J.K. Rowling has made a complete mess of things – again!
The author of the much-loved Harry Potter franchise has long stood as a symbol of triumph over adversity, having written her children’s books as a last-ditch attempt to earn a new life for her baby daughter. Since their release two decades ago, the Harry Potter books have sold over 500 million copies worldwide as of 2018, becoming one of the best-selling book series in history.
Now, legions of Potterheads are finding themselves faced with the ugly truth. This time, it isn’t Voldemort and we will need something close to magic to undo the damage. Taking to Twitter, Rowling made her views on transgender and cisgender rights perfectly clear, becoming once again the real-life villain, further ostracising some of the marginalised in our society.
In the first of her many Twitter rampages, Rowling hinted her displeasure at an article that referred to “people who menstruate”, indicating it was wrong not to label them as “women” in an ill-advised attempt at trans inclusion. Following a tirade of negative backlash, she published an essay on gender, sex and abuse to further give weight to her claims.
Naturally, the Potter fandom exploded, and conversations were started, as were the rows. Many seemingly sympathised with Rowling’s views, placing them firmly in the line of fire with those fans that found her views nothing short of blasphemous. Many others still refrained from the politics of the real world to delve deeper into the magical reality that so many of us have loved and treasured as the pinnacle of our childhoods.
Even the stars of the film franchise had something to say, politely showing their disapproval for the mastermind they had once happily shared a red carpet with. Emma Watson (Hermione Granger) voiced that transgender people have a right to be accepted for who they are without question. The star of the show, Daniel Radcliffe expressed similar, albeit cautious, views.
So, where does this leave us from a literary standpoint? The intensity and nature of the debate vexes the all-important question: is it possible to separate the art from the artist? Well, the simple answer is there is no simple answer.
Rowling has been responsible for the disillusionment of her once loyal and avid fans, those who grew up reading the books, waiting in immense lines before each book release and devoting many hours to the Pottermore website. The fanbase has prompted the inception of two further film franchises, the stage production, The Cursed Child, a theme park, and countless merchandise material. I, myself, started the journey into the Potter-verse at the ripe age of eleven alongside Harry, Ron and Hermione. The series has proved instrumental in providing an insight into the complex workings of the immense and expansive world, its foundations built over the seven-part saga.
It seems prudent to explore the dilemma through Roland Barthes, who, in his 1967 essay, pioneered the term ‘Death of the Author’. Barthes argued that traditional literary criticism was irrelevant to the analysis of a text.
“It is language which speaks, not the author”
Many critics, following Barthes, placed greater emphasis on the role of the reader and the response of the reader that proves pivotal in the interpretation of a work of art.
Barthes’ concept stresses the importance of viewing works of art as simply art, drawing focus to its own merits. But the Barthian view is called into question with the rise of our own digital age, blurring the line between the work and the media presentation of its author.
Simply boycotting the franchise doesn’t provide a practical solution in our modern age. We would be forgetting the numerous other artists that owe their careers to the creation of the wizarding world. More importantly, how are we now to read the stories with the privileged insight into the author’s life? Rowling’s wizarding world has long since been a safe haven and a form of escapism for many marginalised groups that have found comfort in Harry’s story of love and acceptance.
Harry’s initial entrance into the wizarding world is marked by uncertainty as the Sorting Hat insists that he belongs in Slytherin. He ultimately denies this categorisation, following his own gut inclination that leads him to Gryffindor instead. One of my favourite quotes from the series, spoken by Dumbledore, aptly affirms that Harry’s own sense of self is what he determines it to be, not that which is decided for him:
“It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be”
Whether we choose to disregard an awareness of the authorial intent or not, our future readings of the series are likely to be plagued by what we know of J.K Rowling. In theory, separating the art from the artist seems the ideal solution, yet it doesn’t remove Rowling’s position as the cornerstone of the Harry Potter franchise. She is, still, very much the face of Harry Potter as much as Daniel Radcliffe himself.
As a student of literature, this creates an opportunity to dissect the Harry Potter series further with the knowledge that neither its creator nor the work of art itself are without their faults. From its seemingly regressive gender identities to the derogatory slur “muggle” to denote an inferior group, Harry Potter is the workings of a creative genius with her own complex background of transphobic and sexist outlooks.