This article is a part of the Daily Arts “Canceled” b-side. For a full look at our b-side pieces exploring this theme, click this link.
I grew up in a house in the middle of the woods, surrounded by deer and trees and friendly small-town neighbors, but I spent a lot of my childhood immersed in books instead. Something about the allure of a different world enthralled me; magical, fantastical or realistic, I wanted the adventure that novels promised to take me on.
Joanne (Jo) Rowling dreamed of escaping her troubled marriage. A school teacher who thought herself a failure, Rowling left with her child and scouted for somewhere safe, somewhere she could truly get more out of the life she desired for herself. At the same time, she put pencil to paper and began to sketch out the story of a young wizard boy, which had miraculously come to her, fully-formed, while on a train. Fully shaped by her mother’s death and own mental health struggles, Rowling finished her manuscript and two years later saw “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” become a smash hit.
Long before I was able to read on my own, my father would sit in a white rocking chair and, with my chubby little body on his lap, read to me. I can’t remember every book we read, though we definitely worked through Dr. Seuss and wore down my copy of “Felix Travels Back In Time,” and I vividly recall us reading through the entire Harry Potter series one chapter at a time.
The world of Harry Potter seemed vast and alluring, that of a young mistreated boy becoming the chosen one in a world full of magic and magical creatures. The adventures were grandiose and epic, a battle of good versus evil wickedly waged with wands and incantations. I loved it. I wanted to taste a chocolate frog, a barf-flavored Bertie Bott’s bean and feel the warmth of a freshly brewed Butterbeer. I wanted to live among the characters, who even at the height of their angst embarked on daring adventures while attending the coolest boarding school imaginable. The series of seven bestselling books and eight blockbuster films became a pop culture staple throughout the world.
As I got older, I found myself returning to Harry Potter during times of comfort and hardship. The first film premiere I ever attended was “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1.” My friend and I were two of the only non-costumed people in line. I saw the play “Puffs, or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic” off-Broadway twice and am dying to see both parts of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” on the Great White Way. During a difficult year, I completed a whole re-read of the entire saga and watched all the films again. What started as a silly children’s series became a cultural touchstone for many people’s adolescence. I know that my friend is clearly a Slytherin in all the best ways possible, or how to pick on someone because they’re a Hufflepuff to a tee. Playground talk about our dream houses — I’m a Ravenclaw obviously — became a real discussion of how our personality traits fit into these fictional constraints. Our generation didn’t just grow up with Harry Potter, Harry Potter grew up with us.
My Dad used to hold me as I nodded off, lids heavy with the magic sleep of a child’s day gone by. As I got older and bigger, I would lay down in my racecar bed and listen to him preach the exploits of Harry, Ron and Hermione. The chair older than I was would always squeak. After each chapter was done, he would close the book — he magically always knew where we were in it — and come over and kiss me goodnight.
Things started to get weird after the series was done. Rowling, rather than letting everything sit pretty and untouched, started to mess with the status quo in a hasty attempt to answer questions. Sure, there was a Jewish wizard, his name was Anthony Goldstein and he was a Ravenclaw, next. Oh no, wizards absolutely do not take off their entire robe to use the bathroom, they simply shit into their pants and wave it away with magic, duh. There were LGBTQ+ students at Hogwarts, you just never saw them. WAIT, now Dumbledore is gay. How’s that for representation? It would be comical if it wasn’t so pathetic.
But the slope of Rowling’s quick retcons soon became slippery. Suddenly all the malicious subtext hiding within the books became prominent once people bothered to go below the surface. Why did these wizards exist only in England? Why was the history of magic so white-centric? How come Cho Chang and Dean Thomas were the only two prominent people of color in an entire school of students? The faults crumbled into fissures and soon working through the world of Hogwarts became a game of dodging potholes.
Then … the infamous Pottermore post about magic in early, pre-colonized North America. The history was not only horribly inaccurate but insensitive and white-washed, constantly comparing these Native American wizards to their European counterparts in disgusting ways. The feedback was loud and angry. This wasn’t some little joke Rowling could get away with on Twitter, it was a targeted attack against an entire people, a slight against all Indigenous American tribes that only furthered their erasure in history.
Jo Rowling began to play the offensive. Her Twitter was used for responding to any and all criticisms of her which she completely ignored while working on the new, glitzy “Fantastic Beasts” series. When people questioned why the goblins were so reminiscent of Jewish stereotypes or why lycanthropy, otherwise known as the process of turning into a werewolf, is a metaphor for HIV/AIDS, they were met with a wall of silence. Even when Rowling did something progressive, such as cast Black actress Noma Dumezweni (“The Undoing”) as Hermione in the original London production of “Cursed Child,” she backed it up with questionable quotes about Hermione’s unruly curly hair and brown eyes. Rowling constantly showed that she was not only out of touch but unable to recognize her problems and change. Some people, even those whose lives had been changed by Rowling’s work, made the decision to cut her out of their lives and stop supporting her and her work.
Things were quiet for a little while. “The Crimes of Grindelwald” was a critical flop and Rowling was getting along fine writing her Cormoran Strike detective novels. Frankly, no one cared about either of those projects. But on June 6, 2020, the sixth day of Pride month, Rowling responded to an op-ed’s use of the phrase “people who menstruate” by joking about the word woman being erased, effectively negating the trans safe space the original wording created. She received backlash but kept at it, demanding that sex and gender be connected and continuing to demean the transgender community.
She was speaking and acting like a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF, something a later blog post of hers originally titled “TERF Wars” only continued to prove. Rowling wrote that being transgender was a mental disorder, that it encouraged children to change their gender before they could change their minds and other demoralizing reasons to be worried about new trans activism. The mask was off, the convertible top down — Rowling finally stepped into the light as the bigoted woman she was. No more pretenses or quick retcons to calm fans, Rowling nearly shouted, “I’m transphobic and I’m proud of it!”
Responses flooded the internet, with Harry and Hermione themselves, actors Daniel Radcliffe (“Swiss Army Man”) and Emma Watson (“Little Women”), decrying the statements and standing alongside the trans community. Rowling continued her shitstorm, continually denouncing hormone therapy and possibly even suggesting that people who take medication for mental health issues are simply “lazy.” The launch of her next book, “Trouble Blood,” only worsened the issue by having the villain be a — and I absolutely wish I was joking — cisgendered man who dresses as a woman in order to kill other women. Rowling hates transfolk for simply trying to live their lives and feel comfortable in their own skin. She had picked a hill to die on, but it was turning out more like Custer’s Last Stand than the Alamo.
One day, for whatever reason, as my Dad and I were at the tail end of “Return of the King” (we had moved onto Middle Earth at that point) I looked him in the eyes and said, “I don’t want you to read to me anymore. I can do it.” Looking back now, it was heartbreaking. From that day on I’ve read books alone, because I felt it was time to move on. So the rocking chair sat quiet and untouched, until one day I decided it was time to move on, get rid of it and put a desk in its place instead.
As I sit here and type this, my Ravenclaw bracelet constantly catches my eye. I struggle to reconcile this modern Rowling with the woman who wrote such a beloved, important series of books. I can’t whisk away my enjoyment of them in the past: There are still a good 15 years of Harry Potter affection that remain in my memory. But as a non-binary human being, I cannot simply sit here and take Rowling’s comments as comments. They are hateful and demeaning stances that hurt deeply to hear.
This isn’t an issue for everyone. For some people, doing something famed literary critic Roland Barthes calls “Death of the Author” (summarized and contextualized brilliantly here by critic Lindsay Ellis), can work. The concept is that one should divorce the personal views and actions of an author from their work, stating that their view is simply one of many interpretations possible. This may work for some people, likely the same ones who pay full price to see the new Mel Gibson movie and are ecstatic to see Felicity Huffman acting again, but it’s incredibly difficult for others.
Rowling’s hate and prejudices are baked into the text of Harry Potter; there is simply no way around that. I am not trying to discount any single person’s interpretation because if you got something out of this series, nothing Rowling or anyone else says can ever take that away from you. But I find it difficult to think about supporting this series the way I once did. I hide away my Harry Potter socks and feel a pang of guilt each time I think about the Friday Forty and how I would probably spend a ridiculous amount of money to see “Cursed Child.” With a new Harry Potter video game set to come out next year, Avalanche Studios’s “Hogwarts Legacy,” and the third Fantastic Beasts film in production, people are going to need to take a stance on Rowling sooner rather than later. Either they boycott her or support her.
Now as an adult, I wonder why I ever asked my father to stop reading to me. I always feel guilty about it, like I broke his heart. I can say I never went back to finish “Return of the King” either, it just never felt right. Time has allowed me to keep the memories close to me, but has also allowed enough distance for me to see that I made the right decision. My dad and I formed a different relationship, not one out of him reading to me but us reading as equals. He started choosing books specifically for me. I still do the same for him. We manage to find time to talk about whatever he chose to borrow from the library this week. As heart-wrenching as it is, sometimes moving on is the right thing in the end.
Personally, I say it’s time to move on from Rowling and her TERFy shenanigans. Just like with storytime and my racecar bed, it’s time to take Rowling and put her to the curb. No more chances, no more last second sways of the heart due to nostalgia, no more “but one more butterbeer,” which frankly was never that good to begin with. Let’s hang up our brooms, put our wands in storage and stand firm together and affirm that Rowling doesn’t get another pass. We will always have our fond memories. The siren calls toward a comfortable but now tainted land, and that’s enough for me.
It’s time to put down Harry Potter. But if you want another series about a chosen hero with fantastic representation, witty writing and supremely likeable characters, may I introduce you to Rick Riordan and his series “Percy Jackson and the Olympians.” Hear me out. The Greek gods are real, as are the Roman and Norse and Egyptians gods, and it’s up to their half-god, half-human children to save the world. The main meat of Riordan’s writing is the character of Percy Jackson, with three five book series dedicated to him and his misadventures with the Greek and Roman gods. There are also two trilogies, “The Red Pyramid” and “Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard,” dedicated to the Egyptian and Norse gods respectively. All the books are chock-full of diverse and memorable characters, from Leo Valdez, the flaming mechanic son of Hephestus, to Frank Zhang, the Canadian Asian son of Mars, to Nico DiAngelo, the gay, lost-in-time son of Hades, all the way back to Percy Jackson himself.
Riordan prides himself on not only caring about telling these diverse stories, but also caring deeply about his fans. All of his 21 mythological books are crafted with care, humor and so much heart that Aphrodite is probably jealous. The stories have the same stakes, i.e. the end of the world, and even more compelling villains, as the heroes travel around America and Europe on various quests. He does his research and carefully represents people from varying communities, even recently including a genderfluid son of Loki in his Stonewall Award-winning Magnus Chase series. For diversity he can’t write, Riordan publishes a line of books called “Rick Riordan Presents,” which is dedicated to helping underrepresented authors have their voices heard. This has led to the lauded books “Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky” by Kwame Mbalia and “Sal and Gabi Break the Universe” by Carlos Hernandez. Other authors published under the label represent myth and folklore from Mayan, Korean and Navajo cultures, all of which are needed voices in our modern, multicultural world.
Riordan does not only care about himself and his work, he cares what his fans think and how they feel. He wants everyone to be able to see a place for themselves not only in his stories but in literature as a whole. He is in nearly every capacity the anti-JK Rowling, and we desperately need more of him.
I look over my bookshelf now and see what a difference the past few months have made. As a middle-class white reader, there was nary an author of color represented, and that was something I changed immediately. While bigger than before, my collection of diverse authors must continue to grow; an understanding reader evolves into an empathetic reader evolves into an empathic and understanding person. The time for singular viewpoints is long gone, the world exists now for diversity of thought and diversity within life. It cannot simply go away. I hope that as we come to terms with that now, many more people like me will expand their bookshelves so that when it comes time to read to their kids, to sit in their creaky old rocking chair with the child already so tired on their lap, the world will finally be a different place.
Daily Arts Writer M. Deitz can be reached at [email protected].
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