“Harry Potter” series riddled with cultural insensitivity, prompts conversation about proper representation

In the summer of 2020, JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, received backlash for her comments about the transgender community. After the controversy surrounding the author was plastered all over social media, it gave fans momentum to vent about a lack of cultural sensitivity in the books that had previously been swept under the rug. At first, I didn’t really understand fans’ outrage over this topic. As a kid, I was a self-proclaimed Potterhead, having a crazed obsession over the series. I didn’t feel there were any cultural insensitivities in the series. But after recently watching the movies again, I realized there were seemingly insignificant, but irritating moments that I had brushed off as a kid. One of these instances is the Yule Ball scene in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”
Harry and Ron’s dates to the ball were their classmates Parvati and Padma Patil, who are British Indians. I vividly remember watching the Yule Ball scene as a fourth grader and being caught completely off guard as the Patil sisters entered the banquet; they wore shabby, poorly designed versions of what vaguely resembled “lenghas”— stylish Indian dresses embroidered with intricate designs. In addition to the complete lack of research on the costume department’s part, I was also slightly riled up by the fact they wanted the sisters to appear more “ethnic” in that scene. In the book, the Patil sisters wore elegant dress robes along with the rest of the students. I was even more surprised because quite honestly the Patil sisters’ ethnicity seemed quite ambiguous until the Yule Ball scene, as there is no other mention of it in the series. After this observation, I began to realize the Patil sisters had the potential to be more than just surface-level side characters.
In the beginning of the series, Parvati and Padma were sorted into two different houses (Gryffindor and Ravenclaw). Being identical twins, this was an abnormal occurrence — an untapped plotline begging to be explored that Rowling never used.
To be fair, I do not think that any of these portrayals were intentional on Rowling’s part. Rather, it speaks to a larger truth about minorities’ roles in media; for the most part, their roles fall into two extremes: either as borderline-insulting stereotypes, or their ethnicity is never elaborated on to the point where it feels ambiguous and they serve as a background character. However, ethnicity is not something to be inserted when convenient or for the sake of political correctness— it should be woven into a character’s identity without being their only plotline.

Chenyao Liu