An Examination of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Inclusiveness in Art

I recently rejoined the Facebook group Gay Geeks, and it took little to no time at all to remember why I left it in the first place.

As with most gatherings on social media, people are anxious to get into an argument and test out their debating skills (or lack thereof). The internet is all too full of places like this, and while I think it’s probably ultimately a good thing that such vigorous infighting goes on, I personally hate confrontation, and so I tend to steer away from these things whenever possible.

I am not without my share of controversial opinions, which I am happy to exclaim loudly from the rooftops. I just don’t like argument. I genuinely want to have my opinion and share it, and I honestly don’t care what anyone thinks of it. When people agree with me, I feel supported and glad that I shared, and when they disagree I tend to take it personally, so I’ve learned that it’s best just to share my opinions in a space that is primarily my own (like this blog), or to share my opinions among friends who will still be respectful even if they disagree. I don’t know if this makes me a crybaby, but honestly I don’t care, I will communicate however I want to communicate.

HP15_Q4_Square_LS_Pottermore

But I did decide to chip in on some interesting topics that I ran into today, and two separate discussions that I feel are directly related. The first has to do with the recent “eighth” Harry Potter story, the script to the West End play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I actually hadn’t bothered reading it until recently, and even then I couldn’t finish it. But more on that in a moment.

I think it’s great that there’s a Harry Potter play, and I also think it’s great that they published the script. I don’t particularly approve of their marketing campaign, which was to literally tout is “the eighth installment” in the Harry Potter series. It wasn’t written by J.K. Rowling, and even though supposedly she came up with the concept for the story, I somehow have a difficult time believing that because of the way it reads. Before I get too deep into what I don’t like about it, I will say these things on behalf of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child:

For one thing, the book we’ve received is a script. It is one component of a larger production, and it is incomplete without the actors reading it on stage. That being said, some of the greatest writers in history have expressed themselves entirely through script-writing (Shakespeare comes to mind), so that doesn’t really give Cursed Child too much of a leg to stand on when it comes to forgiving it’s many, many flaws, from a writing perspective. However, I will concede that maybe this is just the kind of script that doesn’t look good on it’s own, maybe it truly is best represented through actors.

The second thing I want to plug here is that Imogen Heap composed the music for the play, and so there is at least one aspect that I can automatically appreciate. I haven’t heard the music, but Imogen Heap is one of my personal inspirations and favorite musicians, so I’m just going to give her the benefit the doubt and assume her score is brilliant. Because it probably is.

That being said, let’s get into it.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a play, set in the future of the Harry Potter world, beginning at exactly the same moment when the epilogue from the final book takes place. The story follows several protagonists, but mainly centers around Harry Potter’s son Albus, and his budding romance friendship with Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius. This premise alone is a great way to begin.

Then Time Turners get involved and it quickly devolves into badly written fanfiction published with Rowling’s name on the front (though it should be made perfectly clear that Rowling did NOT write this script, she is credited as having created the concept and nothing more, and exactly what that means is vague enough and we can probably exonerate her from any literary wrongdoing).

Time Turners are an element of the Harry Potter series that have frequently been seized upon as a weakness in the story (akin to the classic “why didn’t they just ride the eagles to Mordor?” criticism of Lord of the Rings), and for good reason. The ability to turn back time seems like something far too dangerous to allow into the hands of anyone but the most seasoned time-traveler, and yet their first introduction in the series is when they are used by Hermione in the Prisoner of Azkaban to make it to all of her classes on time, essentially allowing her to be in two places at one time. Even for a brilliant witch like Hermione, this seems like an incredibly extreme measure for the authorities at Hogwarts to take, and how Professor McGonogall managed to clear it with the Ministry of Magic is beyond me.

Rowling attempted to build some fail-safes into the Time Turner system: for one thing, Time Turners can only be used to travel back a few hours in time. I can’t remember if this is explicitly stated in the books, but whatever, Cursed Child throws it out the window anyway. It also throws away another very crucial aspect of time travel within the Harry Potter universe: Prisoner of Azkaban showed that time travel in the Harry Potter universe is of the closed-loop variety (or boot-strap paradox). This means that if someone is going to travel back in time, they’ve actually already done it. This is shown in Prisoner of Azkaban when Harry was saved from a flock (herd? pack? murder? let’s go with murder) of Dementors by a young man conjuring a stag Patronus who looked so eerily similar to Harry that he assumed it to be his father. He later realized, however, that it wasn’t his father, but himself from the future, having come back in time, rescuing himself in the past.

This creates a paradox, as almost all time travel does, but at least it gives the time travel in Harry Potter some kind of interior logic. To further prevent time travel from mucking up the entire story, Rowling wrote a scene in book five in which all of the Time Turners in the possession of the Ministry of Magic are destroyed. That should probably be where it ends, and well enough too. But that is not how it ends.

Cursed Child stacks one fanfiction cliche on top of another (and I should probably mention now that there are major spoilers ahead): the action begins when Amos Diggory, uncle of the late Cedric Diggory, comes to Harry, who is now the head of magical law enforcement (I won’t complain about this too much, it’s entirely possible Harry became a competent wizard as he grew older, despite, as Voldemort often pointed out, having no particularly strong affinity for magic by himself), and asks Harry to use a recently confiscated Time Turner to go back in time and save Cedric. This request is pretty silly entirely in premise, because anyone who has enough time to think about this request, as surely Amos has, would realize that there are two fundamental problems with it: first, going back to save Cedric could have grave implications toward the entire world, and could easily result in Harry never having triumphed over Voldemort, or if he did, it could mean that there was still a Battle of Hogwarts and Cedric could have died there. The second big problem is that it must be KNOWN within the Harry Potter universe that time travel is closed-loop, so if Harry were going to go back and try to save Cedric, then he’s already done it, and clearly failed.

But the writers of Cursed Child gave little thought to that, and decided to run with it anyway. The two main characters, Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy, along with a mysterious friend Delphi (whose origin is not so much left vague as never even questioned by any other character: why is she looking after Amos Diggory? Why is she on board with the time travel plan? Does anyone ask? No! Who cares?) do in fact get hold of a Time Turner and attempt to rectify the past and save Cedric. They choose to do this in the strangest way possible: they go back in time to the first task of the Triwizard Tournament, and the main characters are so daft that despite actively setting out to travel back in time to that moment, they seem completely confused as to where they are how they got there. There’s even a scene when one of the boys runs into Hermione and confuses her for Hermione’s daughter. They KNOW they’re in the past, can they REALLY be this stupid?

They then decide that the most effective way to rescue Cedric from death at the hands of Voldemort is to DISARM him while he’s fighting a dragon. Their logic is that SURELY the school won’t allow a child to be killed during the tournament, something they should know is not the case, because firstly, it’s explicitly stated in Goblet of Fire that the tournament is dangerous and that’s why it hasn’t been held in so long, and secondly because a student DID die during that very tournament!

For some reason, things get all wibbly wobbly timey wimey and their time turner pulls them back to the present, and of course their actions have had far reaching consequences. Presumably Harry still triumphed over Voldemort, and for some reason Scorpius and Albus still exist, however Hermione’s daughter no longer exists because she and Ron never got together in the first place, and Ron has become a pudgy emasculated shell of himself, though he did manage to have another child (I can’t even remember with who, I think it was the girl he asked to the Yule ball?). Hermione is now the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts, and boy has she changed, basically becoming a female version of Professor Snape, snapping at the students and treating them like shit.

Albus, the dolt that he is, gets all confused and stammers something to the effect of “But I don’t understand! You’re married to Hermione! Your daughter is Rose! What’s HAPPENING?” Because he apparently has no clue that he just altered history (which I remind you should not be possible due to the closed-loop time travel established in Prisoner of Azkaban). After this comes a scene in which Ron has a conversation with Hermione, where the two awkwardly flirt with one another, acknowledging the fact that yeah, they probably should have gotten together. I have a problem with this two for two reasons: one, because I don’t personally think that the Hermione and Ron relationship made that much sense to begin with it, but mostly it’s because of how TERRIBLY the scene is written. I’m going to show the EXACT moment when I said “fuck this shit” and put the book down.

Ron

This isn’t just Ron being a stammering goof. It’s bad writing. And it’s indicative of the writing of this whole play. It reads like it was written by a novice fanfiction writer with the approximate life experience of a thirteen year old. It just feels so inauthentic, and it feels like bad fanfiction that was published with the original author’s name splashed on the front. I’m beginning to understand why Anne Rice forbids anyone to publish Vampire Chronicles fanfiction.

And this is isn’t the only example of bad characterization in the play. There is an entire scene in which Harry and Draco have an elaborately choreographed duel, firing spells at one another, flying through the air, and flipping over furniture. It’s supposed to be an intense scene, the climax of an altercation between the two. But at the end of the scene, Ginny walks into the room, huffs and says “What did I miss?” You can almost hear the sitcom theme music start and the audience applaud as it cuts to commercial break. It’s so out of place and corny and unnecessary. It’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t even be funny in a parody (see: A Very Potter Musical, incidentally a MUCH better stage production than this, script and all).

The bad writing applies to more than just the characters and the situations, it also really affects the stage direction. As anyone with any rudimentary knowledge of a stage play knows, the words between characters dialogue are stage directions, they’re there to help the cast and crew know what’s going on in the world of the play, and to know what needs to change in the environment around them. The stage directions in this play are absolutely nothing more than the writer being self-indulgent, rhapsodizing about character details that need to be conveyed by the dialogue and the actors’ performances, NOT explained in the stage directions. Here’s an example of one that’s absolutely ludicrous, and the script is FILLED with pointless self-indulgent moments like this:

Stage Directions

I remind you that this is a PROFESSIONAL stage production in the West End, officially endorsed by Harry Potter’s creator. This level of unprofessional self-indulgence would be ridiculous in any script, but in something official and big name like this, it’s unforgivable.

The final straw came when I decided to pick the book back up after a few minutes, thinking I would just flip through and skim on to a good part. I happened to open up to the end of Act One, which I was not far from in my reading progress. Some series of events unfurls and Albus finds himself being pulled out of the lake beside Hogwarts and coming face to face with Hogwarts headmistress Dolores Umbridge, who informs him that today is “Voldemort Day.”

Voldemort Day.

I’m not making this up.

Here, take a look.

Voldemort Day

If the book had been mine and not borrowed from someone else I might have thrown it across the room. Do I even need to go into how ridiculous the entire concept of a “Voldemort Day” is? Even if Voledmort DID successfully take over the world and carry out a Muggle genocide, even if he did become dark lord over everyone on Earth, there is no way in hell he would sanction a holiday called VOLDEMORT DAY. For one, it’s far too on the nose for him (see what I did there?), and for another, he forbids anyone to speak his name! Any time someone DOES speak his name in the books when they’re in his presence, he becomes indignant and enraged.

I’m going to stop there as far as criticism goes, because I didn’t read any further. What I have come to understand through accidentally stumbling onto her article on the Harry Potter wiki is that one of the central characters of the story, Delphi, is in fact the illegitimate child of Voldemort and Bellatrix LeStrange, who is using Albus and Scorpius’ Time Turner plan to ressurect her father for whatever reason. This reeks of fanfiction, and not even the good kind.

Suffice it to say I was not impressed by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Cursed Child.PNG

On to my original point though, there was an argument about the book over on the Gay Geeks page when someone shared an article with the Headline: The Harry Potter universe still can’t translate it’s gay subtext to text. It’s a problem.”

Basically, the issue the writer of the article took was that despite the Harry Potter audience growing up with the Harry Potter universe, it hasn’t really grown up with them. Meaning that it’s still primarily white and heterosexual. J.K. Rowling famously declared Dumbledore to be gay after-the-fact, and even though reading the books again reveals that yeah, the setup between Dumbledore and Grindelwald probably was there, it was only there are subtext, and shoehorning in a homosexual orientation for Dumbledore after the fact doesn’t exactly make Harry Potter the all-inclusive pinnacle of gay acceptance. Still, it’s a step forward.

The problem that many people have with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is that Albus and Scorpius seem, from the MOMENT they meet, to be on a romantic course with one another. Their exchanges are filled with flirty moments and clumsy awkwardness, their friendship grows as the two boys bond closer with one another, and when Harry makes the incredibly bad choice to separate the two for Albus’ protection, they respond exactly as two lovers who’ve been ripped apart by their parents might be expected to. Having never finished the script, I can only go on what I’ve heard from here on out, but apparently the script is filled with more romantic moments like these (during the section of the script I read, there’s even a moment when Albus hugs Delphi and the stage directions point out that Scorpius is happy to see him hugging a girl, and yet it makes him uncomfortable at the same time). Apparently Albus needs to summon a Patronus charm during the story and the happy memory he used to create one is to think of Scorpius (echoing Snape’s use of Lilly Potter to conjure his own Patronus), and a handful of other moments. But apparently at the end of the play, their entire character arc as as a couple is thrown away with a “no homo” moment, Scorpius being interested in Hermione’s daughter, and Albus looking for a girlfriend.

I see what people are complaining about.

I thought from the moment the two met they were going to be a couple, although I usually tend to do this and chalk it up to me, as a gay man, wanting to see gay characters in the fiction I take in, doing a lot of wishful thinking. But the characters are written in a way that really makes it seem like a romance. I know this is subjective and no one can know for sure what the author intended (indeed, it’s difficult to know much of what the author intended because their writing reads so terribly in script form), but all I can say is, contrast Albus and Scorpius’ relationship with that of Harry and Ron. With the exception of their lovers’ quarrel in Goblet of Fire, they spent most of the series engaging in a completely heteronormative friendship, and didn’t seem to be interested in one another. There were no moments (again, excluding Goblet of Fire) when you found yourself thinking “…are they about to kiss?” But Albus and Scorpius pine for one another, their worlds are rocked by their separation, and it isn’t just because they’re each lonely outcasts, it’s because of the relationship between the two characters.

This leads to a discussion that I think is important to have. A lot of people, particularly in the Gay Geeks group, were upset that the Harry Potter universe isn’t inclusive to LGBTQ+ people, and it’s a fair complaint to make. However, some people have said that Rowling has a RESPONSIBILITY to her gay fans to include gay characters in her stories, so that they will have representation.

For my money, I don’t agree with the latter statement. It’s great when artists paint characters from a variety of perspectives, and it’s great when there are sexually ambiguous characters whose orientations you’re free to make assumptions about, and it’s even better when there are outright homosexual characters. But an artist is not REQUIRED to include gay characters just because they might have gay readers. You can’t ask every writer to go over their work with a fine tooth comb to be certain that it contains one character from every demographic: one gay, one straight, one transgender, one black, one Asian, one white, one hispanic, one vegetarian, one who likes the Spice Girls, one who has a collection of vintage Madonna 7 inch vinyls, one who wears glasses and one who has multicolored eyes. For one thing it’s impossible to include such diversity in every single scenario, for another it isn’t realistic (think of those classroom posters about respecting diversity where you always see one white boy with a baseball cap, one black boy in a tee shirt, and one Asian girl with glasses. Those are attempting to be inclusive, but just end up being pandering and racist in their own way), and most importantly you just CAN’T police what an artist can and can’t create. An artist is free to create whatever the hell they want, however they want to do it.

During this conversation I saw another, very similar conversation happening, revolving around this image an artist posted on Tumblr and a series of Tumblr comments beneath:

CharacterTumblr Comments

The issue here is that an artist took a Steven Universe character whose skin is not white, and depicted that character as a white person. I can see where some would find this frustrating, particularly because Steven Universe has such a reputation for being inclusive, but the truth is, whether you like it or not, it is an artist’s prerogative to create their characters, their worlds, and their art in ANY way they see fit. If you don’t like it, you can make your own.

This doesn’t shield an artist from criticism (at this point I’m convinced there are people who believe art only exists so they can criticize it), but it also doesn’t mean that you can tell an artist what to create. I’d also like to point out that if this had happened the opposite way around, had this been a white character that an artist drew as any other race, that artist would probably be touted by the same people throwing criticism, as a paragon of inclusiveness and a hero for diversity. There’s probably more than a little hypocrisy here.

Diversity is a difficult thing for me. I’m a white male, but I’m also gay, I’m a non-Christian in America (specifically, I’m from the American south), I’m polyamorous, I have radically different viewpoints from American norms, so in many ways I am a minority too. It’s okay to claim that, without saying that I’m suffering in exactly the same way as other minorities: I don’t know what it’s like to be black, and straight black people don’t know exactly what it’s like to be gay, but I think we can probably extrapolate SOME common elements from both and understand one another’s struggle a little better than if we had absolutely nothing in common.

But the thing is, there are a lot of people who seem to want to preserve diversity of all kinds just for the sake of preserving diversity. In the case of religion, many philosophies of violence, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia and genocide are kept around just because people want to “respect diversity,” rather than actively attempting to dismantle those systems of oppression. This, I think, is the problem with being so open to the world around you that just allow anything for the sake of accepting everyone. It’s important to honor the individuality of each person, without allowing your own principles to be destroyed. This argument mainly applies to religion and not to diversity in skin color or sexuality, so I’ll jump off of this soap box for now, but I’m sure I’ll come back to it at some point.

At the end of the day, even though, yes, it would be nice to have gay characters in Harry Potter, they need to be there because the author genuinely wants them to be there. They need to be authentic characters, not just characters who were made gay because the author shoehorned them in to appease their gay fans. Does Rowling have a responsibility to her gay fans? Maybe she does, in some ways. But does she have a responsibility to alter her art, in ANY way, because someone else wants her to? No, she does not. An artists responsibility, when creating, is to be AUTHENTIC. An artist gets to create anything they want, on their own terms, and damn everyone else’s viewpoint. The purpose of creating art is not to honor everyone else’s viewpoint, it’s to showcase your own. If people want to express their own viewpoints, let them do it, but do not tell me, or J.K. Rowling, or an artist on Tumblr, what they’re allowed to create. Arguments about including diverse characters come from a place of good intent, but ultimately it seems to me that people are asking for inclusion for inclusion’s sake. That isn’t art, it’s pandering.

I think that one of the big issues with my generation (that is to say, “millenials”) is that we try so hard to treat everything with fairness and equality, to respect the differences of every individual, that we end up falling into this infinite voice of so-called “political correctness” where we need to edit oursevles from saying or doing something that might offend someone, and also that we need to be all-inclusive in all things that we do so that no one feels left out. The principles behind these are good, but in practice, we haven’t as a culture figured out how to let people have their own individual voices without forcing them to be part of the whole. We’re censoring in the opposite direction that censorship usually happens: instead of telling people they’re not allowed to speak out and speak their minds, we are FORCING people to speak out and to speak on EVERYONE’S behalf. But that just isn’t feasible. If an author wants to write a book whose premise is that there’s a secret society of wizards existing right under the noses of everyone in the real world, and that author chooses, consciously or unconsciously, not to include any gay characters, they have that right, and if you tell them they HAVE to include gay characters in order to embrace their gay fans, you are taking away their freedom of expression by forcing them to say what you want them to say. The desire to hope that artists include gay people in their work comes from a good place: we all want to feel included. But the truth is, demanding that an artist includes gay characters takes away from their freedom to create whatever the hell it is they want to create.

Personally, my reading of Act One of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child led me to believe that there was more than a little gay subtext between Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy. I too am a little peeved that they go all “no homo” at the end. But, I also can’t force their writer to make them gay just because I feel, no matter how strongly, that their relationship was written as a romantic one. It’s a hard truth, but it’s the truth. If someone wants to create a story between two straight boys with so much gay subtext that even Anne Rice characters are shouting “just kiss already!” it’s their prerogative to do so. Some creators even choose to make their characters gay but not say it outright. They’re allowed to do that too. They’re allowed to do whatever they want.

And besides, we’ll always have Korra.

Korra

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