We’ve known this for a while now. It’s, dishearteningly, old news. That didn’t make it any less shocking or stomach-churning, however, when Rowling took to Twitter late on Saturday night to spew more uninformed vitriol straight from the transphobia handbook. Never mind that it’s Pride Month or that there are ongoing protests across America and the planet related to anti-Black racism and police brutality: Apparently Jo was sad that the attention wasn’t on her and so she just had to go full transphobia. She even invoked the ‘TERF is a slur’ line, as if she were trying to claim a full house on the bingo card of anti-trans bullsh*t dog-whistles. Social media responded accordingly, with plenty of Harry Potter fans young and old opposing her bigotry. Of course, it didn’t take long for the transphobia wagon to start circling, and I can guarantee you that the British press will have made plenty of room for the usual gaggle of talking-heads to produce overpaid word vomit letting the world know that the multi-millionaire bully is the real victim here.
Smarter people than me have dissected Rowling’s lies point by point. We’ve all noted how ridiculous and outright insidious it is that one of the most beloved and influential pop culture figures of the past hundred years is trying to sell herself as a beleaguered underdog teller of truths while attacking one of society’s most marginalized groups. I gave up on Rowling years ago but that doesn’t make it sting any less to know that the woman whom I idolized as a child turned so sour. I would have done anything for Rowling when I was a kid, such was the power that the Harry Potter books had over me, and I was hardly the only child swayed in such a manner. I’m of a totally different generation to the youth of today, the demographic for whom Potter was intended, and while the series remains popular and a consistent best-selling, I question the ultimate relevance of Rowling as a cultural force in children’s literature of 2020. Indeed, in the grand scheme of middle grade and young adult literature of a new decade, Rowling is kind of irrelevant.
The children and adolescents of today are far smarter than I was as a teen. They’re more tuned into world politics and social issues and their tastes are more international. This is the generation of K-pop lovers, the kids for whom social media is a constant of their lives. This is also the generation of protest, of Teen Vogue and youth marches. For Americans under the age of 18, they are, crushingly, the generation of regular school shootings, the ones who are forced to practice drills in case someone marches into their classroom with a semi-automatic rifle. It’s so easy to overlook or dismiss or mock the Tumblr kids who try so hard to be progressive but isn’t that ultimately a good thing?
This is the generation of readers who have a whole world of incredible books out there that portrays the true richness and inclusivity of daily life. YA is now dominated by titles like Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, to name but three mega bestsellers. We Need Diverse Books helped to change the game. Rick Riordan of Percy Jackson fame has his own publishing imprint dedicated to giving a platform to diverse authors to tell stories of their respective cultural mythologies. The sheer amount of hotly-hyped LGBTQ+ YA titles coming out this Spring alone is incredible but also simply part of the status quo. That’s not to say that publishing is some untouchable bastion of diversity right now. It has a hell of a long way to go. The point, however, is that the people who Rowling writes for, the audience she is supposed to be so in tune with, don’t need her.
They don’t need the table scraps of diversity she dusted onto the floor in the hopes that her readers would scramble to pick them up and thank her for her selfless work. Having Professor Dumbledore come out as gay after the series ended may have been somewhat accepted by fans at the time (it was still a controversy, of course) but when it’s 2018 and you’re writing the script for a big-budget movie where Dumbledore still doesn’t get to be open with his sexuality, then that won’t cut the mustard with readers. Rowling’s strategy towards diversity in her vast work always seemed to be one of a hastily scrawled red pen in the margins, telling readers many years after the fact that one or two named characters were definitely Jewish or gay or could have been black but since she never specified race, it totally counts, right?
Then, of course, there are the more blatant displays of ignorance in her work: Her explanation of international wizarding schools that displayed an astounding lack of research on marginalized cultures; the depiction of the Potterverse goblins as hook-nosed greedy bankers whose obsession with money led to them being ostracised by magical society at large; the decision to make Nagini, Voldemort’s pet snake, an Asian woman trapped in the form of an animal who is then gleefully beheaded in one of the final book’s big moments of victory; making Hermione the butt of the joke for not understanding that some species totally want to be enslaved by humans; lycanthropy is used as a metaphor for AIDS for one character while the other prominent werewolf among the ensemble deliberately preys upon and infects children. Readers expect more from their books, especially when the author has limitless resources at their disposal to do all of the required research.
Rowling has made herself irrelevant even as she continues to push herself and her work as an inseparable duo of political and social clout. The Potterverse is explicitly political and Rowling has never shied away from noting her use of allegory. She often uses her creations as shields for her own opinions, trying to weaponize beloved children’s characters as a means to justify her politics rather than, you know, being an adult about it. This is one of the reasons we have morbidly joked about Rowling inevitably defending her transphobia by pointing out that a random side-character at Hogwarts is totally trans (my money is on the Whomping Willow.) The Potterverse will forever be a cracked foundation for Rowling to pile on her own neuroses and ignorance, whether it’s her desperation to prove how racially diverse her stories are without ever doing the work or in using a made-up wizard headmaster as a battering ram against real person Jeremy Corbyn.
What makes Rowling’s ignorance all the more galling is that, by virtue of her success and money, she has been given an immeasurable number of opportunities to make improvements and come to an understanding of her own privilege, yet she continues to stumble backward into the cloak of unquestioning nostalgia. She could have diversified the Potterverse with the Fantastic Beasts movies but she didn’t. She just exacerbated existing problems then added a hefty dose of wizard Nazis on top in place of emotional depth. Perhaps it’s best, given her history, that she didn’t decide to make those movies more inclusive, but isn’t it deeply sad that our standards for Rowling are now so low?
The Harry Potter fandom long overtook Rowling in terms of scope, ambition, and inclusivity. Her fans wanted more, they expected more, and when they didn’t get it, they just did the work themselves. There’s a reason so much of Potter fanfiction is now legendary. It took the basic aspects of Rowling’s creation and developed it in ways she couldn’t or wouldn’t. There are countless authors publishing today, adored by young readers, who got their start in the Potter fandom and many of them are now doing what Rowling never did.
Rowling has nobody to blame but herself for her fall from grace. This has been a long time coming, even before her abhorrent transphobia became such a defining part of her public image. Audiences young and old today want, need, and deserve more than table scraps of diversity and petty point-scoring via tritely executive political allegory. Of course, none of my words will really impact Rowling. She’s too rich for that, and despite all of this, many fans remain loyal to her. She’ll probably now only be further empowered by the rancidly transphobic British media and its array of TERF columnists who have turned ceaseless attacks on marginalized people into a full-time gig. Still, we should take some solace in knowing that the young generation of 2020 has moved well beyond the need for the deceptively stifling confines of Hogwarts.
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