J.K. Rowling, ubiquitously known as the author of the “Harry Potter” series, has become a recent topic of conversation for her June 6 tweet critiquing a medical article that used the term “people who menstruate,” a comment that further affirms her belief that transgender advocacy undermines biology. She doubled down on these comments in an essay published this week on her personal website, expressing concerns over “the new trans activism” while simultaneously claiming to love transgender people. Especially considering current nationwide protests against the systemic killing of Black transgender people, these statements have inspired widespread criticism.
It’s worth noting that Rowling isn’t really bringing any new perspectives to the conversation of transgender recognition. Her arguments are the same anecdotal and unfounded talking points that “transgender-exclusionary radical feminists” have cited for years. Contrary to her essay’s claims, there is no statistical link between trans-inclusive protections and increases in sexual assault in public bathrooms. Similarly unfounded is the idea that gender-neutral language in health care somehow erases the biological realities of female-bodied people and “people who menstruate.” Rowling’s self-imposed martyrdom for transphobia cloaked as feminism has long alienated the not insignificant LGBTQ+ portion of the “Harry Potter” fandom.
However, these comments from Rowling aren’t surprising. In reflecting on the original series, there is an utter lack of diversity, with almost no characters of color and no canon LGBTQ+ characters, leaving diverse representation to fans’ imaginations. Even the existing characters of color are blatant stereotypes; take the singular East Asian character, very creatively named Cho Chang, whose defining characteristics are being shy and smart. There are also the goblin bankers, who are portrayed as hook-nosed and greedy (traits that many have criticized as anti-Semitic stereotypes). But Rowling’s evident prejudices, whether they be for trans people or people of color, have not shaken fans’ dedication to the series, just their dedication to her. Many fans have been quick to denounce her behavior, often unfollowing her or refusing to buy new “Harry Potter” merchandise.
Fan-created stories and art have arguably kept the series alive, rather than Rowling’s continued additions; many fans have completely voided her contributions outside of her original writing. Instead of continuing to support Rowling, fans champion one another’s imaginations outside of the “canon” constituted in the books, creating their own “headcanons.” In doing so, many fans, especially those from younger generations, undoubtedly denounce Rowling.
Considering this schism within fan communities — with younger audiences recontextualizing queer and BIPOC representation on one side and older fans championing Rowling’s authority on the other — it’s hard to ignore the central question: Do fans even need Rowling anymore? Rowling’s “cancellation” is arguably one of the most salient case studies in Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” the idea that an author loses all authority in interpreting their work once the reader gets their hands on it. The basis of this idea is simple: Books exist to be read, not simply written and preserved. The dissonance between Rowling’s personal politics and popular interpretations of her seminal work is simply the most recent battle in a long war for creative ownership of pop culture — one that Rowling seems to be losing.
Almost every public figure professionally connected to Rowling’s work was quick to distance themselves from her comments, with many calling for creative authority to be placed back into the hands of LGBTQ+ fans. Daniel Radcliffe issued a particularly powerful statement in a June 8 editorial for the Trevor Project, a nonprofit that provides crisis intervention for LGBTQ+ youth. He writes, “If you found anything in these stories that resonated with you and helped you at any time in your life — then that is between you and the book that you read, and it is sacred. And in my opinion nobody can touch that.” Similarly, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them” star Eddie Redmayne and other actors from the “Harry Potter” films echoed Radcliffe’s remarks in their own statements, hoping to reaffirm queer fans of the series that they are welcome in the fandom despite the original author’s prejudices. This outpour of actors contrasting her statement further affirms how out of touch Rowling’s remarks are, and how she now remains unable to convince fans who once found strength in her words.
Ultimately, Radcliffe’s statement deftly addresses Rowling’s flawed understanding of both feminism and authorship. To an extent, Rowling has revealed her “feminism” is not in service of dismantling all gendered prejudice, but rather in maintaining her own. Like other trans-exclusionary radical feminists, her arguments hold no purpose other than to stir fear and stigma. But thanks to accessible online communities, fans are able to connect to one another to delight in Rowling’s works, without needing her involvement at all. Perhaps a silver lining exists in the author’s inadvertent disownership of her series: Rowling’s comments have only accelerated her plunge into irrelevance, when her intentions may have been to thrust herself into the spotlight once again.