First off, I just have to say. JKR choosing to name the ONE East Asian character in the ENTIRE SEVEN BOOK SERIES “Cho Chang” just kinda feels a little tone-deaf. For one thing, Cho’s character is supposed to be CHINESE. “Cho” is a last name…..it’s a Korean last name. SMDH.
As a Filipina woman (well, I was just a kid back when I read the Potter books, but you know what I mean), I was SO excited when JKR introduced the first Asian character in the series: Cho Chang. And I was even more excited that she was Harry’s first crush. I mean, this was back in 2002, when I read Book 3 and Cho was first introduced. There was not a lot of diversity in films and books and entertainment at that time. I was so used to only seeing blonde-haired, blue-eyed female characters in films. I was so used the feeling that someone who looked like me would never be represented in a big film or book. I was so used to feeling like in order for me to be considered beautiful, I had to make myself look as Caucasian as possible. I remember thinking that when I was old enough (I was 10 at the time), I would dye my hair blonde and get colored contacts. I remember wishing I looked like those Caucasian girls I saw on my television, instead of appreciating my dark hair and dark eyes and olive skin. What an awful to way feel about yourself growing up — that the way you look is not beautiful because it’s different.
Representation is a HUGE topic that deserves more than just this post. The point of my little schpiel was that representation matters, even before I knew what representation meant, and I was excited to see that I could be represented, especially in my favorite books.
That joy lasted for about two books. Cut to Book 5, when Cho is painted out to be this hysterical, emotionally unstable crying machine whose best friend sells out Dumbledore’s Army to Umbridge and her weird squad. We’re almost made to hate Cho by the end of Book 5. Hell, I didn’t like her much by the end of Book 5 either. But at the same time, a small part of me felt kind of bummed. Like, this character had so much potential, but instead, she was relegated to being this weepy girl who turned out to be a traitor.
My biggest gripe with Cho’s portrayal is how much she’s described as “weak.” I realize that the books are written from Harry’s b̶i̶a̶s̶e̶d̶-̶a̶s̶s p̶r̶o̶-̶G̶r̶y̶f̶f̶i̶n̶d̶o̶r̶ f̶r̶a̶t̶t̶y̶ point-of-view, and at the time, Harry had his own shit going on, too. But it’s obvious in Book 5 that Cho was grieving. She was a teenager whose boyfriend literally got murdered — I mean that’s a lot even for an adult. Loss is tough, and when you think of a teenager going through that heavy of a loss, it makes you understand Cho’s position a little better. This kind of loss is trauma, and it frustrates me that Cho wasn’t given any kind of support system to deal with this. She was popular and pretty, but by the looks of it, she didn’t have a lot of close friendships that she could open up to about her loss. (I mean who did she have? Marietta? Marietta is basically the Karen of the Harry Potter books.) Any parent of a teenager who’s suffered this kind of traumatic loss would have put that teenager into counseling or something. But I’m quite sure that Hogwarts didn’t have a therapist. WHO did Cho talk to about the loss? Harry maybe, briefly, but this kind of trauma takes months, if not years, of processing and talking it out. The closest Cho had to an advocate was (surprise) Queen Hermione. Who, of course, is the only character smart enough and aware enough to know that Cho’s going through a lot. After Cho and Harry’s kiss, Harry was confused that Cho was crying — and Hermione had to remind him that Cho was dealing with a lot of heavy, conflicting feelings. Grief, over losing Cedric. Confusion, over how to handle it. Guilt, for liking Harry and wanting to pursue something with him. Stress from the everyday things like school, exams, Umbridge. I mean hell, just writing this and reading it back makes me stressed for Cho. Girl, you’re doing great. Keep your head up. Harry sucks.
Mourning the loss of someone you love is not a weakness, and it rubbed me the wrong way seeing it portrayed as a weakness with Cho, but not with other characters, especially Harry. It frustrated me seeing that, specifically with Cho, that having emotions, letting them show, letting yourself sit with those emotions — was viewed as a negative. It made her weak, weepy, needy. But, the other characters also dealt with similar emotions, yet they weren’t called weak, or weepy, or needy. They were simply…human. I can’t say whether JKR did this intentionally or not, or if this was some kind of subconscious bias, but having the East Asian character portrayed negatively for having emotions, processing loss — things that other white characters have dealt with as well, with not even half the backlash — doesn’t sit well with me.
It also bothers me that not enough of Cho’s positive attributes were written and shown. We do see that during Harry and Cho’s date at Hogsmeade, they did have a good time. They had some easy, fun conversation. They bonded over quidditch. There was mutual attraction and interest. Harry and Cho had something — even if it may not have been a lifelong-type thing. I wish that JKR hadn’t just thrown all that away, and turned Harry into basically every emotionally-stunted fuckboy ever, and turned Cho into what most boys think of as a nagging, overly-emotional-and-attached girlfriend. Cho should have been more portrayed in a more complete way. More attention should have been given to how she (and Harry! This is his loss too) were dealing with the loss of Cedric. More attention should have been given to how the loss of Cedric affected (and perhaps even set the tone of) Harry and Cho’s relationship. JKR should have shown us more scenes of Harry and Cho talking about this, unpacking this — definitely more than the one meager scene in the Room of Requirement after DA practice, where Harry just says that “Cedric DID know this stuff. He was really good.” Grief and loss are big themes in the Potter books — Harry should have been more sensitive to the grief that Cho was feeling, and her grief shouldn’t have been reduced to a character defect. And if Cho was a love interest for Harry, more time should have been devoted to developing her character and giving us a more well-rounded picture of who she was. More time should have been spent showing us moments of Cho’s happier, lighter side as well. As readers, we don’t just want to see why Harry and Cho didn’t work out — we also want to see some of the things that attracted Harry to Cho in the first place.
The final straw that broke up Harry and Cho was Cho defending Marietta, after Marietta told Umbridge about the DA. I think people act like Cho was the one who betrayed the DA (and in the movies, this is heavily implied — another thing Cho’s character didn’t deserve). But Cho didn’t sell out the DA. Marietta did. Cho didn’t like Umbridge, and she thought that the DA was the right thing to do in light of the Ministry’s interference at Hogwarts. Marietta’s actions were terrible — plain and simple. But it also says something about Cho’s character that she was able to understand Marietta and forgive her. Forgiveness takes a lot. It’s not easy. And it says something about Cho’s character that even though she didn’t agree with Marietta’s actions, she still defended her friend to the guy she was with. She realized how difficult it was for Marietta — how Marietta was worried about how getting into trouble with Umbridge might affect her parents, who work for the Ministry. I mean, it’s the same thing with Draco and trying to carry out Voldie’s demand of killing Dumbledore, even though he didn’t want to do it. Draco was doing it out of fear, for himself and for his family. People just do the best they can, but ultimately, they put the people they love above all else. And it’s unfair to say that Ron’s dad worked for the Ministry too, so why didn’t he rat out the DA? Marietta and Ron weren’t necessarily in the exact same positions. Ron was a natural rebel and didn’t care much for the rules. And he was Harry’s best friend. Marietta barely knew Harry. And from what we’re shown in the books, Marietta seems like a rule-follower. She seems like the type who's been taught to never give people a reason to call you out, to keep your head down and not get on people’s bad side.
I’m in no way trying to defend Marietta or side with her — she’s among my least favorite characters in the books. Marietta was a traitor, and the DA was important in defying the Ministry and preparing to fight Voldemort. But, I also do feel bad for Marietta, and for Cho. Because having to live with the word “SNEAK” written in pimples across your face is its own kind of trauma, and I don’t necessarily think Marietta deserved to have her face scarred for years, even if she did betray the DA. Nobody deserves something like that, not even a Karen. Cho was right — it was a cruel spell. I mean, let the SNEAK pimples fade after a few months — but not years. (Hermione’s got a bit of a dark side, I gotta admit.) So I do see how Cho would feel affronted seeing her closest friend on the receiving end of that sneaky spell (yes, pun intended).
What I personally wish we saw in Cho’s character arc? She should have stopped being Marietta’s friend after the DA debacle AND also stopped seeing Harry, choosing instead to focus on herself and find real friends who shared her values and who also supported her, emotionally and otherwise. Because that was something she really needed but didn’t have in Book 5. And in subsequent books, instead of showing Cho to be some kind of sore-loser who just faded into the background with Marietta, I wish JKR had given us small moments where Cho was seen to be doing well for herself. I hate that in subsequent books after OotP, Cho is always portrayed as upset or sad or pitiful. Like, let the girl thrive, FFS. It does irk me that this was the character arc of the one East Asian character in the books. They really did us dirty here.
What makes all this worse is that in Book 6, we get Harry/Ginny (Hinny? Garry? Ew.). And one of the biggest reasons Harry is attracted to Ginny is that she isn’t “particularly weepy.” She’s spitfire, she’s badass, blah blah blah. (Real talk though, she’s actually just a straight-up dick.) Their relationship works because it takes no effort on Harry’s part, and Ginny has zero emotional needs. It’s so unfair to Cho to paint her as this overly emotional person during a time when she was clearly going through a great deal of grief, and contrast her with this badass (white) girl who rarely cries and keeps all her emotions bottled up. The girl who “gets the hero,” is the exact opposite of Cho. She’s a (white) girl who isn’t weepy and who is tough, as though Asian women can’t be tough. And as though being tough means never crying and never letting your emotions show. I hate that these women are pitted against each other, one portrayed to be weak, and one portrayed to be “tough”— when they should both simply be portrayed as human.
I do take issue with the fact that Harry’s “superior” love interest is white, and his inferior love interest, who also happens to be the one East Asian character in the books, is painted to be this emotionally fragile, weak, weepy girl. That trope is so obviously problematic for so many reasons, and I hate that my favorite book series in some way perpetuates this stereotype. I’m aware that race and racial demographics and interracial relationships are viewed slightly differently in the US vs the UK, but I still feel like I have to mention that some of Cho’s character attributes DO play into some kind of weak, submissive stereotype that has been prescribed to women like me in many instances. I know that not everyone might agree with me on this, but I do feel that race may have played a bit into Cho’s portrayal. And frankly, I’m so sick of women like me being portrayed this way. I’m so sick of women like me being fetishized and objectified, or being relegated to outdated stereotypes. If I sound upset, it’s because I am. You would be too, if for the longest time, your only representation in films were Long Duk Dong, the landlord from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, anything dealing with martial arts or geishas, or the token Asian character in a sea of whiteness. Women like me aren’t a quota to fill so that you don’t seem racist; we aren’t an idea; we aren’t a novelty — we’re people. And Asian characters deserve to be represented and developed in thoughtful ways; they deserve to be portrayed as human and flawed and complex and beautiful.
Look, it’s fine if Cho wasn’t meant to be Harry’s person, and they broke up because perhaps they were just different people, or they wanted different things, or they didn’t have much in common outside of quidditch. People rarely end up with their first boyfriend/girlfriend, much less their first crush. And I mean, is Harry really that much of a catch? It’s debatable.
If Harry and Cho were never meant to be endgame, their reasons for breaking up should have been one (or all) of the above. Maybe Cho wasn’t quite over Cedric and needed to grieve more, and Harry respected that because he understands loss. (Fuck, Harry, you should have been understanding of this. YOU SAW CEDRIC DIE, FFS.) Maybe Harry realized that he only liked the idea of Cho, but as they got to know each other, he just wasn’t feeling it anymore. Maybe Cho got sick of how Harry always forgets important dates and leaves her on “read,” so she dumped him. Maybe Cho got tired of the fact that Harry was never supportive and didn’t take the time to understand her needs. I don’t know — any other reason would have been better than what we were given in the books. Cho’s portrayal just makes me a bit sad — both Cho and Ginny were wasted opportunities for developing interesting characters. Instead, we get one-sided, poorly developed characters, each one the opposite of the other. I would have loved to see both these characters given their own kind of development, separate from each other — developed simply as two witches with their own personalities and complexities and strengths and flaws that make them so wonderfully human.