Harry Potter and the Case of the Disappearing Asians
Like most millennials, I grew up loving the Harry Potter series. I went to the midnight film premieres, collected Gryffindor gear, and reread the books several times over. But sometimes the things we love let us down. For a while now I’ve been bothered by how the original series treated its Asian characters, the Patil twins and Cho Chang. They were often invisible or portrayed as less desirable than women like Hermione and Ginny. When the script for the London play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, debuted on July 31 2016, I didn’t expect the short story to be a huge corrective to a seven-book long series. But I also didn’t expect it to double down on how poorly the Asian women of the series have been treated so far.
Spoiler warning if you haven’t read Cursed Child yet.
In Cursed Child, Harry Potter’s son, Albus, decides that he and his friend, Scorpius, need to travel back in time to prevent Voldemort from killing Cedric Diggory, for reasons that essentially boil down to “I’m really mad at my dad.” Their attempts at trying to change the past predictably go awry, and they end up creating an alternate reality that, while not the darkest timeline, is clearly portrayed as being worse than the current one.
In the current timeline, Ron is happily married to Hermione and they have one brilliant child, Rose. Ron, carrying on in Fred’s footsteps, is a joke shop owner, and is as embarrassing and lovable as ever. Hermione, meanwhile, has risen to become Minister for Magic. She’s respected and loves her family.
Albus and Scorpius’ actions upend all that. A small mistake on their part ends up snowballing, and as a result Hermione never attends the Yule ball with Viktor Krum, and Ron never feels that burning jealousy that makes him realize his true feelings for her. Instead he ends up marrying Padma Patil, becomes an unhappy poindexter with a “super-aggressive side part,” and has an obnoxious child named Panju.
Hermione, meanwhile, becomes a bitter spinster who teaches Defense Against the Dark Arts and punishes students with about as much glee as the late Severus Snape.
ALBUS (amazed): You’re our Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher?
There are titters.
HERMIONE: Losing patience now. Ten points from Gryffindor for stupidity.
Albus and Scorpius realize this is all terrible and quickly scramble to undo their mistake. When everything reverts to normal, Padma and Panju are wiped from the narrative. We never hear from them again, and in fact, during this entire segment they never once make a physical appearance or speak a single line. The Cursed Child cast page also confirms no actors were cast to play them.
Padma and Panju’s absence is a notable one in a play that’s been lauded for its progressive thinking in terms of casting. South Asians make up the largest nonwhite group in the U.K., and for all the South Asian characters to be sidelined in the Potterverse to this day and not even given a speaking part in Cursed Child is frustrating. J.K. Rowling’s world is apparently still not wide enough for dragons, dementors, and people of color to exist side by side.
Cursed Child continues in the same vein as the original series, where the South Asian women are occasionally seen and seldom heard. In the original series, Padma Patil speaks three lines over the course of seven books, and her three lines occur entirely within Goblet of Fire. Padma’s sister, Parvati, has a total of six lines in the first three books, with a marginally larger role in the last few books thanks to her friendship with Lavender Brown. The last book confirms Parvati and Padma fight in Dumbledore’s Army against Voldemort, but both sisters are mentioned only twice.
Cursed Child could have been an opportunity to give Padma the voice she never had in the original series. Where does she work? How does she feel about Ron and her troublemaking son? And what about Parvati? Why is she not once mentioned in the play? Did she even survive the Battle of Hogwarts?
The truth is that Padma exists entirely in Cursed Child to further develop Ron and Hermione and act as a foil to prop up Hermione, which is a sad continuation of her role in the books, and a rather cliché one for an Asian woman to fall into. Ron never looks at her during the Yule ball because he’s busy pining for Hermione. The Patil sisters are described by Dean Thomas as the prettiest girls in their year, but the girl who turns everyone’s head at the ball is, again, Hermione. (People have even expressed annoyance that in the Goblet of Fire film, the Patil twins were given particularly unflattering gowns to make Hermione look better in comparison.) Even Parvati’s constant giggling and obsession with Professor Trelawney and Divination is often contrasted with Hermione’s logic and level-headedness.
The issue with all this is it sets up a dichotomy between the two brown women and a white woman, with the white woman being portrayed as superior. While I celebrate Hermione being played by a black actress on stage, and while that will add nuance to those fortunate enough to see it, let’s all be honest: J.K. Rowling wrote Hermione, Ron, and Harry as white in the books. She’s said recently that they’re all open to interpretation — and many fans have indeed created many wonderful headcanons featuring the trio as people of color — but let’s not pretend that Rowling was thinking of anything other than the white default when she first penned the series. The book illustrations showing them as white, plus her support of the castings in the films (which she was a consultant for) hint as much.
When you portray a white character as smarter, prettier, and all around more desirable than a character of color, regardless of your intentions, you’re making a statement. And when your story only includes Asian women in an alternate timeline that then needs to be erased because it’s so awful, you have a problem. There’s a message being sent there, while subtle, about who is deserving of love and whose story is worthy of being told.
On top of all this is the fact that the third and probably most integral Asian woman in the series, Cho Chang, is completely absent from Cursed Child. There is not one single mention of her, despite the entire plot of the play revolving around going back in time to save Cedric Diggory, her then boyfriend. The play manages to cram in all manner of surprising cameos, even from characters long dead, and yet somehow there was no space for Cho to make one appearance, or space for Harry to spare her a single thought.
Cho’s absence in the play echoes her sudden absence in the books, where she is around just long enough for us to understand that she’s emotionally unstable (and reasonably so after Cedric’s death) and ill-suited for Harry. She then disappears from the books almost entirely, with no lines spoken in Half Blood Prince and one short scene in Deathly Hallows. And the person who fills her place and ends up happily marrying Harry? Ginny, a stronger, more level-headed woman, who also so happens to be white.
Do I think this was purposely or maliciously done? No. But subconscious bias is something we all have, and when a white author includes a character of color in their writing, they need to consider all the potential pitfalls that go along with that. With the awful way the Patils and Cho Chang are treated in Cursed Child, I’m not sure Rowling, along with co-authors Jack Thorne and John Tiffany, have learned just yet.