Is Harry Potter cancelled? With J.K. Rowling called out for her trans views, where does that leave her famous books?
|Toronto Star 15 Sep 2020 at 20:51|
Even a few months ago, they might have thought that the “I (heart) JK Rowling” sign in East Vancouver was expressing affection for one of the most popular authors in the world.
But the Harry Potter author is fresh off a summer of controversy in which her personal views about feminism and transgender issues have come under attack. In that light, the sign has been taken as a transphobic shot across the bow, and was removed over the weekend after a flurry of public criticism.
It was the latest flashpoint around Rowling who, over a busy few months, has emerged as one of the most high-profile voices to push back against the conflation of trans women and cisgender women.
Rowling says that she has no issue with people who are transgender, but maintains that the experience of biological females in our culture is unique. Critics say her words mask a more sinister message that excludes trans women and denies their experiences.
The controversy has left some fans in limbo, wondering whether it’s possible to love the art but not the artist.
‘Not entirley surprising’
Amy Hamm was one of two people who paid for the billboard to be put up in East Vancouver — initially with the plan of it staying there for three months.
Hamm, a Vancouver writer who has been vocal in support of women’s organizations that exclude trans women, said the pair did so after seeing pictures of something similar in Scotland. They wanted to show support for the author — and spark a conversation, she said.
“We were hoping it wouldn’t be taken down but are not entirely surprised,” she said. “J.K. Rowling is not transphobic, we are not transphobic and we’re not transphobic to stand up for the gender-based rights.”
The billboard was taken down by Pattison Outdoor Advertising less than 24 hours after it was put up.
Florence Ashley, a doctorate student at the U of T Faculty of Law who writes on trans rights issues, said the billboard was a subtle way of communicating to trans people in Vancouver that they are not welcome.
“It’s a dog whistle in the sense that it’s not going to be understood by people who don’t follow these debates,” they said Tuesday. “It will be seen as a show of solidarity not so much for J.K. Rowling, but for people who share her anti-trans ideas.”
Chatter about Rowling’s beliefs began late last year, when Rowling, tweeted in support of Maya Forstater , a U.K. woman who was fired over comments she made about transgender people.
The controversy intensified in June, with a series of tweets and subsequent blog post in which Rowling said she supported trans rights but did not believe in “erasing” the concept of biological sex. Rowling said she refused to “bow down” to a movement seeking “to erode ‘woman’ as a political and biological class and offering cover to predators like few before it.”
The statements led to an eruption of criticism, including from famous Harry Potter actors who distanced themselves from Rowling’s comments. Rowling herself went on to , and to return a human rights award in August.
“The myth that Rowling is putting out into the world is that transwomen are secretly men in disguise, who are using their trans identities and their desire to have human rights as a way to sneak into women’s spaces,” said Hannah McGregor, an assistant professor in publishing at Simon Fraser University, who also co-hosts Witch, Please , a podcast that looks at the Harry Potter universe with a critical eye.
“That myth is used to justify real violence against trans women.”
McGregor said this has been particularly hurtful for fans — and she counts herself among them — of Rowling’s Harry Potter books.
“The Harry Potter books are so personally meaningful to so many readers because a lot of readers learned things about the world, or formed their own moral compasses around the values in the books,” she said. “People have had a tendency to turn Rowling into this kind of authority who is granted the ability to comment on things far beyond her books themselves.”
Trying to separate art from artist
Dr. David DeCosse, who directs the campus ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, said the question of whether it’s possible to appreciate a piece of art while disapproving of the artist has always been a challenging one.
“At a certain point, we would say it’s too difficult to get past such egregious behaviour and appreciate their art,” he said. “But I think we have to think of it as a spectrum and not reduce our appreciation of art solely through a lens of a person’s character.”
He pointed out that many artists create work out of deep human experiences of pain, and that these same experiences could lead to the kind of behaviour of which others disapprove.
On J.K. Rowling’s case in particular, DeCosse said the author has entered a public conversation that is deeply personal to trans people, and cuts to the core of their identity.
By insisting the term “women” be used to describe people born biologically female, she’s not affirming the experience of many trans people, DeCosse said.
“I feel like concerns over identity are so important that somehow they too often can get transformed into a demand, that other people affirm my identity as I insist it must be affirmed. I don’t know if you can really ask that from other people,” he said.
“But what I have come to recognize a lot more deeply is the pain of profound disrespect that trans people ... are really calling to everyone’s attention. They’re saying the language that’s used — knowingly or unknowingly — is deeply disrespectful.”
A fandom like few others
Over the years, the origin story behind the books became almost as well known as the best-selling novels themselves: Rowling has spoken often of the years in which she wrote the first Harry Potter, a time when she struggled as a single mother on government benefits. Then an agent took notice, and the first novel was published in 1997.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Aug. 28, 2020
The success of the Harry Potter books is near unparalleled: The Boy Who Lived now does so through an empire of worldwide bestsellers, blockbuster films, a play and an online fan site. A generation of kids grew up along with Harry, Ron and Hermione, and the babies born thereafter were increasingly named after the famous trio .
In 2004, Forbes declared Rowling the first billionaire author. She’s gone on to write other books but is still known worldwide as the creator of Harry Potter.
Choosing to continue as a fan of the Potter series is a personal decision, McGregor says. But the good news, according to McGregor, is that the global fandom has gotten so big that it can stand on its own.
“We shouldn t, as critical readers, cancel books or just throw books in the garbage. We just have to think about how to read those books critically.”
McGregor said the Harry Potter fandom has a long history of appreciating the books while also being thoughtful about their shortcomings — she points to fan fiction that celebrates gay or non-binary characters, who are absent in the series, or even her own podcast, which questions things such as why the first book’s villain wears a turban or all the banker goblins have hooked noses.
She pointed out there’s even a podcast called the Gayley Prophet , which analyzes the series from a queer perspective.
“I do think that there is a reason why, in particular, so many queer people love these books. I think that there is a lot of space to read ourselves into these books,” she said.
A lot of those fans aren’t going away.
“I think it’s a really interesting stance to say, ‘Actually, no, this is this is my world and I get to hold on to it and I get to fill it with characters and ideas that excite me, and Rowling doesn’t get to take that away from everybody just because her opinions are extremely bad.’”