Many spoilers in this post about various Harry Potter books and movies. Consider yourself warned :P
I hated Padma and Parvati Patil in Harry Potter. For a long time, I thought this was because of my general annoyance with Indians (because I’m Indian and I see them every day so I’ve had enough of them). I do get annoyed by Indians in general, but that wasn’t why I hated Padma and Parvati. I hated them because of the way they were portrayed. In the books and the movies, Padma and Parvati are hapless creatures. They are not glamorous or brave or even evil. They’re just very ordinary and in a really insipid way. No one would want to be like them, there’s absolutely nothing aspirational about them. When they appear in the story, they appear as backups who have to go with Harry and Ron to the Yule ball because nobody else asked them.
I feel this treatment was not unintentional. J. K. Rowling is quite consistent about the way she treats non-British characters in her books. Germans are portrayed as being gruff and hyper-masculine, while the French are portrayed as being nasal and flowery. It must be especially hard for Rowling to hide her disdain for the French, because she uses Ginny, an otherwise quiet and agreeable girl, to express it – Ginny greatly disliked Fleur when she came to stay at the burrow, and quite uncharacteristically, nicknamed her ‘Phlegm’.
While her treatment of foreign characters is unfortunate, what Rowling did to the Indian kids was unforgivable. They were reduced to sorry excuses for human beings. I felt ashamed of them being Indian and would get incredibly annoyed whenever they appeared in the story. It triggered a feeling of deep resentment that comes from being portrayed as an inferior race, incapable of being important or influential in any meaningful way. As if their general character arc wasn’t already bad, the Yule ball simply destroyed any possibility for them to redeem themselves. When I saw the movie, I was appalled by the shoddy outfits given to them; only thing worth mentioning about them was their hideousness. Not many people noticed that in the books, but there was huge outrage over their treatment when the movies released and people finally saw how unfair Rowling had been to the girls.
However, I’m not upset about that. Perhaps Rowling was racist, and that’s why her portrayals were like that too. Maybe she didn’t know that her story would get so popular. If she knew, she might have tried to do a better representation. I can forgive an honest mistake, we are all prone to that.
But Rowling never admits being wrong. Every time someone levels a criticism at her, she comes out with a revelation about a character that sets it right. And from time to time, she keeps making politically correct revelations, presumably to feed her growing clout as a feminist and generally well-respected influencer on social issues. This comic shared by Tejas captures this tactic really well (please do read it, this comic inspired me to write this post).
For millions of kids (billions?) like me, who grew up with Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling was the greatest author who ever lived. She packed advice about life and relationships into a world of magic and possibility and made it impossible to resist. I am grateful to her for having created this world. I believe that every child (and even adult) deserves to have a world like that, to escape into.
But J. K. Rowling follows none of the advice she gives. She’s not honest about herself and never admits that she was wrong about something. She’s too busy creating and managing a façade of goodness and perfection. When faced with criticism for accepting a black actress as Hermione (she didn’t choose her, the director did, she just went along with the choice) she doesn’t say that she wrote the character as white, but that people were free to assume any other race. Instead, she chose to pretend as if she had no race in mind when she wrote Hermione, which is impossible and probably untrue, because in the original book covers and the casting for the movie, Hermione is White. Why didn’t Rowling choose to depict her as black back then? Rowling doesn’t need to conceal her original ideas about the characters in order for them to be adopted and imagined in diverse ways. By trying to spin this as what she actually had in mind for Hermione, she’s simply taking too much credit for herself.
Some time back, when faced with possible backlash for lack of diversity in her stories, she had revealed that Dumbledore was gay. It might be possible that Rowling wrote him with that in mind, but really, there’s nothing in the books that alludes to that idea. It looks like Rowling made that revelation to boost her image as a champion of LGBT rights. In her forthcoming Fantastic Beasts series, they are going to really downplay the idea that he was gay; a decision that elicited a really strong backlash from fans, to which Rowling reacted with denial, choosing instead to talk about how the series consists of five parts and this is just the first. I feel this is just an attempt to buy time so she can write Dumbledore in a politically correct gay manner and salvage her reputation.
Why do I think so? Because she did the same with Panju Weasley from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (first of all, Panju? Really Joanne? That’s the best desi name you could come up with? Sigh). Panju is Ron and Padma’s child in an alternate universe. Not only does he have a terrible name, but he also has an unfortunate reason for existence – a mistake made by Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy. He comes to an equally woeful end as Albus and Scorpius correct their mistake and he gets “unborn”. He, like mother Padma and aunt Parvati, is yet another disposable desi character who gets bumped after being milked for diversity points, because obviously the real heroes are White Britishers, no?
I wish J. K. Rowling didn’t try so hard to be perfect and instead embraced humility. I wish she accepted the criticisms, apologized and started working to actually set things right, instead of denying them and pretending that we weren’t looking in the right place. In her own words (as Professor Dumbledore in The Half-Blood Prince) – “People find it far easier to forgive others for being wrong than being right.”
Till then, please take news articles celebrating heroic twitter put-downs by J. K. Rowling, with a pinch of salt.