If you have any connections to the Harry Potter fandom whatsoever, you have no doubt been privy to the impassioned arguments over Rowling’s 2007 disclosure of Dumbledore’s sexuality, and the recent announcement of black actress Noma Dumezweni being cast as Hermione in the upcoming stage production of The Cursed Child. Tensions understandably exist over the question of whether either character counts as Good Representation ™ for a marginalized population, given neither of these identity traits is definitively confirmed in the text of the original Harry Potter books.
There are very subtle indicators with regard to Dumbledore, particularly in books 6 and 7, and Rowling reportedly intervened on the possible heterosexualization of Albus’s movie version, due to her pre-established intent for the character. She also made a point to explain to irate fans on Twitter recently that the books never gave Hermione a specific racial classification, only going so far as to describe her as bushy haired and brown-eyed.
Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione 😘 https://t.co/5fKX4InjTH
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) December 21, 2015
While some fans laud these interventions as small, modest steps forward and an expansion of valid minority representation in the Harry Potter universe, others are less generous, arguing that subtle hints of queerness and/or open-ended ambiguity of racial classification fails to ‘count.’ The position of the latter group often rests upon a critique which cultural theorist Roland Barthes (of “Death of the Author” fame) calls “exnomination.”
Exnomination is the academic term for the cultural phenomenon of what-goes-unnamed-defaults-to-the-norm. When you don’t explicitly define a character’s race, they are typically defaulted to being white. When you don’t explicitly define a character’s sexuality, they are typically defaulted to being heterosexual. If you do not outright say a character is transgender, they are automatically presumed to be cisgender. This is exnomination, and it is a classic feature of societal privilege.
The claim that neither Dumbledore’s retroactive, extra-textually affirmed homosexuality, nor Hermione’s casting in The Cursed Child are good enough to count as definitive minority representation is based on fan understandings of how exnomination works. This position has a lot of merit, sadly. When the text does not make these classifications explicit, the cultural dominance of whiteness and straightness tends to prevail in conventional interpretations, reinforcing white-supremacy and heterosexism through plausible deniability.
Exnomination is a cultural force that is very real, and it needs acknowledgement when discussing the politics of minority representation in culture. We are foolish to underestimate its force. However, all that being said, I want to throw a few wrenches in the works, and complicate this analysis with further meditations on the still limited power of nominal representation, the question of what even counts as nominal representation, and how audience double-standards are a concomitant problem at work in all of this.
While people are certainly right to criticize the limited power of open-ended or ambiguous minority representations, the notion that nominal representation will always fix minority exclusion is demonstrably a little naive. People’s majority biases are sometimes so entrenched that even when minority representation is utterly explicit, significant segments of the audience will still fail to see it or accept it. The ‘controversy’ over Rue’s race in The Hunger Games is proof enough of this. People will default characters into dominant groupings, even when authors make it clear the character is not white, straight, able-bodied, what-have-you. The notion that making a character’s minority status explicit is a panacea to the hegemony of things like whiteness and heterosexuality is demonstrably overstating the case. (This not to say that it is ‘pointless’ or makes no difference. It still matters a great deal, of course. My point is simply that assuming nominal representation will forestall all erasure is inaccurate)
Also, what counts as making something ‘explicit’ remains something of an open question. While some disclosures will almost always land with audiences, authors often communicate character traits in ways that might read as definitive or explicit to certain people, and as ambiguous or open-ended to others. Many people in the Welcome to Night Vale fandom took it for granted that the name Carlos was explicit enough to solidly define the character’s racial/ethnic affiliation; yet white interpretations of him surfaced all the same, on the basis that technically, a person of any heritage can have the name Carlos.
In November I wrote a piece here on bisexuality on TV and was amazed to find that my contention that Will/Hannibal was canon met with criticism by a commenter who declared their relationship status to be unclear. Prior to writing the piece, I took it for granted that – although the two never share a kiss or sexual consummation in the current text of Hannibal – the final few episodes of season 3 made the romance of their dynamic pretty undeniable. Yet, people were denying it all the same.
My point is, people have different textual thresholds for what they will classify as “ambiguous” versus “definitive.” The spectrum between ambiguous/open-ended and definitive/nominal/canon is precisely that – a spectrum. Moreover, where people feel inclined to place characters on that spectrum with regard to their race, or sexuality, or gender identity, etc can vary widely. We cannot assume that just because something seems ‘clear’ (or ‘ambiguous’) to us, that others agree with that assessment, or that our characterization of the situation is unilaterally correct.
The question then becomes, when is the deniability of a character’s minority status the primary fault of the author(s), i.e. when is it TOO ambiguous to be classified as representation? And when is the deniability of a character’s minority status the fault of audience biases, such that it can still reasonably be called valid minority representation? I don’t exactly know, and that is part of the point I am trying to make. Is there just some arbitrary critical mass of people whose recognition of a character’s minority status codifies it as such? Well, if that were the case, Dumbledore probably would reach that critical mass easily, seeing as how I know people who have never read a word of the books, nor seen a single film, and yet still “know” Dumbledore is gay.
It is tempting to put the onus all on writers and just demand that they write more clearly and always make it 100% apparent. But there are a few problems with that demand, the first being perfect clarity is often an elusive goal in writing. Authors of both fiction and non-fiction often believe themselves to be communicating something with absolute clarity and transparency, only to discover large amounts of their audience completely mistake what they were trying to say. Indeed, this is one of the reasons fandoms are often the very contentious places that they are – fans regularly disagree with each other over what is “clearly” true about a text. Clarity can be a deeply elusive thing, and is itself a matter of perspective much of the time.
Second, and perhaps more to the point, there is a serious catch-22 at work in trying to undermine minority erasure by demanding authors always be SUPER DUPER EXTRA 110% clear about character’s minority statuses. Exnomination is the social force that makes it necessary for writers to be SUPER DUPER EXTRA clear when a character is of a minority group. It creates an inflated burden of proof for the disclosure of character minority affiliations. However, when authors regularly concede to that inflated burden of proof, they also simultaneously reinforce it, and further enable the exnomination of whiteness, of heterosexuality, and so on as a result. In simple terms, catering to the double standard often helps keep it in place.
Using the same standard to disclose one character’s heterosexuality and another characters queerness can enable the erasure of the second character’s queerness, because a lot of audience members will just refuse to accept a character’s queerness unless it is amped up, or disclosed in very specific terms. Take the following GIF pair as exhibit A.
Most people have no problem using the scene on the left to infer a heterosexual attraction between Freddy Prince Jr. and Racheal Lee Cook. However, the exact same sequence played out between two male characters is strenuously ‘defended’ as platonic because…reasons!
People always demand more proof of queerness than they do of heterosexuality. When authors don’t cater to these double standards of disclosure, they are accused of contributing to minority erasure. However, when they do cater to these double standards, they implicitly reinforce the majority-as-norm phenomenon that causes exnomination in the first place. It’s a no-win kind of scenario in many ways.
All of this is not an excuse for authors to play it safe and keep everything strategically ambiguous for reasons of pure profit motive. That’s candyass, to put it bluntly. But audiences engaged in social justice critiques of culture do need to contend with how the nature of their demands for explicit minority representation can at times play into inflated burdens of proof that are themselves racist, heterosexist, ableist, etc. Always demanding that authors concede to inflated burdens of proof can reinforce their legitimacy, and help keep whiteness, straightness, cisness, binary gender, etc the operative cultural ‘norm’.
The ideal of course is for writers to make these disclosures clearly, and undeniably, without making them excessive to the point that they play into double-standards. That can be a difficult needle to thread. I am not saying writers should not attempt it anyway, but it is worth keeping a balanced perspective about just how much responsibility writers have to cater to the practiced, willful obtuseness of audiences who will often tie themselves into the most convoluted knots imaginable to assert that a character is white or straight or neurotypical, or, or, despite all the gratuitous evidence to the contrary.