How Harry Potter Fans Are Coping With J.K. Rowling
Since J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was published in 1997, the series has sold more than 500 million copies and its movie adaptations have earned more than $9 billion at the box office, making it one of the largest media franchises of all time — and from that success grew a massive, passionate fan base across the world. Her story about a boy wizard attending a magic school and battling the forces of evil proved to be an inspirational tale of friendship, perseverance, and hope. Its impact can’t be understated: everything from reading groups to fan websites to collegiate Quidditch leagues popped up within a few short years. But that fan community is now confronted with a perilous challenge the likes of which even Harry, Ron, and Hermione would be hard-pressed to face: Rowling has become a major voice of anti-trans rhetoric.
While hints of Rowling’s anti-trans views have been popping up for years, the author made headlines in December 2019 when she was criticized for supporting anti-trans researcher Maya Forstater on social media and then again in June 2020 when she faced public backlash for going on transphobic rants on Twitter and publishing an essay full of harmful statements and unsubstantiated claims about trans people (that have since been debunked by experts). Rowling’s series of anti-trans statements have seen her labeled as a TERF, otherwise known as a trans-exclusionary radical feminist. The term is used to decribe a small but vocal group of people that consider themselves to be feminists despite refusing to acknoweldge that trans women are women or trans men are men, not supporting the validity of non-binary identities, excluding trans people from gendered spaces, and opposing legislation benefitting transgender rights.
With the growing trajectory of Rowling’s influence in the sphere of social politics over her previous association as an inventor of fantastical worlds, Harry Potter fans around the world who support trans rights have questioned what to do when they’ve dedicated so much of their lives so deeply engaged in her content. Can they still be Harry Potter fans despite Rowling’s transphobic views?
Some of those fans looking for reassurance that Rowling is in the wrong may take comfort in knowing many public figures who have helped shape the franchise have spoken out against Rowling’s transphobic views in support of transgender people. Harry Potter movie actors Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint have all taken a stand against Rowling’s comments.
“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,” Radcliffe wrote in a statement published on TheTrevorProject.org, an organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ+ youth.
But all that doesn’t erase the world Rowling has built, leaving many still grappling with what the future of their Harry Potter fandom looks like and whether their support of the franchise unintentionally equates to support of Rowling. This isn’t the first time a fandom has struggled with the concept of whether art can ever truly be separated from the artist — H.P. Lovecraft fans have had to contend with the author’s racist attitudes, Ender’s Game fans the homophobic views of Orson Scott Card, and so on — but given the sheer magnitude of Harry Potter’s impact across pop culture, this instance is perhaps one of the most significant.
What About All the New Harry Potter Stuff?
Leaving behind Rowling’s franchise and boycotting official Harry Potter products may sound simple for some fans because they’ve already purchased all of the books, movies, and merchandise they’re ever going to need. That may be true for a time, but Warner Bros. is still producing new content for the franchise, including a third Fantastic Beasts film, a potential Harry Potter TV series, and the upcoming video game Hogwarts Legacy, so how should a conscientious objector deal with this new content, especially when it’s so tempting?
On September 16, just a few months after Rowling faced public backlash for her anti-trans essay, WB Games announced the Hogwarts Legacy roleplaying video game set in the world of Harry Potter during the late 1800s. The announcement left Harry Potter fans asking themselves whether it would be possible to oppose Rowling’s views yet still find a way to enjoy the game.
The terms of the licensing agreement made between Rowling and WB Games for Hogwarts Legacy have not been made public, but according to a Forbes report in 2017, it’s estimated she earns $95 million per year for use of the IP.
This knowledge has some fans searching for a workaround. Potential solutions include delaying purchase of Hogwarts Legacy so those all-important first-week sales numbers take a hit, waiting to buy it used, or purchasing a copy and then making a donation of equal value to a charity benefiting trans people.
However, each solution comes with its own caveats. A delayed purchase is still a purchase. And while donating to a pro-trans charity certainly benefits that community, it still doesn’t stop part of the money spent on the game from making its way to Rowling.
Even when setting dollars signs aside, fans may find themselves struggling with how to engage with Hogwarts Legacy in their personal space. People sharing screenshots and anecdotes about a new game is a common sight on social media, but given how many fans are facing a crisis of conscience about Rowling, it may leave some Harry Potter fans feeling guilty about playing it.
With the push and pull of these pros and cons, some have decided the only surefire way to not support Rowling is to not play Hogwarts Legacy nor watch the Harry Potter show, removing themselves from the pressure of adding to Rowling’s coffers and any potential unease they may feel while playing it.
On the other hand, a common counter-argument to boycotting Hogwarts Legacy is the desire to support the developers at Avalanche Software. After all, developers shouldn’t be punished financially because of Rowling’s transphobic remarks.
A Bloomberg report from October of 2020 reported that Warner Bros. Interactive president David Haddad effectively has no intention of taking meaningful action despite Rowling’s transphobic comments. Addressing employee concerns about Rowling’s transphobic remarks during an internal meeting, Haddad said, “I might not agree with her stance on a range of topics, but I can agree that she has the right to hold her opinions.”
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But for many fans and the developers he works with, Haddad’s response characterizes Rowling’s transphobic remarks as innocent “opinions,” as if she were sharing her favorite flavor of ice cream, when in reality they are harmful and dangerous personal beliefs not backed by science or the lived experience of trans people.
“Any time you start questioning whether a minority should have the same basic rights as the majority, you’re not just asking innocent questions,” Crystal Frasier told IGN. She’s a trans woman whose Harry Potter fandom has been fundamentally altered by Rowling’s behavior. “You are trying to convince the community around you that a certain group is less human and therefore less deserving of the rights that we supposedly should all have. In the case of transgender people, that’s a right to exist in public spaces, a right to access medical care, and a right to know who we are, especially when we’re young.”
Can You Boycott Something as Big as Harry Potter?
The idea of boycotting Harry Potter may seem like a pointless endeavor because it’s a franchise with worldwide popularity, but there’s already some data to suggest otherwise. In June 2020, Variety noted a “remarkably sudden and sharp drop in print sales for Rowling’s books” and drew a direct line from the sales slump to the anti-trans statements she made in the months prior. There have been numerous reports of independent bookstores deciding to no longer keep Rowling’s books in stock.
Regardless, Rowling is still one of the richest people in the world with a net worth of at least $670 million, so a boycott won’t likely have much of a financial impact on her. Instead, the goal of fans choosing to boycott is more to show the companies that profit from the Harry Potter franchise — such as book publisher Scholastic Press and film studio Warner Bros. Entertainment — that transphobic comments are bad for business.
Though Frasier has enjoyed all manner of Harry Potter products — from having movie marathons with friends to dressing up in Hogwarts attire for Halloween and visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park with her wife — Rowling’s transphobic comments have turned her away from future purchases. “It hurts to see somebody who made something you really enjoy attacking you,” she said.
Rowling’s comments have not only offended Frasier personally but have caused turmoil in her social life. Harry Potter was an enjoyable shared interest between Frasier and her wife, but they’ve since abandoned their tradition of gifting each other Harry Potter merchandise on special occasions.
Frasier’s close circle of friends formed from fellow Potterheads has also suffered. “A few of our friends have just refused to listen when we try to explain why this hurts, why it feels unsafe to have this person with so much reach saying terrible things about us, so we’ve lost a couple of friends from the fandom,” she said.
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For Frasier, it is possible to still be a Harry Potter fan, but not without some adjustment to how that fandom takes shape: “Continuing to be a part of the Harry Potter fandom doesn’t automatically make you a terrible person. There are responsible ways to consume something from a problematic person, and then there’s blind adulation and ignoring harm.”
The website for The Gayly Prophet, a queer Harry Potter fan podcast, posted a guide on how to go about conscientiously boycotting various Rowling Harry Potter products. “[J.K. Rowling] wrote Harry Potter, and we can’t pretend she didn’t. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t love these books that meant and continue to mean so much to so many of us!” reads a post made by The Gayly Prophet on Instagram. “It does mean that we need to do so with intention and integrity, however, and that’s what this guide is here to help with.” It specifies what not to buy (new books and DVDs, official merch including video games, and tickets to the movies, play, or theme parks) and offers alternative ways for people to engage in their Harry Potter fandom (obtaining used books and movies, seeking out fan-created content, and supporting queer merch creators).
A Psychologist’s Advice to Struggling Harry Potter Fans
Choosing to boycott Harry Potter is a practical solution for fans to take, but there’s still the issue of processing the sense of loss brought on by Rowling’s apparent turn to the dark side. For many fans, Harry Potter is more than the physical product — the story and characters made a positive impact on their lives. That’s why watching Rowling trumpet such harmful transphobic views has felt like a personal betrayal to them.
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This is the result of what Dr. Travis Langley, Professor of Psychology at Henderson State University, identifies as a “parasocial relationship,” where people form a one-sided relationship with a story, fictional character, or celebrity. A parasocial relationship can be healthy because, for example, people can be inspired by a heroic figure to do good in their own lives. Though it is not a real, two-way relationship, the connection can still be meaningful. Many Harry Potter fans have a parasocial relationship with Rowling because she was an inspiration to them, which is why those fans are now feeling personally betrayed, according to Dr. Langley.
“[Harry Potter fans] are feeling the loss of something that was brutally important to them,” Dr. Langley said. “It might even feel frivolous to mourn the loss of a movie or a book, but these things can be very deeply meaningful to us. It’s like losing a hero. You find out that Lance Armstrong was doping up and you lose the part of you that was inspired by him, so you might mourn that loss. Likewise, there [are] some people mourning the loss of J.K. Rowling.”
If cutting all ties with Rowling and Harry Potter isn’t the route a fan wants to take, Dr. Langley suggests becoming an activist for the problem that the fandom is struggling with. In this case, that would mean educating others on why Rowling’s views are harmful to transgender people and pledging to support trans causes.
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“Frankly, a lot of people don’t know why people are upset with Rowling. [Harry Potter fans] can get involved in helping other people understand. Get involved in the issue itself. Get involved in educating other people about these issues, and why this matters,” he said.
Ultimately, Dr. Langley recommends that anyone struggling with how to move forward with their Harry Potter fandom look inward for answers.
“Ask yourself, why were you a Harry Potter fan in the first place? What was it about Harry Potter that spoke to you to begin with?” Dr. Langley said. “Perhaps you’re the person who felt alienated, so it was that there’s a place like Hogwarts for people who feel alienated. Maybe you saw something in Harry or Hermione and were inspired by them. Whatever it is, that is still a part of you.”
How the Harry Potter Fan Community Is Responding
For longtime fans, being a part of the Harry Potter community goes far beyond just reading the books or watching the movies. Numerous long-running websites, podcasts, and conventions have become the rallying point for Harry Potter fans to come together and celebrate their fandom in a variety of ways — everything from cosplay and art to wizard rock. But now those who are leaders in the Harry Potter fan community are faced with the daunting challenge of deciding how to move forward.
For mega fan Melissa Anelli, closing down was never an option. She is the owner of the Harry Potter fan site The Leaky Cauldron and CEO of the Mischief Management event planning company that hosts the annual unofficial Harry Potter fan convention LeakyCon. Anelli and her staff decided it was better to use their platform to denounce Rowling’s views and make sure all spaces under their purview are inclusive to trans people along with everyone else.
“It’s going to be so hard and take so long, but we’re going to work to make sure that we reclaim these spaces that frankly [Rowling] is trying to poison right now. And to do that, we’re saying that, in this community, everyone is equal, everyone is who they say they are,” Anelli told IGN.
Andrew Sims, lead host of the Harry Potter fan podcast MuggleCast, and his co-hosts Micah Tannenbaum, Eric Scull, and Laura Tee also decided to make changes. Top among them was to stop covering Rowling’s non-Harry Potter projects or her statements on Twitter, and instead focus only on subjects related to the wizarding world, with an emphasis on highlighting more fan projects. Sims and his fellow hosts are determined to keep enjoying the Harry Potter fandom while cutting Rowling out as much as possible.
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“We created this fandom. J.K. Rowling did not create this fandom,” Sims told IGN in an interview. “She created the books, we all gathered online to talk about them, and then that’s how the fandom came into existence. It was never hers. So, I think everybody right now is still very willing to be a part of the Harry Potter fandom, but separate J.K. Rowling from it. We created these websites, we created these podcasts, the art, this merchandise that you can find in places like Etsy. We don’t need her.”
Re-examining Harry Potter With a More Critical Eye
Accepting that Rowling is an imperfect person who wrote an imperfect series of books is something Delia Gallegos has been processing for years. Gallegos is the marketing director at Black Girls Create, a website dedicated to examining art through a Black lens, which means identifying, dissecting, and discussing the flaws in the Harry Potter books while factoring in what they know about Rowling in order to foster a more holistic and rich understanding of the work.
“We love the stories, but we, as adults and critical thinkers, have been able to see these things in the books that were clearly [Rowling’s] worldview coming forward,” Gallegos said, listing several examples from Rowling’s books: sexism in the form of describing an upset Hermione as “shrill” and “hysterical;” claiming that Dumbledore is gay despite never mentioning it in the actual text; the poorly executed house elf allegory to slavery; and, most relevant to Rowling’s transphobic statements, the tendency to equate gender non-conforming features with evil, like in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire where troublesome reporter Rita Skeeter is said to have “mannish hands.”
“There is good in the books,” Gallegos says, “but when you read them critically, you see that none of this is new for her.”
One sticking point for Gallegos, and for many Harry Potter fans, is how Rowling could write books about love overcoming evil and the importance of standing up to those in power who would prey on a disenfranchised minority, even while now acting in direct opposition to those ideals.
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“The books are about the underdog, the odd characters that you don’t understand,” Gallegos explained. “Harry, our protagonist, reaches out to people who are different from him. And he doesn’t judge them for being different. He never questions why Hagrid is as tall as he is. And when he finds out, he doesn’t care. It’s such a core tenet in her books that the underdogs are the true heroes. I guess she hasn’t read them since she wrote them.”
Dr. Langley says this feeling of cognitive dissonance, or trying to process two starkly conflicting attitudes, is only natural in this situation. Many Harry Potter fans have been inspired by Rowling’s rags-to-riches story and her charitable acts, so it’s a shock to watch her double down on anti-trans rhetoric.
Some Advice From J.K. Rowling Herself
In a strange way, Rowling has unwittingly prepared her fans for her transphobic turn. Her Harry Potter books are filled with numerous instances where the heroes stand up to objectionable people in power and protect those being persecuted for who they are.
Whether it’s Lucius Malfoy, Dolores Umbridge, or Lord Voldemort himself, Harry Potter fans have been taught through Rowling’s storytelling to recognize when someone is acting out of hate instead of love and, when that happens, to resist by supporting the downtrodden in taking action against the oppressors. But as Rowling’s stories demonstrated time and time again, combating the wicked often requires digging in for a long fight filled with personal sacrifice.
Fans unsure of how to proceed with their fandom may find the guidance they’re looking for from Rowling’s own words, spoken by Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: “Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”