Race in film: The Transfiguration of Lavender Brown
The Harry Potter series was was a fundamental part of my childhood. I spent years dragging my parents past midnight to buy the latest book or go to the latest film premiere. I read and re-read the books voraciously, read Harry Potter trivia, played Pottermore and all the PC Games. I’ve spent so many hours theorizing and analyzing the series that I could probably writer a Potter PhD.
But even with my extensive Potter knowledge, I had no idea that Lavender Brown was originally portrayed by the black actresses Jennifer Smith and Kathleen Cauley in the first few films. The instantly recognizable Lavender is Jessie Cave, a white actress introduced to play the character in the subsequent films. Confused?
Basically, as soon as it was apparent that Lavender was a love interest of Ron Weasley (circa book 6), the evil forces that control our big budget film franchises decided that in the year 2009, an interracial relationship was too risque and unmarketable and transfigured the race of Lavender to an audience-friendly non-controversial Caucasian actress.
It’s stupendously fucked up.
I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity in film and books lately. It’s something that I feel strongly about. In our public consciousness, we’re so accustomed to the stories being told where the default ‘norm’ is Caucasian and that anything that deviates from that is the ‘other’. White is invisible, universal, neutral. A film with an all white cast can be related to by every other race, but a film starring people of colour is niche and ‘race’ based. A perfect example is the 2013 film ‘The Best Man Holiday’, which has an all black cast, was deemed a ‘race themed’ film by USA Today. Lets break down what a ‘theme’ is.
A theme is basically the central idea underpinning the story. The Best Man Holiday is a standard sentimental holiday film exploring the intertwining lives of a group of men and women, exploring universal themes, like love, family and illness. Pretty similar to Richard Curtis’s 2003 film ‘Love Actually’. So what did ‘The Best Man Holiday’ have to do with race?
Absolutely nothing, except for the fact that it’s cast was black.
No-one would ever watch Love Actually and say, ‘Wow, this is a race themed film about what it’s like to be white in England.’
We are unable to distinguish ‘black’ from ‘blackness.’ Black people are defined by the fact that they are black, and this precludes their stories from being universal. The experience of people of colour is never taken to be the ‘default’ experience.
Growing up as a woman of colour, I found this incredibly alienating. I remember finding a drawing I did for my Year 6 Mandarin class at school. It was 2004, the year of the Athens Olympics, and we had to draw our ideal selves winning an Olympic medal. The picture my 11 year old self produced was Hitler’s Aryan wet dream, a sylph like blonde with blue eyes, painfully thin, pole vaulting to victory. Looking back on it now, I’m horrified at how much I internalized what I consumed. I didn’t believe I could be a person of colour and the protagonist in my own story.
The fact is, I’d never seen myself reflected back at me in the media I consumed. There were no protagonists of colour in the books I read, unless they were background characters (Patil twins, Cho Chang in ‘Harry Potter’ series) or exoticized/fetishized (Phuong in ‘The Quiet American’).
The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign seeks to address this, with increasing awareness of the representation of minority groups and characters of colour in literature.
Growing up and being an avid reader, I found that stories about ‘people like me’ simply didn’t exist. I was invisible in my beloved fictional landscape. As I grew older, I discovered books like Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’ and Alice Pung’s ‘Growing up Asian in Australia.’ These books were revelatory, I clung onto every word, re-read them till they were dog-eared and falling apart. It was a refreshing experience to find myself being able to identify closely with the experiences and issues explored.
I’m hardly the only person of colour to experience this phenomenon, and if you look at the statistics, it’s not that surprising why.
Facts and Figures About Race/Ethnicity in YA and Children’s Lit in America:
- 88% of the books on the 2013 Publisher’s Weekly YA Bestsellers were about white protagonists
- 93% of the authors on the 2013 Publisher’s Weekly YA Bestsellers were white authors
- 85% of the books on the 2014 Young Adult Library Services Association’s Best Fiction for Young Adults list were about white protagonists
- 90% of the authors on the 2014 Young Adult Library Services Association’s Best Fiction for Young Adults list were white authors
- 91% of the authors on the 2013 New York Times’s Bestseller Lists for YA and Children’s Lit were white authors.
- According to the 2012 Cooperative Children’s Book Center, only 3.3% of books were about African-American protagonists; only 2.1% were about Asian and Pacific Islander protagonists; only 1.5% were about Latinx protagonists; and only 0.6% were about Native American protagonists. That means over 90% of children’s books surveyed were about white protagonists.
Since getting to university and becoming more conscious of issues of race and how most of my reading up to this point was extremely whitewashed, I’ve attempted to shift my reading patterns and read more diverse books. Instead of the roll call of dead white guys, I started reading Junot Diaz, Toni Morrison, Chimamanda Adichie, Zadie Smith, Monica Ali, Maya Angelou, Hasan Manto, Ralph Ellison. These stories of being black in the Deep South, civil war in Nigeria, Bangladeshi immigrants in England, an overweight Dominican sci-fi nerd growing up in America, sex workers in Mumbai, they helped me discover a rich cultural landscape that I’d previously overlooked. I would highly recommend reading up on the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, and try to read something different to your usual picks.
In terms of film and television, being of Indian origin, I’m particularly interested in the representation of Asian characters. There seems to be a distinct difference between the way Asian men are portrayed versus the women.
Asian men are generally portrayed as weak, impotent, bad with women, book smart outsiders. They’re a punchline, emasculated, soft spoken and feminine, epitomized by Raj Koothrapalli from ‘The Big Bang Theory’ who is physically unable to speak when confronted by women, and refers to himself as ‘a brown Martha Stewart.’
Another example is Seth McFarlane’s new show ‘Dads’ where it’s reinforced how the ‘Oriental’ men have ‘tiny penises’. Har har har.
Asian women on the other hand, are portrayed as mysterious, exotic and sexual. They’re karma sutra goddesses, sultry geishas, sexy schoolgirls. Case in point, Cece on New Girl is constantly treated as a sex object rather than a fully fledged character, being referred to as ‘brown angel’ by her boyfriend, who also describes having sex with her as ‘1,000 years of colonial suffering all released in one moment of pure ecstasy.’
There’s still a tokenistic aspect to the casting of people of colour, with stereotypes and tropes being reused. As an Indian-Australian, I rarely see characters that are nuanced and complex. There are exceptions, there are comedians like Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling changing the cultural landscape of TV and film. But progress is slow.
I recently had a discussion with a friend about this topic, and he asked why it was such a big deal that Hollywood overlooked Asian Americans, because after all Indians had Bollywood? I found many things wrong with this response and a fundamental ignorance of what Bollywood is. Bollywood produces films in Hindi, catering primarily to a mass market audience based in India (although I do agree that this is changing, there is an increasing shift towards more niche, arthouse films and films marketed outside of India), the fact is, Bollywood does not serve to capture the diversity and breadth of the Indian experience. Indian immigration to countries like Australia and the US means that there are generations of Indians who do not necessarily identify with Bollywood, and are overlooked by Western mainstream media.
Even though the fabric of our cultural landscape is changing and becoming increasingly multicultural, mainstream media isn’t reflecting this reality. Australia in particular seems to be years behind its counterparts in the rest of the Western world, with a conspicuous lack of people of colour on primetime television (ABC and SBS are better at this, but Channel 7, 9 & 10 are shockingly regressive). In fact most of the racial diversity on television in Australia comes from reality TV.
The fact is, that we have this idea of ‘racism’ being these overt acts of hate. Racism is in fact, very insidious and has many manifestations: one of which is excluding people from being part of the cultural narrative.
P.S. Relevant to this piece- an interesting and subversive take on people of colour in film is presented by ONOMOllywood, a campaign which re-creates iconic film scenes with black models. Check out the full gallery here.
Also, for a rad slam poem on diversity in the Harry Potter films, check this out.
Till next time.