I am writing this blog post as a companion for a YouTube video but I would still love to get some discussion going here on the blog around this topic as well. Next month in June will be one year since Rowling’s big essay that doubled (tripled? quadrupled?) down on all of her beliefs and actions that have solidified her status as a TERF. What’s a TERF? It stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism/Feminist. All TERFS will gladly call themselves feminists, will probably agree that they’re radical, and will gladly explain all of their trans-exclusionary beliefs, yet they believe we’re all using hate slurs when calling them trans-exclusionary and using the term TERF. I define it so that you know what it really is, if you’ve been wondering.
In this post (and video) I want to explain why Rowling’s TERF status means that continuing to read her books, watch their film adaptations, etc. can be a problem, and then suggest other authors and properties to check out if you’re missing or craving the Harry Potter experience. If you’re already well versed with the issue, feel free to skip down to my recommendations. If you consider yourself an expert on the topic of great Harry Potter alternatives, I know I’ve missed many, feel free to drop more suggestions in the comments!
Why I No Longer Support Rowling
(And I don’t think you should either, but I can’t and won’t stop you.)
First of all, Rowling’s views. If you aren’t familiar with her essay or what it means, I highly recommend letting trans YouTuber Jessie Gender explain it to you. In the video I’ve linked she reads the essay, responds, and explains her response. It’s long, but it’s worth it. And this is certainly not the only great trans YouTuber response video, but it’s the one that struck me hardest.
Rowling claims that she can’t be trans-exclusionary or anti-trans because she has trans friends whom she supports, kind of (exactly) like how racists claim they can’t be racist because they have Black friends. So do I, but I don’t respond to topics of racism by name-dropping everyone in my life who’s blessed with more melanin than me. You don’t prove you aren’t racist by trotting out your token friend of colour, you do it by being actively anti-racist. You call out racism when you see it. You support BIPOC in your community. You go to the rally. You do what you can do to call for change. The same thing goes for supporting the LGBTQ+ community. You don’t get to hide behind a token trans friend and still want “natal women” only spaces. The term is cis, by the way. Trans and cis are just Latin prefixes that identify something as aligning (cis) or not aligning (trans) with the term you attach it to (gender.) Cis-gender = person’s social experience of gender aligns with the gender assigned to them at birth.
Rowling believes that including trans women in women’s spaces or in discussions of women’s rights harms cis women. She believes that these women are, always have been, and always will be men where it counts and affording them the same rights and protections as cis women is damaging to feminism and women’s rights. She believes that trans men are just women who have escaped the plight of women in a patriarchal society by becoming part of the patriarchy. She claims to support a trans person’s right to choice, bodily autonomy, and personal safety, but simultaneously voices concerns that trans people are threatening her safety and autonomy simply by trying to exist in the same space.
What does this have to do with her books? Several things.
First, we are seeing a shift in society right now where we are finally calling out toxic creators and demanding that they not be protected and praised and paid and allowed to continue to do harm. The world is full of creatives who deserve that spotlight, and we’re done with giving our time and money to the ones who harm others. By buying Rowling’s books, buying or streaming the movies made from them, buying officially licensed merchandise, etc. you can be sure that some portion of your money is going directly into her bank account. When you promote and celebrate her books or their derivatives and merchandise you encourage others to spend and line her pockets. If you’re fine with that, that’s your prerogative, but I would encourage you to reassess.
Many people will talk about “death of the author” or separating art from artist, and if you’re not prepared to let go of something that is nostalgic for you and you want to hang on to just that thing that means so much to you and let go of everything lese attached to it then you’re probably telling yourself that this is what you’re doing. And in the privacy of your own home that’s fine. I still own my Harry Potter books. I’ll still let my daughter read them if she’s interested when she’s at that reading level. That was a huge part of my teenage years. But I’m not make reading vlogs re-reading the series. I’m not showcasing those books in the background of my videos. I’m not writing and releasing new reviews of those titles. I’m not participating in the Fantastic Beasts franchise or buying anything else Rowling has written under any of her names. If my husband ever gets the itch to watch the HP films again I’m going to make him get his DVDs back from his brother and not add to the watch count on a streaming service. I will not let our nostalgia for Harry Potter continue to put money in Rowling’s hands.
Diving deeper, though, you can’t separate art from artist with Harry Potter, and “death of the author” is meant to be a tool for literary analysis, not an excuse to ignore harm done by the author. The Harry Potter books are full of little tidbits that clearly illustrate Rowling’s views on gender. The ministry is tied up dealing with a wizard who distressed muggles by going out in public in a women’s clothing. The two other schools that send teams for the Triwizard Tournament are gender-exclusive and play into stereotypes. The boys are hardened, muscly, strong men. The girls are delicate, beautiful, and there to charm. The film exaggerates this, to be sure, but it’s there in the book. Important female characters are either bubbly idiots or aggressively “not like the other girls.” There are no girls with Harry’s or Ron’s personalities. Hermione is insufferably smart and unfortunately unattractive. Umbridge is the definition of evil wrapped up in a very pink bow. Tonks is Fred and George level mischievous and odd in a way that makes her romantically unattractive to everyone except the werewolf. Ginny is frequently too smitten to use her brain. Moaning Mertle died being upset about a boy. The female teachers teach herbology (gardening) and divination (fortune telling) while the male teachers teach potions (science) and defense against the dark arts. There are no positive representations of non-cis gender expressions or any deviations from gendered stereotypes. There are no on-page relationships outside of the straight binary. Rowling makes retroactive claims like Dumbledore was gay and loved Grindelwald but this was never written into the Fantastic Beasts franchise which takes place when Dumbledore and Grindelwald were the age at which they supposedly had their relationship. Don’t go excusing that because it isn’t a book. It is a book. Rowling wrote all the screenplays and you can buy them as books. She had every say, every opportunity. She chose not to actually represent a positive gay relationship with a key character on page/screen. In this century. Just a couple of years ago. She also made a show of supporting the casting of Black actress as Hermione for the stage play by claiming she never wrote Hermione as explicitly White, but she did. The colour of Hermione’s skin is referenced. Even if she hadn’t, though, the physical traits described conveying how unattractive she is are bad enough if you picture a white kid. Unruly, frizzy curls and buck teeth? You really want to claim you were calling her unattractive for those features and then say she’s Black? You wanna call a Black girl’s curls unattractive? Really? By all means, support the casting of a Black actress, but acknowledge that the way you wrote little girl Hermione can only read as White if you want it to be remotely okay.
You can say similar things about other harmful views she holds coming through in other elements of the Harry Potter world. It’s easy to see anti-semitic sentiments in the goblins’ place and image in magical society. The token Asian student and love interest is named Cho Cheng. Really, Rowling? That sounds like someone mocking the sound of Asian languages. And seriously, in a world where transfiguration exists, poor eyesight can be permanently corrected with a single spell and bones can be regrown, and there’s a registry for anyone who becomes an animagus, trans people don’t exist? Gender fluidity and non-conformity aren’t welcome? Bullshit.
Do you see how her world view permeates through Harry Potter? An author’s world will always reflect their own world view. Rowling’s world is one where not everyone is deserving of equal rights.