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.

Should Characters be Likeable?

Earlier in the week I reviewed Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. It was one of those novels that I couldn’t help but feel had waited for me until it knew that it was the right time, that I was in the right head space. That I needed it.

But the truth is, the book had me riled before I even started reading. In his introductory essay, Something About Maria, David Thompson spends some time dwelling on the question of Maria, the protagonist of Play It As It Lays, and her likeability.

Even with no knowledge of her at that point, I could only engage with the debate in the form of some serious side eye.

Are we REALLY still talking about this?

FYI, this blog post is about gender equality in being shitty.

Let me explain myself.

When a male character acts like an asshole, but as the protagonist of the story we are drawn to him anyway, he is called an anti-hero. A Don Draper. Logan from Veronica Mars. Every male lead in every detective show ever. He’s awful, but sexy. Shitty, but funny. We want nothing more than to bury our heads inside of his chest in the hope we might find some answers in the heart beating there.

(But we never will. But we’ll never stop).

What we DON’T do is spend endless hours, think pieces, youtube videos (youtube comment sections) talking about whether he’s ‘likeable’.

Nah, only female characters get that treatment. Female characters like Maria.

Because, as a female lead character, she breaks the rules. She isn’t concerned with whether or not the reader ‘likes’ her. She isn’t quirky and relatable.

We don’t use anti-hero so much when talking about women. We have other words: Bitch. Crazy. Slut.

An anti-hero can be all these things. But in a female character? Rather than a study of human character we find it kind of… icky.

Alida Nugent talks about this a lot in her essays on feminism, You Don’t Have To Like Me. She writes that:

‘As women, we place a lot of stock into being liked. We are supposed to be liked, to be agreeable, to be demure. We aren’t supposed to be disruptive. Saying you’re a feminist means you want more. Women and Oliver Twist should never want more! It’s not ladylike (or orphanlike). We are supposed to be happy. Say yes. Nod Along.’

We aren’t supposed to be disruptive. I think that’s the central problem. When we encounter these women, these unlikeable women, something feels wrong.

Rather than engage, we turn away in the hope such action will put those women back in their boxes.

It won’t.

The truth is this: female characters don’t have to be likeable. They don’t owe that to you.

Women can be cute and smart and funny and dark and damaged and terrible. They can contain as many multitudes as a man.

And we should read about all of them.

So can we PLEASE stop discussing whether or not female characters are likeable? There are so many more interesting questions.