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The Default of Whiteness: What is It?

If you have been a fan of movie adaptations, you may have heard of all the controversies surrounding the adaptations of characters such as the little mermaid, Hermione Granger in “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” or even Tinker Bell in the 2023 new adaptation of Peter Pan. If you did, this is mainly because the characters chosen to portray those fictional characters were black. In this article, we’ll explain the reasons behind the controversies and how they are engrained in the “default of whiteness.”


American movie specialist and theorist Robert Stam argues in his text “Introduction: The Theory and Practice of Adaptation” that; “a reader may lose their phantasmatic relation to the text when reading or watching an adaptation” due to “someone else’s fantasy” of a canonical text or character. 


Yet, what stands behind a majority of hostile reception to an adaptation when it is mainly due to an actor’s skin color? 


The Case of Hermione Granger


Hermione Granger is the most explicit example that can be used in this topic. In December 2015, Noma Dumezweni, an Afro-British actress, was publicly announced for playing the role of the adult version of Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play (in the palace theater of London) after Emma Watson personified her for a decade in the Warner-Bros movie adaptations. The same day, thousands of reactions invaded the internet, many of them pointed at Dumezweni’s skin color and her supposed “faithfulness” to J.K Rowling’s series of books (or what some fans interpreted from the books). 




After announcing Dumezwani’s role as Hermione in the magazine “Variety,” many fans rejected Noma for not corresponding to what they called the “canonical version” of Granger. Although Rowling twitted “Canon: Brown eyes, Frizzy hair, and very clever. White skin was never specified”  on her social media (the day of the announcement), some fans kept refuting her claim by quoting a description of Hermione found in The Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapter 21 (which mentions Granger’s reaction to a specific context as evidence of her color), or using Grandpré’s illustrations. 


They claimed what  Gender and Women's Studies specialist, Aria S. Halliday, called their  “hegemonic representations of whiteness” in adaptations. Halliday sees this hostile reception based on the skin color of Dumezweni as a form of activism for the preservation of whiteness in adaptations. Some readers were not ready to leave their exclusionary fantasy behind, and they instrumentalized what they called primary “sources” to support their claim. 


Such an exclusionary fantasy finds its roots in new forms of racism of our “post-racial” period. It is a symptom of modern racism. Fans politicized the subject and accused the stage director of Race-bending, which destroyed the “essence of the canon.” This was called “fan activism” by writer and activist Lori Kido Lopes against race representation. 



Racism has been adapted into new forms of discourse since the supposed “post-racial” period. The hostile reception to race representation is symptomatic of the encrusted racism in our society. Racism is permanent: “Racism is not (...) an anomaly of our democratic landscape (...). Rather it is a critically important stabilizing force that enables (the majority) to bind across a wide socio-economic chasm,” claims Derrick Bell (an African-American civil rights activist). 


This shows a sign of the end of a white-hegemony representation. It also indicates the end of a dogmatic era that showed its weaknesses. The fear is partly due to the power of the institution of theater. As a form of soft power, it influences more representations and pursues the end of modern racism. As Queer studies, specialist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argued in her essay “Touching Feelings,” Art has a reparative and an empowering function.



Fan Casting: A Method To Survive In Culture


Yet, fans are not always outraged after the announcement that a black or brown actor will play a canonical character. Many others from minorities might enjoy the information. In the case of Harry Potter, for instance, many


Black Hermione has always existed on the sidelines of the central representations of Hermione. They are fantasies born in reaction to exclusionary ones.


This is called “fan casting.” “Fan casting” is the modification of a work of art rather than the creation of a new one. Fan casting is born from a different nature of fantasy minorities have. As they have been rejected from many silver screens and novels, they have practiced recastings to survive because smart black people exist and should be represented.

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