The Fantastic Masculinity of Newt Scamander

As a cultural critic, I watch a ridiculous number of movies, always on the lookout for more positive Hollywood representations of masculinity. I usually walk out of the theater disappointed but occasionally the stars align and I find myself pleasantly surprised. That’s how I felt after seeing Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. Newt Scamander, the protagonist of this Harry Potter spinoff, is a refreshingly atypical male hero for a fantasy adventure blockbuster. This video essay is a detailed character study of Newt Scamander’s performance of masculinity.

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The full transcript text of this episode below the fold.

As a cultural critic, I watch a lot of movies and I’m always on the lookout for positive Hollywood representations of masculinity. I usually walk out of the theater disappointed but occasionally the stars align and I find myself pleasantly surprised. And that’s how I felt after seeing Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them.

Newt Scamander, protagonist of this Harry Potter spinoff, is an unconventional male hero. The kind of character typical relegated to sidekick status. He performs a refreshingly atypical form of masculinity, especially for the lead in a fantasy adventure story. His is a quiet, vulnerable, yet confident form of manhood.

Newt’s character is largely defined by his extraordinary ability to connect with magical creatures and by his relative inability to connect with other human beings.

Newt is a Magizoologist, essentially he’s an expert in the care of magical creatures. His life’s work, his passion, is studying, nurturing and protecting these fantastic beasts, then writing textbooks in an effort to foster understanding and compassion for their plight.

CLIP – Fantastic Beasts (2016)
“They’re the last breeding pair in existence. If I hadn’t managed to rescue them that could have been the end of Graphorns forever.”

I should mention that this is not a Doctor Doolittle situation. Newt’s bond with, and affinity for, animals is not supernatural in nature, even though that wouldn’t be out of place in this universe. Instead he simply pays attention to them and their needs when others don’t.

CLIP – Fantastic Beasts (2016)
“He had a cold. He needed some body warmth.”

It’s also not an “animal good, human bad” story. Even though he is painfully shy and socially awkward, Newt’s empathetic worldview extends to people, especially to those discriminated against or marginalized. As evidenced by his disgust at the way American wizards treat non-magical people.

CLIP – Fantastic Beasts (2016)
“Mr. Scamander, do you know anything about the Wizarding community in America?”
I do know a few things actually. I know that you have rather backwards laws about relations with non-magical people. That you’re not meant to befriend them, that you can’t marry them, which seems mildly absurd to me.”
“Who’s going to marry him?”

He is strongly opposed to segregation, discriminatory laws, capital punishment, and other violence committed in the name of justice. Newt’s truly special gift is not his magic, it’s his empathy.

This type of quiet sensitive masculinity is so out of the ordinary for a leading man that I wasn’t terribly surprised to see a number of movie reviewers turned off by his character.

The New York Post said Newt was “not a very engaging lead.” MTV said he lacks “depth,” “soul,” and a “coherent personality.” The Village Voice went so far as to say he seemed “physically ill” much of the time. Slate felt he was “a little boring.” Both Slate and The NEW Republic lamented that the character “tamped down” Eddie Redmayne’s charisma. The NEW Republic also expressed shock at his leading man status saying he’s so “good-hearted, simple and nondescript that it’s sort of crazy that he’s going to be the centerpiece” of a five film franchise.

I was disappointed but, as I said, not surprised to see this kind of reaction. We, as movie going audiences, have been conditioned to expect a certain type of masculine performance from male characters in sci-fi or fantasy movies. We expect leading men who are, or learn to be, autonomous, brazen and physically strong. Or at least men who are witty, boisterous and charismatic. Preferably all of the above.

It’s practically required for male heroes to hide their vulnerability. We’ve learned to easily forgive arrogance and aggression in men but to take exception to presentations of humility or sensitivity. We’re accustomed to seeing men who are quick to violence and slow to diplomacy.

Newt is a significant departure from this trend. His version of manhood doesn’t stem from physical strength, or combat skills, or feats of daring do, or even from pre-ordained mystic destiny like so many other male heroes.

He’s sincere, nurturing, emotional, and sensitive. And critically that sensitivity is framed as a strength rather than a weakness.

CLIP – Fantastic Beasts (2016)
“That’s definitely the Murtlap. You must be particularly susceptible. Stay still. Alright, that should stop the sweating.”

When men in our culture express this kind of vulnerability they’re often labeled “weak” because nurturing and sensitivity are things that are stereotypically associated with women and femininity. And by framing these attributes as positive and heroic aspects of a male adventure hero, it goes a long way to challenging regressive gender expectations.

Now in order for us to understand just how revolutionary Newt’s performance of masculinity is, it’s useful to talk a little bit more about all the things he is not.

Newt is a british wizard who attended Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but Newt is not Harry Potter. He’s a Hufflepuff.

CLIP – Hufflepuff PSA, MTV After Hours (2016)
“Actually no, I’m a proud Hufflepuff!”

The house characterized by friendship, hard work, and humility. Hufflepuffs are said to be more down-to earth and much less competitive than the other three Wizarding houses.

Harry Potter, on the other hand, was sorted into Gryffindor. The house known for daring, nerve, chivalry, and prone to a fair bit of showing off. As such, Harry fits neatly into the pantheon of traditional Hollywood heroes. His is the archetypal hero’s journey.

We all know how these fantasy character arcs are supposed to unfold: an unsuspecting young man has adventure thrust upon him, and it turns out he’s the only one in the universe who can save the world, and thus he is transformed from shy nerdy guy into triumphant badass. It’s not uncommon for this evolution to involve fighting with some sort of flaming phallus. By contrast, Newt Scamander is not “the chosen one.” He does not have some fated cosmic burden that he alone must shoulder.

Some have compared Newt with Doctor Who because, well: British, bow-tie, and bigger on the inside but that’s where the similarities end. Newt does harbor a deep inner pain, but his personal struggle doesn’t manifest as arrogance. He’s not interested in showing off his power in grand gestures.

CLIP – Doctor Who (2010)
“So, all of time and space, everything that ever happened or ever will, where do you want to start?”

Newt is a humble caregiver who’s content with his personal goal, which, let’s remember, is writing textbooks. Albeit magical textbooks but still, that’s surprisingly unassuming for a fantasy adventure hero.

This means that, unlike Potter, Newt doesn’t possess super powered magic, nor is he plagued with self doubt about his abilities or his place in the magical world.

CLIP – Fantastic Beasts (2016)
“Well, sit down Mr. Scamander. We aren’t going to poison you.”

He’s a grown up, already comfortable with himself and confident in his wizarding skills, even if he remains uncomfortable around others.

I suspect that this point might be another reason why some critics weren’t fond of this new wizard protagonist. I think there’s an argument to be made that Newt exhibits the characteristic of someone on the autism spectrum. He’s awkward in social settings. He doesn’t like being touched. He feels intense empathy for others but has trouble connecting to people and making friends. And careful viewers will also notice his aversion to direct eye contact.

The film’s narrative never confirms this hypothesis one way or the other. Perhaps it’s simply how Eddie Redmayne decided to play the character, but whatever the case, it’s a testament to both the writing and the acting that Newt’s social anxieties are not framed in the stereotypical ways we’ve come to expect from Hollywood. Characters like this tend to fall into a few specific archetypes.

There’s the Tormented Genius: a brilliant but insufferable character who’s intelligent to the point of instability or mental illness, which is often framed as “the price” he must pay for his extraordinary talent.

There’s the Mad Scientist: a whimsical or bumbling character whose weird eccentricities are perhaps endearing to a degree, but are also played for comedy.

Then there’s the Sherlock Holmes archetype: a character possessing such a superhuman IQ that it leads to callousness and the inability or perhaps unwillingness to feel sympathy for other people.

CLIP – Sherlock (2010)
“Shut up!”
“But I didn’t say anything?”
“You were thinking. It’s annoying.”

But Newt isn’t too lost in his own mind or his own eccentricities to care about or empathize with other people, in fact quite the opposite, his sensitivity is where he excels. Critically, Fantastic Beasts doesn’t frame Newt’s social anxieties as an obstacle he must ultimately overcome in order to be a true hero. The narrative doesn’t require him to “toughen up” or learn to be more outgoing. Newt doesn’t fundamentally have to change his “way of being.” And the people who become his friends are those who interact and engage with him on his terms.

Newt does learn and grow over the course of his adventure but it’s a subtle more interpersonal growth. He learns to make friends and to trust them.

CLIP – Fantastic Beasts (2016)
“Everybody knows that Newt only kept me around because– Newt, why did you keep me around?”
“Because I like you. Because you’re my friend.”

And establishing these deep human connections is the core of his character development.

The ending of Fantastic Beasts is rather anticlimactic compared to most other action fantasy movies, and even compared to other films in the Harry Potter universe. As expected, there is a final showdown with a powerful and destructive magical force, but even here Newt’s actions are guided by his empathy.

CLIP – Fantastic Beasts (2016)
“I’m here to help you, Credence. I’m not here to hurt you.”

Rather than besting his foe in an epic magical duel, Newt approaches the conflict with an eye for de-escalation. Of course in the end, the malevolent force is vanquished but it’s not done by Newt’s hand. Even more surprising this triumph over evil isn’t shown to be a cause for celebration, it is instead framed as a melancholy event. Melancholy because our heroes failed to save the monster. I feel like I might need to say that again. In this movie defeating the monster is framed as a tragedy because they couldn’t save him. A fittingly unconventional conclusion to an unconventional Hollywood fantasy production.

It remains to be seen if Warner Brothers has the guts to keep Newt as the protagonist throughout all five films in the franchise. For her part, JK Rowling has said Newt will remain the star, at least for the next movie in the series, but within Hollywood there is no-doubt enormous pressure to shift the focus to a character who performs a more traditional and expected type of manhood. The studio has even hinted at demoting Newt’s role, and that would be a shame, because we need more movies that center a gentle empathetic version of heroic masculinity.

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