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Artillery Row

J.K. Rowling and the very Freudian fandom

Many Harry Potter fans feel a strange compulsion to hate the thing they love

Although I liked the Harry Potter books as a child, I wasn’t a full-blown Potterhead. I didn’t queue for hours at Waterstones for The Half-Blood Prince or dress up as Hermione for Halloween. It’s in adulthood I’ve come to appreciate the thematic layers, world-building and glorious escapism J.K.Rowling’s imagination gave to my generation.

For many children though, what they felt for the books and, by extension, for J.K.Rowling, was pure love. Love, lest we forget, is an emotion next door to hate. They both require a degree of obsession, surrender, investment. And as a very vocal minority of Rowling’s fandom have demonstrated, ever since she first lent her support to Maya Forstater and sex-based rights in law back in 2019, the switch between can be as fast and ugly. 

And relentless. The latest insidious project by self-exiled Potter fans is a “foul-mouthed” show about the author organised by an Edinburgh arts company, due to be performed in New York in early February. The title? Terf C**t.

Barry and Josef Church-Woods, the founders of the company behind it, Civil Disobedience, describe it as: “A vital think-piece on Joanne, exploring just what could motivate a person with such privilege to take such a divisive stance on issues that affect her fans”. The plot entails the three main actors of the film franchise — Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson — staging an “intervention” with Rowling. They’re not going to be played by the real actors obviously, but the actors will be portrayed as her “surrogate children who have had enough.”

Sigmund Freud was cremated but had he been buried, he’d be beaming in the dark womb of his coffin. I daresay this show, with its creepily possessive premise and vulgar, abusive title, is not a cleverly staged confrontation offering a robust debate. It’s more likely a screaming tantrum at a loving mother figure who did the most unforgivable thing a mother can do: say “No”.

The Harry Potter fandom has a long history of entitlement towards its creator, even by deranged fandom standards. Long before the hysterical backlash to Rowling’s compassionate, carefully-worded essay on women’s rights, fans had been lovingly mining the books for years for “problematic” content. They complained in an adolescent fashion about everything — from how Dumbledore’s sexuality not being explicitly portrayed was “gay erasure” to how non-white pupils were wrongly represented, most notably Cho Chang, Harry’s girlfriend in the fourth and fifth book (a sane defence of the character can be found here). 

Real cracks showed themselves around 2016 with Rowling’s open refusal to support Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. Corbynite fans insisted that Magic Grandpa was a real life Dumbledore. “No, he’s not,” the creator of Dumbledore calmly stated and much eye-rolling and wall-kicking ensued. What happened to the awesome mum who invented Quidditch? 

After Rowling spoke out about her commitment to sex-based rights though, the cracks became visceral and gory. The regression from hardcore Potterheads who perceived her as “transphobic” was unsettling. “As a gay man that found safety in Hogwarts throughout my childhood — knowing that Trans people wouldn’t be able to have that safety breaks my heart” tweeted activist Shahmir Shanni, lamenting that his version of an imaginary place intended for children had been tarnished by its author politely articulating material reality (Shanni was in his late twenties at the time). 

Countless other responses to the essay displayed the same petulant, can’t-you-see-how-upset-you’ve-made-us-Mummy sentiment. In anticipation of the release of the video game Hogwarts Legacy, there was an exhausting amount of online bemoaning, bickering, infighting and disingenuous hand-wringing about whether one could morally separate the art from the artist and buy it? On one hand, giving Rowling money showed literal violence™ to the trans community. On the other hand, the game looked so cool. Essentially, it was the equivalent of accepting a wonderful Christmas gift from your estranged mother while still deriding her. Some fans took a more Orwellian approach, such as Canadian bookbinder Laur Flom who removed Rowling’s name from copies of Harry Potter books and resold them (at a hilariously high price, I might add).

It’s not unfair to say that Rowling being a woman is a factor in her fandom’s childlike possessiveness. Fans of His Dark Materials or American Gods may admire and valorise Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman but they don’t revere them as father figures with the intensity Rowling’s more ardent fans connect to her as a maternal figure — and hold her accountable as such. There’s more than a sexist double-standard at play though; the fact that Rowling was famously a single mum when she wrote the books, having fled an abusive marriage, made motherly heroism and protectiveness a baked-in part of her image. Her charity Lumos, which helps children placed in orphanages and other institutions reunite with their families, has only cemented this image. Rowling was inspired to found the charity when she saw a photograph of an Eastern-European toddler in a caged cot and found it so upsetting she felt she had to do something about it. 

Rowling herself acknowledged the “idealised mother figure” role she had thrust on her by fans in Megan Phelps-Roper’s podcast The Witch Trials Of J.K.Rowling:

It’s complex because I am a maternal person … I have had quite maternal relationships with some individual fans who have been going through bad times. But to be idealized is not something I want. I am a human being.

The last thing any devouring child wants their mother to be is a human being. Not one who has desires and independent views that conflict with their want — their need — for her to validate and serve them. This Terf C*nt show represents the mother lode of Freudian entitlement and regression towards Rowling. It appears that it has dawned on gender extremists that their treacherous mother figure is never going to give in to their demands, no matter how much they pretend to cry until they vomit. So instead they have constructed a staged reality in which they get to live out the fantasy of forcing her too. It’s hard to say if we’re in comedy or horror territory here.

I’m going to let the writer of this play, Joshua Kaplan, in on a secret. J.K.Rowling doesn’t exist. Not the one in his show nor the one who lives rent-free in his and so many other overgrown toddlers’ heads. Nor the idol all Potter fans, including myself, have been guilty of fabricating. I know because I’ve been lucky enough to meet her, the real person. What does exist is a generous, witty, humble woman; a mum-of-three and ex-smoker with an enviably extraordinary imagination and delightfully throaty laugh. A human being. She belongs to no one except her family and owes precisely nothing to anyone else.

As for Terf C**t, I sincerely hope those who partake in and attend the show do let it all out in the safe space of the theatre. To them I urge: scream all the insults needed, display all your performative pain in its full glory, savour every syllable of your word-salad diatribes. Kick. Pout. Smash things up. Smear the wall with excrement if you need to. Cry it out once and for all. 

And then, for the love of God, grow up.

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