How Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them needs to improve its representation of women

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Mar 10, 2017

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them brought J.K. Rowling's magical Harry Potter franchise back to the big screen for the first time in five years. The prequel introduced us to new characters in a different time period set in New York City. While it offered a generally enjoyable return to the wizarding world, it faltered in its representations of women. The film's treatment of its female characters wasn't all bad, but it did leave much to be desired with lots of room for improvement for the sequels.

SPOILERS for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ahead.

Fantastic Beasts has four main female characters: no-maj antagonist Mary Lou Barebone, president of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) Seraphina Picquery, and the sisters Porpentina "Tina" Goldstein and Queenie Goldstein. Having four female characters that play pivotal roles in the film is in and of itself a positive: Women are present in all different areas of this world in every facet of life in the wizarding community and the no-maj community. There were never any scenes where women were glaringly absent from the setting.

The four main characters showed women can be everything, from a villain to an authority figure to a hero with their differing personalities and roles. However, the film doesn't spend nearly enough time with these fascinating women to actually make them well-rounded characters.

By the end of Fantastic Beasts, we know much more about Newt Scamander and Jacob Kowalski than we do about three of the four women mentioned above. For example, while it's great to see a woman in more of a villainous part for a change, Mary Lou is unfortunately quite a one-dimensional character. She leads the anti-wizard group New Salem Philanthropic Society, but in the movie we never learn where her hatred of magic and witches comes from.

The no-maj gives speeches to the public to try spreading her message and becomes a particular sore spot for Tina after the witch witnesses Mary Lou abusing her adopted son Credence and intervenes. It's reiterated throughout the movie that Mary Lou is still abusive to her adopted children and remains steadfast in her position that witches are real. Viewers learn she's not intimidated by those who try to dismiss her and her beliefs as we see her still willing to speak up even when powerful men like newspaper magnate Henry Shaw Sr. and his son Senator Henry Shaw Jr. are contemptuous towards her and her family. Other than these basic facts, though, we know little about her before she is swiftly killed at the end.

Seraphina is even less developed than Mary Lou. In the few scenes the MACUSA president is in, she's commanding and smart, never panicking when things worsen. She doesn't let anyone tell her how to do her job and doesn't take kindly to criticism from those outside the situation. When she is presiding over a meeting of wizards and witches from around the world, gathered to discuss the growing problem in New York, she quickly responds that she won't "be lectured by the man who let Gellert Grindelwald slip through his fingers" when the Swiss delegate states what's happening threatens exposure for everyone.

Seraphina is harsh with Tina when the former auror interrupts her meetings and the president makes decisions that aren't popular or perhaps even right, such as ordering the Obscurus destroyed and Jacob obliviated. However, she always does what she thinks is best for the community she leads and apologizes for her actions when it's clear mistakes were made, like she does with Newt after all is over. Unfortunately, that covers everything about her and Seraphina becomes a character whose potential is never fully realized.

Queenie is also expanded on less than Newt and Jacob even though she, with her sister Tina, is one of the four in that core group of heroes we are meant to be rooting for. Newt may be the main male protagonist with Tina as the main woman protagonist in the film, but there's no reason Queenie couldn't be as fleshed-out as Jacob. Jacob acts as an entry point for viewers not familiar with the world, but Queenie is only second to Newt in being essential to Jacob's introduction into the wizarding world as the two bond, so why not develop her character at least as much as him?

Queenie is an extremely interesting woman. She calls Tina the career girl and claims her job is less glamorous since it mostly involves making coffee, but Queenie is very capable in any situation. When the group needs to escape MACUSA, she comes up with the idea for everyone to enter Newt's case so she can just carry them right out the front door. Her supervisor Abernathy questions where she's going, but it doesn't stop Queenie for long as she knows exactly what to say to fluster him and make him go away. During the escape and other situations the fact that she's a Legilimens, a witch with the ability to read people's minds, comes in handy but we learn nothing more about it than that she has this amazing ability and can use it quite easily.

At least Tina, as the counterpart to Newt, is given more screen time and a bit more development. Unable to shake being an auror despite her demotion, she's bold and takes her job very seriously. Tina still keeps an eye on Mary Lou and her organization, and doesn't hesitate to confront Newt about his activities when she sees him at the bank. Despite her past mistakes, she won't give up when she believes in something and is willing to interrupt the president's meetings at MACUSA to try to do the right thing.

We learn a bit about her past both personally and professionally and about her motivations through her conversations with Newt and seeing some of her memories in the execution scene. She takes charge of situations, helps Newt and impressively duels with Graves before trying to talk to Credence to help him. Tina is the closest to being a well-rounded woman in the film, but there are still ways sequels can do more with her character as well.

One of the most obvious ways future Fantastic Beasts films can help expand on both Tina and Queenie is through exploring their sister relationship more. I loved the fact these sisters were such an essential part of the story, but the connection is not used enough to show us who these characters are. We learn some of their background and see that they work well as a team, looking out for each other in big and small ways. However, Queenie and Tina don't get nearly enough scenes together. It's such a missed opportunity that future films should take advantage of and mine that relationship as a way to develop the two women. After all, they're clearly close and they complement each other so well in personality.

They are a great example of how there is a range of femininity and more than one way to be a woman, something that seems so obvious and yet is absent in many movies. Tina prefers to wear pants whether it's in her day-to-day outfits or comfortable pajamas while her sister usually wears dresses and sports a more revealing dressing gown at night. We first meet Tina messily eating a hotdog while we meet Queenie wearing just a slip before putting on a dress in front of the others. Both are completely comfortable with themselves. It's a dynamic that has not gone unnoticed by fans and even the actresses themselves have acknowledged these important parts of their characters. It's one of the reasons why the relationship between the two should be explored more.

Spending more time developing its female characters is not the only way the Fantastic Beasts franchise can improve its representation of women, though. It also needs to focus more on showing us diverse women overall. Diversity is a problem beyond just women in the film and has been discussed before the movie was released, with executive producer David Heyman and J.K. Rowling responding to criticism. When it comes to just the women, it's great to see Seraphina, an African American woman, in a position of power but, as mentioned above, she's not given nearly enough screen time in the movie.

Also, when looking at the women in the background there is a noticeable lack of diversity. The meeting of world leaders at MACUSA provides a short glimpse of some diverse faces and Ya Zhou, an Asian witch present at the meeting, does ask Newt a question, but that's all. Other than that Tina shares a brief exchange with Bernadette, an African American witch, who is one of two female executioners leading Tina and Newt to their deaths, but the conversation is short and Bernadette wears a creepy smile most of the time. Then there's the goblin in the speakeasy, which The Nerds of Color's Clara Mae points out "is clearly coded as Black, which forces us to contemplate the confounding question of whether or not goblins even have ethnicities." There's really no reason women of color and people of color in general had to be so absent, especially considering the setting.

Cheyenne Matthews-Hoffman at Black Girl Nerds highlights the missed opportunity brilliantly. In addition to the lack of women of color, there's also no sense of any LGBT women present and while it seems to be implied that Queenie and Tina might be Jewish due to their last name and distant relations to Jewish wizard Anthony Goldstein mentioned by Rowling, there's no mention or confirmation of this in the movie. Considering some problematic Jewish coding in the film and how in later movies due to the time period this fact may become more prominent, it's disappointing that this first film did not take the opportunity to even hint at this for the sisters. Moving forward, Fantastic Beasts needs to not shy away from positively acknowledging and showing the diverse women that would exist in this world.

There's also the fact that the film barely passes the Bechdel test. It passes thanks to the brief exchange between Seraphina and Tina when the former auror interrupts the president meeting with the investigative team. It's short, but at least more than one line is shared between the two. Otherwise you might say Queenie asking Tina what a Niffler is and Tina speaking with the executioner could make the movie pass the test, but these exchanges are so short they hardly count. With everything else going on it's disappointing the movie couldn't have women discussing anything other than the men around them, specifically Newt.

The sequels will no doubt continue to address larger issues in the wizarding and muggle worlds, so there's no excuse for them to not pass the test better than this first film did. The addition of more women into the world would certainly be helpful in this and the other areas, and luckily we'll at least have Leta LeStrange in the sequel playing a crucial role, though how she will be treated has raised some concerns and obviously remains to be seen. More women in major and minor parts would make it easier to expand on diversity, pass the Bechdel test and could aid in going more in-depth with its main women characters.

With so much more Fantastic Beasts on the way, I'm hopeful that these improvements can be made in the franchise as long as the filmmakers and Rowling are willing to try. Fantastic Beasts offered a decent start at providing us with new strong female representation in the Harry Potter universe, but it still barely scratches the surface. These women have potential and that should be further explored as more films come out. The disappointing gaps that existed in this film need to be filled so we can have more amazing women in the wizarding world and beyond to look up to and admire.