The Harry Potter Fandom Can't Erase J.K. Rowling

July 6, 2020  —  Tagged as: cancel-culture, jk-rowling

I’ve talked a bit about J.K. Rowling and the reaction to her tweets about trans people and biological sex. The controversy continues to rage on, weeks later, and she has trended on Twitter multiple times for additional tweet threads. At one point, horror author Stephen King seemed to imply support for her via a retweet and then seemingly backpedaled with an unequivocal “trans women are women” when pressed for clarification, much like he backed down when criticized for saying that he nominates films for Oscars based on merit rather than considering diversity. The man has some good thoughts, but he’s also apparently got the backbone of a pool noodle. And he’s not alone: for all Rowling’s fame and author “friends,” all of whom would’ve been crowding to cozy up to her a few weeks ago, there have been almost none willing to stand up for her publicly. Again, all she did was express concerns about the extent of trans activism while making it clear she does acknowledge and care about trans people. Some degree of disagreement is understandable; exiling her is not. But the pressure has never been higher to excommunicate Rowling or be labeled a transphobe. There are real-life consequences to speaking up: one children’s author who expressed support, Gillian Philip, was summarily fired from the company that employed her as one of several authors writing under the “Erin Hunter” pseudonym. So it’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that few people dare to wade into the Devil’s Snare of woke scolding to defend Rowling.

Within online Harry Potter communities, the anti-Rowling sentiment is at similarly high levels. Members of the community, or “fandom,” have taken varying approaches to handling the revelation that the creator of a beloved children’s book series has beliefs that differ from their own. To contextualize this, you first need to understand the nature of fandom, and the Potter fandom in particular. Fans who participate in online communities aren’t just people who read the first book or once bought it for their niece. These are the fans who have Hogwarts posters plastered on their walls, who pride themselves on knowing obscure trivia about bowtruckles, who have Potter-themed weddings and the Deathly Hallows symbol tattooed on their shoulder. In moderation, I’m entirely supportive of this enthusiasm and passion for fictional worlds. Fandom can be a positive thing—as someone who has participated in it myself, there’s something joyous about being able to nerd out over a very niche topic with random people on the Internet. That part of fandom is great. A problem only arises if you go too deep and start to believe that these fictional worlds belong to you, and that the concerns of your online, fandom-focused existence are as important as real life.

Needless to say, people who participate in fandom are all across the spectrum of investment level, ranging from “I read the books twice because I really like them” to “I have a life-size replica of Moaning Myrtle above my toilet.” It’s also worth emphasizing that Harry Potter is a very special case. It’s by far the most popular and most expansive fandom in the history of fandom. Not only was it an unbelievably popular cultural phenomenon, but the books’ release across a span of ten years (followed by the movies for another few years), meant that it wasn’t just a flash in the pan: many people grew up with Harry. This lends a special sort of sentimentality and nostalgia for people’s love for the series. For some, this just means a healthy affection for the book and its characters. For others, it means that they see Harry Potter as so pivotal to their development that it’s still heavily linked to their values and identity.

Those in the latter category seemed to give the most vehement responses to Rowling, with levels of unbridled emotion proportional to their attachment to the series. The comments on Rowling’s tweets included tearful accounts of destroyed childhoods, disgust that someone so allegedly reprehensible had created something they loved so much, professed trauma at the idea that their former favorite author was a bigot, and insistent declarations that Harry Potter himself would be more supportive of trans people. (And then, of course, there were the flat-out abusive comments she received from assholes who think bombarding a woman with online hate is fighting bigotry.)

There’s a lot to unpack here.

Let’s say I agreed with the idea that Rowling tweeting critiques of trans activism constitutes bigotry. I like Harry Potter a lot and have dabbled in its online communities, so if I really thought Rowling was transphobic, I would be very disappointed. But it wouldn’t break my heart or shatter my worldview, because although I’ve generally always appreciated the books and Rowling herself, they’re not particularly integral to my life. I think the average person’s reaction would be “well, that really sucks,” and then they’d continue scrolling. I can be sure this would be my reaction because authors whose books I like post things I vehemently disagree with all the time! And yes, it does suck, but it doesn’t cause me anything close to trauma. My values and identity are untouched, and I still read their books.

But here’s the difference between the average person and the folks breaking down in Rowling’s mentions: not only is the Harry Potter fandom essential to them, but so is the inviolability of self-defined identity. In their eyes, you are whatever you say you are, and that self-professed identity is unassailable. Rowling’s comments shake them in part because she questions the idea of unlimited self-definition: if you are a male and say you are a woman, she says, you are still biologically male. To many activists, this questioning of unlimited self-definition is tantamount to attacking their very existence, when in reality it only seeks balance and clarity.

To be clear: society should treat trans people with compassion and respect, and that generally includes acknowledgement of their post-transition gender. I believe Rowling thinks the same. But no degree of transition changes a trans person’s biological sex, nor does it change the fact that there are real concerns about the extent of current activism’s demands. I don’t agree with everything Rowling said in her tweets or essay. I couldn’t disagree more with the statement “we’re living through the most misogynistic period I’ve experienced,” and I think she overestimates the risk of male violence (likely because of her experience with abuse), including the likelihood that a man would pretend to be a woman to access a female-only space like a changing room. But Rowling did hit on multiple points that are important to discuss. It’s true that some people rush to transition and later regret it (there are multiple articles on the small but growing population of detransitioners), and that external influences have an impact on the rate of transitions. It’s also true that unquestioning acceptance of any self-defined gender could be taken advantage of—again, I don’t claim this is common, but it is a concern that should be discussed rather than shouted down. And it’s true that biological sex remains a crucial distinction. In the realms of sports or medicine, for example, it is undeniable that biological sex makes a difference in outcomes and treatment. Warping the definition of “man” and “woman” to mean “whatever you say you are” rightfully yields a plethora of concerns, confusions, and risks. “People who menstruate” are biologically women, and people who have penises are biologically men. A trans woman can live as a woman, and be treated in the vast majority of situations as if she is one, but she will always biologically be male. There is nothing wrong with that. It is entirely possible to respect a trans woman or trans man without pretending that their biological sex never existed (see Blaire White and Buck Angel for pro-biological-sex trans perspectives on this).

The effort to erase or obscure biological sex parallels the attempts to erase Rowling herself from the Harry Potter community. A significant portion of the online Harry Potter fandom has concluded that Rowling’s views constitute unforgivable bigotry, and in the ensuing upheaval they’ve been faced with the decision of what to do next. The fandom is split on how to cope. Some of them have vowed never to read Potter again, but they’re a minority; remember, Harry Potter is a large part of their lives, and it’s not so easy to throw away. A handful of bookstores have declared they will stop selling or producing Potter-related products, but only a handful. Harry Potter is still very, very profitable, and they know it. A larger contingency of fans has decided to continue being Potter fans while denouncing Rowling and/or doing their best to pretend she doesn’t exist.

Book Twitter has proceeded in its usual excessive fashion, cancelling anyone who voices support for Rowling or even anyone who still follows her on Twitter (because following someone must mean unqualified agreement with everything they say):

Screenshot of someone posting on Twitter stating: 'Look. I will be unfollowing everyone who still follows JKR at the end of this week. In fact, I will be soft blocking. I don't care if you're a fellow author, an agent, editor, whatever. If you can't even do this barest minimum then you're not actually an ally after all.'

Multiple Booktubers have sworn they’ll no longer talk about Harry Potter on their channels. Meanwhile, the community jokes that the series was written by other woke-friendly celebrities like Daniel Radcliffe or Emma Watson, or that it spontaneously wrote itself. And then there’s stuff like this:

Screenshot of someone posting on Twitter responding to a Tweet about a scene from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in which a wizard wears a women's nightgown. The response states: 'This is why you cannot divorce an author from their work. JKR's ideals about gender are infused into her storytelling. There is cissexism woven into those books and it always been there [sic]; people just weren't looking.'

Say what now? I agree that you can’t fully divorce an author from their work (more on that later), but the accusation of “cissexism” is ridiculous. That’s largely because the concept of “cissexism” is uber-woke excess to begin with. It’s defined as “the belief or assumption that cis people’s gender identities, expressions, and embodiments are more natural and legitimate than those of trans people,” and it “operates as a subtle web of ideas that many people hold based on the assumption that all people are cisgender.” Phrased differently, it means that most people generally assume that others are the gender they were born with, unless informed otherwise.

Sorry, but most people are cisgender. So that’s a pretty reasonable assumption. As of 2016, only 0.6% of American adults identified as trans. The number has likely increased since, but we’re still talking about a tiny fraction of the population. The accusation inherent in “cissexism” is that society is bigoted for not throwing away mental frameworks based on 99% of the population, ostensibly for the sake of less than 1% of the population who don’t adhere to those frameworks. Behaviors listed as “cissexist” include only having free tampons available in the women’s room (and none available in the men’s room), and asking people to identify their gender as male or female on official forms. I’m sympathetic to the struggles of trans people when it comes to societal acceptance, and I support actions that improve their comfort without encroaching on the rights of others, but I’ll never support something as radical as throwing away all assumed gender distinctions. Accusations of cissexism are the equivalent of saying that hair care commercials are discriminatory because some people are bald. Most people do have hair, and we can be understanding of people who are bald, but we’re not going to stop talking about hair just because they don’t have it.

A few years ago, I was part of a work-related online community that included a section of the forum specifically dedicated to the concerns of women in the workplace. One day, someone brought up a conversation about periods. In response, one individual lodged a complaint that to speak about menstruation made the women’s thread a non-inclusive space, because not all women menstruate. The moderator ultimately ruled that menstruation was an appropriate topic for the women’s thread, but the insanity of that complaint stuck with me. The majority of women do have periods, or are at least familiar with them. If menstruation can’t be discussed in a women’s space, where can it be discussed?! This is the logic of “cissexism” and extreme trans activism. Instead of talking about how we can increase the comfort of the small group of trans people within the existing framework of gender, they demand that society burn the framework to the ground.

This is all to say that the tweet is grasping at straws, trying to dig up nonexistent evidence of Rowling’s “transphobia” in her books. The Harry Potter scene in question involves a wizard from the Ministry of Magic “almost crying with exasperation” as he tries to convince another wizard to wear trousers instead of the flowery nightgown he’s wearing, because it’s drawing the attention of Muggles (non-magic folks) when the wizards are supposed to be laying low.

“Just put them on, Archie, there’s a good chap. You can’t walk around like that, the Muggle at the gate’s already getting suspicious—”

“I bought this in a Muggle shop,” said the old wizard stubbornly. “Muggles wear them.”

“Muggle women wear them, Archie, not the men, they wear these,” said the Ministry wizard, and he brandished the pinstriped trousers.

“I’m not putting them on,” said old Archie in indignation. “I like a healthy breeze ’round my privates, thanks.”

It’s a hilarious scene, because yes, it is both funny and unusual when a person who’s obviously a man wears women’s clothing. Archie does not appear to be trans. He’s just wearing a flashy nightgown that he has no idea is women’s clothing, because he “likes a healthy breeze.” To say the Ministry official is acting as the “wizard police” mischaracterizes the interaction, as they’re already acquainted and he’s clearly trying to persuade Archie rather than ordering him to change. And most importantly of all, Archie’s refusal to change from the nightgown is portrayed as endearing! Absolutely everyone loves Archie! Pretending this interaction is proof of Rowling’s transphobia is utter nonsense. It’s proof that she thinks a dude wearing a flowery nightgown is funny, and sue me, I do too.

That’s just about all you need to know about the discourse on Twitter. Meanwhile, the majority of online Harry Potter communities have issued statements condemning Rowling and offering full-throated affirmation for “trans women are women.” MuggleNet and Leaky Cauldron, two of the largest Harry Potter fansites, released joint statements on their stance.

As this fandom enters its third decade, J.K. Rowling has chosen this time to loudly pronounce harmful and disproven beliefs about what it means to be a transgender person. In addition to the distaste we feel for [Rowling’s] choice to publish these statements during Pride Month—as well as during a global reckoning on racial injustice—we find the use of her influence and privilege to target marginalized people to be out of step with the message of acceptance and empowerment we find in her books and celebrated by the Harry Potter community.

Although it is difficult to speak out against someone whose work we have so long admired, it would be wrong not to use our platforms to counteract the harm she has caused.

Overall, the statement is mild compared to the torrents of Rowling hate elsewhere. MuggleNet even includes an addendum acknowledging Rowling’s experience of domestic violence. What stuck out to me, however, was the sites’ planned action items to create a more inclusive space. Here are MuggleNet’s announced changes (Leaky Cauldron’s are similar, but less detailed).

We will no longer…

  • include purchase links for J.K. Rowling’s work set outside of the wizarding world.
  • link to J.K. Rowling’s website.
  • use any featured images with J.K. Rowling’s likeness.
  • use J.K. Rowling’s name in the excerpt.
  • We will avoid using J.K. Rowling’s name in the title as often as possible.

These policies apply to pages and how they are presented in the navigation menu:

  • Existing purchase links have been removed.
  • The J.K. Rowling category and its subcategories (Cormoran Strike Series, The Casual Vacancy) have been hidden from the post feed that appears on the home page of the site.
  • The “J.K. Rowling” menu has been moved from our main navigation menu to under the “Muggle World” heading so that it does not appear when viewing our site but readers can still seek out the information.

The implications are clear: they are doing their best to pull an “evanesco” (vanishing spell) on Rowling herself, while continuing to participate in the world she created. They will avoid showing her face, name, or website, and won’t support her work outside of Harry Potter. This Stalin-esque attempt at erasing the series creator is especially wild when you realize that these sites are for-profit companies who are only able to operate because Rowling allows them to. They’re trying to shut her out while continuing to profit off of her world and work. Astoundingly ballsy move. It’s only Rowling’s graciousness that keeps them in business.

Emerson Spartz, the founder of MuggleNet, did speak up after the site announcement to state that Rowling is not transphobic. Rowling expressed her thanks on Twitter, and was clearly appreciative of the rare show of support from a prominent figure in the community. Unfortunately, Spartz sold MuggleNet a few months ago, so he no longer has any influence over its stance or policies.

Meanwhile, many angry fans have claimed that Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and other characters would condemn Rowling’s views. The audacity of claiming to know the stances of Rowling’s own fictional characters, whose personalities Rowling knows better than anyone, is incredible. Fans’ confidence in doing so is probably underscored by the fact that the actors from the Potter movies have also spoken up against Rowling’s statements, and the actors are still widely seen as avatars for the characters. The sense of self-righteousness is also underpinned by opinions like this:

Screenshot of someone posting on Twitter stating: 'I don't know how to unravel Harry Potter from my DNA but I do know that the Harry Potter I love does not belong to JKR any longer and she does not deserve the platform she has with her hateful and bigoted beliefs. HP belongs to its beautiful, diverse, loving fandom.'

These are the mental gymnastics that happen when fans disagree with Rowling but cannot bear the thought of letting go of the Harry Potter world. “The Harry Potter I love does not belong to JKR any longer.” Sorry, but that’s not even remotely true. They’re her characters, her stories, her work, and her intellectual property. It’s true that fandom expands beyond the confines of the original books, and that fans consequently can have deep involvement and attachment in activities associated with the series. But their attachment to the series does not entitle them to ownership of it. It ultimately belongs to J.K. Rowling and J.K. Rowling only. If she wanted to fuck over those for-profit Harry Potter communities and shut them down, she could do it faster than you could say Quidditch. But she won’t, because despite everything, she cares about her fans.

The truth is that no matter how hard people try, they can never erase J.K. Rowling from the world of her own creation. That crazy “cissexism” tweet about Archie and the nightgown was right about one thing: you can never fully separate an author from their work, especially a pair so universally renowned as Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling. Yes, I’m familiar with Death of the Author, but I’ve never really agreed. In general I think it’s a worthy goal to view a work on its own merits, regardless of who wrote it, but the author’s intentions and values do carry weight. You can never 100% separate the work and its creator. Not only is it ultimately the author’s intellectual property, but some element of the author’s self will always be reflected in their creations.

And that’s the saddest irony: J.K. Rowling’s values and beliefs ARE woven into the Harry Potter series. But those views aren’t bigotry or transphobia. They’re the themes of friendship, love, and courage, of standing up for what you believe is right. Harry Potter fans say they learned these values from the books, and that’s in part why they love them, but they now conveniently ignore the fact that Rowling is the one who taught them those values. Any moral compass that Harry or Hermione or Ron follows was given to them by their creator. The message of Harry Potter is ultimately one of hope and love, because that’s what Rowling wanted it to be.

So, Potter fans: is Rowling is a sociopathic monster who’s remarkably good at pretending she cares about love and compassion and has hoodwinked everyone for two decades? Or is she perhaps not a monster at all—just someone you disagree with on one very specific topic? Occam’s razor applies: the simplest explanation is most likely.

Rowling is doing exactly what her books encouraged: standing up for what she believes, even if it’s unpopular. I disagree with her on many things, but I respect her for speaking up and standing her ground under fire on a topic that is important to her. Her principles, as seen in her books and in real life, are the same as they’ve ever been.

And she isn’t going anywhere.

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