I never thought I would have mixed feelings about my Harry Potter collection. Sure, I’ve moaned about the price of the wands (20 quid for a bit of plastic?) and had many a rant about the flogging of a dead horse (not such a Fantastic Beast). I was even one of those idiots who queued round the block for a copy of The Cursed Child (four hours of my life I will never get back). Yet, Harry Potter still has a place in my heart; it is a tale that changed the face of children’s literature, a beautifully penned story about the dangers of intolerance and ignorance that resonates clearly with the political environment so many of its readers have grown up in.
JK Rowling’s transphobic comments contrast starkly with the moral of the story which made her famous. Despite claiming to have researched the transgender movement thoroughly, Rowling’s 3600 word delivery of her views fundamentally misunderstands many facets of trans thought – most prominently the issue of women’s safe spaces. Reading the essay, I was struck by Rowling’s conscious manipulation of women’s understandable fear of male violence to ignite mistrust against, as one trans activist put it, “0.6% of the population who are just trying to live their lives.” The fact is this- if you have an issue with women feeling unsafe in female changing rooms, your problem is with predatory men, not transgender women. From the dirty furore that ensued, old questions about how to reconcile creative appreciation with immoral creators arose.
So, should we toss our Harry Potter books into the flames along with Michael Jackson’s music, Weinstein’s films, and all 5 seasons of House of Cards? Maybe. Rowling, like most authors, makes royalty cut of 15% on the sale of all books, pulling in 31.5 million in 2019 from eBooks alone. Harvey Weinstein is still making money from sales of his films, which include popular classics like Pulp Fiction. I distinctly remember a conversation with my English teacher on the day the allegations against HoC actor Kevin Spacey emerged. “Y-e-e-e-s, he’s done awful things,” she admitted, misty-eyed. “But does that mean he shouldn’t be on House of Cards?”
Most of us might not go that extreme. But the very modern problem remains- can we ever truly separate incredible fiction from the facts of its seedy origin? Those diehard fans of Samuel L Jackson, for example, may want to protect Pulp Fiction’s iconic status by continuing to support the franchise. But they will have to do so with the knowledge that a portion of payment will go towards producer Weinstein’s legal fees as he continues to wrestle with the rather flaccid American legal system over 87 terrifying charges of sexual assault.
Similarly, while we don’t know that Rowling donates directly to transphobic organisations, but we do know that she is a transphobe. Hence, supporting Rowling financially by purchasing her products can be seen as pardoning her views and promoting her platform. Whether we like it or not, currently money is the medium by which we reward, sanction and judge success. Logically, as consumers, we have the power to remove our financial support from those we find morally reprehensible- a kind of modern-day guillotining.
But is it really that simple? After the (still unproven) allegations against pop sensation Michael Jackson hit the world stage in the chilling documentary Leaving Neverland, many diehard fans swore they would never listen to his music again. Iconic songs like Thriller and Billie Jean, once radio favourites, were bombarded with complaints when played on air. After all, art does not exist in a vacuum. Art is about voice; voice is about power. In the case of both Michael Jackson and JK Rowling, we have two celebrated superstars using their power to exploit the relatively voiceless.
Yet, in Michael Jackson’s case, the alleged paedophile himself will receive no royalties from his music due to his death 10 years before the accusations surfaced. His songs and his image mean so much to so many people, particularly the Black community; this is a man who, like Rowling, defined an era with his art. Surely it is possible to compartmentalise the good and the iconic from the disturbing and appalling?
I cannot give you a clear answer to this question. As is annoyingly common in situations of morality, the grey areas remain decidedly grey. Perhaps art belongs primarily to those who perceive it, not those who create it. Early 20th century critic Roland Barthes argued that for literature, every reader makes the story anew, and thus its meaning is entirely separate to the creator’s intentions and opinions. In other words, the author is dead- even if they are not. Yet, compartmentalisation is the virtue of the privileged. Young transgender people may have seen Rowling as a kindred spirit, a woman who overcame gargantuan barriers and provided them with a story about a lonely child who was different. I imagine it was a world that felt like home. For them, the magic may be lost forever.
Today, most art critics would suggest that an understanding of the artist’s mindset is helpful, if not essential, to understanding art- if only to avoid being ahistoric. I prefer to picture creator and creation in a symbiotic relationship; each one permeating the other, yet with the possibility of being perceived as separate entities despite their eternal connection. In the case of Rowling’s novels and Jackson’s music, there is nothing within the art itself that promotes either transphobia or paedophilia. Indeed, in Rowling’s case, the overarching message of Harry Potter is to champion love and compassion over fear and mistrust.
Strangely, readers of Harry Potter might argue that the book itself is more ‘woke’ than its author. The morals within Rowling’s magical stories are more pertinently suited to supporting the Transgender movement than opposing it. Can this be possible- for a creation to support a different side of a debate than its creator- or is this infeasible wizardry?
The issue of financial support, I would propose, is a separate one, and something that only an individual can decide for themselves. I would ask readers to bear one thing in mind. Even in cases of living perpetrators of hate such as Rowling, so-called ‘cancel culture’ can never take away her undeniable success and wealth. As the author herself said in 2017, responding to a fan who threatened to burn her books “I’ve still got your money.”
Compartmentalisation aside, it seems that some people are just too big to ever fully cancel. The webs of responsibility and reward that bind us together in this globalised world are almost too massive to comprehend and are as impenetrable as morality. Yes, Ms Rowling. You still have my money. Given that you are rumoured to write under multiple pseudonyms, it’s possible that you will continue receiving my money. But I still have the joy, the comfort, and the many hours of illustrious daydreaming that your books gave me. I cannot unbuy your magical stories, and I cannot unlove them either. Yet, henceforth I will be calling in my right and privilege as an autonomous reader. I will see your books as beacons of hope, of love, of the triumph over ignorance and hate. Even if you do not.
Written by Alice Stephens