05 February 2016

Does Hermione Granger have an Emma problem?

No, not that Emma. Well, not primarily. This one:

Last year, in the Cameron Crowe movie Aloha, Emma Stone (a white actress) was cast in the role of a character named Allison Ng, who was supposed to be part-Chinese and part-Hawai’ian. This casting caused an immediate, outraged backlash amongst Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders, and hapa haoles in particular against the movie, both because it continued a long and dishonourable tradition of Hollywood whitewashing, and because it contributed to an erasure of Asian identity in American filmmaking. (Cameron Crowe subsequently posted a rather limp-wristed apology for his casting choice, against which there was, unsurprisingly, another backlash.)

What does this have to do with Harry Potter, you ask, gentle readers? Well, the casting of black actress Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger in an upcoming theatrical production, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has also sparked a backlash (on account of Hermione Granger’s ostensible whiteness) and a counter-backlash, into which fray stepped the voice of the author herself on the side of the counter-backlash, saying that Hermione’s ‘white skin was never specified’, and that she ‘loves black Hermione’.

Here’s the thing. I object to Hollywood whitewashing myself, and because turnabout is fair play, I support Noma Dumezweni’s casting in the theatrical production and tend to think it’s a good idea. What I object to is that Jo Rowling has now managed to position herself as the Cameron Crowe of her own work. She may indeed ‘love’ black Hermione with a meddling managerial Rawlsian kind of ‘love’, but clearly she doesn’t respect black Hermione, and that’s kind of troubling. What do I mean when I say she doesn’t respect black Hermione?

I will note that, for all I dislike Orson Scott Card (for his neoconservatism and for other reasons), he himself brought up the same complaint about Albus Dumbledore being revealed (after the book series was completed) as gay. He said that ‘[Rowling] didn’t have the guts to put that supposed “fact” into the actual novels, knowing that it might hurt sales’. At the time, I disagreed vehemently with Card and felt that he was wrong on the merits of the argument, because I felt that the events revealed in the seventh book hinted very strongly at a romantic attachment between Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald, on which Rowling was perfectly justified in commenting as the books’ author. Now I’m not so sure that Rowling isn’t proving Card right in his assessment of her respect for her own characters.

Cameron Crowe cast a white actress into the role of a mixed-race character with a Cantonese surname, essentially on the basis that the character was supposed to ‘look white’. In doing so, he deliberately made a character of Asian-American and Pacific Islander history and cultural background into the plaything of white actors and screenwriters. I’m not sure that Jo Rowling comes off any better than he does here, particularly since she demanded as part of her contract with Warner Bros. that British, French and East European actors were to be cast where the roles were thus specified in the books. If she had wanted to do so, it stands therefore to reason, she could have stipulated a Black Briton ought to be cast as Hermione in the films (as had been the case for Dean Thomas) if that had been her intent – but she didn’t. She signed off on Emma Watson instead.

I intend this as no slight on Emma Watson’s acting ability, nor as an objection to Noma Dumezweni’s casting in the play. But the fact that both actresses were cast consciously as the same character makes Rowling’s entry into this particular dispute more than a bit unseemly. Saying ‘white skin was never specified’ for Hermione, now, after the films have come out and entered into the public imagination, is more than just an afterthought – it’s a kind of cheating on her part. It’s almost an erasure of Hermione’s agency, and an implicit denial that being a Muggle-born Black Briton would actually have had any particular meaning for her or any impact on her character development. It’s a tyrannical Rawlsianism taken to a rather ugly extreme, particularly since Hermione’s having lived life as a black Muggle for eleven years prior to her acceptance into Hogwarts might have informed a few things about her experience. It may have shaped her politics in interesting ways, for example! And wouldn’t it have been great if Rowling had pulled a Heinlein, and pointed to Hermione’s blackness in an offhand way somewhere in the books of Half-Blood Prince or Deathly Hallows? That would have been truly interesting, and it would have forced many of us, her fans and readers, to step back and re-examine some of our assumptions about the connexion between the allegorical internal politics of the books and our own. Instead, though, we are left with a squandered opportunity and an implicit Emma problem for Rowling, wherein the casting choice for Hermione Granger is supposed to suddenly not matter (as with Emma Stone in Aloha). Which is a shame. A black Hermione could have been awesome.


  1. I love your unashamed commitment to justice, fairness and human dignity.

  2. Thank you, Matthew! I do try to keep up the radical end of the radical-Tory stance.