Is Rowling's “Troubled Blood” Transphobic?

October 31, 2020  —  Tagged as: cancel-culture, jk-rowling, book-review

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Troubled Blood, the fifth book in the Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling).

The Internet has a new favorite game: “how many times can J.K. Rowling be cancelled?” Since Rowling’s tweets over the summer inspired accusations of transphobia, Rowling’s every move is scrutinized more closely than ever, and her books are no exception. Ever since its release on September 15th, the latest installment in the Cormoran Strike series, Troubled Blood, has been flooded with controversy over whether its plot is just another manifestation of Rowling’s allegedly TERF-y views.

Large swathes of Twitter are convinced of the book’s bigotry, despite few of them having actually read the book. When the rumors first surfaced that Rowling’s upcoming book was transphobic, the backlash was swift and unquestioning. The unsubtle hashtag #RIPJKRowling trended, and a viral tweet from some Irish pop stars suggested burning the book (supposedly a joke). It’s also stirred up controversy among professional reviewers. One of the earliest reviews from The Guardian’s Jake Kerridge, which helped kick off the social media firestorm, described the moral of the book as “never trust a man in a dress.” Pieces from Laura Bradley of The Daily Beast, Kelly Lawler of USA Today, and Emily Kirkpatrick of Vanity Fair come to the same conclusion that Troubled Blood illustrates Rowling’s profiting off spreading bigoted ideas (Bradley), her “hate” (Lawler), and her “commitment to transphobia” (Kirkpatrick). Other reviewers defended the book, including Nick Cohen of The Spectator and Alison Flood of The Guardian, indicating that the accusations were overblown (Flood) or entirely unfounded (Cohen).

Given the strong feelings the book inspired, I wanted to find out for myself whether the accusations had any merit. I bought the book just as it was released in September. I’m a bit late to the game on reviewing it or evaluating its message, because it’s taken me over a month to wade my way through this 944-page doorstopper of a novel. Having finally completed it, I can confidently say that the most valid criticism levied against Troubled Blood is its entirely unnecessary length. It’s ridiculously long-winded, and I often found my patience wearing thin with its dragging out of the narrative and precious little accompanying stakes or suspense. So yes, the book is guilty of verbosity. But transphobia? Let’s talk about that.

First, a little background: Troubled Blood is the fifth book in a mystery series about private detective Cormoran Strike and his investigative partner Robin Ellacott. In this book, they are asked to investigate a cold case from the 70s. One rainy night, a doctor named Margot Bamborough had vanished without a trace, leaving behind her husband and baby daughter. Most people believe she was murdered. One of the prime suspects is serial killer Dennis Creed, who abducted, tortured, and murdered over a dozen women before being found and jailed. Creed is notoriously cagey about murders that are suspected but not proven to be his doing.

In the real world, Creed as a character is the center of the transphobia controversy. In order to lure women into his van, Creed is known to use his femininity to his advantage. His former landlord, who had no idea he was brutally torturing women in his basement apartment, was never suspicious because she perceived him as non-threatening: “soft-spoken, apparently gentle, slightly feminine. Creed liked putting on her feather boa, and he pretended to like show tunes, so she thought he was a gay man.” Multiple characters initially assume that Creed is either gay or a woman, and he uses those assumptions to get behind their guard. On several occasions, he wears wigs or women’s clothing while attempting to coax victims into his van: “Dennis Creed had been a…genius of misdirection…dressed in the pink coat he’d stolen from Vi Cooper, and sometimes wearing a wig that, from a distance, to a drunk victim, gave his hazy form a feminine appearance just long enough for his large hands to close over a gasping mouth.”

This is what trans activists took as illustrative of transphobia. I understand why this perception emerged—Rowling’s critics have been closely watching her behavior for further signs of the alleged bigotry, and when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But there are several issues with this take, which become clear if you’ve actually read the book.

First, let’s be precise about the context: Dennis Creed is a man who occasionally cross-dresses, not a trans person. Creed shows zero interest in actually becoming a woman. He does enjoy cross-dressing as well as voyeurism, and in his youth was known to steal, wear, and masturbate in women’s underwear. These proclivities aside, the primary role his cross-dressing plays in the book is that of a tool—a way to shape others’ perceptions of him and lull them into a false sense of security. “In a wig, bit of lipstick…they think you’re harmless, odd…maybe queer. …You act concerned… That’s when you prove you’re not a threat,” he tells Strike, bragging about his methods for abducting women.

Some critics seem to be arguing that the very existence of a serial killer character who uses cross-dressing to hoodwink victims is evidence that the author fears or hates trans people. This is a large leap in logic. To believe this, you must accept the extraordinarily wobbly premise that if a villain has particular uncommon or marginalized characteristics (in this case, cross-dressing), the author must hate those characteristics. That is some fallacious and convoluted mind-reading. Furthermore, if it was a prevailing rule of narrative that an author should not write evil characters with certain characteristics, it would be quite a disservice to creative storytelling and diversity within that storytelling. If the existence of a murderous female character who used her sexuality to seduce her victims could only mean that the creator hated women, we’d be deprived of some fascinating femme fatales! True diversity means that characters with diverse or unusual characteristics can and should be antagonists as well as protagonists.

With that said, Creed is also far from the first murderous villain to cross-dress (see Psycho, for example). I would hazard a guess that far fewer readers would be offended by Creed if they didn’t know that Rowling was his creator. Pretty much every accusation that Troubled Blood is transphobic points to Rowling’s previous tweets and posts as the ultimate proof. That stance yields two issues. First, Rowling’s statements were not transphobic to begin with (for my full arguments on that, see my previous post). Second, even if you fully believe that Rowling is a transphobic bigot, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the book itself is transphobic: the content of the book itself must be evaluated separately from its author in order to be objective. You cannot say that Rowling is transphobic and that’s why her plot point of a cross-dressing serial killer is also transphobic. Your knowledge of the author can and should be a contributing factor in your evaluation of content, but it cannot be your only foundation for judgment. If your opinion of a plot point changes on the sole basis of who is writing it, you’re not basing your opinions in objective truth, you’re just a hammer seeing everything as a nail. And if you DO believe that having a cross-dressing serial killer character is transphobic no matter who writes it, good job being consistent, but my earlier point applies: a villain’s characteristics do not inherently indicate anything about the author’s views of those traits.

I’ve just argued that the content of the book is the most crucial element of determining whether the book is transphobic, so let’s talk more about the content of the book, namely Creed’s cross-dressing and its role. (Warning: major spoilers follow!)

Creed is an important character, but his cross-dressing is far from the focus. It’s simply the means by which he weaponizes the appearance of vulnerability. And I believe it’s clear from the book that the problem is not Creed’s cross-dressing, any more than the problem is his feminine features or the fact that he’s a man: the problem is that he tortures and kills people! He’s a serial killer who happens to cross-dress, and that says nothing about cross-dressers (or trans people, none of whom are in this book) in general. Jake Kerridge of The Guardian alleged that the book’s moral was “never trust a man in a dress,” but that couldn’t be further off-base. The true theme of the book is best illustrated by the most pivotal reveal in the book: the person who murdered Dr. Margot Bamborough was not Creed, but a now-elderly nurse named Janice Beattie. Janice, who from all appearances seems like a kindly helper-type with a heart of gold, is exposed as a serial killer who has poisoned dozens of victims under the guise of helping them. She’s given countless “medicines” that turned out to be toxins, slipped many a fatal dose into a drink or food item, and gotten away with it because she seemed like just another caring healthcare worker.

Kerridge’s declaration of mistrust for cross-dressers as the moral of the story is particularly ludicrous under this revelation. Creed is not even the central murderer in the case! The ultimate betrayal and deception is carried out by the nurse Janice. Janice abused her position, the reputation of nurses, and her own feminine, caring appearance to murder people. If we were to extract a simplistic moral from the book, it would be far more likely to be “never trust a nurse” than “never trust a man in a dress!” But of course that would be absurd, because who would assume that the book is taking an anti-nurse stance simply because the murderer is a nurse? Hmm…

Janice takes advantage of assumptions and the appearance of vulnerability and kindness in the same way that Creed does, and that is the point. As Robin notes, “We’ve all got a tendency to generalize from our own past experiences,” which caused people to assume that a feminine man or a caring nurse was less likely to be violent. As Strike muses after Janice’s arrest, “Like the women who’d climbed willingly into Dennis Creed’s van, he’d been hoodwinked by a careful performance of femininity. Just as Creed had camouflaged himself behind an apparently fey and gentle facade, so Janice had hidden behind the persona of the nurturer, the selfless giver, the compassionate mother.” Strike’s own experience with kind and caring nurses had blinded him to the possibility that Janice could be the murderer, just as Creed’s victims’ experiences with feminine men had led them to assume that Creed was “safe.” The conclusion of the book has nothing to do with cross-dressing and everything to do with the fact that not everyone is what they seem, and that people make assumptions based on their biases.

That idea becomes amusingly “meta” when you think about how people have made assumptions about this book, without ever reading it, because of their biases towards Rowling herself.

I think I’ve made it clear where the activists are wrong about this book. Troubled Blood is not remotely transphobic. Cross-dressing is a minuscule part of the plot that has very little to do with the book or its message, and activists’ laser-focus on that element of the plot says more about their biases than about the book’s author.

So, is there anything that the activists are right about? Well, they’re right that the book is not unaffected by Rowling’s beliefs. The themes explored in Troubled Blood reflect some of Rowling’s frequently discussed causes and values. Feminism in particular is a strong feature of this narrative: in the story of Margot Bamborough, a female doctor in the 70s who holds her head high, achieves success in her career, and mentors fellow women while colleagues make sexist comments or critique her bunny-girl past; and in the subplot around Robin Ellacott, who has to deal with disrespect, unwanted advances, and dick pics from a new male employee of the detective agency before finally firing him for his behavior. In the same vein, the book also does touch on the potential of male violence against women, especially in revisiting Robin’s traumatic sexual assault, Creed’s murders, and a gang’s horrific rape and murder of a woman who turned police informant. At the same time, it’s not one-sided, as Robin herself notes: “Her job reminded her almost daily of the many ways in which men and women could hurt each other.”

I’m afraid that these themes and subplots, along with the unfolding of the book’s central mystery, are lost amid the myopic obsession over Creed’s cross-dressing. I would encourage anyone who believes this book to be transphobic to a.) actually read it, so that any critiques can be informed, and b.) to question why they believe it’s transphobic. Would they think it transphobic if they didn’t know Rowling wrote it? If so, why do they think a book is anti-trans when it contains a cross-dressing murderer, but don’t think it’s anti-nurse when it features a serial killer nurse?

I can only hope that the majority of people see that transphobia accusations against this book are unfounded, largely driven by misguided early reviews, a Twitter trend, and certain activists’ anger towards Rowling. If sales are any indication, the book hasn’t been hurt by the controversy: it sold over 64,000 copies in its first week and was the number one bestselling book in the UK, giving it the best week of sales for any book in the Cormoran Strike series so far. In a literary world where knee-jerk reactions, black-and-white thinking, and ill-conceived cancellations abound, seeing Rowling’s success despite that environment is deeply reassuring, and is a gleam of hope for those who want to have the same courage to say what they believe.

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