I love Harry Potter. I do not love J.K. Rowling. In today’s concerning political climate, which includes literal Nazis, I don’t think she’s the absolute worst or anything, but every now and then she does something unpleasant, such as liking a transphobic tweet, and she slips down a little further in my esteem. If Twitter hadn’t come along, my enjoyment of Harry Potter would have been a whole lot easier – whether or not you advocate separating the art from the artist, my issues with Rowling mostly come not from her personal opinions (although I’m far from thrilled about her support of Johnny Depp), but from her interactions with a world that would have been better left alone.
J.K. Rowling is one of those authors who just doesn’t want to leave her completed work… well, completed. In decades gone by, this probably wouldn’t have been as much of a problem, since fan-author interaction has been significantly expanded by the advent of social media, but every time Rowling decides to flesh out the backstory of a character, I die a little bit more inside. Dumbledore being retroactively confirmed as gay is one such example – representation doesn’t really count if you don’t actually include in the books.
Speaking of representation, I’m going to focus on one of my favourite characters: Remus Lupin. As a werewolf (a metaphor for HIV), he’s a pretty clearly queer-coded character. And yet, despite legions of fans celebrating his compatibility with Sirius Black, he’s relegated to a heterosexual relationship he doesn’t want – pressured into it amongst friends and colleagues – and eventually ends up (unsurprisingly) unhappy and uncertain about fatherhood. Even ignoring how little sense the relationship between Tonks and Lupin makes, and the fact that it absolutely came out of nowhere, Lupin’s character arc is… not great. Sure, he’s a good werewolf, so long as it’s controlled with medication, but there’s an inherent predatory aspect to lycanthropy that, as a metaphor for HIV, presents a really harmful portrayal. Other werewolves like Fenrir Greyback aren’t as ‘civilised’ as Lupin, and the fact that Greyback has a predilection for attacking children makes the HIV metaphor even less defensible. The AIDS epidemic was an absolute tragedy that was mishandled (due in large part to homophobia and the stigma of drug addiction) and resulted in thousands upon thousands of deaths, an unfortunate number of them gay men*. To present these men as the ones to blame – even unintentionally and metaphorically – shows how little Rowling thought about the ramifications of her clever metaphor. Rowling exploited the image of suffering gay men, who were already massively persecuted throughout the AIDS crisis, and then didn’t even follow through with the positive representation of the kind and gentle gay, bisexual, or otherwise queer identifying man that Lupin could have been. It wouldn’t have been quite so rewarding, but Rowling could even have married Lupin off in the same way, if she was so set on it, and just included a simple line about Lupin’s sexuality, but unsurprisingly, she didn’t. I want to believe she had good intentions, but after years of queerbaiting and homophobia I’m tired of giving straight authors the benefit of the doubt.
But, as some will say, Dumbledore was gay, so why aren’t I happy with that? With the scraps of representation given out after the fact? My identity is too risky to include in the narrative, so it must be relegated to interviews and to social media posts. Thanks. That feels great.
I love fandom interpretations – Desi Harry, black Hermione, ace Charlie, trans girl Ginny, dozens of neurodivergent headcanons, the list goes on – but I wish it would be left to fans. The more J.K. Rowling swoops in with her added, ‘official’ opinions, the narrower the potential of wonderful, diverse fanwork becomes. The constant intervening seems to lessen the importance of fan interpretations, as if Rowling is suggesting that only her input, even outside of canon, is important. Anthony Goldstein was Jewish? Awesome, why couldn’t you have included a line about that in canon? Hermione could have been black? That’s great, we totally need more racial diversity in mainstream media, but choosing not to describe someone’s race doesn’t mean that she’s canonically black, and Rowling doesn’t deserve the credit. (I’m thrilled about a black Hermione being cast in Cursed Child, even if I have mixed feelings about the play itself, but to pretend that Rowling was suggesting diverse interpretations in the original series is a bit disingenuous. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing people use canon information to back up their headcanons, but we shouldn’t give J.K. Rowling credit she doesn’t deserve.) I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Rowling publishing information about things like birthdays – which does actually flesh out and fit into parts of the books, such as Ron and Hermione being old enough to take their apparition tests but not Harry – but when it comes to components of storytelling, I really wish she’d leave it to the story itself.
I’m tired of begging for scraps of representation, only to be told to be grateful for what we have, that an author could easily have not included the meagre amount they did. Representation is not about pandering. It’s about, funnily enough, representing the world as it exists, in all its incredible diversity. When you ignore subsets of the population, it just shows how narrow your world and your experience is, and how privileged you are to be able to ignore swathes of people. I appreciate that Rowling seems to have learnt better in some ways, but in others it seems like her views, which may have been progressive for the 90s, haven’t changed at all. I don’t think she’s being intentionally malicious, but it’s still exhausting.
Of course, I’m open to opposing opinions. What do you think about the death of the author, representation, and extra-canon information?
*For considerably more information on the AIDS crisis, I would definitely recommend And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts. It’s a long read, and a difficult one, but as a member of the queer community I thought it was an important and heartbreaking look into a central aspect of our community’s history. I don’t necessarily agree with all of Shilts’ views (such as his criticism of promiscuity) but the scope and intimacy of his writing more than make up for that.
I should also note that HIV/AIDS is still an ongoing issue, and just because numbers have significantly declined in Western countries absolutely does not mean that we should stop caring about it or act as if it’s resolved. We have amazing abilities to prevent and treat HIV these days, but we need to make these preventions and treatments far more widely accessible.