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Trans wizard protest Getty.jpg

Say Goodbye to Harry Potter: Why Death of the Author Does Not Work for J.K. Rowling

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | September 24, 2020 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | September 24, 2020 |

Trans wizard protest Getty.jpg

Noted transphobe J.K. Rowling is at it again. The author, who nowadays seems to spend more time ranting about trans women on Twitter than writing books, reminded us once more of her nastiness when she revealed a t-shirt she’d purchased. As noted by LGBTQ Nation, Rowling showed off a ‘This Witch Doesn’t Burn’ design to her 14 million followers then promoted the website she purchased it from. Wild Women Workshop, which she celebrated as a ‘women-run business’, features a variety of pins for sale with slogans such as ‘TransWomen are Men’, ‘Transmen are my Sisters’, ‘Sorry about your dick bro,’ and ‘F*ck your pronouns.’ This is only the beginning of the vile abuse on sale. There is, of course, an #IStandWithJKRowling pin too, for those who want something to go with their ‘Queer Politics Erases Women’ and ‘Transactivism is Misogyny’ grandstanding. Remember when Rowling insisted that she truly loved trans women? Not that any of us believed that, but it’s nice to get some confirmation that she’s a liar as well as a bigot (and a lover of terrible graphic design.)

None of this is new. Indeed, it feels like I write something every week updating you, our dear readers, on Rowling’s latest descent into mouth-frothing transphobia. This is her. She has fully revealed herself to the world. There’s no way to side-step or deny what is unfolding right in front of our eyes. J.K. Rowling, the woman who created one of the most beloved children’s series of all time, is transphobic. So, what now?

I’ve seen how hard this has been for many Harry Potter fans. If I were a decade younger, this would have devastated me because the HP series truly redefined my childhood. It was for me, as it was for millions of readers, a pivotal text in my personal development and a major influence in the kind of person I became. Cutting Potter out of my life has been pretty easy since I stepped away from the series a few years ago, around the time that Rowling’s ‘red pen in the margins’ approach to shoehorning diversity into her books became tiresome. For others, it’s been a more prolonged process, and frankly, one that many fans don’t seem keen to make. There’s a new open world Hogwarts video game coming out, for instance, and I’ve seen tons of YouTubers giddily promote it, either without mentioning Rowling’s bigotry or side-stepping it by claiming they’re separating the art from the artist. Tumblr is still full of people who proudly proclaim that Hogwarts is theirs, not Rowling’s, and she’ll never take that away from them. Bafflingly, there are still some viewers excited for a third Fantastic Beasts movie, despite the damning reviews and decreased box office of the previous film. Just condemn Rowling and move on, right? Sure, you don’t have to buy her books anymore, but you can still celebrate them online, yes? Besides, it’s not like she’s directly involved with that video game, so I can still pre-order it, surely?

I’ll just say it: J.K. Rowling cannot be separated from Harry Potter and vice versa. Death of the Author does not work for her. If you truly want to condemn Rowling for her abhorrent transphobia and the abuse she is spreading under the guise of ‘critical thinking’ then you need to leave Hogwarts behind for good.

Separating your rose-tinted memories from the harsh light of reality is often easier said than done. Capitalism encourages us to wholeheartedly invest our very selves into intellectual properties, irrevocably intertwining our values with a brand. This is deliberate and it permeates every part of pop culture, even those bits that insist they eschew capitalism’s thrall. Unfortunately, the great power of capitalism lies in how it can instantly commodify everything. So, we have a couple of generations of people who were taught to be themselves and how to see the world through Rowling’s creation, and then guided into laying their money on the table to cement that status. We label ourselves by our Hogwarts house, compare Kamala Harris to Hermione Granger, then Rowling pockets the profits.

And profit is the power that Rowling has. She is richer than rich, and she is empowered in the way that only people who have made literally billions of dollars can be. This is why it’s so pathetically hilarious to see people bemoan ‘cancel culture’ when they criticize Rowling’s bigotry: Shock horror, it’s basically impossible for the obscenely wealthy to truly face any sort of consequences. Rowling benefits not just from the sales of her books but from the vast amount of Potter merchandise available around every corner. I was in town today and saw Harry Potter bedsheets, wallpaper, t-shirts, wall decorations, cards, and socks, to name but a tiny portion of what’s available. Potter merchandise is so ubiquitous that even George Lucas would tell Rowling and Warner Bros. to tone it down, and she benefits from it all. Given Rowling’s history of donating vast amounts of money to her political causes of choice, it’s no wonder that many of us fear her bankrolling some of the louder transphobes in both the Scottish and British parliaments. Who wants to aid her in making that happen because they just had to have a Harry Potter pillowcase?

Moreover, it’s about the omnipresence of the brand. Rowling has a level of control over the Potterverse that few living authors have over their own creations. Her fingerprints are over every square inch of this universe. Even when other writers get to contribute, it’s Rowling’s hand that guides them, her ideas they must share. This isn’t like Star Wars, where there’s an overriding authorial hand but dozens, potentially hundreds, of people contributing to it with varying degrees of creative control. It’s not like Sherlock Holmes or any number of public domain tales that have taken on lives of their own. Harry Potter is Rowling’s creation and it continues to be hers. It will never stop being controlled by her, no matter how much fans may joke that it’s hilarious how the books suddenly don’t have an author anymore.

But doing that only further benefits Rowling. It denies how her own ideas, beliefs, and, yes, bigotry, have defined Harry Potter. Think of the ‘mannish hands’ of Rita Skeeter, or the anti-Semitic imagery of the goblins, or the name Cho Chang, or the fact that a school decides that a quarter of its students are wizard-Nazis through the magic of a talking hat, or the redemption arc given to a bigoted bully of a teacher because he happened to have a creepy unrequited crush on a girl he mistreated. None of this criticism is new, either. It’s been part of Potter fandom since it began. Death of the Author is a great literary theory, but it is not a get-out-of-jail-free card on issues like this. You may stop buying Potter merch and think that’s enough, but to continue deifying Harry Potter while stripping it of its context, including its author, does not fix the problem. All the rest of the world will see is yet another Harry Potter fan and, by extension, a Rowling fan.

Maybe you will be greatly impacted by the removal of Harry Potter from your life. I can’t speak to that. What I do know, however, is that there is an incredible world of fiction out there by writers of immense talent and empathy who are waiting to be discovered. Your life will only be enriched and improved by this. Ultimately, we must accept that J.K. Rowling will be fine. She won’t be hugely impacted by your decision to boycott her work in all its forms. As I said, she’s too rich to notice or care when we little people take action. This is about more than her, however. It’s about the future we want to create for ourselves, those who follow in our footsteps, and the marginalized voices who Rowling and her goons seem determined to stamp out. That future can’t be the one we need if we continue to cling to this hopeless notion that Harry Potter is somehow worth the pain, the hassle, and the empowering of a bigot. I promise you that it’s not.

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Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.

Header Image Source: Getty Images.