Anna Purkiss is a PhD student at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge, researching young readers’ responses to representations of disability in contemporary children’s fiction.
When I went to see Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (Yates, 2018) the other week, I enjoyed the mesmerising visuals and imaginative magical creatures just as much as I did when watching the first film. Although I was impressed by Jude Law’s portrayal of Dumbledore, I was surprised by the final revelation about Credence’s family, but will reserve judgement until this plays out in the next instalment. However, my lasting impression of the film was of how much of it could be read through the lens of disability studies. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that the focus of my PhD is on representations of disability in children’s literature, including the application of disability studies theory: I now see suggestions of this everywhere.
There is a noticeable absence of disabled characters in the Harry Potter books and films, and there has been increasing criticism over the past few years about the lack of diversity in the series as a whole. The most obvious disabled character is Alastor ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody, with his wooden leg and (magical) artificial eye, but Filch, as a Squib who does not have magical powers, could also be viewed as disabled as he literally does not have the ability that is regarded as the norm in the magical world. Indeed, the medical model of disability, which was prevalent in the UK and USA until the late 20th century, viewed disability as a deficit and deviance from the norm (Linton, 1998), among other things.
Therefore, I contend that the Fantastic Beasts films could be read in terms of disability in two ways: either that Muggles and Squibs are disabled as they do not have magical powers in the magical world in which the films take place (in line with the medical model of disability), or that magical powers are a disability from the Muggle’s perspective through which we view the films. The latter could tie in with the idea of the “supercrip”: a common trope in representations of disability whereby a disabled person redeems themselves through extraordinary qualities (Rana, 2017) – often seen in comic book superheroes.
There were two scenes that jumped out at me as particularly interesting in terms of their representation of disability. The first of these is the circus scene, where we find Credence and meet Nagini.
The banner outside the circus, ‘Circus Arcanus: Freaks and Oddities!’, immediately sets up the circus performers as the Other because of their bodies and abilities. This links to the recent popular film The Greatest Showman (Gracey, 2017) which, despite its feel-good anthem ‘This Is Me’, was problematic in its representation as disabled bodies were used for entertainment and to make the fortune of an able-bodied man. This rendering of magical creatures in this scene as ‘freaks and oddities’ is interesting in the light of my second reading of disability above, as wizards themselves could be seen as such by Muggles but are further othering those who are different to the magical norm. The circus master, Skender’s, introduction of Nagini, a Maledictus, could also be read in the context of the development of a long-term illness or degenerative disease: ‘[s]o beautiful, yes? So desirable…but soon she will be trapped forever in a very different body’ (Rowling, 2018, p.87). This can all be connected to the work of prominent disability studies scholar, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, on staring (2009) and freakery (1996).
The second is the climactic scene of the film in which Grindelwald addresses his followers in the auditorium:
“It is said that I hate Les Non-Magiques. The Muggles. The No-Maj. The Can’t Spells…I do not hate them. I do not…For I do not fight out of hatred. I say the Muggles are not lesser, but other. Not worthless, but of a different disposition.” (Rowling, 2018, p.245-246)
Whilst this proclamation could be read as allegorically alluding to all alterities, the first phrase, which goes through the synonyms for Muggles, aligns it closely with disability. ‘Non-Majiques’ and ‘No-Maj’ are very similar to the term ‘non-disabled’, while ‘The Can’t Spells’ connects this even more to disability. Grindelwald’s specific use of the word ‘other’ makes it clear that those without magical powers are lesser to him and places the wizards in a position of power. However, although this relates to my first reading of disability in the Fantastic Beasts series, his next line, ‘[m]agic blooms only in rare souls (Rowling, 2018, p.246), suggests my second reading, as this implies that those with magical powers are in fact a minority. This tension between the two readings of disability, encapsulated in these few lines, makes the (sometimes metaphorical) representation of disability in The Crimes of Grindelwald particularly interesting.
It could also be argued that this scene reinforces Credence as the most prominent disabled character in the Fantastic Beasts films so far: his being an Obscurial and the destructive abilities that his Obscurus involves have been the driving force behind the plot of both films. As Grindelwald says when Credence joins him after his recruiting speech: ‘This has all been for you, Credence’ (Rowling, 2018, p.257). However, Credence could perhaps be best understood as differently abled rather than disabled: he has immense power, connecting to the trope of the supercrip.
Time will tell if such inferences and representations continue throughout the remaining three films in the Fantastic Beasts series and if so, how this develops. As disability is the lived experience of approximately ten per cent of the world’s population, (United Nations, n.d.), I am unlikely to be the only one interested in the ways in which disability is portrayed in the magical world Rowling continues to create.
Garland-Thomson, R. (1996). Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York: New York University Press.
Garland-Thomson, R. (2009). Staring: How We Look. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gracey, M. (Director). (2017). The Greatest Showman. United States: 20th Century Fox.
Linton, S. (1998). Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York: New York University Press.
United Nations. (n.d.). Fact Sheet on Persons with Disabilities. http://www.un.org/disabilities/documents/toolaction/pwdfs.pdf
Rana, M. (2017a). Disability in Children’s Literature: Tropes, Trends, and Themes. Interjuli, 01/2017, 26-45.
Rowling, J.K. (2018). Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald: The Original Screenplay. London: Little, Brown.
Yates, D. (Director). (2018). Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. United States/United Kingdom: Warner Bros.