Unless you’ve been living under a rock somewhere on Mars, the news that J.K. Rowling turns out to be a TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) probably hasn’t escaped your notice. Her various Tweets have rightly caused massive shitstorms. I will not discuss the multiple transphobic tweets and comments in detail here; various other people have already provided a better analysis on Rowling’s posts in detail than I will be able to provide. However, it is unquestionable that Rowling is using her platform to repeatedly make tweets that are hurtful and even harmful to a group that’s already incredibly vulnerable. The worst part? She genuinely seems to think she’s doing the right thing, which makes her unlikely to change.
As a supporter of LGTBQ+ rights, this, of course, begs the question of what to do with Harry Potter. It’s an understatement to say that the franchise has been formative to a lot of people, and as Rowling continues to happily tweet, it becomes increasingly more difficult to separate the author from the work. So here’s another person with some thoughts about this whole issue. Sit tight for a behemoth of a text that I pretty much decided to write and post on the fly.
The Death of the Author and a Dead Author
Jokes on Hatsune Miku having written Harry Potter aside: in the context of this shitstorm, there are many people who advocate for ‘death the author’. Originally coined by Roland Barthes in an essay of the same name, the idea is to ignore the author’s intentions, identity, and biographical/historical context when analyzing the meaning of a given text. This, of course, can make perfect sense in academia when you’re writing a literary essay. However, this becomes messy in in ‘real life’. Disregarding the underlying themes and messages that an author has consciously or subconsciously put in a text for now, a text does not exist in a vacuum. Moreover, you also can’t consume a given text in a vacuum.
Of course, this is less of an issue when the author is dead. H.P. Lovecraft, for example, is still very influential in the horror genre. Unfortunately, he was also a massive racist. Though this might be present in his work (I wouldn’t know, I haven’t personally read it) and the knowledge could subsequently influence your perception of his texts, buying any given title penned by this man will not land any money in his pocket because he’s, well, dead (and doesn’t have Twitter). The same could be said for, say, Marion Zimmer Bradley (author of The Mists of Avalon), who is accused of sexual child abuse, but she’s also dead so she will no longer reap the profits from her books. The publisher even donates the profits made from booksales to charity. The book is still terrible, so I’m not sure why you’d want to buy it anyway, but I digress.
The issue becomes a bit more messy when the author in question is still alive. To illustrate my point, let me mention another SFF author: Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game. He’s not only extremely anti-gay publicly, but also uses his money, platform, and resources to actively rally against same-sex marriage. In other words, buying a new copy of Ender’s Game allows for your money to end up in his pocket, money that he actively uses against the LGTBQ+ community. Indirectly, you’re supporting his anti-LGTBQ+ cause by buying his work. Moreover, if you happily gush about Ender’s Game to your friend, they might also buy it. If you post about it on your platform, others might be enticed to buy it as well.
Another example occurred in the manga industry. A couple of years ago, the creator of the popular manga Rurouni Kenshin, Nobuhiro Watsuki, was charged with the possession of child porn — which he quite likely bought with the money gained from publishing his manga and the subsequent royalties for the anime adaptation. Of course, things are a bit more complicated with what’s legal in Japan and he has been tried by the law, but I still have obvious ethical concerns. On a side note, I was actually gifted the manga after this news came out, and though I gave it a chance, I dropped it after the third volume and passed it along to someone else. I just didn’t enjoy it — and I admit this was likely influenced by my disgust of the artist having a preference for child porn. My opinion of the series might’ve been different had I not known, or read it earlier, but who’s to say?
Anyway, does this mean we should cancel ‘problematic’ people like J.K. Rowling and Scott Orson Card, burn their books, and pretend that whatever effect their works might have had on our lives does not exist?
Though I am all for calling authors out on their bullsh*t, I am generally not an advocate for cancel culture. In my opinion, it doesn’t leave room for learning from your past mistakes and growing as a person (Brandon Sanderson is an example of a person who has since apologized, adjusted his views, and even put LGBTQ+ representation in his work, though he might not be entirely there yet). In the worst case scenario, cancelling something can potentially become toxic and be counterproductive to change and diversity. It also reminds me of censorship, which makes me very, very, very uncomfortable. Also, older works are often a product of their time and societal views held during the time they were produced, and pretending these issues did not exist doesn’t teach anything to anyone.
That said, though you might not agree with an author’s problematic views or actions by simply reading or talking about a book, it is undeniable in the case of living authors that, through consuming their work, you’re also supporting the person themselves. In the case of J.K. Rowling, she is still very much a part of the Harry Potter franchise (even if the fandom feels like something completely separate); she’s involved in creating the Fantastic Beasts films, for example, and I’m pretty sure she still receives royalties and such from the sale of official merchandise and the books themselves. So if you care a lot about trans rights, it ethically does not seem right to further support J.K. Rowling.
Of course, outright cancelling Harry Potter completely disregards any personal feelings you might have about the franchise. Like I said, the franchise has been formative for a lot of people, and no matter how much bigotry Rowling spouts on Twitter, people still might be attached to Harry Potter and what it meant for them during their younger years. Whatever happens, that influence cannot be erased. Furthermore, the movies also include the hard work of other people — Daniel Radcliffe, for example, has distanced himself from Rowling’s views. Do the people who also worked on the movies need to be punished for Rowling’s tweets?
No Right Answer
So after this text wall, I have no real conclusion. This is a very complicated issue that does not really have a right answer, and probably differs on a case by case basis and from person to person. Right now, I think the decision of whether to let go of Harry Potter or not is a personal one and depends on what you’re personally comfortable with. Some people are better at separating the work from the author than others, and are not equally affected by bigotry.
Regardless, I do think that, if you continue to support Rowling (or Orson Card, or any other ‘problematic’ author), your decision should be an informed one. You do not need to be lying in the bushes across their home watching their every move, but as a responsible consumer, you should be conscious of where your money and attention is going to (which goes for more than just books, really). This goes double if you have a platform with followers. Alternatively, you could resort to second hand or fanmade.
As for me, well, the -1 ticket sale for the next Fantastic Beasts movie on my part will probably not matter much, because there are tons of people who will still watch it. The same goes for the books and merch. However, though I have chosen not to trash the books (though I understand people who do, or don’t), on an ethical basis, I personally do not feel comfortable further supporting the franchise in any way. I will no longer buy merch, future books, or movie tickets in relation to the franchise (or whatever else Rowling releases). I will leave my past two blog posts where they are for now*, but I will not post about Harry Potter in the future. Maybe if she ever apologizes or changes her viewpoint, but considering she seems to genuinely believe she’s right, I don’t think this is likely to happen.
Furthermore, I think that Rowling’s views will likely influence my enjoyment and view of Harry Potter were I to reread the books sometime in the future, and that’s a damn shame.
Some extra content on the matter that inspired this messy blogpost:
Death of the Author 2: Rowling Boogaloo by Lindsay Ellis (YouTube video);
Reading Books by Problematic Authors by Seji from The Artisan Geek (YouTube video);
List of problematic SFF authors/comic creators created by Artsymusings on IG, in case you want to lower your TBR. Includes links and screenshots.
*Added September 2020
I wrote another post about the issue. Upon reflection, I’ve deleted my review on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I’m still on the fence about my Harry Potter exhibit post.