The Do's and Don'ts of J.K. Rowling
A strong online presence can be a good thing - and a very bad thing.
The legacy of J.K. Rowling is a long and prolific one—Harry Potter is a household name and Muggle is in the dictionary. She’s also a well-known public figure and has a massive online presence, particularly on Twitter. But, as with all things, sometimes she garners attention for… not the best reasons.
Given how hugely important public persona and online presence is for a lot of authors—and especially for new and emerging authors—I think it’s important to talk about what people like J.K. Rowling do right, as well as where they’ve miss-stepped and messed up.
There’s no questioning the fact that the Harry Potter world is huge, with hundreds of characters and a story that spans multiple generations. Even in the original series, before Fantastic Beasts or The Cursed Child, fans could easily refer to different parts of the world’s timeline—like the Marauders Era, the Founders Era, the Hogwarts Era, and the Post-War Era. And with such a huge world, it makes sense that there would be background details and fun facts that wouldn’t find a place to be showcased within the series, and it’s awesome when Rowling comes forward to share these tidbits with fans. It’s encouraging to know that homophobia isn’t an issue in the wizarding world, learning that a group of Pygmy Puffs is called a poffle is just adorable, and it’s touching to know Fred and George’s Patronuses are magpies and the symbolism behind them (one means sorrow, two means joy). (Wiki Contributors 2019a)
Building off the first point, sometimes fans specifically ask questions about certain elements of the story and world an author creates—and it’s awesome when that author actually answers! Maybe every question answered doesn’t reveal ground-breaking information or intimate details that change the reading of the story, but they are questions that mattered to the fans that asked them. Interacting with readers is a wonderful way for authors to build and support their fan community, and it’s amazing to see authors continuing to do so long after they’ve achieved enormous success and unwaveringly loyal fans.
As beloved as the Harry Potter series is, there’s no denying that it’s very white, straight, and middle-of-the-rode with its representation and diversity. The only identified gay character (Dumbledore) has no canonical moments, comments, or hints evidencing his sexuality—not even in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, which had many opportunities to make a nod to his past relationship with Grindelwald but never does so. (Desta 2019)
But the problems go beyond telling without showing. Though The Crimes of Grindelwald gives no effort to highlighting Dumbledore’s past romance, it does introduce a blood curse known as Maledictus (Alexander 2018). According to Rowling, Maledictus only affects women and is a condition in which the afflicted will eventually, permanently turn into a beast. (Wiki Contributors 2019a; Alexander 2018) This on its own is uncomfortable with being so gender specific, but we also discover that Nagini is one such creature. (Alexander 2018; Segall 2019)
There are a lot of problems with this particular decision, and many of them seem to be born of lack of careful thought or consideration for implications. Nagini is an Asian woman—which was already controversial, because the actress playing her is Korean and not Indian or South Asian, as befitting of a someone whose name comes from Sanskrit. The bigger problem, however, is in the implications of having an Asian woman who turns into a snake and becomes the loyal pet of a fascist villain. (Alexander 2018; Thomas 2019)
And there are more problems as the world expands beyond what Rowling knows. Setting the original series in the UK kept things within the realm of the familiar for Rowling; exploring new plots in America, and especially introducing the history of the Ilvermorny school, is a bit more troubling.
The fact that Ilvermorny is the only wizarding school in North America (Wiki Contributors 2019c) is bewildering enough given how enormous the continent is, both in terms of land mass and population, but there are also problems with how local lore and magical creatures are presented—or, rather, where they are presented. One of the Founders of Ilvermorny was Isolt, who is originally from Ireland but fled to the America’s for reasons I won’t get into here. (Rowling 2016) She lands in what is now Massachusetts, but a lot of the creatures she encounters don’t match this. The folklore around snollygasters is associated to New Maryland and DC, which is a fair bit south of Massachusetts. (Rowling 2016; Wikipedia Contributors 2019) She also encounters wampus cats, but legends about these creatures are found throughout the South and attributed to Cherokee folklore. (Rowling 2016; Astonishing Legends 2018) It doesn’t make sense for these creatures to be popping up in and around Massachusetts.
Even worse are the problematic tropes perpetuated with the introduction of North American indigenous people. First, the indigenous people didn’t use wands pre-European contact. (Wiki Contributors 2019b) That’s fine. What’s less fine is that they didn’t have their own focuses or unique style of magic casting—they just used wandless magic. (Wiki Contributors 2019b) This is also true of African wizards, (Wiki Contributors 2019b) and the whole situation presented here is uncomfortable. It presents Africans and North American indigenous people as uncultured monoliths who were unrefined and wild before Europeans came along and showed them a more civilized form of magic. This is only made worse by the fact that the indigenous people travelled far and wide across the continent to be taught to use wands by the Ilvermorny school—as though wand magic was somehow superior to their own techniques. (Rowling 2016) Moreover, why is the only wizarding school in North America solely a European institution? All of the founders were white—there’s little to no influence from indigenous people except in the form of House mascots. (Rowling 2016) This feels uncomfortably like tokenism.
As an author with an online presence, people see and hear more from Rowling than just insights and retcons on the Harry Potter lore. We also see her politics. And, sometimes, that reveals problems that it’s hard to ever forget or overlook.
Several articles by Phaylen Fairchild highlight Rowling’s transphobic Twitter behaviour, namely following well-known TERFs and liking tweets containing transphobic declarations or linking to transphobic articles. (Fairchild 2018a; Fairchild 2018b; Fairchild 2019) A spokesperson put out a statement on Rowling’s behalf after she liked one such tweet, claiming she had “had a clumsy and middle-aged moment” and that liking the tweet was an accident. (Fairchild 2018a) However, this sort of behaviour persisted after the fact, and she has not released any official apology or statements on the matter. (Fairchild 2018b)
Moreover, she espouses similarly harmful views toward transpeople in her work. Rowling writes a series under the pen name Robert Galbraith. In one book, The Silkworm, the protagonist Cormoran Strike is followed and attacked by a transwoman, Pippa, who tries to stab him. Strike traps her in his office, demands her ID and discovers that she is trans. (Burns 2018) When she continues trying to escape his office, Strike says, “’If you go for that door one more time I’m calling the police and I’ll testify and be glad to watch you go down for attempted murder. And it won’t be fun for you Pippa,’ he added. ‘Not pre-op.’” (Fairchild 2018a; Burns 2018) Throughout this scene, she is presented as unstable, aggressive, and pitiable, especially after Strike’s threatening allusion to prison rape. (Burns 2018) Phaylen explains the problem with this portrayal best, stating: “J.K. Rowling has demonstrated over and over again that she is well aware of the social conditions for minorities and the hostility perpetuated against us by rhetoric like this. Would she write such a remark about a gay man or a lesbian woman? No. I don’t believe she would.” (Fairchild 2018a)
Though Rowling has long been considered an ally to the MOGAI community, its becomingly increasingly clear from her online behaviour and the aforementioned scene in The Silkworm that her support and defense of minorities is trans-exclusionary. Combined with other examples of ill-considered and ultimately offensive representations, such as those of people of colour, I don’t see how I can continue to support her as an author and a role model. I’ll always love the Harry Potter series—but I can’t continue following it into new spin-offs and adaptations if this is the set of beliefs it’s built on.
Alexander, Julia. 2018. ‘J.K. Rowling Retconning Harry Potter on Twitter Has Consequences.’ Polygon. Retrieved October 20, 2019 (https://www.polygon.com/2018/9/26/17906676/nagini-fantastic-beasts-jk-rowling-harry-potter-dumbledore-george-lucas).
Astonishing Legends. 2018. ‘Wampus Cat.’ Retrieved October 22, 2019 (https://www.astonishinglegends.com/astonishing-legends/2018/10/19/wampus-cat).
Burns, Katelyn. 2018. ‘Is J.K. Rowling Transphobic? A Trans Woman Investigates.’ Them. Retrieved October 24, 2019 (https://www.them.us/story/is-jk-rowling-transphobic).
Desta, Yohana. 2019. ‘J.K. Rowling Has More to Say About the “Sexual Dimension” of Dumbledore and Grindelwald.’ Vanity Fair. Retrieved October 22, 2019 (https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/03/jk-rowling-dumbledore-grindelwald-relationship).
Fairchild, Phaylen. 2018a. ‘J.K. Rowling: The Blatant Transphobia of a Beloved Social Justice Hero.’ Medium. Retrieved October 24, 2019 (https://medium.com/@Phaylen/j-k-rowling-the-blatant-transphobia-of-a-beloved-social-justice-hero-a26b67b83be5).
Fairchild, Phaylen. 2018b. ‘Oops! She Did it Again, Transphobic J.K. Rowling: “No Fox Belongs in a Henhouse.”’ Medium. Retrieved October 20, 2019 (https://medium.com/@Phaylen/oops-she-did-it-again-transphobic-j-k-rowling-no-fox-belongs-in-a-henhouse-b3cdf0e81dd8).
Fairchild, Phaylen. 2019. ‘JK Rowling Confirms Stance Against Transgender Women.’ Medium. Retrieved October 20, 2019 (https://medium.com/@Phaylen/jk-rowling-confirms-stance-against-transgender-women-9bd83f7ca623).
Rowling, J.K. 2016. ‘Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.’ Wizarding World. Retrieved October 21, 2019 (https://www.wizardingworld.com/writing-by-jk-rowling/ilvermorny).
Segall, Mason. 2019. ‘Harry Potter: The 15 Worst Retcons JK Rowling Made to the Series (And the 8 Best).’ Screen Rant. Retrieved October 20, 2019 (https://screenrant.com/harry-potter-jk-rowling-worst-best-retcons/).
Thomas, Holly. 2019. ‘J.K. Rowling’s Latest Dumbledore Comment Feels Like a Cop-Out.’ CNN. Retrieved October 20, 2019 (https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/21/opinions/jk-rowling-harry-potter-dumbledore-gay-controversy-thomas/index.html).
Wiki Contributors. 2019a. ‘J.K. Rowling’s Twitter Account.’ Harry Potter Wiki. Retrieved October 22, 2019 (https://harrypotter.fandom.com/wiki/J._K._Rowling%27s_Twitter_account).
Wiki Contributors. 2019b. ‘Wandless Magic.’ Harry Potter Wiki. Retrieved October 22, 2019 (https://harrypotter.fandom.com/wiki/Wandless_magic).
Wiki Contributors. 2019c. ‘Wizarding School.’ Harry Potter Wiki. Retrieved October 22, 2019 (https://harrypotter.fandom.com/wiki/Wizarding_school).
Wikipedia Contributors. 2019. ‘Snallygaster.’ Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 22, 2019 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snallygaster).