Although Rowling is no stranger to Internet controversy, this issue is a serious departure from hijinks at a fancy magic boarding school. For some time, Rowling’s online activity seemed to court left-leaning followers. She tweeted lefty political views and criticized conservatives. She even tried to make the Potter series more diverse after the fact, suggesting one character is gay and another might be Black. But more recent activity, including messages she favorited and her own tweets, sparked scrutiny of Rowling’s views on transgender people. And a long statement Rowling posted in June about her views on “sex and gender issues” stoked, rather than dispelled, tensions.
In this and and some other recent controversies, partisans have squared off over movies and novels before they’ve been able to see or read them. This is a good reminder for going back to basics: Direct engagement — whether with inflammatory art or art by people with contentious views — would lead to smarter and more honest arguments about our culture.
Consider, for example, the moral panic over “Cuties,” a movie about an 11-year-old Senegalese girl’s coming of age in Paris that was decried as child pornography. In fact, the movie condemns the sexualization of children. But that point has been largely lost in online hysteria, much of it from people who refuse to see the film.
This month the Telegraph published a pre-publication review of the latest detective novel by Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith), “Troubled Blood,” that said the book’s moral seems to be “never trust a man in a dress.” Given that Rowling has suggested that some men may legally change their gender to prey on women, outrage followed.
Read “Troubled Blood,” however, and you’ll learn that a serial-killer character who wears women’s clothes to disarm his victims is neither transgender nor a cross-dresser. Mostly, he’s a red herring. (Rowling’s novel “The Silkworm” was also condemned as transphobic on the basis of a single scene, though its plot actually hinges on an act of vicious anti-trans bigotry by the villain.)
Why this impulse to mischaracterize? Anyone who wants to condemn Rowling as anti-transgender has plenty of material from her manifesto, in which she says the movement for trans equality is “offering cover to predators like few before it.”
Mischaracterizing Rowling’s fiction or “Cuties” to build a case against them is the quickest way for opponents of these works to discredit themselves. Far better to lean into the dissonance between what an artist says in their work and what they say outside of it — to spot the inconsistencies in their arguments and to strengthen your own.
Rowling’s most famous works, the Harry Potter books, preach broad tolerance. Yet the same woman who sympathizes with fictional werewolves struggles to extend the same charity to people undergoing real-world transformations. She also argues in those novels that fear is morally compromising and courage is an antidote to bigotry. In her June manifesto, Rowling acknowledged that personal experiences with domestic and sexual violence inform her views on gender identity. It’s tragic to think that the person who invented Harry Potter has had her own experience of the world so deformed by fear.
The reflex to dismiss instead of to explore is one of the more unfortunate aspects of many current cultural debates. If Rowling’s views on gender identity place her outside the bounds of polite — or at least liberal — society, the thinking goes that consuming her work becomes a suspect act. There might be an affirmative obligation not to buy her novels, or to see the forthcoming “Fantastic Beast” movies, because doing so would be to give her money, attention and respectability.
But boycotting Rowling’s new work or denying you ever liked Harry Potter doesn’t negate her power to persuade and entertain. And it’s far smarter and more strategic to dig into works by an author you consider both influential and dangerous to understand what makes them effective.
This year Jeanine Cummins’s novel “American Dirt” became the subject of wide-ranging complaints, targeting the author’s race, her moral authority to write about violence against migrants and even her manicure. Critics felt that the book shouldn’t be popular, but it was. “American Dirt” spent months on the New York Times bestseller list. Popularity doesn’t make a work good, but the persistent sales suggest there’s something in the book that appeals to American readers — and that might be worth examining.
Even Rowling’s most disappointed critics might take away this lesson from the Harry Potter books if they revisit them. Denying Voldemort’s return didn’t do a darn thing to help the Ministry of Magic. The only way to defeat evil and ugliness is to find out where they come from and to face the nature of their power. Disavow Rowling’s views if you disagree. But don’t give up the model she created for how to fight back against them.