Hello friends, this is Fenrir here, and welcome to another exciting addition to Food for Thought! A few weeks ago we discussed the Bildungsroman, and how awesome it is when we reverse it; this week we’re bringing critical theory back to the forefront in the wake of the newest geekdom viral video that’s been the talk of the weekend. Harry Potter fans are in a bit of an uproar over Rachel Rostad’s 2013 College Unions Slam Poetry entry entitled, “To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang” — and with pretty darn good reason.
Basically, Rostad roasts JK Rowling’s depiction of Cho Chang — who as far as most people can remember — was Harry Potter’s first love interest and token Asian character stuck in the “nerdy house”. Some fans have found this caustic, and terribly unfair to JK Rowling, or that perhaps Rostad is too “sensitive”. But, and I hate to break it to fellow Potter-heads out there, Rostad does have a point (A pretty good one at that), and she has the right to say it, thanks to a special critical theory I’d like to talk about known as: authorial intent!
So before we all decide that Fenrir is a terrible blogger for daring to question JK Rowling — hear me out! Don’t open the flood-gates of angry Potter fans just yet — let’s back it up and take a look at what Rostad and several venerated literary critics have to say about author intent. (Remember this for your next English essay, trust me)
To sum it up in a nice and succinct fashion: two literary theorists–William K. Wimsatt Jr. and Monroe C. Beardsley–co-wrote two rather important essays that dealt with New Critical formalist orthodoxy. The first essay, “The Intentional Fallacy”, pretty much deals with this sticky topic of authorial intent, which we understand as what the author wanted to convey within their text. However, Wimsatt and Beardsley argued that when judging a piece of literature–or film, or comic, anime, what-have-you–we cannot use the author’s intention to judge a literary work if it is not made explicit within the context of the work. Literature–and other media–is a public utterance, not a private one, that depends for its meaning on the intent or design of its author to be explicit; otherwise, we only have what is put out there to the public to contend with. Essentially, the author might want to convey something important — but unless they actually have it included within the context of their work, then their intention is meaningless.
So when looking back at Rostad’s slam poem — here’s what we need to consider, and what Rostad herself meditates on in her brief speech. I am quite sure that JK Rowling herself did not intend to be racist, in any way, shape or form. But the fact remains that she did fall back on an old caricature, an old trope — of the Asian woman fetishized, of her regulated to a caricature as common as chopstick hair pieces and background ninjas. Because what do we know, or even remember about Cho Chang?
What defined her, or made her important to the overall plot? Is she up there with our high estimation of the Hermiones, and Ginnys, and Tonkses that Harry Potter fans know well and love?
Well. WELL. Wasn’t her existence was mediated and only necessary through her relationships with boys? You know, just like, Miss Saigon, Madame Butterfly — uh oh okay, that’s not really helping the situation here. Quick, let’s back it up to a very accurate representation of Cho Chang as analyzed by our friends over at StarKids Productions:
… Well. I think that’s an astute observation about what little we do remember about Cho, this illustrious addition to a long line of female Asian characters that leave much to be desired.
So if Cho Chang is regulated to the status of a sub-plot, then through the intentional fallacy yes, she is a sub-plot. Maybe JK Rowling had all these inner headcanons, plans, and a different picture of Cho Chang altogether that makes her more than what we’re actually given — but the fact remains that we, as an audience, must work with what we have. We are not privy to the author’s true intentions unless they are spelled out for us directly. So does this mean that Rostad has the right to roast Rowling and feel as if Cho Chang is another bit of Orientalistism embedded into popular media?
Yes, she’s more than allowed to feel that way, and definitely has the right to say that yeah, Cho Chang is another addition to the “diversity quota”, a sub-plot instead of a memorable character in a long tradition of fetishizing Asian women to satisfy a plot point.
In fact, this is the same issue that I find many people take up with JK Rowling’s reveal that Dumbledore was gay — a fact that remains outed within the media, but sadly closeted within the books. And if you know fandom, fandom operates on subtext, anything and everything can and will be “interpreted” by fandom — but what is more powerful, more compelling is the presence of authorial word within the actual context of the piece.
Say it maybe months later that you intended for him to be gay without actual backing or the flimsy, ephemeral evidence that most fans use to justify their ships — yeah no. I’m proud of JK Rowling for being brave enough to admit that her character, a beloved character, identifies as homosexual, but I am kind of disappointed that it wasn’t made explicit at all in the text — in the same way that fans, such as Rostad, is disappointed in the sub-plot existence that Cho Chang has been relegated to.
Would it have been cool if JK Rowling gave Cho something beyond a bit role? Absolutely! Would it have been amazing if JK Rowling had one little affirmation that yes, Dumbledore is gay and here is the line, and the page number, to prove it? Yes, absolutely!
But again – authorial intent, especially hindsight authorial intent, is meaningless if it is absent within the text.
And yes, people have used the “but this is from Harry’s POV” argument, and it is an argument that does hold some weight if we’re going to talk about narrative theory, but — and this is quite a big but–there is still the possibility to write in compelling information about characters, even within the POV of the heteronormative male protagonist. I mean, just because Hermione is a girl doesn’t mean that Harry’s narrative voice diminished her presence into a sub-plot, a bit-role, the “love interest” of his best friend and nothing more — what’s to say that the same couldn’t have been said about Cho?
And I feel, that’s what Rostad is getting at, that JK Rowling has the ability to craft such beautiful, powerful, likable characters and yet when we look at Cho Chang — what do we have? In the author’s own words, Rachel Rostad has this to say about her poem as seen on her tumblr:
I love love LOVE Harry Potter, and I have a lot of respect for JK Rowling. I think Cho as a character is fine, if you look at her individually. But when I look at the larger representations of Asian females in books and movies, I am discouraged by JK Rowling’s choice to represent Cho as a weak, two dimensional character. I think it just adds to the message that Asian females are weak and dependent on men. Furthermore, JK Rowling establishes Cho as Asian, but doesn’t even go into what that really means. She doesn’t even give her a real name! So that’s why I’ve always had a problem with the character.
Overall, I do applaud JK Rowling for her work, and Harry Potter was a big part of my childhood, and one that I do intend to share with my own children somewhere down the line…
… But again, authorial intent can only count as much as it is embedded within the text itself. As a kid, I didn’t see Cho Chang as a viable character, a passing image of how others perceived young Asian women–like me–who fit a purpose to be a love interest and nothing more. Maybe it didn’t bother me, or strike me, as a kid, but now? It’s kind of important to realize that hey, even your favorite childhood book series isn’t always so terribly “innovative”.
Annd that’s all there is for this terribly-literary-critical-theory addition of Food for Thought, tune in next time when we tackle other fandom subjects through a English major’s eye!