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Illustration by Afra Almazrouei

How to Ethically Consume Art: The Case of J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter

J.K. Rowling’s problematic and damaging stance towards the trans community forces us to revisit childhood memories but this time with a critical eye.

Oct 11, 2020

J.K. Rowling’s latest novel Troubled Blood, penned under the name Robert Galbraith, is based on a male serial killer who wears women’s clothing in order to lure his victims. This is merely the latest example of Rowling’s growing contribution to transphobic rhetoric which perpetuates detrimental stereotypes regarding the transgender community. What began as a series of tweets eventually culminated in an essay she published in June, in which she extensively justifies her exclusionary views regarding the trans community by using groundless and outdated ideas.
For many fans of her beloved Harry Potter series, including myself, her prejudiced views about trans women felt like a betrayal. I can’t recall the first time I heard about Harry Potter, the first time I read the books or the first time I watched the movies. It was a constant presence in my childhood, one which, I now realize, helped shape the way I saw the world. The Harry Potter books depicted the horrors of authoritarian governments, the dangers of media censorship, the subtle rise of fascism and ultimately, its defeat at the hands of those who fought for equality. In this light, the books and the films they have inspired can be viewed as positive and instructive texts for children to consume during their formative years. Yet, the recent well-founded accusations against Rowling necessitate the question, should we continue to consume her earlier works? And if so, how do we now approach these texts?
Before we are able to answer this question, we must understand the relationship between a piece of art and its creator. If it is possible to separate art from the artist and view the piece of art not as a reflection of the artist’s self, then there is no ethical dilemma for us to unpack. There is a well-known line of thought which claims that art belongs to the consumer, and as consumers of art, we can interpret it however we choose. While this gives the consumer authority over art and a sense of agency and control, it is impossible to definitively cleave the artist from their art. Their ideas and opinions as well as their prejudices and biases will, intentionally or not, permeate and sometimes taint their work. No piece of art is created in a vacuum.
True, the relationships we share with the art we consume are our own to define. Our interpretation of it does and should matter, as it is impossible and, in fact, counterproductive to completely remove our personal experience from the equation. Similarly, however, it is equally impossible to completely divorce the views and opinions of the artist from their work of art. It might not be a pleasant experience to revisit art tinged with childhood nostalgia through a critical eye, to shrewdly and intentionally analyze it and accept all its faults. There is a sense of loss that accompanies this acknowledgment. But to knowingly dismiss the uncomfortable truths present in the works we hold dear is to be complicit in the perpetuation of all that is harmful in them.
Consider, for instance, Rowling’s description of one of her characters from the Harry Potter series, Rita Skeeter, a journalist and animagus — a human who can transform into an animal at will. Rowling describes Skeeter in distinctly masculine terms, as having a "heavy-jawed face", "large, mannish hands" with "thick fingers" and "a surprisingly strong grip.” Skeeter hides her ability to transform into a beetle in an attempt to invade the personal space of children and exploit their vulnerability. There is an eerie similarity between Skeeter’s character and Rowling’s claim that trans women should not be allowed into spaces belonging to women and children because there is a risk of harassment, assault and exploitation. Even if Rowling may not have intentionally villainized Skeeter as a trans woman who uses her gender identity for selfish and destructive purposes, the implications are the same. Rowling makes a subtle but dangerous connection between trans women and the exploitation of children, as these books are marketed mostly towards adolescents in their most formative years.
Admittedly, it is easy to miss the subtle transphobia embedded in the books unless one actively searches for it. Yet, in the wake of her recent transphobic comments and her attempts to invalidate the journey and experiences of trans women, the depiction of Rita Skeeter can be seen only in a sinister light. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only stereotypical character portrayal in Harry Potter. Cho Chang, an Asian student, not only has two surnames but was placed into Ravenclaw which is widely considered to be the smartest house. This not only reinforces Chang as a stereotypical overly-academic Asian but also reduces any complexity of character she may have had. The fact that she is one of the few Asian characters in the entire series does not help.
Many also find the depiction of the goblins who own and guard the wizarding bank, Gringotts, as greedy, hook-nosed individuals who jealously guard their wealth offensive due to its similarity to historically anti-Semitic characterization. Given her claim that the villainous Death Eaters can be compared to Nazis, this is all the more problematic. Rowling has also been accused of attempting to inject progressive plotlines that feature members of the LGBTQ community or people of color into the text retroactively, in order to earn brownie points for being woke. Thus, it is evident that in addition to Rowling herself advocating discriminatory and exclusivist ideals, her books contain within themselves a combination of token diversity alongside racial stereotyping.
How do we then ethically consume art that is flawed in itself and is also created by an influential figure who uses her platform to spread hate and fear? There is, unsurprisingly, no clear answer. To completely cancel her work is to invalidate all that is good in Harry Potter. To continue to purchase and read her work, disregarding the consequential reality of her ideological stances, is morally irresponsible. Rowling has time and time again produced, engaged with and helped proliferate transphobic rhetoric. Her books are by no means free of such thought. For just as consuming art is a deeply personal experience, so too is its creation, and the case of Rowling and Harry Potter proves that even if an author’s internalized prejudices aren’t explicitly stated, they can nonetheless manifest themselves in different forms throughout the text.
Perhaps, then, we can regain our agency over the art we consume not solely by placing our interpretation of it above everything else, but by returning to such works with a critical eye. It is of paramount importance that we do so, for the art we consume, especially works such as Harry Potter which one reads during one’s impressionable years, can and has likely shaped and influenced our thoughts subtly. If we aren’t critical, particularly in a context that demands it, then we too run the risk of internalizing dangerous prejudices.
One of the main reasons I fell in love with the magical world created by Rowling, one which I returned to at various times in my life, is because it provided me with a safe space I could inhabit when needed. The overarching theme of love and sacrifice prevailing over greed and violence was particularly attractive, especially given the hyper capitalistic and increasingly divisive society we live in today. Now I have to come to terms with the fact that the world Rowling created wasn’t perfect and is in fact deeply flawed. I could dismiss these flaws and focus solely on my personal experience of Harry Potter — without accounting for the external factors that shaped the story I came to love — but to do so is to make the conscious decision to ignore the truth to preserve my sense of comfort and memory.
Githmi Rabel is Deputy Opinion Editor. Email her at
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