J.K. Rowling & the Fandoms of Toxicity
As I’ve said in the past, Harry Potter has meant a lot to me. The Potter books helped make me a better reader and writer and set me on a path to being stronger in the English language. And like many modern writers, Rowling was an inspiration and someone to aspire to being. You couldn’t go a month without a new book coming out proclaiming to be the next Harry Potter, or the author the next J.K. Rowling (and you still see it, 13 years after the release of the final book and 9 years after the final movie). And who wouldn’t want to be her? She became one of the biggest names in modern literature, her books were relatively inclusive and taught about love and acceptance, she was a complete rags-to-riches story, she donated tons of her money to charity, and she stood for all that was good.
And then she announced Dumbledore was gay. And Hermione could be black. Et cetera.
I’ve never had an issue with many of Rowling’s post-Potter retcons (except Crimes of Grindelwald, which is easily the worst Wizarding World movie). I’ve said many times that Dumbledore being gay and Grindelwald being his lover makes 100% absolute sense, and you can even pick up on that in the books. Hermione being black came about after the Cursed Child actress was cast as such, and there was wording pointed out from the books that can actually be taken that way. By the time Rowling got to all these Twitter and Pottermore retcons, I had more or less stepped back from the Wizarding World enough to where I wasn’t really keeping up with all of it, and it wasn’t detrimental for me as a fan.
But then Rowling’s tweets turned from Potter to politics. This move got her some praise at first, though she quickly found herself in hot water, siding with questionable people and mind-boggling stances. Rowling, who pushed for inclusion, equal rights, and LGBTQ+ rights… and showed the world her transphobia.
Her anti-trans tweets have not only gotten her in hot water, but she continues to double down on them. Her crime series pen name is Robert Galbraith, who shares a name with the man (though potentially out of complete and horrible coincidence) who pioneered gay conversion therapy. She’s even gone so far as to write and publish an essay (which you should totally read, by the way, and with an open mind. Really, if you haven’t read it yet, stop reading this, go read it, and come back). After reading Rowling’s thoughts, as with many things…
The short version, from what I gather, is this: Rowling was horribly beaten and sexually abused by her first husband, and she rightfully has some major feelings about abuse. Due to this, she feels men will pretend to be trans women, go into bathrooms, and rape or otherwise assault women. This is coupled with an aversion to trans-rights activists–after heavy research, Rowling has come to the conclusion that a majority of trans people feel obligated into transitioning due to not wanting to deal with homophobia and later regretting the irreversible transition (i.e. trans via bullying and fear, not because it’s who you are). Trans-rights activists are basically Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), who are illogical and potentially cruel just to get their ideologies across, and have labeled Rowling a TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist). They are also putting many of Rowling’s charities at risk due to the sex vs. gender alteration debate. But Rowling, at least insofar as her essay is concerned, is also not anti-trans or transphobic in the sense that she hates them and wants their rights taken away, etc. In Rowling’s mind, true trans people are in a minority, and she has zero issues with them. Rowling is afraid being “fake trans,” which she claims is a majority of trans people, whether due to fear or social pressure, is setting a horrible precedent and can lead to irreparable mistakes, particularly for our youth. And there are too many toxic SJWs out there who have reacted unbelievably toward people like her.
Take from all of that what you will. Whether Rowling is right or wrong isn’t quite the debate I’m wanting to get into (though one I will circle back to), but rather a massive part of her debate that is being seemingly ignored: the toxicity of fandoms due to the internet and its strong correlation with women, race, and the LGBTQ+ population. This is a topic that is becoming more and more prevalent in recent years and has only gotten worse. These issues are also tied in to a slow “dumbing down” of an overly selfish society, a society who connects their opinions to their own self-worth, and anything that goes against their opinions or the narrative they think they have earned or deserve is a personal slight against them. This leads to many things, one of which being the “cancel culture” that is much talked about these days.
Let’s try to break this down.
Nerd culture was once a male-dominated sub-group prone to bullying and social ostracizing. The advent of home console video games, the dominance of technology, and the massive success of superhero movies have made formerly “uncool” things like role playing, gadgets, and comic books far more mainstream. But with it seemingly came a built-in distrust and mistreatment of women of all types as well as a voice to those with some social hang-ups. Note: This is not a majority; it’s just a fairly vocal minority.
The Internet in and of itself is a breeding ground for hatred, overly opinionated people, and general vitriol thanks to presumed anonymity. The Internet (and smart phones) has also built a need for answers and being able to get said answers any time anyone wants. On top of that, there is endless theory discussion, time, and mental power channeled into the Internet that belief becomes truth. These have to be the answers, and I have to be right, and if these ideas and theories I’ve spent so much time believing are not confirmed, then somebody else is wrong, not me. This is human nature, and the Internet has amplified this nature tenfold.
One recent story to fall victim to all this is Star Wars: The Last Jedi. When fans didn’t get their opinions and theories vindicated by Hollywood, there was much rampaging, much of it directed toward Rian Johnson, Daisy Ridley, and Kelly Marie Tran. The latter got the worst brunt of it, hearing sexist, racist, and otherwise horrible things (including death threats) in a cyber bullying attack that led to her deleting her social media accounts. Many “fans” came together to destroy Last Jedi, remove it from canon, and even start a petition to have another version filmed entirely (an act that was repeated with the following film, Rise of Skywalker).
The recent Last of Us: Part II met a similar fate. Director/creator Neil Druckmann received antisemitic remarks and death threats, and Laura Bailey, who portrayed the controversial Abby, also received hatred and death threats. The game company, Naughty Dog, were bashed for many things, one of which was the accusation of being SJWs by including primarily female leads–one of whom had big muscles–and a trans character. All of this because of how the game went in a direction fans didn’t want but narratively made sense.
Narrative understanding plays a big role for both of these, as both went out of their way to subvert expectations and take the stories in interesting new directions and explore new themes (thus eliminating the possibilities wanted by some fans). But entertainment has built a society that tends to cater to the masses, or at least the vocal (Sonic had a complete, millions-of-dollars redesign after an Internet explosion) and takes few risks (there are dozens of superhero movies, and almost no major characters outside of maybe the villains ever permanently die). So when popular entertainment takes these risks, it is met with strong negative emotions. And then these strong negative emotions bring out those who have stronger, even more negative emotions in the form of attacks and threats on other humans.
There was controversy around the trans character, Lev, in The Last of Us: Part II. Lev is a trans boy in the game, performed and voiced by a trans actor. The controversy came in the game’s use of Lev’s deadname: the name he was born with before transitioning to his new name. Deadnaming a trans person is offensive and invalidating. However, within the context of the game, it makes complete sense. They are being hunted by Seraphites, the cult that Lev and his sister had to escape from, primarily due to Lev transitioning. It’s these cult members who shout out Lev’s deadname when looking for him. And why wouldn’t they? They don’t agree with it. No other characters drop the deadname. Contextually within the narrative, them using his deadname is perfectly within reason in the story and should not be considered an offensive use for the real world. Yet trans-rights activists hated the game for its use of deadnaming.
And to that, might I suggest (and bear with me here): Does J.K. Rowling have somewhat of a point? I don’t condone or validate any real harmful or transphobic thoughts she may or may not have. But in the grand scheme, are people attacking because they need to right a wrong or because of a feeling of moral and intellectual superiority and a kind of narrative dissonance (not to be confused with ludonarrative dissonance, which is something else people claim about The Last of Us: Part II). Fans complained that Rian Johnson didn’t understand Star Wars by saying any old farm boy/girl can become a Jedi, that Neil Druckmann didn’t understand his own characters or put years of thought and effort into his work, and that J.K. Rowling doesn’t live by the morals presented within Harry Potter.
I don’t know Rowling personally, and she is painting a worse and worse picture of herself as she goes. But putting any possible transphobia and/or “TERF-ness” aside, she has made some fairly spot-on observations. Modern society has a problem, and it’s that people can be abusive, cruel, agenda-driven, and, sometimes, just plain stupid. You’re either a horrible human being (racist, -phobic, etc.) or a Social Justice Warrior (also negative) with little in-between.
It’s the same fight happening politically in the US, and it just seems to stem from a lack of proper education, lack of patience, lack of empathy, and a complete inability to accept being wrong or someone challenging your beliefs. J.K. Rowling might be entirely misguided and wrong, but that does not make those attacking her right. The same goes for any fandom (or political affiliation). If you refuse to read Rowling’s defense essay–whether the essay is right or not–simply based on your preconceived notions and her tweets, you are part of the problem. If you verbally/textually attack or threaten actors or creators because you didn’t like the characters they portrayed or the stories they told, you are part of the problem. If you pluck a moment out of context, like deadnaming a trans character, and rage against it, you are part of the problem. If you review bomb a piece of entertainment without experiencing it just because you heard things you didn’t like, you’re part of the problem. If you hate on someone for accidentally using the wrong terminology (or pronoun) for something they aren’t a part of or don’t know much about without giving them a chance to learn or grow, you’re part of the problem. And whether she’s right or not, that’s what Rowling is saying, and with that, I have to agree.
This article did not start off as a defense of J.K. Rowling. In fact, it began as a way to try and cope with an unfortunate change in a childhood idol. And for the most part, I still don’t agree with her overall mindset. I don’t think the vast majority of men are going to pretend to be trans women to sneak into public restrooms and rape women. I don’t think the majority of trans people were emotionally or socially forced into transitioning (though I’m sure that’s a thing, and when it comes down to it, that’s an issue in and of itself that should be addressed). There are many societal issues implied in her essay that are real problems, with her trans views being a symptom of those problems. Though I might not agree with her ideas on trans people, I do understand her narrative context, and there is a difference there. And I feel those are things that more people, and fandoms, need to try and understand.