The Self-Destruction of J.K. Rowling | Column from the Editor

Ten years ago, J.K. Rowling was the gold standard for young adult literature, and her accomplished “Harry Potter” novel series might be the best YA series of novels of all time. Her books were so popular, for a brief time, she got kids interested in reading amid the technological revolutions of the late 90s and early 2000s, and indeed, her books are really, really good for what they are. But this doesn’t necessarily mean Rowling is an expert on everything she talks about, especially transgender people.

I have always been wary of the insight of authors that specialize in commercial fiction, as when someone is famous to the extent Rowling is for making highly entertaining, but very made-up stories, it is easy to assume they have ethos on everything they’re talking about because their platforms are so large and professional-looking. However, this doesn’t protect them from being flat out wrong, especially on subjects they have no expertise in.

And to this, I will quote “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe’s response to Rowling’s anti-trans tirade: 

“Transgender women are women. Any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people and goes against all advice given by professional health care associations who have far more expertise on this subject matter than either Jo or I.”

Daniel Radcliffe, via The Trevor Project

Rowling is not a medical professional. She has a bachelor’s degree in French and classical studies, and she’s a famous author that made a lot of money writing a popular children’s book series and subsequent film adaptations. And quite frankly, her arguments don’t hold up. Here are some select passages from her lengthy and meandering essay titled “J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues”:

“The current explosion of trans activism is urging a removal of almost all the robust systems through which candidates for sex reassignment were once required to pass. A man who intends to have no surgery and take no hormones may now secure himself a Gender Recognition Certificate and be a woman in the sight of the law. Many people aren’t aware of this. …

“I’ve read all the arguments about femaleness not residing in the sexed body, and the assertions that biological women don’t have common experiences, and I find them, too, deeply misogynistic and regressive. It’s also clear that one of the objectives of denying the importance of sex is to erode what some seem to see as the cruelly segregationist idea of women having their own biological realities or – just as threatening – unifying realities that make them a cohesive political class. The hundreds of emails I’ve received in the last few days prove this erosion concerns many others just as much.  It isn’t enough for women to be trans allies. Women must accept and admit that there is no material difference between trans women and themselves.

“But, as many women have said before me, ‘woman’ is not a costume. ‘Woman’ is not an idea in a man’s head. ‘Woman’ is not a pink brain, a liking for Jimmy Choos or any of the other sexist ideas now somehow touted as progressive. Moreover, the ‘inclusive’ language that calls female people ‘menstruators’ and ‘people with vulvas’ strikes many women as dehumanising and demeaning. I understand why trans activists consider this language to be appropriate and kind, but for those of us who’ve had degrading slurs spat at us by violent men, it’s not neutral, it’s hostile and alienating.”

J.K. Rowling, via “J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues”

What I took away from this is that Rowling sees inclusion of transgender woman and their preferred phrases as threatening to woman. I don’t agree with her, but I understand why she thinks the way she does. But I still find her insights offensive and counter-productive.

“I believe the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve outlined. Trans people need and deserve protection. Like women, they’re most likely to be killed by sexual partners. Trans women who work in the sex industry, particularly trans women of colour, are at particular risk. Like every other domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor I know, I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men.

“So I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe. When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman – and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones – then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.”

J.K. Rowling, via “J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues”

This statement is interesting, because she later tweeted: 

“Many health professionals are concerned that young people struggling with their mental health are being shunted towards hormones and surgery when this may not be in their best interests. … Many, myself included, believe we are watching a new kind of conversion therapy for young gay people, who are being set on a lifelong path of medicalisation that may result in the loss of their fertility and/or full sexual function.”

J.K. Rowling, via Twitter

I must admit, it’s difficult at times to discern what Rowling actually believes about trans people, with her above Tweets criticizing gender conversion hormones as potentially dangerous and not for everyone, while at the same time, her essay argues that letting transgender women who have not taken hormones or have had surgery use the girls bathroom opens the door to “any man who believes or feels he’s a woman” who wants to come inside, implying the only legitimate trans women are those who take hormones or get surgery. She comes off less as a scholar, and more like a rambling idiot who is trying to selectively find sources and butcher facts to fit her own narrative, and it is harmful to trans people when someone with Rowling’s platform deliberately spreads misinformation. 

And she directly attacks trans identity, as if transgender women who don’t take hormones aren’t legitimately woman, which she doesn’t outright say, but heavily implies through her use of pronouns: 

A man who intends to have no surgery and take no hormones may now secure himself a Gender Recognition Certificate and be a woman in the sight of the law. Many people aren’t aware of this.”

J.K. Rowling, via “J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues”

Furthermore, she seems to advocate for a strange hierarchy where the comfort, safety and rights of “natal” women are more important than those of transgender woman. It also seems like she is confusing sex (having male or female reproductive organs and structures) with gender (Merriam-Webster: “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex”, though many see gender as something beyond characteristics tied to specific reproductive organs). And to that, U.S. Harry Potter Book Editor Arthur Levine had a direct response to Rowling via Twitter: 

 “I know you and I know you aren’t speaking out of hate. But I do have a different point of view about this. Gender can be ‘real’ without being established irrevocably at birth by one’s chromosomes or one’s genitals. The brain is also an organ that determines gender. Once someone transitions to make their physical body reflect their gender identity, then the ‘sex’ they then express is real. Trans women ARE real women, in their minds and in their bodies. Medical intervention on one person does not invalidate any who don’t need it.”

Arthur Levine, via Twitter

However way you look at it, her arguments and insights on transgender people are poorly constructed, all over the place, contradictory, offensive, and unwarranted. But it’s something she seems to be passionate about, as this prefaced the Twitter thread in which she compared hormones and surgery to conversion therapy:

“I’ve ignored fake tweets attributed to me and RTed widely. I’ve ignored porn tweeted at children on a thread about their art. I’ve ignored death and rape threats. I’m not going to ignore this.”

J.K. Rowling, via Twitter

In her mind, it seems like she thinks she’s taking a great stand against injustice. But in reality, she’s just wrong about this issue, and this, paired with the drama surrounding the cast and quality of her “Fantastic Beasts” films have seen her reputation take a noticeable hit.

It’s not a good look when high-profile stars of your breakout franchise speak out against you, as so far “Harry Potter” actors Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint have done so. Even “Fantastic Beasts” star Eddie Redmayne has distanced himself from Rowling’s statements.

A franchise that’s seen better days

Rowling will probably make money forever off of Harry Potter, and she’s proven that her fiction is so good, she can write under a pseudonym, and still sells millions of books. But she is no longer the gold standard for YA fiction; the genre has moved on from her and has entered a brave new age where midnight book launches have become obsolete, and “Harry Potter” has become yesterday’s news. The franchise’s prequel movie series — “Fantastic Beasts” — just produced the lowest-grossing and most critically-panned film in the franchise’s history, and a lot of that has to do with its atrocious, clunky and redundant script Rowling authored by herself. It is no coincidence that Warner Bros. has enlisted the help of Steve Kloves — the man who wrote the screen plays for all but one of the original eight “Harry Potter” films — after Rowling’s second solo outing screenwriting outing proved to be a disaster. And it’s not like there’s anyway forward for the franchise; “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”, a 2016 screenplay that mapped out territory for the franchise post-“Deathly Hallows” was greatly divisive because, like FB2, the story was terrible (with that being said, I would welcome a “Hamilton”-style filming of the play with open arms).

The decay of Rowling’s public reputation has entirely been self-inflicted. By all means, she should be celebrated as the creator of one of the most important pop culture franchises of all time, and her skills as an author are impeccable. But unfortunately, it seems today she is most known for her controversial opinions on trans people, her retroactive changes/additions to “Harry Potter” canon (which sometimes contradict what she wrote years ago), the messy “Fantastic Beasts” franchise, and whatever her “Pottermore”/”Wizarding World” website is supposed to be (a subscription service?). 

And unplayable mobile games. Is it too much to ask to give “Harry Potter” the “Ghostbusters” (2009) treatment? 

Rowling is a great example of an author that shouldn’t have a Twitter account. As impactful as her books are, I honestly think they are one horrible tweet and a significant dip in sales away from being pulled from shelves. If “Fantastic Beasts” 2 has proven anything, not everything Potter-related is sure to be a winner, and the franchise is not as popular as it once was. Pair with it a controversial author and the diminished role of print books, and I definitely see a scenario where stores see carrying Rowling’s work as more trouble than it’s worth. While Rowling sits at truly awesome heights sustained by consistent record-breaking book sales, even she is not immune from falling. 

As per the quality of the “Fantastic Beasts” films, I welcome Kloves’ involvement and I have full confidence in his ability to create a great script, though I am wary of him not having much source material to work off of.

As for Rowling, my fear is that she is at the same stage George Lucas was at when he made his “Star Wars” prequels; looming so large on set and having such profound influence that she is surrounded by people who are afraid to tell her “no”, and I can’t blame them. Rowling has so much wealth and influence that she doesn’t really need Warner Bros. or Scholastic.

The bizarre directions “Cursed Child” and FB2 went in seemed to confirm my fears, as FB2 exhibited WAY too many instances of tell-don’t-show storytelling you learn to drop in screenwriting 101, and to this day, I refuse to believe anyone legitimately thought giving Voldemort a secret daughter in “Cursed Child” was a good idea.

The statements made by her former and current colleagues also seem to confirm this. I’ve noticed that most do not condemn Rowling herself, just what she said. Levine’s response is perhaps the most well-crafted, as it legitimately looks like he was trying to turn this into a learning moment. Everyone sees the need to point out that Rowling is wrong, but they say so in ways where they can still maintain their professional relationship with the author.

For George Lucas, his storytelling improved exponentially when he hired Dave Filoni on “The Clone Wars,” who is great at fleshing out his ideas in a way that can work for TV, and presumably, film. Hopefully Kloves is Rowling’s Filoni, as his track record with 7/8 of the “Harry Potter” films seem to indicate. Director David Yates seems to be the visual component of the Potter film team, as while he’s also a long-time veteran of the franchise, the two “Fantastic Beasts” films he made with Rowling without Kloves looked great, but lacked cohesion and the heart seen in the “Potter” films.

But let’s be very frank: Rowling is a billionaire. While her public reputation is imploding, she will probably remain to be a billionaire, whatever happens, and the internet forgets pretty quickly. The worst thing that can happen to her — she somehow gets de-platformed — isn’t going to affect her too much. She has enough money that, even in the worst case scenario, she can establish her own film production and publishing companies, and people will read/watch what she has to say.

If they will want to do so for “Fantastic Beasts” 3, however, remains to be seen.

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