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    Conditional allyship? Queerness and censorship in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

    Jack Twyman weighs in on the recent debate around Warner Bros’ decision to censor a gay storyline in the recent Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore film. 

    CW: queerphobia

    Many gay people go through their teenage years realising who they are and, more often than not, coming to believe that it makes them flawed, maybe fatally. We are taught by society to keep our identity hidden because it is something ‘bad’ and ‘different’. It takes an awful lot of struggle, hard work, and courage to get to the point where you not only accept your identity but are proud of it and make the decision to be open about yourself. It’s a long, hard journey with many difficulties. And so, when I see the news that Warner Bros has censored a gay scene from Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore for screening in China, my stomach turns. I know how it would have felt for a younger me to come across the article and be reminded, yet again, of how ‘unacceptable’ I was; it would have reinforced my belief that I had to, in effect, censure my gayness from the image I projected onto the world. I feel for those queer people in China, who will now miss a rare chance to see their identity portrayed on screen and to feel included. 

    Though I am mindful of superficially imposing Western morals and attitudes on other cultures, I believe the LGBTQ+ community in the UK must utilise our comparably privileged position to empower and embolden fellow members of our community who are persecuted by law to push for change. The fact that this cinematic decision was so widely publicised and condemned indicates increasing calls for justice in today’s media; however,  given that a US company approved the censorship, it is evident the battle for representation is far from over. A refusal to censor would have been a powerful message, giving a much needed boost to queer communities both in China and worldwide. Instead, the decision is emblematic of the current domestic climate in US politics, where prejudice is firmly imprinting itself in the mainstream. I cannot help but see that once again money and profits have taken precedence over persecuted people.

    It is likely that Warner Bros made the decision to include a gay couple in Fantastic Beasts for a US audience because they thought that this would appeal to a wider viewing demographic, which equates to more revenue. It is wishful thinking to suggest it  was decided on purely to increase representation and acceptance of Queer people, for the same kind of calculation likely factored into their decision to censor the film in China. While corporations need to be financially viable, they clearly have great influence over individuals when it comes to social responsibility. In my view, it is wrong to hold financial profits in a higher regard than equality. 

    The film has struggled at the box office when compared to previous instalments of the Fantastic Beasts franchise, but has still has achieved turnover of  £360 million worldwide (as of May 2022); far more than the production cost. The two previous films did well at the Chinese box office, generating $85.9 million in 2016 and $57.8 million in 2018, and it seems that Warner wanted to capitalise on this. But in a country grappling with a COVID-19 outbreak, the opening weekend turned over ‘just’ $9.7 million – which actually represents a 63% market share. Overseas viewership has kept this franchise viable, with Variety magazine identifying that 75% of the revenue from the previous two films was outside the US. It is then no surprise that the film is also due to be released in other countries where homosexuality is criminalised; the censorship is expected to extend far beyond China. Yet, the film was withheld from release in Russia in response to the Ukraine War: a clear example of morals influencing business decisions. 

    Some may argue that the gay storyline is not central to the main plot of the film, and the drive of the overall story remains intact. But for many queer people across the world, their identity is simultaneously a part and a life-changing aspect of them. We must therefore consider whether it is more beneficial for a queer Chinese audience to see subtle allusions to a queer relationship or not to see the film altogether. Arguably, some queer inclusion, even if censored, is better than none. On the other hand, we should bear in mind that  the two gay characters in this film, Dumbledore (Jude Law) and Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen), were both portrayed by cisgender male actors who are in heterosexual marriages. I believe that the portrayal of those characters as gay was hollow to begin with, and verges on queer-baiting. Seeing gay characters on screen is one thing, but seeing authentic, successful gay actors achieving representation would be more helpful and empowering to the community. While some may argue that a character’s queerness does not have to be at the forefront of how they are represented, the likely less than pure motives for this storyline cannot be overlooked – and neither can the writer of the film’s screenplay and the franchise’s founder. 

    J.K Rowling revealed that Dumbledore was gay, and that he had as a teenager experienced the relationship with Grindelwald portrayed in this film, in 2007, a few weeks after the last Harry Potter book, Deathly Hallows, was published.  The exclusion of Dumbledore’s sexuality from the books allowed them to forgo any censorship and instead Rowling maximised book sales worldwide. Therefore Rowling’s decision, through this film, to capitalise on a gay storyline is morally questionable. If she can allow her work to be censored for financial gain, then what is the real motive, representation or profits? Many questioned her motives at the time, and in light of her notorious comments on transgender rights it seems that she is trying to use Dumbledore’s gayness to claw back moral ground and a veneer of progressivism on LGBTQ+ issues. I and fellow members of the LGBTQ+ community I have spoken to concurred even before the censorship debacle that we would hesitate to watch this film precisely for these reasons; every ticket sold is, in effect, an endorsement of the JK Rowling brand and her transphobia.

    Perhaps the initial source of this debate is then the tip of the iceberg for every questionable idea that this film represents. The motives of individual authors and filmmakers are only part of a wider controversy surrounding the motives and execution of queer portrayal in the film industry and contemporary popular culture as a whole. All the same, it would have been a powerful statement to gay teens worldwide if the studio had refused to censor the relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald: a loud message of solitary and support. For a gay teen who isn’t out, as I know too well, this would be a glimmer in a world that too often seems shrouded in hopelessness.

    Image credit: Tim White / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via flickr 

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