‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth is it to have a thankless child!’ King Lear’s words must have seemed all too apposite to JK Rowling over the past few days, as actors – most of whom she has taken a close personal involvement in building their careers – have lined up to criticise her. Someone unacquainted with the nature of her crimes might assume that she was a villain of the darkest and most devious hue, little less than a real-life Lady Voldermort. She is now routinely spoken of in the same breath as other celebrity deviants including Woody Allen, Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein. What has she done to merit such censure?
The reality is that Rowling, the best-selling author living today, has always shown an unwillingness to follow the herd, even if doing so might have given her an easier life. She came up for the idea for the Harry Potter series despite being assured by know-it-all agents and publishers that books set in boarding schools – even fantastical ones – were commercially moribund, and they watched jealously as the books and films made unfathomable amounts of money. A long-standing left-winger and Labour supporter who is close friends with Gordon and Sarah Brown, she was horrified by the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and lost no opportunity to denounce him as a fraud and charlatan. In response to one (rather delusional) fan who said ‘We think of Jeremy as our generation’s Dumbledore’, she snapped ‘I forgot Dumbledore trashed Hogwarts, refused to resign and ran off to the forest to make speeches to angry trolls’. This marked her card amongst many of the keyboard warriors of the left, and they waited to take their revenge.
Denounce Rowling, and they offend one of their most commercially powerful figures, who could take her work elsewhere; defend her, and watch as angry fans boycott their films and abuse their staff
They did not have too long to wait. Rowling is, along with many women of her generation and background, an avowed feminist and, at best, sceptical about the way in which her feminism and transsexual rights might intersect. She attracted a huge amount of controversy last year with her public support for Maya Forstarter, who lost her job after she used ‘offensive and exclusionary’ language in denying the central concept of transsexualism. This marked Rowling out as a ‘TERF’, or ‘Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist’, and she was subjected to vast amounts of abuse as a result. Hostilities were then paused for a short while, but resumed with some passion after various tweets that Rowling sent. In an attempt to make her views explicit, she published a long, thoughtful essay on her website, in which she discussed her views and opinions on one of society’s most controversial issues. She ended by writing ‘All I’m asking – all I want – is for similar empathy, similar understanding, to be extended to the many millions of women whose sole crime is wanting their concerns to be heard without receiving threats and abuse.’
Needless to say, her wishes were not met. While one can note that there is a strange correlation between those people who seemed very keen that Rowling be forced to perform sexual acts on them, or described her in the most basic misogynistic language, and those who had been angered by her political stances, it became open season on her for daring to speak out against one of the sacred tenets of contemporary ideology, namely the mantra that ‘trans women are women; trans men are men’. It is entirely possible to disagree with some or all of Rowling’s sentiments, and even those sympathetic towards her arguments might question the wisdom of expressing them now, in the midst of a tense and angry time in which issues of social justice are dominating public discussion and media coverage. Yet her rights to speak freely, and to express her cogent and rational opinions, have been drowned in an abusive chorus of ‘TERF!’
And it is to this chorus that the denunciations of the younger stars of the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films have been added. While the likes of Julie Walters, Gary Oldman and Michael Gambon have – sensibly – kept their counsel, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Eddie Redmayne and Daniel Radcliffe have lost no time in coming forward to make it abundantly plain that they disagreed with the woman who, in many cases, they owed their entire careers to. They issued statements saying ‘Trans women are women, trans men are men’, ‘Trans people are who they say they are, and deserve to live their lives without being constantly questioned or told they aren’t who they say they are’ and that ‘We should all be entitled to live with love and without judgment’. Radcliffe, the warden of woke himself, even had the sanctimony to say that while Rowling ‘is unquestionably responsible for the course my life has taken… as a human being, I feel compelled to say something at this moment’, even as he claimed that this was not about ‘in-fighting between JK Rowling and myself.’ One can only imagine that any continued relations between writer and actor will be decidedly frosty.
While some would suggest that the more humane thing to have done would have been either to have stayed out of the argument altogether, or released a short statement expressing a neutral perspective that both acknowledged their disagreement with Rowling’s views and upheld her right to hold and to make them, the pressure placed upon actors by their peers, management companies and social media followers to offer ‘the correct’ opinion is enormous. In the case of Noma Dumezweni, the story was particularly grim. Dumezweni was the first BAME actress to play Hermione Granger in the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and predictably encountered racist outrage from those who stated that Hermione could never have been black. Rowling publicly defended her at the time, saying ‘Noma was chosen because she was the best actress for the job…[I can] simply state quite firmly that Hermione can be a black woman with my absolute blessing and enthusiasm.’
Dumenzweni, perhaps more grateful to Rowling than her millionaire film star peers, thus defended the author, and initially praised her ‘openness’. The inevitable abuse occurred, and, as she put it, ‘I felt the flood arrive in such quick time that I though, oooh s**t. I need to reread.’ Once she had re-educated herself, she was able to say ‘there is magic in listening’ and ‘As I honour mine, and the trans friends in my life, I’ll defer to their lived experiences, not their erasure. And these are just the women’. The mob could return to attacking Rowling, satisfied that Dumenzweni had been taught her lesson and recanted.
They made it abundantly plain that they disagreed with the woman who, in many cases, they owed their entire careers to
As for where this particular saga will go, it is impossible to say. Rowling is one of the few writers in both the publishing and film industries with both ‘fuck-you’ money and hitherto limitless influence, and Warner Brothers, the studio behind the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts series of films, find themselves in an awkward position. Denounce Rowling, and they offend one of their most commercially powerful figures, who could take her work elsewhere; defend her, and watch as angry fans boycott their films and abuse their staff. Thus, while they have issued a bland and generic statement stating ‘Warner Bros.’ position on inclusiveness is well established, and fostering a diverse and inclusive culture has never been more important to our company and to our audiences around the world’, they are caught in a dilemma.
They have begun making the third film in the Fantastic Beasts series, which have previously been scripted and produced by Rowling, and now face the possibility that it will face boycotts and outrage, and thus be a commercial flop; they are also committed to making two more in the series. Should they simply cancel the films altogether, take the financial hit (and the possibility of legal action for breach of contract) but keep the moral high ground? Or should they continue to work with an author who has now been publicly criticised by the star of the films, her co-writer Steven Kloves and many of the actors who she helped to make famous, and who are now denouncing her? It is an unenviable choice. No doubt Rowling has been put under pressure to apologise, and to explain away her views, but she has refused to do so. By not repudiating her views, she has whipped up the mob into an even greater frenzy, and also dismayed the producers and executives who need the money of those currently excoriating Rowling for her views, in order to remain in their well-remunerated jobs. This saga will go on, one feels.
As it does, it is worth bearing in mind that, even as film stars and screenwriters proudly affirm their trans-inclusive credentials, there are many who are less convinced that Rowling is wrong. While some of the usual suspects enthusiastically supporting her (Graham Linehan, step forward) are now so associated with trans-scepticism and transphobia that their endorsement has rather the same effect as a would-be MP being backed by Nick Griffin, there are many others who will either agree with her calmly reasoned arguments, or, if they do not, cite Voltaire and defend to the death her right to say them.
A particularly ill-judged Sun front cover interview with her first husband, who defended his instances of domestic violence towards her – as she discussed in her essay – led to a surge in sympathy towards her, even as some of the most ardent Harry Potter fans began to imagine separating their beloved fantasy world from its creator altogether. Whatever happens, Rowling can take one crumb of comfort from the old adage that ‘all publicity is good publicity’, as her books have once again returned to the top of the charts on Amazon. Presumably these purchasers are seeking either to support her or to scour the series for proof that their nemesis was, all along, an evil transphobe who has been seeking to indoctrinate unsuspecting children with her hate-filled message for years. Either way, she will still be earning a fortune in royalties, and, no doubt, channelling it to many of the same charities and benevolent causes that she has supported for years.
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