About once a month for the past two years, I log on to Twitter to see another hashtag accusing JK Rowling of bigotry against trans people, along with the obligatory counter-hashtag defending her position.
Last Sunday was #JKDoesntSpeakForMe, in reference to Rowling’s comments lambasting Keir Starmer for an interview with The temperature in which he pointed out that by legal definition, trans women are women. This factually accurate (and fairly neutral) statement, Rowling said, was “another indication that the Labor Party can no longer be counted on to stand up for women’s rights.”
It’s another in a long line of dubious remarks from the author, whose stance on trans identity is both reasonably stated and quietly troubling. It’s reasonable in that it’s never explicitly hateful or particularly extreme in its delivery, but disturbing in that it relies on the same fallacious logic and semi-intelligent dog hiss that has become a characteristic of anti-trans discourse over the past decade.
As such, it’s hard to come out and accuse him of being bigoted towards transgender people, but the frequency and nature of his interjections on the subject have raised questions as to his motives – questions that will be discussed. until nauseous next week or so, before being replaced by the next bad tweet or essay. The discussion of Rowling’s position is in many ways her new brand; a brand nurtured and strengthened by the inability of its detractors to simply ignore it.
Like Dave Chapelle and Graham Linehan, Rowling’s overwhelming concern for trans issues led her to become a poster boy for anti-trans rhetoric for people on both sides of the issue. From what I’ve seen, as was also the case with these men, it caused much of his old, mostly left-leaning fan base to feel betrayed by the author’s new obsession. It seems to me that this betrayal is really what keeps her relevant, as her admirers try to come to terms with the fact that their favorite author left them behind.
Here is a woman whose career was built on the most popular and successful allegory of good versus evil of the last century, seemingly showing her hand as a potential force for it.
I know it’s fashionable to despise Harry Potter now, but if you were a kid in the late 90s early 2000s those books were a phenomenon on a level you don’t really see today . Before every ordinary white woman had “I solemnly swear that I am no good” tattooed on her wrist, the world was captivated by the story of an orphan in a life-or-death struggle with magic. Hitler to prove once and for all that bigotry is wrong.
If you were a kid when the show came out – before we carried the internet in our pockets and when Twitter talk was what you called it when your parakeet woke you up at 6 a.m. – you had every right to enjoy the bildungsroman simplest in the world without thinking too much about the ethics of owning house-elves or what those banker goblins probably stood for.
For better or worse, Harry Potter helped shape the politics of an entire generation of millennials who, perhaps naively, adopted a fairly simplistic set of mores that leaned heavily towards the good. It also acted as an imaginative refuge for people who saw themselves in the alien characters of the books. Kids who felt different, who were bullied, who were Muslim, black, gay, and yes, trans, found a sense of magic in the show that their own lives may have lacked.
Although it’s a source of derision now, many of these kids have congregated in online spaces like Tumblr and Reddit to keep some sense of this magic alive. Dunk on Harry Potter nerds all you want, but it’s never a bad thing for marginalized groups to find solace in uplifting fiction.
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Rowling herself was also portrayed as an embattled outsider, overcoming poverty and the insular nature of publishing to bring her vision to the world. She donated to charity, she was an outspoken supporter of the Labor Party (at a time when that was considered an admirable position), and she even pieced together her own canon to be more inclusive, insofar as she was for a time called an overzealous “social justice warrior” by people who preferred their right-wing Dumbledore and their WASP-y Hermione.
Now Rowling is being exposed as the antithesis of the mythos she spent two decades cultivating. Regardless of the nuances of her beliefs about trans people, she has presented herself as someone who amplifies the causes and individuals who can contribute to their harm.
While it might make more sense to ignore her tweets, to let her disappear into the echo chamber she’s fashioned for herself, it’s hard to blame people for wanting to engage. It’s hard to watch someone you once admired being engulfed by harmful ideologies that seem to be growing more toxic and pervasive as the weeks go by. It’s even harder when that person has had such a formative impact on your imaginative life.
Rowling may be happy to throw away her legacy, but it seems to me she doesn’t understand that it’s not just about a series of books — it’s the people those books have helped inspire. For these people, it’s hard not to try to fight the erosion of the ideals you’ve been taught to uphold by the very person who’s eroding them. Even if it’s just with a hashtag.