Patriarchy, Racism, Divorce, and Vengeance (FBCoG #4)

Fourth blog post about Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald.  Content warning for discussion of sexual assault and racism.

Previous blog posts about Crimes of Grindelwald:

“My father owned a very strange family tree.  It only recorded the men… the women in my family were recorded as flowers.  Beautiful.  Separate.”

Leta Lestrange says these words as she shows the records of the Lestranges, described by her half-brother Yusuf Kama as “a famous French pureblood family.”  She, a mixed-race woman, half French and half Senegalese, is depicted as a faceless flower, like all the other women.  The men of the family are labeled with names and faces, all white.  This inequality bears some resemblance to Credence’s description of living “with no name and no history.”

Kama says of himself and of Corvus Lestrange, “I am the last male of my pure-blooded line . . . and so, if the rumors are correct, is he.”

This kind of patriarchal genealogy strikes me as familiar, not as “very strange.”  Traditional Korean family trees (jokbo), in fact, operate the same way, listing men only.  Women don’t exist, or aren’t fully human, or don’t signify.  

Similarly, in Potterverse, almost all married women take their husbands’ surnames upon marriage.  This was so prevalent in the seven-book HP series that it wasn’t clear how much this was a conscious world-building choice on the part of the author until, in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, we see Muggle-born feminist Hermione Granger-Weasley, parent of Rose and Hugo Granger-Weasley, make a different choice.  

It was clearly intentional, though, that the author used this patronymic tradition as a plot point, showing that it obscured — within a single generation — half of a person’s family history.  If matronymics were not so thoroughly erased, Tom Marvolo Riddle’s identity would have been less of a mystery.  Likewise with the Half-Blood Prince.  Connections to the Peverell and Slytherin family lines would have been easier to trace.  And the grief about “old” or “pureblood” families “dying out” because there were no more sons, even if there were daughters who were just as much a part of the family, could have been reduced or dropped.

In addition to patriarchy, the racist and imperialist implications of Leta Lestrange being unnamed on the family tree feel familiar to me, as well.  Growing up in Korea, I knew of a white family who had lived in Korea for some time.  They adopted Korean children, but only girls, trying to keep their family name from being passed to Korean offspring.  Their daughters, whether Korean or white, were allowed to marry at will, but their sons were permitted only to marry white spouses, not Koreans.  There was, yes, some eye-rolling at this.

J.K. Rowling makes some deliberate choices in how to portray racism, gendered sexual violence, and patriarchy in her allegorical fantasies.  In the Harry Potter stories, she made some ambiguous or allusive references to possible sexual assault:  many readers see the Muggle boys’ attack on Ariana, for example, or Umbridge being carried away by the centaurs, as sexual assault.  However, she writes both episodes ambiguously enough so that it is possible to read them as assault without a sexual component, as many readers do, especially younger ones.  Both times that she writes sexual assault unambiguously in HP, it is a female perpetrator targeting a male victim:  Merope Gaunt drugs Tom Riddle, Sr., and Romilda Vane attempts to drug Harry.  Had she shown the more common scenario of a male perpetrator trying to coerce a female victim into sex, I think the effect would have been less nuanced, more sensationalized.  I greatly appreciate the choices she made in these instances.  For one thing, if these incidents strike readers as less heinous than assaults with female victims, it encourages readers to think about why that might be and to recognize that consent is equally vital for everyone.

Crimes of Grindelwald shows a crime of sexual violence that is both racist and sexist, a wealthy white French man destroying a black Senegalese family through abduction of a woman.  Rowling made a series of fascinating decisions about how to depict racist, sexist violence within a colonial dynamic.  She wrote Corvus Lestrange, Sr. using the Imperius Curse on Laurena Kama, so the audience did not have to imagine depictions of violence but fully understood the crime to be nonconsensual and Unforgivable.  She emphasized that the Kamas were “high-bred” and “accomplished,” of equal standing with the Lestranges, avoiding painful depictions of gross power imbalance.  She wrote Corvus Lestrange, Sr. as marrying Laurena Kama, granting spousal status to her and legitimacy to her child, rather than abducting her as a concubine.

On the one hand, an effect of these choices is that the audience understands the kind of historical violence the movie is referring to without having to sit through scenes of that kind of trauma.  On the other, this sanitized version can feel bizarrely euphemistic and inaccurate, and will probably leave the author open to criticism.  The decision to sanitize may leave some viewers uncertain whether Rowling fully realized the kind of dynamic she is showing.

The scenes showing Leta’s childhood follow a similar strategy of “show, don’t tell.”  The mixed-race girl is unwanted by her aristocratic white father, ostracized by fellow students at predominantly white Hogwarts.  Showing Hogwarts from Leta’s perspective makes the almost entirely white makeup of the student body intentionalmeaningful, a choice, rather than default.  

The sexist, racist, patriarchal contrast between her father’s feelings toward Leta (“Say it”) and Corvus Lestrange, Jr. raises the question of whether young Leta might have felt resentment toward her white male half-brother.  I think it is a merciful choice that Rowling writes Leta as having had no desire to hurt the baby, just a caregiver’s natural desire to get a moment’s rest from a baby who will not stop crying.  The theme of guilt for unintentionally contributing to a death is heavy enough in Potterverse, the burden of guilt on Leta is heavy enough, without adding to it through memories of understandable resentment made unbearable by the child’s death.  We have seen that story already through Snape hating James Potter but never wishing him dead, or Albus resenting having to care for Ariana but never wishing she would die and leave him free.  Thank goodness we don’t relive it through Leta.

But we do get the “show, don’t tell” visual of the unwanted, mixed-race girl being sent, along with a half-elf servant, to accompany the white male baby’s passage to safety.  Child Leta didn’t have to be sent away, as her life was not in danger from Yusuf Kama.  She was protected, ironically, by her father’s lack of love for her.  What was she doing on board the ship with baby Corvus?  Perhaps her father was taking the opportunity to be rid of a child he didn’t love.  But what we see onscreen is that this child is taking care of the baby, even though a servant has expressly been sent for that purpose.  For me, the visual called to mind how mixed-race teen Sally Hemings sailed to Paris as the slave and lady’s maid of Thomas Jefferson’s young white daughter, who was also her half-niece by blood, if not by status.  I do not know enough about the dynamic between France and Senegal in the early 20th century to know if my 21st-century U.S. perspective is wildly off, but that was one of the associations that occurred to me as I watched this scene.

As a woman of Korean descent, I also took interest in the appearance of Nagini in this film, played by Korean actress Claudia Kim.  Unlike, for example, the character of Cho Chang, who has an Asian appearance and a possibly Korean name but could otherwise be of any ethnicity, Nagini’s Asian female appearance is part of the story.  She is being exploited as a sexualized exotic spectacle by the white circusmaster for a predominantly white Parisian audience.  With a frankness that Rowling avoided in her children’s novels, she made Skender’s exploitative intentions clear:  “But look at her. So beautiful, yes? So desirable . . . but soon she will be trapped forever in a very different body.”  No euphemisms here, although thank goodness, Nagini has bars between her and the crowd, and can turn into a deadly snake, and is best friends with an Obscurial.  I wish everyone in her circumstances could have similar defenses.

Nagini’s perspective, like Leta’s, makes the predominantly white population of Potterverse intentional and meaningful rather than neutral by default.  Nagini glimpses Grindelwald’s rally and whispers to Credence, “They’re purebloods.  They kill the likes of us for sport!”  I felt that.  I’ve been that one Korean girl in an almost all white, potentially threatening crowd.  Credence and Jacob are Other, according to this crowd’s beliefs, but their Otherness is not apparent on sight, the way Nagini’s is.

Rowling’s decision to show but not tell that Leta endures racism and low status does carry the risk of minimizing or erasing those realities to the point of inaccuracy.  However, it also makes room for the complexity of Leta’s character without risking her individuality being overwhelmed by the heaviness of the crimes committed against her family.  It’s an interesting conundrum:  Leta is not shown as a victim, but her story is most definitely shaped by victim circumstances.  On balance, I feel glad that we see so much of the inner reality of this tremendously sympathetic, dignified character.  The sharp edge of impudence in her retorts to Dumbledore, especially, contribute to the fullness of her character.  I hope future films in this series give us more screen time for Leta.

Just as much as Leta, Yusuf Kama’s life is dictated by patriarchy.  While he is semiconscious because of the parasite’s venom, he says pitifully, “Father… why did you make me…?”  We learn that Mustafa Kama charged Yusuf, who was not yet of age, with an Unbreakable Vow to avenge the ruin of their family by killing whoever Corvus Lestrange, Sr. loved most in the world.  More than 20 years later, even after the death of Corvus Lestrange, Sr., Yusuf is in Paris under the conviction that he must become a murderer or die.  His father should not have dictated such a life for him… but his father was mad when he did so… and they were both destroyed by Lestrange’s crime against their family… the consequences of this crime are far-reaching.

Dumbledore would have had some insight into how Yusuf felt.  His life, too, was shaped by his father’s desire for vengeance:  Percival Dumbledore died in Azkaban after exacting revenge on the Muggle boys who tortured Ariana into madness.  It was Albus’s resentment and isolation while caring for Ariana as the head of the household that pushed him toward the ill-advised closeness with Grindelwald that resulted in Ariana’s death.

The ability to resist vengeance is a strength.  Yes, the world might be better off if Dumbledore hadn’t bound himself with a blood pact that prevents him from fighting Grindelwald, and perhaps Ariana would have still been alive.  But there is a reading of this blood pact that makes me applaud Dumbledore’s vow not to take revenge on Grindelwald, as much as it complicates matters.

The blood pact to make Dumbledore and Grindelwald “closer than brothers” is similar in gravity to a marriage, just as we saw with the life-or-death Unbreakable Vow between Snape and Narcissa, which was formalized in a ritual that resembled a wedding.  Dumbledore and Grindelwald mingled their blood into a vial that prevents them from fighting one another.

The emotions of that blood pact remind me of lovers having a child together before becoming enemies.  The child is a mingling of their blood.  The existence of the child can hold back each parent from attacking the other, since damage to either parent cannot help but affect the child.  Perhaps it was a terribly regrettable mistake for the lovers to join in the first place; perhaps the existence of a mutual child provides one or both of them with the permanent and unpreventable ability to torment the other, and the other’s family.  But if, as I and some others have theorized, Credence contains magic from both Grindelwald and Dumbledore, then refraining from mutual attack is a move to protect Credence.  Had Percival Dumbledore been able to control his desire for vengeance against the Muggle boys, or had Mustafa Kama refrained from swearing Yusuf to an Unbreakable Vow, their children’s lives would have been better.  Seen in that light, the oath between Grindelwald and Dumbledore not to fight one another is an improvement.

J.K. Rowling has never yet written divorce or custody battles into Potterverse.  But maybe the storyline of Dumbledore considering how to destroy the vial so he can fight against Grindelwald is an allegorical representation of divorce.  It can harm a child if their divorced parents fight, but eventually, children grow up, and they can be considered as adults rather than children in plans to safeguard their well-being.

Next blog post to come:  Triggered by Grindelwald.


4 thoughts on “Patriarchy, Racism, Divorce, and Vengeance (FBCoG #4)

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