“‘People who menstruate,’” Rowling tweeted last week in response to an article about access to sanitary supplies during the coronavirus epidemic that included “gender non-binary” individuals in its analysis. “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
Spoiler: The word she means is “women” (also, Snape kills Dumbledore). Of course, no one is telling Rowling that she can’t be a woman. No one is trying to erase the term women, at all. The tolerant are merely trying to move beyond the biological dichotomy our society has constructed over centuries — to show there’s something between Platform 9 and Platform 10 after all.
Yet Rowling’s fall from literary darlinghood reveals more than a disappointing turn to the dark arts of bigotry. This world-builder has long refused to relinquish control of the world she built. Among her generation, she’s hardly alone.
Harry Potter is all about morality, but it’s about a sort of morality children can understand. Conveniently for the grown-ups who send their children on the Hogwarts Express when they reach age 11 (or perhaps earlier, for advanced readers), this is also a sort of morality on which Muggles of all ages can likely agree: Good is good; evil is evil.
This simplicity has also made it easy for children and grown-ups alike to turn the Harry Potter books into a frame for analysis beyond the fictional realm; there’s politics that progressive and progessive-ish Muggles of all ages can agree on, too. Recent years especially have offered a black-and-white template ripe for analogy: President Trump is Voldemort, his critics have cried out. Kellyanne Conway is Dolores Umbridge! The Parkland kids at the March for Our Lives are the real-life version of Dumbledore’s Army, spunkily leveling expelliarmuses at the Death Eaterly NRA!
This holds up only until consensus breaks down. As these kids have grown older, they’ve discovered that there aren’t only Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws and Slytherins; that life is complicated in all sorts of ways, and not so conducive to archetyping. They’ve also discovered that society asks questions of us more nuanced than whether Trump is a very bad man, and that their answers to those questions may be different from those of their parents who sat by their bedsides recounting tales of boggarts and basilisks — not to mention of the woman who brought those tales into being. Gender doesn’t reduce so easily to the binary Rowling raised an era’s worth of children on; neither does the rest of the world.
J.K. Rowling has never been able to leave her books alone, though at least her additions initially appeared to walk the arc bending toward justice. She waved her wand, and Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore was gay. Ravenclaw student Anthony Goldstein was, indeed, Jewish, and in fact Hogwarts was home to students of all faiths — oh, except Wiccans.
A school for wizards called Uagadou appeared somewhere called the “Mountains of the Moon” in, uh, “Africa”; it was placed specifically in Uganda after Rowling met criticism for treating a continent as a country. The snake Nagini was suddenly and inexplicably a blood-cursed human called a maledictus and also … definitely absolutely Southeast Asian.
Rowling magnanimously bestowed her blessing on some readers’ interpretation of Hermione as black. Yet was that blessing really necessary? Other fan-favorite inventions the writer has written off as “incorrect”; apparently, they pushed beyond whatever boundaries her mind had set for her novels. Those novels, she made it abundantly clear, still belonged to her.
Maybe it’s time to let go. Give the Harry Potter books over to those to whom they have meant, and continue to mean, so much. Allow Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood to end up together after all; allow Remus Lupin and Sirius Black to be lovers. Allow Wiccans into Hogwarts; allow Hermione to be black, yes, but trans too, if readers and imaginers believe it.
And allow the universe we really live in to change, too. Older people may want to declare their history books complete. They would do better to hand over their quills and give younger people the chance to add chapters of their own, while making space for those who’ve so far been excluded from the pages.
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