Queerbaiting killed the author: ‘Harry Potter’ and the social irresponsibility of J.K. Rowling

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For better or for worse, few fictional universes I have encountered throughout my two decades on this planet have made as big of an impact on me as the one that J.K. Rowling spun in “Harry Potter.” At age 9, I paraded around the school playground with my spellbook, wand and overactive imagination, using the wizarding world as a jumping-off point for my own creative endeavors. It was “Harry Potter,” for instance, that first introduced me to fandom — and, even more notably, to the fan fiction that such a community produces.

And so began a lifelong appreciation for this community. It was through fandom and fan fiction that I was first able to explore my own queerness. When I was given my first laptop in elementary school, one of my early online discoveries was the femslash subgenre that had a vibrant, if somewhat small, place in fannish “Harry Potter” spaces. I spent hours reading stories in which the women of Hogwarts were in loving relationships, stunned to realize that my attraction to other girls was something normal. How could it not be, when other Potterheads took to the stage on LiveJournal and FanFiction.net to craft tales in which these girls were allowed to be unapologetically queer?

It was a different time then. “Scared” is a tepid way of putting it — I was downright terrified for my life as I delved into these online communities, constantly looking over my shoulder in fear that family members would see the blush on my face and somehow put two and two together. I pored through fan fiction in which Rowling’s characters were decidedly not straight, and I did so knowing full well what it would mean if my internet browser history was ever discovered.

It was “Harry Potter,” for instance, that first introduced me to fandom…

Around this time, Rowling’s outing of Albus Dumbledore was already old news. It was 2009, and I held the idea that Harry’s beloved mentor was queer close to my little gay heart. Sure, I was disappointed that his orientation had never been explicitly stated in canon. But it was 2009. We were still a long way from same-sex marriage being legalized nationally in the United States, and I was still looking over my shoulder at 3 a.m. to make sure no one would see that I was reading about Ginny and Hermione falling in love. It made perfect sense that when Rowling announced that Dumbledore was gay, speaking from the stage at Carnegie Hall in New York, the audience stood up in reverent applause. Had I been there, I would’ve applauded too.

Her response? According to news outlets that reported on the historic moment, Rowling’s immediate reaction to the applause was, “I would have told you earlier if I knew it would make you so happy.”

This is where the problem starts.

Ten years later, the conversation surrounding “Harry Potter” has experienced profound changes. Moving beyond questions of queer identity, racial diversity has made its way into the picture as well. When a Black actress was cast as Hermione for the live production of “The Cursed Child,” Rowling decried protests with a tweet reading, “Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione 😘.” The tweet was capped off with a “face blowing a kiss” emoji, and while it demonstrated her support, it added a touch of lip service to the statement. She has also claimed that there was at least one Jewish student at Hogwarts. Brava, Rowling. You are ever the bona fide activist.

As is evident from the massive number of book sales, the extended cinematic universe and endless streams of merchandise, “Harry Potter” is steadily holding an entire generation hostage as fans. These instances have earned Rowling endless streams of praise from the congregation. Yet for all its tweaks in key, one verse of the song has remained very much the same: The canon still has no room for queer characters.

Unfortunately for us weary, die-hard, queer-identifying Potterheads, however, Rowling seems to think it does — in her own outdated, off-color way, that is. As reported by Radio Times, Rowling recently broke out the big canon-wrecking guns again in an interview featured on the DVD release of “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” — yet another example of canon extensions that no one asked for. According to Rowling, the relationship between Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald was “incredibly intense” and had a “sexual dimension,” although she claims to be more interested “in the sense of the emotions they felt for each other.”

Oh, Rowling. You just can’t give it up, can you?

I’d like to make one thing perfectly clear: This objection isn’t about protecting the “sanctity” of “Harry Potter.” We, as fans with our own interpretative faculties, can and should screw with the canon. Rowling just shouldn’t involve herself with that. Every time she does so, she just ends up hurting queer fans of the franchise.

This all should have started and ended in 2007. Instead, Rowling continues to make tone-deaf proclamations, revealing just how out-of-touch she is with those who revere her work. Since she revealed Dumbledore’s sexuality, there have been more than plenty of opportunities for Rowling to include canonically queer characters in her actual writing.

These instances have earned Rowling endless streams of praise from the congregation.

It doesn’t mean that Rowling needs to start writing queer stereotypes into her plots, but rather that it would mean the world to fans if she simply confirmed, through a simple line in a script or a novel, that a character is not straight. There need not be any performative qualities to this; she could simply allow them to exist — as we do in real life — without making a big deal out of it. From the “Fantastic Beasts” series to “The Cursed Child” to whatever the next inevitable “Harry Potter” project will be, the possibilities are endless — and Rowling has taken advantage of absolutely none of them.

So excuse us queer fans if we get riled up over Rowling’s indelicate approach to LGBTQ+ themes. Rather than making some sort of tangible difference with the wide-reaching platform she has earned, Rowling seems to think it’s enough to retroactively throw these additions into the canonverse as if this does anything other than fluff up her own ego. We asked Rowling to give us queer representation, and instead, she tells us that Dumbledore was most definitely getting boned by the wizarding world’s arguably most despicable villain.

Authorial intent is dead, but Rowling refuses to read the memo that’s been sent to her over and over again. Although classic literary criticism tended to focus on the importance of the author, modern interpretations prioritize the reader. As Roland Barthes put it, “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text.”

In other words, it really doesn’t matter what Rowling thinks. As a cultural phenomenon, “Harry Potter” reigns high and supreme alongside the likes of “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings.” As it stands now, it is a thousand leagues larger than one individual. This is exactly why Rowling needs to stop throwing in her extra two cents on the matter of queer representation within the wizarding world that has grown far beyond her initial creation — that, or start doing it in a very different way. When she fails to include explicit representation, the implicit message is clear: Queer characters don’t have a role to play here.

And that’s fine, actually. Thing is, we queer fans kind of always knew that. As much as I’d like to see a queer wizard living their best life in the canon that means so much to me, I’ve also long since come to terms with the fact that this isn’t going to happen anytime soon. “Fantastic Beasts” taught me that. “The Cursed Child” taught me that. Rowling, with her weird politics and pesky Twitter presence, taught me that, and she taught me that well.

But “Harry Potter” is so important to queer fans that we’ve made a whole thing out of it. Fandom scholars have explored this before. “Harry Potter” came into its own just as the internet was gaining traction, and the endless nature of the series — first as novels, and then as films — ensured that fans stayed interested. So interested, in fact, that “The Boy Who Lived” and his world are essential components of the discussion surrounding online fandom culture. There’s no question: The “Harry Potter” fandom is so significant that it genuinely played a major role in shaping the way we interact with media today. In the fan-created rendition of “Harry Potter,” the pairing of Harry and Draco has thousands upon thousands of stories to its name. Remus and Sirius ride happily into the sunset. Ginny, Hermione, Luna and Cho can be women-loving-women.

Does this mean that Rowling shouldn’t have control over her own creation? Well, the answer is more complicated than a one-word “yes” or “no.” It’s two words: Yes, conditionally. So long as she stays in her straight lane, there’s no issue. It’s when she irresponsibly makes an unwarranted, reckless spectacle of her allegedly “queer” characters that the problems start and the online backlash begins.

When (Rowling) fails to include explicit representation, the implicit message is clear: Queer characters don’t have a role to play here.

And the backlash can be brutal — so much so that it becomes mainstream news. Gone are the days when Rowling was applauded for retroactively deeming Dumbledore a gay man with a torrid love affair to boot. In 2007, it was annoying that Rowling only confirmed Dumbledore’s sexuality via an interview — but it still meant something, given the climate of the time. Now, we have much more media with actual queer representation, and throwaway comments will no longer be received with the same acclaim.

There is a certain kind of uncomfortable irony in the fact that Rowling’s world of wizards, as per her own canon, is severely lacking in diversity despite the limitless possibilities that such a universe ought to contain. Wizards can turn into animals, bags can contain entire rooms, a single flick of a wand can end someone’s life — why, then, are characters only allowed to be straight? Naturally, this is precisely where the real-life magic of fan interpretations comes in. When Rowling set her story out into the world, it ran rampant and out of her control. Such is the nature of all literary works that are irrevocably imprinted onto a generation’s consciousness.

As vexing as Rowling can be, her creation means something to people. It means something to queer-identifying fans. Now it’s time for Rowling to give up the activist act and cease her performative interactions with the LGBTQ+ community. Only then will she be acting in a socially responsible way and cease perpetuating a homophobic narrative of queerbaiting and queer coding. Her tenuous approach to queer characters is less than the bare minimum, clearly indicating that she has no interest in prioritizing fans from the LGBTQ+ community.

…throwaway comments will no longer be received with the same acclaim.

Maybe this most recent Twitter fiasco will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I wouldn’t hold my breath in hopes of that happening, but only time can tell us now.

Despite the overwhelming frustration I feel toward the author who rocked my childhood world a thousand times over, I will still hold fast to my Ravenclaw identity, undying love for Luna Lovegood and fierce appreciation for the authors who write “Harry Potter” fan fiction. Does that nullify my argument? I don’t think so. I think it makes my words true. Because “Harry Potter” is so much bigger than Rowling’s social irresponsibility, even if she refuses to come to terms with that. Because “Harry Potter” is a definitive part of modern young adult fiction, and that takes it out of one person’s hands for good.

Because “Harry Potter,” in all the ways that matter, belongs to all of us — not just some of us.

Alex Jiménez is the assistant Weekender editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @alexluceli.

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