Wednesday, December 1, 2021

20 Years of ‘Harry Potter’: How The Fandom Is Reclaiming Potter For Themselves

Contributors: Jules, Kaity

A note: Aside from the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, this week marks Transgender Awareness Week in both the United States and the United Kingdom. If you are interested in supporting the trans community or need resources yourself, you can find them for the US here and the U.K. here.

This week, the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone brought complex feelings for fans of the beloved novels and films. One of the highest-grossing film series of all time, the Harry Potter juggernaut of books, films, video games, theme parks, and more remains one of the most valuable franchises ever from a pure profit perspective (not to mention its impact on a generation of writers and readers). But these works have been tarnished by author J.K. Rowling’s harmful and transphobic rhetoric, which is especially hurtful for LGBTQIA+ fans who found hope in Harry Potter. Fans who grew up learning about concepts like justice and standing up to corrupt institutions through the Wizarding World are now in a conflicted place: is there a way to celebrate the characters and stories we love without indirectly or directly supporting the abhorrent viewpoints of its creator?

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Within the mainstream media, it’s impossible to separate the Potter phenomenon from its creator, largely due to the over-embellished Cinderella story surrounding Rowling and the Potter series. Harry Potter is presented not just as a stroke of creative brilliance that resulted in billions of dollars in revenue, it was a saving grace for a single mother depending on government assistance. The legend of J.K. Rowling notes that she wrote the Potter series on napkins, airplane sick bags, and supposedly even a dress that still hangs in her closet. So from the very beginning of Potter-phenomenon, Potter was not only a refuge for children but was also touted as an inspirational story for women around the globe.

The media and her publisher crafted the perfect rags-to-riches story for this blooming author, and while children soaked up the world of Hogwarts, witches and wizards, and magical creatures, women looked to Rowling as a source of inspiration. Those experiencing domestic violence, fellow single mothers struggling to put food on the table, and all others who felt they were trudging through mud in an attempt to keep up with male colleagues in their fields found a source of hope that Rowling managed to get her napkin-novel published after dozens of rejections, catapulting her into the billionaire class and a place amongst literary geniuses.

Rowling was branded as the epitome of women’s success. For aspiring writers, struggling mothers, and beyond, she was a beacon of hope in a world where women often fall short. So when her views on the trans community became apparent, suddenly this strong, powerful force was tainted. A woman who had provided hope for so many people suddenly felt compelled to out herself as intolerant of an already ostracized community, a message that opposes one she spent years of her life writing about. It hurt. A lot. It affected women who had looked to her as inspiration that they too could one day create a life better for themselves. It hurt the children who took refuge within the tolerant walls of Hogwarts. What happened to the creator who once tearfully told the world that “Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home”? What were the people who had dedicated 20 years of their lives supposed to feel now that the creator of their favorite world now opposed their existence on a basic moral and fundamental level?

Adult fans of the series began to go over Rowling’s work with a fine-tooth comb. And as they did, they found that perhaps Hogwarts wasn’t as tolerant as they thought it had been. There are far fewer characters of color than there should be within a school as vast as Hogwarts, not to mention a complete dearth of canonically queer characters aside from Dumbledore (which was itself a proclamation made outside the text of the books itself — if you only read the books with no context, you’d be forgiven for missing this detail entirely). Beyond the fact that Voldemort and the Death Eaters are virtually a mirror of Hitler and the Nazi Party — the evil Lord and his army of Pure Bloods wanting to extinguish those not deemed Pure — there are other smaller noted slights and overall patterns of racial and ethnic prejudice.

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Rowling’s transphobia is widely believed to have been in front of us all along in the form of one of the Potter world’s most loathed characters, the Daily Prophet reporter Rita Skeeter. Described as having a “heavily-jawed face,” “mannish hands,” and a “surprisingly strong grip,” alongside fake hair, nails, and even teeth, it’s clear what Rowling’s intentions were when describing this character. But negatively describing Skeeter’s appearance simply wasn’t enough. Skeeter is characterized as having masculine qualities while presenting as a woman, and she’s also an unregistered Animagus, making her ability to transform into a literal insect (a beetle) illegal. And not only is her Animagus ability illegal, but she uses it for harm on a consistent basis. This description was an active choice, and when you look back it is a wholly unnecessary example of Rowling’s glaring prejudices that she just couldn’t help but sneak in.

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For queer fans especially, Harry Potter has been a refuge for years, which is why the transphobic views of its creator hurt even more. Harry’s life is not easy. He suffers many tragedies and is mistreated by the adults around him who desperately do not want him to be the wizard he is. But Harry gets to disappear to Hogwarts, a world full of magical people like him who see him as special. There, his personal trauma is a collective one, and in the end, light wins over darkness. Harry’s journey from a lonely boy literally trapped in a closet to a powerful wizard with loving friends and found family is more than just a bedtime story for LGBTQIA+ fans — it’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy. The Harry Potter fandom has historically been a welcoming place where many queer fans first found their “people” and grew into their true selves. Our queer identities and our Harry Potter identities became almost equally large parts of our lives, and they are inextricably linked. And therein lies the rub: to publicly support Harry Potter as a concept could lead to further attacks on our community (specifically our trans and gender non-conforming members), but to attempt to disengage entirely leads to a loss of identity and purpose for queer fans who found a home at Hogwarts and in the fandom.

Fandom Forward.

It also leads to tough choices for projects adjacent to Harry Potter but not affiliated with the films or Rowling herself. Fandom Forward (formerly the Harry Potter Alliance) is known for its grassroots activism, channeling the power of fandom into actionable social change. When Rowling’s stance became widely known, their work was called into question by association, leading to the name change and a new, less Potter-centric mission statement: “The stories we love bring us together, but the story of our world? That’s up to us.”

That mission statement should be adopted by the Potter fandom at large. We feel that by this point in the Harry Potter fandom story, the conversation is no longer led by Rowling. It is led by the fans as they add their perspectives through fan fiction, art, companion works, and more. Celebrating the fandom is not the same as celebrating the creator, and it’s time we stopped perpetuating the myth of this author (or, frankly, any author) being the proverbial font of wisdom and last word over characters and stories we love.

Some of the best Harry Potter content of the last few years has come from fans who are now adults creating for themselves, who are better positioned to critically examine the work they love. The brilliant Puffs, or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic is a loving parody that specifically celebrates “anyone who has never been destined to save the world.” Fan fiction has become a way for fans to right the wrongs in the canon narrative and provide new perspectives. Perhaps most importantly, artists who create their own beautiful merchandise allow fans to express their love without directing money towards the official channels.

Hunter Canning/PUFFS

There are ways to love Harry Potter without supporting Rowling, both from a financial perspective and an influence one. Jackson Bird, a previous Fandom Forward activist whose stunning book Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out, and Finding My Place (A Transgender Memoir) is a must-read for anyone who wants to know how Harry Potter influenced a generation of queer kids, described his views in a column for The New York Times in 2019:

“Anytime she or the franchise’s decisions have sparked tension with my own ideologies, I think about what the real magic of Harry Potter is to me. It’s not the theme park in Orlando or trademarked merchandise, or even the deluge of information Ms. Rowling continues to release about the fictional universe on Pottermore. Those things have never been my favorite part of Harry Potter, though now I may avoid them more intentionally. The real magic for me is what people have created around the books and the community we have built together.”

The question of whether continuing to be a fan of Harry Potter lends support to a harmful cause is not one with a clear-cut answer, nor is there one correct path to take. It’s easy enough to say to “grow up” and “move on” from Harry Potter (and indeed, that has been one side of this debate that has grown louder in recent weeks with the ramp-up in anniversary content). But Harry Potter was and is more than a childhood comfort for many people. It’s where we found friends in the fandom and where we escaped to when real life was too difficult. And at this point, the fandom no longer belongs to its original creator. It belongs to the fans who have shared their time and their talents not just on loving Harry Potter but also on changing the world through their activism. Potterheads have reclaimed the series for themselves, and at this stage, only one quote from the franchise is needed.

“We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”

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Jules
I am a nurse and dedicated nerd from Boston, MA. When I'm not at work, I'm rewatching old favorites like Supernatural or discovering my new obsessions (too many to count!). When not fangirling, I can be found reading, writing, or listening to a true crime podcast. You can find me on Twitter @juleswritesblog for more nerdy nonsense.

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