Today is Harry Potter’s (and his author’s) birthday, and I want to start this post with a quote from a scrapped draft I had written for the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone a few years ago:
19 years ago, Christmas Day, I opened a present from my aunt. It was a hard cover children’s book with a boy and a train on the cover. I didn’t know what it was, and when I spoke to her on the phone later that morning she said “Everyone’s talking about it, I think you’ll like it.” I was 9 years old at the time, a heavy reader and not very discriminating in taste, so I shrugged and started reading. It’s now been 20 years since the UK publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, I’m approaching my 28th birthday, and I’ve got plans to tattoo a Harry Potter quote somewhere on my body. As you can probably infer, J.K. Rowling’s generation-defining series has never lost a place in my life. So as the world celebrates #HarryPotter20, I sat down and thought about these books, what they mean to me (and to all of us), and what stands out about them 20 years later.
For me, the defining lessons in Harry Potter are of loyalty, friendship, tolerance, and standing up to oppression. The last book may have published 10 years ago, but don’t those sound like lessons we can still use today?
Like just about everything in 2020, looking back on this in our current situation just seems so quaint. So innocent. Better days. What we have now is that proverbial loss of innocence—in truth as in fiction, nothing gold can stay. Especially not when a beloved childhood figure has 24-hour access to Twitter and a desire to burn her empire to the ground. I’m referring, of course, to the media firestorm one JK Rowling has created by not only tweeting openly transphobic views, but digging her heels in when criticized. She brazenly picked up a shovel, and now all we can do is watch aghast as she digs her own (professional) grave.
If you know any Harry Potter fans—which, if you’re alive on this planet, you almost certainly do—then you know the warmth the series inspires in them. Just look at my old writing above. These books are a part of ourselves. JK Rowling outing herself as a bigot is not only surprising, but hurtful and, for some, worldview-shattering. How could the author whose works scientifically influenced an entire generation towards empathy now start spouting the very things she preached against? Sure, there are problematic elements in her books; Cho Chang’s name clearly comes from someone with zero knowledge of Asian culture and her portrayal of goblins as hooked-nose money-loving scrooges is certainly rooted in Anti-Semitic rhetoric. Claiming Dumbledore is gay after the publication of the novels was also a cause for consternation among some. However, for me, I was always willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. As a white British woman, Rowling’s heart was in the right place even if she should have consulted with at least one Asian person on Cho Chang (yes, this is a typical white thing to do). Her goblins are drawn from older fantasy models steeped in Anti-Semitism that she was not aware of. A learning experience, surely! I am certain she would not have been allowed to out Dumbledore as gay in-text at the time the novels were published. Now? Sure. In a 1990s-2000s children’s series? Absolutely not. Outing him afterwards was, at the time, a bold move. And most importantly, it tracks with the text. Reading Dumbledore as in love with Grindelwald makes sense and adds another dimension to the story.
But of course, that was over ten years ago. Times, they have a-changed. And instead of growing alongside her fans, Rowling seemed to veer off-path at some point. Maybe this sort of thing is just unavoidable with fame. Maybe it’s like the Joss Whedon phenomenon, where you pat someone on the back so much in the 90s that they never feel the need to grow or question themselves. Or maybe it’s just like that eternally relevant quote from The Dark Knight, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” (Speaking in terms of her reputation, here). Rowling has always batted for “woke points” on social media, and it has always had the vibe of someone who doesn’t quite get it. She supported the casting of Hermione as Black in The Cursed Child, which was lovely, but then she started trying to take credit for not making Hermione white? Even though she’s called white in the books? And then there was the whole insider info on Dumbledore’s sex life that no one asked for. There are fun background tidbits, and then there is telling the world that wizards just took dumps in the street for some reason. She was trying too hard when no one was asking her to.
All of that was weird, but it wasn’t outwardly vitriolic. This new tirade against trans rights isn’t just eccentric, it’s actively harmful and is, ultimately, a betrayal of the very world she built. In a heartfelt essay, trans author Kacen Callendar describes how “the books offered the foundation I needed to love myself at a time when I hated everything about me. The series helped me see that being different from most of society is powerful and magical. It gave me hope that hateful ignorance could be defeated and showed that love, literally, is the force that would save us all.” The sticking point here is love as the foundation of the books. How does Rowling’s stance on trans rights track with anything she’s written? How can she not see the hypocrisy? The fact that she has not taken the backlash as an opportunity for reflection, but rather as a cue to double down, is perhaps most troubling of all, because it signals a dangerous, willful ignorance. She is not accidentally repeating harmful rhetoric anymore; now she is choosing to do so, in the face of all sorts of educational resources—she has become her own villain.
So what do we do with Harry Potter now? I think the answer will be different for each fan, just as each fan’s relationship with the books is different. The age-old debate on authorial intent has been called back: is there value in it? What happens if we separate the author from the text? To what extent is that even possible? For me personally, it’s not very difficult to remove Rowling from the books, as at this point it feels like the books were written by a different person. But of course, I am a cisgender reader, so my experience is completely different than that of a trans fan, and I would not blame anyone for dumping the series altogether. Then there’s the whole question of monetary support—not too long ago I bought a Slytherin tie (yes, that is my house), and just looking around my apartment I have multiple pieces of Harry Potter merch. I can love the series without loving Rowling, but what happens if I stream the Harry Potter movies on Netflix? Does some portion of royalties go to her? I don’t know how Netflix works, but I do know that the movies got me through a rough period of quarantine and they are usually my go-to comfort viewing come Christmastime. I don’t want my comfort viewing to fund her hatred (maybe I’ll stick with the DVDs, which I of course own). I don’t know. It’s all so ugly.
If, like me, you find it too hard to divorce yourself completely from this series, I think as long as you engage with it consciously and responsibly, it might be okay. There is no ignoring Rowling, really, so I think this is an opportunity to engage with the books in new ways: look for those examples that clash with what Rowling is spewing these days. Look for the valuable teachings. Look, even, for the problematic parts, so that you can learn from them. I have a very young cousin experiencing the series for the first time, and it’s a heartwarming reminder that none of Rowling’s current rants have a place in that world. I saw someone on the Internet say that Hermione would hate Rowling (and Emma Watson’s own stance on trans rights delightfully supports this). I’d like to leave you with a beautiful quote from Harry himself, Mr. Daniel Radcliffe, written in a post for The Trevor Project; a quote that helped me a lot in navigating my own feelings toward the series:
“I really hope that you don’t entirely lose what was valuable in these stories to you. If these books taught you that love is the strongest force in the universe, capable of overcoming anything; if they taught you that strength is found in diversity, and that dogmatic ideas of pureness lead to the oppression of vulnerable groups; if you believe that a particular character is trans, nonbinary, or gender fluid, or that they are gay or bisexual; if you found anything in these stories that resonated with you and helped you at any time in your life — then that is between you and the book that you read, and it is sacred.”
For more on the subject, check out these links:
- Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Podcast: J.K. Rowling and Transphobia with Jackson Bird (This is one of my favourite podcasts, and this episode thoughtfully engages on the Rowling problem with input from trans fans)
- A helpful Twitter thread debunking Rowling’s pseudo-scientific claims
- The Gayly Prophet: A Queer Harry Potter Podcast
- “Other Magic Schools” by Rachel (I would like to also throw in The House in the Cerulean Sea, not so much a school as a magical orphanage + queer love story)