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Hermione, headcanons, and kindred spirits

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Jamie Parker (Harry), Noma Dumezweni (Hermione), and Paul Thornley (Ron).

Recently, the two-part what-happens-next-in-the-Wizarding-World play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child announced three key cast members: Jamie Parker as adult Harry, Paul Thornley as adult Ron, and Noma Dumezweni as adult Hermione. Congratulations to them all, and I hope the plays are as good as the books, and I really hope they make it to the States in some form. But more than all that…

WOC HERMIONE! WOC HERMIONEEEEEEE! (That’s Woman of Color, or Witch of Color, or however you want to think of it.)

It’s natural to react with surprise to this announcement. After all, we’ve seen Hermione portrayed in eight movies by Emma Watson, who grew into the role and did a lovely job, and who looks nothing like Noma Dumezweni. But the plays aren’t sequels to the movies; they’re sequels to the books. And in the books, Hermione’s race is never specified.

Urban Dictionary gives the following definition for the not-in-American Heritage term headcanon: “Used by followers of various media of entertainment, such as television shows, movies, books, etc. to note a particular belief which has not been used in the universe of whatever program or story they follow, but seems to make sense to that particular individual, and as such is adopted as a sort of ‘personal canon.’”

A lot of people have headcanons about Hermione. After all, she’s a character many a) identify with and b) want to emulate. She’s a little awkward. She doesn’t always fit in. She’s the brightest witch of her age, she’s Gryffindor-brave, she has Hogwarts: A History pretty much memorized, and — let’s face it — the wizarding world would be pretty much screwed without her. She’s a kickass role model for anyone of any background, and if your version of her looks like you, then who says you can’t be like her? (Okay, maybe you can’t create Polyjuice Potion or wield a Time-Turner, but you can be Gryffindor-brave and the brightest Muggle of your age.) That’s probably why lots of fans have already created images of “racebent” Hermione (along with other characters — the practice seems especially common in the Harry Potter fandom.

Hermione of color is there if you want her to be.

The matter of Hermione’s race reminded me of a similarly malleable matter: Anne Shirley and Diana Barry. (Insert your favorite are-they-or-aren’t-they pair here.) The “bosom friends” of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books might have a beautifully devoted, platonic friendship featuring a flowery vocabulary (Anne’s). Or maybe, just maybe, one or both of them is romantically invested in that friendship. Maybe one or both of these creative, caring, widely beloved characters is queer (probably bisexual, since both marry men later), and whether or not that’s the case, they’re still creative, caring, and widely beloved. I’ve read it both ways. I’ve loved it both ways.

Does it matter what the author was thinking? It’s lovely to see J. K. Rowling’s public support of the recent casting (which doesn’t actually discount either reading of Hermione’s race), but if she’d said nothing, either reading would still be equally valid. Was L. M. Montgomery thinking of same-sex romance or attraction so long ago? Who knows? What was in her head doesn’t have to be in readers’ heads. Readers’ headcanons are their own.

All this isn’t to say that it’s unimportant to have characters who are overtly from underrepresented backgrounds. It’s extremely important — without them, it’s way too easy to default to exclusively straight, white (and Christian, and cisgendered, and typically abled) headcanons. But there’s also something special about cases like this where one can choose a headcanon for oneself. And to have this one legitimized after all these years is even more special. There’s no rule that says anyone’s personal view of Hermione has to change with this announcement, but I hope that at least some people who found it surprising asked themselves, “Is there any reason Hermione can’t look this way?” And I hope they answered themselves, “Nope!”

Shoshana Flax About Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor for The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College.

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