I have had some version of this post sitting my drafts for over a year now. I’m sure you can tell from the title that this wasn’t exactly an easy post to write. But it’s something I felt I had to do. Especially after I published a post last month about problematic authors, without mentioning this one. Because this just felt like an entire post on it’s own.
Today, we’re talking about J. K. Rowling and Harry Potter. This is going to be a long post, so get yourself a cup of tea and buckle up. Let’s start with…
She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named & Transphobia
Yes, I know I literally just mentioned her by name. But I also just went through and deleted pretty much any mention of her or HP from my blog. Because I want to make it very clear that I do not support her in any way. And I really don’t want people to read my blog and then go out and by her books (thus giving her even more money).
Rowling has been problematic for a while. Most notably, her history of transphobia. Sure, the recent tweet was kind of what caused this to explode and come to the attention of many. But she’s not-so-secretly been promoting transphobia for a while now. This article on Refinery29 has a great overview of her history of transphobia.
I have read her statement on the matter. She mentions several times that trans women make her feel unsafe, implying it is because they’re still essentially men. She also talks about how so many trans people later chose to detransition (grossly overstating the rate at which this happens). It’s clear she has not done her research and is speaking out of fear more so than concern for the trans community.
Her statement is absolutely, 100% not okay. Trans women are women. Trans men are men. J.K. Rowling seems to be on the side of the old-fashioned belief that women are valuable in the sense that they can provide children. Personally, I think that’s a very harmful ideology perpetuated in our society that needs to end. There is nothing wrong with having children, but there’s also nothing wrong with not having children. Or not being able to. Either way, it does not invalidate trans women. I’m not trans, but I made a choice to not have children. Is that decision equally unacceptable? Or is it fine because I’m a straight, cis, white woman?
I have a big problem with anyone thinking they know what’s best for someone else. I grew up around that. And every time I hear it, I think “why does your opinion matter more than everyone else’s?” I don’t understand why people have to shout their hurtful opinions from the rooftops. Unless someone is hurting you, just shut up and let them live their lives.
The Wrong Side of #MeToo
I also take issue with Rowling calling herself a feminist. I don’t think a true feminist would put so much stock in women’s worth stemming from their biology. My decision not to have children doesn’t make me less valuable, and it doesn’t make my any less of a woman. Neither does a trans woman’s biology or decisions invalidate their experiences as a women. Sure, they might not be the same as mine or hers, but so what? My mental illness and MS make my experience as a human different from most people’s, but that doesn’t make me less of a human.
But she has proven herself to not really be a good feminist, if she is one at all. The most notable incident:
Her support of casting Johnny Depp as Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts film franchise (for which I’m sure she made another several million dollars) after allegations of abuse came out against him but his ex-wife, Amber Heard. I honestly have no idea what went on in that marriage (it seems kind of insane, from what I’ve read). However, I don’t agree with Rowling defending Depp so adamantly right away.
The whole #MeToo movement has been focused on believing women when we have spent so long being blamed for our own abuse. Regardless of what the actual situation was behind closed doors, Rowling came out on the wrong side in this case. How many other actors or producers have been cut from movies because of allegations of abuse? Why didn’t it happen in this case? At least while the investigation was still going on?
I remember when this happened. I remember reading it and being a little bit shocked. I hadn’t yet come to terms with the fact that someone I had idolized growing up could be so wrong and hurtful. People with such a huge following and platform need to be mindful of not protecting abusers. And not making abuse seem acceptable, especially when so many children look up to them.
I don’t care what the actual situation was in this instance. Either way, Rowling came out against a woman alleging abuse. She supported an alleged abuser. She made it seem like it wasn’t that big of a deal. Like the woman had to be wrong because the man was someone she knew and liked. That is a huge problem with our society, and it’s disappointing that someone who claims to be a feminist made a choice to perpetuate it.
She says at the end of her statement on the Depp matter that “we all have to do what we believe to be the right thing”. Does she believe it was the right thing, as someone millions of children look up to, do defend an alleged abuser of women? To publicly come out against trans people while so many young readers are struggling with their sexuality? To make anyone going through something so difficult feel invalidated?
Reading Harry Potter as a Teen
I read Harry Potter as it was coming out, when I was in middle school and high school in the early 2000s. It was such a huge part of my life. I went to the midnight release parties for the books. I bought the merch, I waited outside the theater for twelve hours to be one of the first to see the films. It was a huge deal, and a massive part of my life for so long.
And Harry Potter did change my life, for the better. It taught me empathy. It helped me understand that found family is sometimes better than your biological family. It gave me an escape from a bad childhood and my severe depression. It made me believe in magic and that there was a way out. For years, it gave me something to look forward to.
The nostalgia I feel for Harry Potter is unlike anything else in my life. It genuinely feels like it’s a part of me, a part of who I am and who I became. I honestly don’t think I would be the same person if it wasn’t for Harry Potter. Which is why it has been so hard to write this post.
Reading Harry Potter as an Adult
Last year, I revisited the entire series. I was thirty years old. And, let me tell you: reading Harry Potter at thirty in 2019 was a massively different experience than reading it in 2007 at eighteen. The nostalgia is still there, and I can still see the good in it. But I can also see how it is problematic.
When I was a kid, it was exciting to see children be the heroes. I identified with Hermione more than any character in any other book I had read at that time. I wanted to become her, and to an extent, I do think that influenced the path I took in life. I very much embraced my bookishness and frizzy hair. It isn’t easy to disconnect from that.
As an adult, the story made me uneasy. Rowling has stated in the past that she purposely drew parallels to WWII, in particular Nazi Germany, in Harry Potter. It’s fairly easy to see that, and a lot of books actually do use that as inspiration for their good vs. evil dynamic. Here’s my problem: why are all the adults forcing a child to be the one to take down Hitler? They guide him, but don’t really help him. In fact, they withhold a lot of information from him. It’s understood that he has to do it on his own or die trying. And everyone is just fine with that. None of them even try, they’re just waiting for Harry to do it.
My whole life, I have had some trust issues. This comes from my own, personal life experiences. But rereading this book, I can’t help but wonder if it had any effect. I was always convinced that most adults were lying to me and no one was really my friend. I don’t think Harry Potter caused that, but it might have, in a way, reinforced my own insecurities and mental struggles.
The Adult Characters are Problematic
In addition to basically forcing Harry to do most of the hard work, the adults in this book are… problematic. As an adult, I can see that pretty clearly.
Let’s start with the worst one: Snape. He basically bullies a child for something his dad did over a decade earlier. He makes Harry’s life hell because the girl he had a crush on didn’t like him back and had a kid with someone he hated. Granted, what James and his friends did to Snape isn’t okay, but a lot of kids get bullied. But I was bullied and didn’t turn around and take it out on an eleven-year-old. There is literally no excuse for that. And then we’re supposed to believe it was totally okay in the end because he just couldn’t handle that the girl he loved died and that’s why he was mean. Nope. Nope. Nope. Not buying it (anymore).
Then there is Dumbledore. He was just a fun, old wizard. Who is the sole reason Harry had absolutely no idea what he was getting into for most of the series. He hid so many things and lied quite a bit. He kind of groomed Harry to be angry enough for the final battle and then set him up to do it alone.
And don’t get me started on the last-minute house cup points. As a kid, it was so exciting that Gryffindor won every time because Harry got a million points for not dying when he was in danger. But Dumbledore didn’t even give another house a chance for six years. Totally rigged and unfair. I think it created an idea in my head that luck matters more than hard work, and you won’t get what you deserve if someone else is “chosen”. So many of us identify with houses that aren’t Gryffindor, and I just wish every child could experience that win when reading the books. Looking back on it as an adult, I do feel a little uncomfortable with some of the messages this book has, especially in regards to such hard divisions of different groups and the treatment they get.
Pretty much every single other adult in the books knew what Harry was up against and then told him nothing. Again, reinforces the idea that adults can’t be trusted. Lupin and Sirius just kind of enabled Harry getting into dangerous situations, because they were reliving their glory years with their best friend’s son. He got special treatment from teachers, often at the expense of other students. I didn’t notice it as a kid, because the book is from Harry’s perspective, but it’s fairly obvious as an adult, and I can’t say I like it.
Feminism and Activism in the Books
Let’s talk about SPEW. In the books, Hermione creates the Society for the Protection of Elvish Welfare. Because the house elves were basically slaves. Dobby is radical for wanting to be free, but the rest of them just bow down and say they like serving the humans. Hermione is (rightfully) outraged and tries to change it. I loved it and it made me identify with her even more. But then she is mostly laughed at by everyone and… nothing changes. As an adult, the idea of an entire species being made to serve humans just makes me feel icky. I don’t like it, and I don’t like that it was kind of a joke that Hermione tried to fix it.
Then there is the fact that a lot of the female characters were very much on the sidelines. Most of them were either housewives (nothing wrong with that, I’d just like to see some variety) or kind of evil. Umbridge is the worst character in the book (more evil than Voldemort, because at least he sort of has a reason, messed up as it is) and she is still kind of a stereotype. Miss Trunchbull, anyone? She doesn’t even get a good villain backstory. I call foul.
Finally, the one other thing that makes me uncomfortable: Durmstrang vs. Beauxbatons. And the big, strong, fur-wearing men compared to the willowy and beautiful girls. Yes, I know in the books both schools are co-ed, but the contrast is still pretty strong. And the movies make it worse by making them single-sex schools. The stereotypes in this book are definitely there. And don’t get me started on the Veela and how Fleur was the most beautiful of all the girls because she was part Veela (basically a siren).
While I’m glad I had McGonagal and Hermione to look up to, I really don’t think this book is strong on feminism. The male characters kind of take the lead, even when they’re less competent. Hermione was clearly smarter and more capable than Harry and Ron combined, but she just served to get them out of dumb situations. She was also consistently portrayed as very sensitive (not a problem, per se), and emotionally more vulnerable than the boys. She always seemed on-edge (which probably just made me further embrace my own anxiety). I just feel like the dynamic could have been more interesting if it wasn’t such a stereotype.
Considering Rowling’s personal opinions, I’m sadly not surprised that she kind of failed at supporting her own female characters and giving them more interesting backstories.
Diversity After the Fact
We all know that Dumbledore is gay, right? But it wasn’t mentioned in the book a single time. It was barely even alluded to. The question of whether or not it counts is an interesting one. On this one hand, you have the author saying it’s the truth. Does that make it cannon?
The problem I have here is that she could have very easily written in into the book. Most conservative parents already weren’t letting their kids read the book because witchcraft, so it shouldn’t have been that big of an issue. I know it’s been twenty years, but I wish this book had been a little more clearly diverse. It’s a huge deal for kids to be able to see themselves in literature, and that would have been HUGE for Harry Potter. It’s just disappointing that it wasn’t. And even more disappointing that Rowling is trying to fix it after the fact.
There is also the question of whether or not Hermione is black. Her skin color is never mentioned, but she is described as having large, frizzy, brown hair and brown eyes. She was even played by a black woman in The Cursed Child (which a lot of people took issue with). Rowling’s response to this? Sure, she could have been black. Why not say it and make a whole bunch of underrepresented little girls very happy? Because all the racist readers won’t like it. Not a good look.
Personally, I feel a little uncomfortable with an author going “wait, no! my book has diverse characters! I just didn’t specifically write it into the book!” after it was published. Yes, there were a few characters of color in the books. But they were very much side characters (go ahead and tell me Dean Thomas made any sort of impression on you beyond the movies). Imagine HP with black Hermione as the lead. The world needs that book.
It’s Time to Say Goodbye
I don’t think my nostalgia for Harry Potter will ever go away. But, as an adult, the books just make me a little uncomfortable. I read them and just notice how problematic they are. They may have made me a better person, but now I’m seeing how they also enabled some of my mental health struggles. It’s not easy to accept both of those things.
I also absolutely do not agree with J. K. Rowling. She used to be one of my favorites. I used to look up to her. She is one of the reasons I want to be a writer. So it took a while, but I had to come to terms with the fact that she’s not someone to look up to. She is not someone to emulate. And I absolutely will not support her any longer by buying any more HP books or talking about them on my blog. I know that won’t affect her and her billions of dollars, but she will not be the exception to the rule of me not supporting problematic authors anymore.
I used to look at the Harry Potter books on my shelf and feel happy and comforted. Now, I just feel kind of sad. I’m still not sure what I’m going to do with them. It feels like giving up my childhood, and I’ve already had to give up a lot of what I grew up with. I will most likely end up keeping them. However, I will not be discussing them on this blog or purchasing any more books. The damage has already been done, and I’m just not quite ready to wipe out so much of my childhood.
Still, I’m doing what I believe to be the right thing and breaking up with Harry Potter and J. K. Rowling. Personally, I just need a better influence in my own life, and I realize I had been letting the nostalgia get in the way. I want to see what happens when I don’t.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. I completely understand there isn’t really a good answer here – I still don’t think I can fully distance myself from Harry Potter because it was such a huge part of my life for so long. It’s not an easy thing to do. Personally, I want to try and fill the gap with other things, and learn more about myself outside of the context of Harry Potter.