at one another, people familiar with such scenes report a sense of deep recognition.  Her writing has a flatter affect when it’s about things less central to her experience:  Harry’s classmate Anthony Goldstein, for example, has the one acknowledged Jewish surname in Potter, with no identifying character traits of any sort, creating an effect of tokenism, of name-checking without depth.  Now that this surname has resurfaced in a World War II-era setting, we shall see how confident we feel about Rowling’s ability to write Jewish American witches with nuance.

When she has written people of color, sometimes the results have ranged from off-base to hurtful to harmful.  Cho Chang, Angelina Johnson — more instances of tokenism.  Tamela J. Ritter has a talk tomorrow about some of the hurtful implications of Rowling’s appropriation of elements of Native American religion and culture for her Ilvermorny backstory.  I love the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but I did wince at the representation of blackness in 1920s New York — a jazz singer who is a goblin rather than human, an executioner with a distinct mammy vibe.  Rowling, and the people involved closely in the making of this film, did not flag these things as uncomfortable, but they made me tense up:  after Rowling’s faux pas with the Ilvermorny backstory, I didn’t know how much I could trust a Rowling film to handle the complexities of American race politics.

I argue that a “death of the author” approach is not going to work for Potter fans engaging with new Fantastic Beasts output.  It’s understandable that we might wish for it anyway:  it’s uncomfortable to be constantly in the position of worrying that we may find wrong notes that we may have to forgive or ignore in our desire to remain fannish about something that has given us so much.  We may be afraid, too, of being judged if we didn’t notice something that others find hurtful.  For the record, I do not believe that there’s moral superiority in either boycotting or remaining within a fandom after troubling output from a creator.  It just…is, a series of decisions.  I saw Rowling misuse a word of Asian origin in a racist manner, I winced, and I stayed.  And I track her progress with each new work:  Has she heard the feedback?  Has she grown?

To be aware of the author is an enjoyable analytical pastime, and it is also self-protective to be prepared:  based on prior evidence, what do I expect of this author?  Should I keep my expectations low on some fronts?  Should I steel myself?

So what are we to think when this author, who has never written canonically about a Potterverse character being gay, gives us Graves drawing physically close to Credence in a shadowy side street?

There were references to homophobia and same-sex anxiety within the Potter series, occasionally.  Dudley mocked Harry’s nightmares with wording that suggests a terrifying gaybashing:  “Don’t kill Cedric!  Who’s Cedric?  Your boyfriend?”  Infuriatingly, Rita Skeeter called Dumbledore’s relationship with Harry “unhealthy, even sinister”:  “there is no question that Dumbledore took an unnatural interest in Potter from the word go.  Whether that was really in the boy’s best interests — well, we’ll see.”  Without ever naming Dumbledore as gay in canon, here, Rowling conveyed the insidiousness of the prejudices that many homophobes level at gay teachers.

A form of that implicitly gay-related anxiety from Deathly Hallows reappears in Fantastic Beasts.  Rita Skeeter’s insinuations were pure hatemongering — there is plenty to say about the Dumbledore-Harry relationship, but it stings to think of it maligned from that angle.  But that is the dynamic we see Graves invoking with Credence. We know his true interest in Credence is neither personal nor sexual, but he was using the narrative of the sexually abusive predator as a cover for a motive that is, almost unbelievably, even more exploitative.

Fantastic Beasts puts a new angle on the Dumbledore story from Deathly Hallows.  We knew Dumbledore desired Grindelwald, but not whether Grindelwald felt the same or only manipulated Dumbledore’s attraction for ulterior motives.  Grindelwald’s scenes with Credence give us an up-close look at the dynamic.  From the information in Deathly Hallows, it had appeared that Grindelwald wanted Dumbledore’s company in subjugating the world, and Ariana would be an afterthought; we know now to suspect that Ariana was Grindelwald’s target after all.  He never resumed contact with Albus after Ariana’s death.  We don’t know if it was because of guilt and fear or because Albus without an Obscurial was of no use to him.

We don’t know Grindelwald’s orientation, but he was sensitive to male-male attraction and comfortable with encouraging it.  Even without being named, then, male-male attraction exists in the Fantastic Beasts universe.  We see a hint that the nonjudgmental Queenie has matter-of-fact knowledge of it, as well:  she tells Jacob that “Most guys think what you was thinking, first time they see me.”

Do we read Credence as gay, or would this lonely wizard have responded to attention from anyone?  It seems probable that Grindelwald knows enough Legilimency to know that attraction would be one of the ways to hook Credence, as well as promises of education and special attention.  To add layers to this reading, the abuse from Mary Lou Barebone could easily read as an attack on homosexuality rather than magic.  She calls Credence’s birth mother “wicked” and “unnatural,” words associated with antigay rhetoric as well as witch hunts.  Her command of “Take it off” to Credence, followed by the ritual of him removing his belt, gives a horrific sexualized tone to the punishment.

The secret meetings with Graves, the repressive abuse from the parent — these images and emotions are evocative of experience with homophobia.  The film uses gay people’s experience to create a metaphor and draw emotional impact from those associations.  To me, it feels oddly outdated and possibly misleading for Fantastic Beasts to centralize this dynamic so heavily without grounding it in context by naming gayness and showing matter-of-fact gay characters.

Even 10 to 20 years ago, it felt curious to me that Rowling chose to reveal no canonically gay characters in her encyclopedic universe, when that ground had already been broken in YA lit, and she was in a position to dictate rather than follow rules within publishing.  I felt frustrated to see Rowling use timeworn tactics such as coding to signal that some characters could, if knowing readers chose, be read as gay, such as the infatuated Dumbledore or the short-haired, pipe-smoking Grubbly-Plank.  Some readers have speculated that Rowling held back from identifying Potterverse characters as gay because the series was meant for an underage audience.  Putting aside, for the moment, how misguided that strategy would have been, if true — the Fantastic Beasts series is targeted to an adult market.  Subversive literary coding of gay characters has been essential in more oppressive times and places, but I confess that I grow impatient.  Is it too much to ask that the remaining films in the series include realistic LGBTQ representation?  What do you think?

Let’s open this up for discussion.  What are some of your thoughts on gay representation in Fantastic Beasts and Potterverse?  Where do you think the rest of the series will go?  What do you hope to see?


Introductory Comments at MISTI-Con Snape Discussion

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for Snape:  A Definitive Reading

Delivered at MISTI-Con, Laconia, New Hampshire, on Sunday, May 21, 2017

It’s been 10 years since Nagini bit Snape and the fandom still fights about this character.  Yet we all read the same books and watched the same movies.  It’s not like there are two series of Harry Potter books, one pro-Snape and one anti-Snape; a single set of words created this character.  But Rowling crafted him to be almost perfectly ambivalent.  Nearly all of his actions have at least two possible, contradictory interpretations.  This creates more facets, more interpretations than most characters have.  And more ways for readers to identify with him.

Yet Snape does have a true inner self that can be identified and defined.  Authors don’t always create characters as mysteries with a definitive solution at their core, but I think that’s how Rowling wrote Snape.

Occasionally, we get unambiguous views of Snape.  Times of mortal crisis expose his priorities:  His one moment of carelessness, leaving the Pensieve unattended while he runs to care for Montague.  His rescue of Draco.  His single-minded drive to find Harry Potter when Voldemort is about to kill him.  But most of his other moments are trickier to decode.

As someone who came to the series as an adult, the story I always wanted to read was Severus Snape and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  Severus Snape and the Chamber of Secrets.  Severus Snape and what he was thinking during every bitter moment of those seven years as a supposedly reformed neo-Nazi teaching a scrubby little kid who lost his family because of Snape’s own earlier war crimes.  I read the series looking for that story, not the headliner, and I found it.  It’s all there.  That’s what I put into this book:  the Harry Potter series from Professor Snape’s point of view.

Severus Snape and the Sorcerer’s Stone introduces us to a 31-year-old grown man who picks on abused orphans, risks his own safety for people he dislikes, and spits on the ground when he’s feeling bitter.

Severus Snape and the Chamber of Secrets begins to lay down the groundwork of Snape’s covert strategy, executed in conjunction with Dumbledore:  he teaches Defense Against the Dark Arts undercover, to evade the curse on the position and establish a façade that will enable him to undermine Voldemort from the inside, when Voldemort inevitably returns.  Using the vacuous Gilderoy Lockhart as a decoy, he manages to transmit a basic Disarming Spell to both Harry and Draco, ingraining in them his own practice of non-aggression rather than attack, a tool that will eventually empower these kids to take down the two most powerful wizards of their age using nothing but Expelliarmus and Draco’s wand.

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, everybody gets something their heart desires — a godfather, a friend, freedom, and flight — everybody, that is, except for Snape.  In Severus Snape and the Prisoner of Azkaban, if you track only what Snape sees, the story gets much darker.  The reader learns that Sirius and Lupin don’t want to kill Harry, and Lupin’s lies to Dumbledore have more to do with shame than conspiracy.  But Snape is still traumatized by how the Marauders used to treat him, and he is unconscious for some of the explanations that the kids hear.  For much of the book, Snape genuinely fears that Lupin and Sirius have a joint plan:  to build Harry’s trust in Lupin, lure him outside the castle while Lupin is transformed, and kill him the way they nearly killed Snape when he was a student.

That would explain why Snape is incredulous when Harry, Ron, and Hermione don’t seem grateful to him for saving their hides from Sirius and Remus.  As for Snape’s screaming fit in front of Fudge in the Hospital Wing, if you look closely, you can see Dumbledore conveying to Snape that he has the situation under control, and Snape agreeing — resentfully — to let Fudge think that he is unbalanced.  A close reading also reveals that Dumbledore was neither angry nor surprised when Snape told the Slytherins about Lupin’s lycanthropy.  Dumbledore is disappointed in Lupin, who withheld crucial information and endangered the students, not Snape.  By taking it on himself to out Lupin, making it look like an act motivated solely by the hostile “I told you so” urges of a nasty, petty man — not a difficult performance, surely —  Snape was distracting people from justified criticism of Dumbledore’s judgment in hiring a werewolf who could not, as it turned out, remain completely safe around Hogwarts students.

Severus Snape and the Goblet of Fire shows Snape undergoing a second adolescence of sorts, his body changing as his Dark Mark intensifies.  By the end of the year, he has grown into the adult form of his second chance in life, his double agency.

Severus Snape and the Order of the Phoenix shows a man spread too thin, being all things to all people.  A close read of the Occlumency lessons shows that he teaches them in dead earnest, trying to hold back nothing from Harry while guarding against Voldemort, who is watching everything through Harry’s scar.

Severus Snape and the Half-Blood Prince is a Time-Turner-like story of an adult and the memory of his 15-year-old self, the mistakes he made in youth, the damage those mistakes continue to cause, and his painstaking resumption of evil deeds in order to save others from the same costly errors.  Snape’s guidance gives Draco something that Dumbledore, Grindelwald, Voldemort, and Snape himself never had:  a merciful mentor who can see a young man cross over into actual evil and not give up on him, not fear him, not shame him, still protect him and sing over his wounds, let him know, in essence:  “There is nothing ugly in you that I have not already seen.  I know all, and I have still come to save you.  You cannot disgust me.”  He saves Harry from unwittingly causing a death with Dark Magic, assigns Harry a tedious course of punishment and then, once he fulfills the terms, lets him go — ensuring that Harry knows his casting of Sectumsempra was forgivable, forgiven, freeing him to walk away with his soul intact, as well as his right to hate Malfoy in peace.  He saves Draco from committing murder by voluntarily splitting his own soul in Draco’s stead, killing the one ally who knows his true self, so that for the final year of his life, nobody and nothing around Snape reflects any knowledge of him except as a man of cold evil.

Severus Snape and the Deathly Hallows is the story of the bravest man in Potterverse.

Well… “probably” the bravest man.  Again, there are two different readings of Snape, and on this point, they actually do come from more than one set of words.  In Harry’s words to Albus during the Epilogue, Snape was “probably the bravest man I ever knew.”  Steve Kloves’s line in the film version, for which Rowling had a producer credit, omits the word “probably.”  In Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, revisiting the Epilogue, Harry includes it again.  But when Scorpius goes to an alternate timeline to speak to Snape, he drops it, saying Harry told Albus “you were the bravest man he ever met.”

What is going on with this uncertainty around Snape’s bravery?

The answer may be in Snape’s dying words, “Look…at…me.”  Those words changed the story.  Until Snape succeeded in delivering the final message to Harry, he had to remain unknowable so that no one would be able to pin down a single, definitive understanding of his character.  Within the story, this preserved his ability to evade detection while fighting Voldemort; in our reality, this maintained the mystery of Rowling’s saga until her grand revelation of Snape’s heart.  This enigmatic Snape is the one that Harry Potter knew.  As a Master of Death, Snape remained invisible, cloaked, until he finished protecting others and chose to meet death as a friend.

But everything about Snape that came after he said to Harry, “Look at me,” and gave him the memories can be viewed as unambiguous.  He is no longer dissembling, no longer a double agent or any agent at all.  His mission is completed.  He can allow his core truths to be seen.  This is why the Snape of Cursed Child is shown, unambiguously, to be a hero.  He doesn’t have to hide it anymore, and neither do his authors.

By calling this character, posthumously, the bravest man, Rowling is affirming that this is the correct reading of him, more accurate than the many other possible readings of Snape as unredeemed, out for himself, or ambiguous.  The wording is an allusion to a character from one of Rowling’s top 10 recommended novels for young readers, To Kill a Mockingbird.  Atticus Finch once protected all of Maycomb, black and white, with a single, reluctant shot to kill a rabid dog; until then, his children had no idea that he was a marksman, since he renounced that degree of power over other living creatures after the age of 19 and only resumed it at the plea of the town sheriff, to save others.  The sheriff says, “You haven’t forgot much, Mr. Finch.  They say it never leaves you.”

Like Atticus Finch, Snape renounced Dark Magic, but was able to recall it to protect others.  Like Atticus, Dumbledore, Draco, and Harry, Snape was “fit to own the Elder Wand, and not to boast of it, and not to kill with it.”  Atticus’s child Scout, the narrator, noted her father’s restraint:  “It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.

In Harry Potter’s story, Snape is the character whose growth we track.  With Harry, Snape, and Voldemort, we get the question:  what do you do when you’re born, through no fault of your own, into a life where you don’t get enough love?  How do you become an adult?  Harry starts out blameless and ends up realistically flawed but still true to himself; that was his challenge.  Voldemort doesn’t change much.  He nearly dies of emotion the first time he tries to kill Harry and he actually dies of emotion the last time.

Snape changes.  He goes from vengeful and oppressive to self-sacrificing and protective.  Every step is difficult for him, and uncredited by nature of his double agency.  If he succeeds, he will draw more hatred to himself, not acclaim.  Even so, he knows who he is on the inside.  He shows us that you don’t have to be beautiful or good or even innocent to do the right thing.  Anyone can choose to do the right thing, or if you can’t do it, to want to do it.  That is a freedom and a birthright.

For me, there are two main ways that Snape is brave.  One is that he remained at the site of his greatest regrets, resolutely focused on the damage he had done and his mission to correct as much of it as he could, despite being vilified and unable to defend himself.  The other way is smaller, tender and raw, and I think it’s familiar to many of us.  After years of seeing protection and adoration lavished on others, knowing himself to be unpleasant, culpable, and perhaps unlovable, he summons the nerve to ask of Dumbledore, twice:  What about me?  In Prisoner of Azkaban, he asks Dumbledore if he remembers that the Marauders tried to kill him.  When Dumbledore orders him to kill to protect Draco’s soul, he asks Dumbledore, And MY soul?  Is Snape’s soul too dirty to save?

Both times, he gets an inconclusive answer from Dumbledore:  My memory is as good as it ever was.  You alone know whether it will harm your soul.  Not a reassurance… but not a rejection, either.  Not all of us will know regrets as great as Snape’s, but most of us, I think, can understand that pleading What about me? — to someone who seems to love other people morethat’s brave.

Posthumously, he is vindicated, called heroic, and, we are told, given a portrait.  This isn’t for Snape’s sake.  He’s dead, and he’s fictional.  It’s the author talking to us, the readers, about how even those of us who have done harm can choose to do good, and there are things we know how to do that innocent people don’t.  The good in Snape’s story doesn’t make sense without the full recognition of his earlier crimes.  We don’t forget them.  They enable us to see the magnificence of this character’s achievement.

Ten years later, an apology for killing Snape! Never more timely.

Rowling apologizes for killing Snape!

In July 2007, when I read Snape’s death scene and realized his author wasn’t going to give him any life beyond the unimaginable struggles of the war, and he would die without the grace of any acknowledgment from a fellow human, without rest or mercy or the sweetness of love or thanks… I was so angry that my face burned from the inside.  I could feel the temperature of my cheeks rising detectably.  I noticed it with wonder and a bit of detachment because it surprised me so much.  It was completely involuntary.  I’ve never before or since had that kind of reaction to a piece of fiction.

I was so sure that the story, the real story, would be about how this man did all of these strenuous, superhuman tasks and then survived.  How could that not be the story?  The tale of how he took the remainder of his time on earth to unpack from the years of unrelenting, mounting stress, the danger that had passed into supersonic levels of pressure?

His labors were harder than I had been capable of imagining.  I had naively thought that there would be some reward for him.  I hadn’t acclimated to the reality that this character had, himself, accepted:  it’s difficult to do things knowing, for absolute certain, that you will die without your sacrifices ever being acknowledged or even recognized.  To go to your grave accepting that people will wrongly spit on it, accepting that this will be worthwhile.

Please let there be someone in the current U.S. government who has the inner strength to do what Snape died doing.  I accept the author’s apology for Snape’s death.  She showed us what is necessary in times when mastery of the Elder Wand is at stake.