What do we do about Harry Potter? A discussion

I joined Bookstagram recently (hello, shameless plug! Follow me pls), the latest in a long line of lockdown entertainment activities, and an excuse to add another several to the ever increasing number of hours I spend glued to my phone. So far, my experience has been overwhelmingly positive, but there’s one thing that’s been bugging me.

I’m seeing a lot of Harry Potter love – and that has really surprised me.

It seems unlikely to me that anyone around here won’t be aware at this point, but in case you exist outside of my particular echo chamber, J.K. Rowling has not had a good year. Or, perhaps I should say, a significant number of her fans haven’t. What began as the liking of a few anti-trans posts (the innocent finger slips of a middle aged Twitter user, official statements insisted) has evolved over the past year into J.K.’s full on engagement with TERF-ery (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism – though she would rather you don’t call it that) a particularly insidious brand of anti-trans rhetoric where cisgender women claim that the advancement of transgender folks’ rights will result in the diminishment of their own. J.K.’s Twitter feed has since filled with further evidence of her transphobia and in recent weeks she has published an essay detailing her opposition to trans rights activism – a deeply hurtful piece of writing filled with damaging stereotypes, misinformation and a weird obsession with trans men (?) which seems to be rooted in the baffling idea that women transition because they would rather be a man than exist in a sexist world (?), as well as details of abuse and sexual assault she has suffered. What she went through sounds awful, and I have compassion for trauma she carries with her as a result – but she does not have the right to weaponise that trauma against a group more marginalised than herself.

This was really hard for Harry Potter fans. To a community that, broadly speaking, holds values like inclusivity and social justice highly, this revelation of J.K.’s own prejudice was heart-breaking, and pushed the already strained relations between the author and her fan base past breaking point.

Or at least that’s what I thought until I went onto Bookstagram and saw endless aesthetically pleasing posts with nothing but love for the wizarding world.

As it turns out, it’s by no means a phenomenon unique to Bookstagram – Rowling’s sales apparently have not been affected by her behaviour at all. The Guardian actually reported recently that Bloomsbury’s children’s division sales have grown 27% to £18.7m during lockdown, with the Harry Potter series highlighted as a particular best seller. Which, given the wealth of books out there written by people who don’t use their enormous public platforms to spread hate and misinformation about a marginalised group, I find quite depressing.

Now I’m not saying we should never read Harry Potter again. I get it – I’m a 1992-born Millenial. I was that Harry Potter kid, and all of my friends were too. Yes, my attachment to the series isn’t as heartfelt as it has remained for many, but nonetheless, seeing J.K. take this path hurt. What I am saying, however, is that we need to seriously re-evaluate our relationship with this series, and have a continuing conversation about the books, their author and her increasingly conservative and alienating perspective on gender identity.

As people do with any sort of heartbreak, fans have all decided to approach getting through this differently. According to The Atlantic, Harry Potter fan sites The Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet have approached the issue by ‘Voldemorting’ Rowling – that is, removing her name and picture from the website, like the wizarding world itself can be absolved of her sins if you just pretend hard enough that she doesn’t exist. I don’t think this is the right approach. I have never been able to get behind the notion of divorcing the art from the artist, the death of the author, etc – I think it’s dumb. More importantly, I think it’s a convenient means of avoiding accountability – for the author and for those who wish to engage with the material in a safe, unproblematised way only those who hold privilege can.

A better way of dealing with Rowling, as Aja Romano writes for Vox, is to break up with her. We must, as they so perfectly put it “minimise her cultural influence” – my new favourite description of what cancelling someone actually means. This minimisation, in my opinion anyway, isn’t possible by keeping on reading and loving Harry Potter as if its author hasn’t spoken out against one of the most marginalised communities in the world, and badly hurt many of her own fans, especially those who are trans and genderqueer, in the process.

There is so much that’s good about Harry Potter. A lot of people think the story had a hand in producing a (broadly speaking) progressive generation of young people. But the books were never perfect, and they were always filled with micro-aggressions readers have been unpacking for years, queer baiting, not to mention a very homogenous cast of characters. And, as Aja’s piece (which I really can’t recommend enough that you read) gets into in more detail, there was evidence of Rowling’s gender politics too.

But we love these books, I hear you say. The thing is, love is messy. It’s big and it changes over time. Most of all, love is complex – and our relationship with Harry Potter and the wizarding world has to be too. We can take the good of Harry and everything he taught us, but with the good we have to take the bad. That means holding the work and its author accountable for their failures, dissecting them, and placing them front and centre in our conversations about the series.

So, no, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t post about Harry Potter any more (though I can’t see myself wanting to engage any time soon), but that when we do so it should be with complexity – and with respect for those who are most hurt by Rowling’s views. When we talk about Harry Potter we need to ask, how did the wizarding world fail to live up to its own values? What does that failure mean? And, most importantly, how we can do better?

There are lots of answers to these questions. Ignoring the TERF in the room isn’t one of them.

Author: Lydia Tewkesbury

27. Loves a good story.

17 thoughts on “What do we do about Harry Potter? A discussion”

  1. Hmm, that’s an interesting take on this that I haven’t read before. In general I think the “death of the author” stance is super personal and varies from person to person. Most of the time when I read a book I know absolutely nothing about the author, nor do I give their political opinions/activism/whatever a second thought. So it’s easy for me to understand how people could just remove the author from the equation. That’s how I operate most of the time! But I also understand and respect your perspective about why it won’t work.

    I find it interesting that you brought up MuggleNet. Do you think fan sites and creators (like MuggleNet), who have traditionally led the way in unpacking the more nuanced perspective of the series and its problems, should continue to operate? If just removing the author from the equation doesn’t work for them, what do you think would? Just curious because the only options I see for them are to shut down or do what they’re doing.

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    1. I see what you mean. I’m definitely not digging into the politics of every author whose books I pick up, but I think it’s a little different when it comes to cases like JK Rowling who hold a very significant amount of cultural capital.

      That’s a really interesting question about the forums. Ultimately this was kind of a blind spot for me because I obviously don’t share the passion for this that the people who use those outlets have. I think that Rowling has to be a part of the conversation in some way – I mean they are her books ultimately. Part of loving something is being able to hold it up to a critical lens so I suppose the challenge for them going forward will be keeping the conversation nuanced – which from what I read while I was researching all of this I don’t doubt they are capable of achieving.

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      1. It sounds like one of the places that groups like Lumos and The Harry Potter Alliance are feeling frustrated is that they have *tried* to engage JKR in conversation so she can be a part of it, and it sounds like she’s just kind of blowing them off. Which is really too bad, because both of those groups have done a lot for the LGBTQ community.

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  2. Interesting topic and thoughts. I haven’t read anything from Rowling since I read HP years ago. I just wasn’t interested in her newer stuff, and so I feel like I already don’t give her publicity at this point. I never followed her, and I was older when I read the books so I wasn’t wrapped up in the HP word like a lot people. I think some stances are easier to divide from an author than others.

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  3. Great post. I’ve also been surprised by the limited backlash. I work at Barnes and Noble and I haven’t noticed any sort of downtick in sales. Personally, I’ve been absolutely devastated by all this because I was the biggest Harry Potter lover. I read the books hundreds of times. I had multiple HP themed birthday parties. I’ve sorted people into Hogwarts Houses obsessively my whole life. I went to midnight releases. I saw the movies in the theatres multiple times. I learned to love reading and writing because of Harry Potter. But everything that JKR has done recently has really hurt, and I can’t look at HP the way I used to… and it was SUCH a huge part of my life, and specifically my formative years. I want to be able to separate the two, and I think eventually I’ll be able to (but I’m not going to read or engage with any of her new works going forward) but right now I’m with you… I can’t imagine wanting to read them right now, and I definitely can’t imagine buying them for the first time right now. Like… you avoided reading them for all this time and NOW you’re interested in them? I kind of get why people my age (I’m 26, so right in the HP generation) can’t let go, but I’m surprised that younger people haven’t replaced Harry Potter with Percy Jackson (or something else that appeals to the same demographic but is more diverse/progressive).

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    1. Totally – there are just so many other options out there! It is very frustrating to me.

      It is hard to let go. Like you said, it was such a formative series for so many of us, and really was part of some people forming their identity. I’m sorry you’re going through the heart break of it all – it’s really shitty. I think it can still hold that place in your heart, you just have to allow the complexity of it all to live alongside it.

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  4. Very thoughtful post. I’ve seen a few others bring this up too. I didn’t get into HP until my junior of high school, but once I read the books and watched the movies, that was kind of it for me. It still sucks that someone with so much social presence would use her platform to promote her hurtful views.

    I’m really surprised about the sales not going down significantly.

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  5. Very insightful post, Lydia. It’s a tough one when it comes to what should we do about it all. I think the fact that it has barely affected sales is just because of how colossal the series is on a cultural level. I usually don’t look into the author too much except when their personal life explodes and everyone and their grandmas are talking about it. I’ve only read the first book of the series, and it was quite recently, and always planned on completing it myself. Although I want to finish that series, it won’t mean that I don’t know what hurtful point of view she has on certain subjects. It will be a bigger issue for me if I spot them in her books though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!

      Oh same – I’m not saying I Google the author of every book I read the check whether they are problematic. That is not realistic haha. I think that the impact is significant when the author in question holds as much cultural power as Rowling does, which is why I don’t feel like it’s right to go on reading Harry Potter as if nothing’s wrong. Like I said, I don’t think it means we can’t read, it just means we need to be engaging critically and with complexity.

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  6. I heard about JK’s trans opinions on Instagram. One lady said bye to her obsession with Harry Potter. That’s too much I feel. Can everyone entitled to having an honest opinions? Not everyone is perfect. She’s a great writer to me even though she’s against something that she shouldn’t. I will still read her books but I’m not her best friend so… 🤷‍♀️

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    1. That’s fair enough. I think I just always try and keep in mind that just because I’m not personally harmed by the things that she’s saying doesn’t make them any less significant. For me I guess ultimately there are just so many other authors I could be reading instead!

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  7. I’ve been thinking about this a lot myself, as someone who isn’t that huge a Harry Potter fan anymore the fact that JKR has turned out to be a TERF feels less personal to me. I definitely don’t feel like I have to never read the books again, but I think you’re right in that pretending she doesn’t exist does not resolve the issue either. She very much exists and has a lot of cultural and literal capital that she can use to fuel these views. I think that’s even more important considering what the plot of the new Robert Galbraith book turned out to be.

    Great post, will be following those links and taking a look at those too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my god I know! I was really disappointed to see that the plot of her latest Strike book doesn’t seem to have impacted sales at all. That’s what I mean when I say it’s important to talk about it – I feel like the vast majority don’t make a connection between her fiction and her views meaning they’re taking in some really problematic stuff lately uncritically. I wondered what it means for the TV show.

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