J.K. Rowling keeps culture wars’ cauldron bubbling

For many years and for many people, the name J.K. Rowling has conjured thoughts of rowdy quidditch matches, foaming butterbeer and the cobblestones of Diagon Alley. But the Millennials who grew up hoping to receive a Hogwarts admission's letter and debating whether they were Gryffindor or Slytherin, are now largely those on social media trying to school the British novelist for her views on gender identity.

Who is she?

Joanne Kathleen Rowling cast a spell upon the world when she introduced readers to the boy wizard with a lightning bolt scar in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in 1997. Rowling soared to success on the back of Harry's broomstick to oversee a multi-billion dollar universe that now includes seven books, eight movies, theme park attractions, a musical, play and an ever-expanding list of spin-offs. One of the most successful series of all time, the Harry Potter books have been published in 80 languages and notched up more than half-a-billion sales. And there's something magical about Rowling's own story. Delayed on a train travelling from Manchester to King's Cross, Rowling saw a vision of "this scrawny little boy". By the end of the journey, she had Harry Potter.

A young single mother on welfare, Rowling wrote the series largely by hand at cafes and publishers repeatedly rejected her first novel. Forbes now estimates Rowling’s worth at $US60 ($A82) million, making her the second-highest-paid author in the world behind James Patterson.

J. K. Rowling’s new novel is set to be a bestseller despite calls for it to be “cancelled”.Credit:AP

Rowling's novels proved that words matter, which is partly why her words matter so much now. The novelist has set the culture wars cauldron bubbling with a series of public comments about sex, gender and identity. In December, she showed her support for a tax specialist who was fired after tweeting "men cannot change into women". In June, Rowling poked fun of an article that described women as "people who menstruate" tweeting: "I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” In a subsequent essay, Rowling claimed arguments that femaleness does not reside in biological sex were "deeply misogynist and repressive" and current trans activism was "doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode ‘woman’ as a political and biological class". Rowling said she was worried by the number of young women transitioning and de-transitioning and female bathrooms and change rooms should not be opened "to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman".

A complex conversation became a controversy. LGBTQI campaigners saw Rowling as fuelling anti-trans bigotry and undermining the rights of trans and non-binary people, labelling her a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist). Major fan sites the Leaky Caldron and Mugglenet claimed Rowling's views “marginalised people” and were "out of step with the message of acceptance and empowerment we find in her books and celebrated by the Harry Potter community”. The stars of the Harry Potter films, including Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe, quickly distanced themselves. Yet others applauded Rowling for speaking out, including feminists who have struggled to see concepts of gender fluidity as empowering for women. Rowling was one of 150 public figures who signed an open letter in Harper’s Magazine in July that argued: "the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted".

JK Rowling once again made headlines this week.Credit:Joe Benke

What happened this week?

Rowling's first novel since she made gender identity her purlieu was published on Tuesday. Her fifth under the Robert Galbraith pseudonym, Troubled Blood follows private detective Cormoran Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott who are trying to crack the case of a woman who vanished 40 years ago. But even before the title appeared, there was trouble. One of the first reviews, published in the UK’s The Telegraph, described a cross-dressing suspect in the novel as a "transvestite serial killer" and wondered "what critics of Rowling’s stance on trans issues will make of a book whose moral seems to be: never trust a man in a dress".

Critics saw the review as further evidence of Rowling's transphobia, arguing the character perpetuated beliefs that men who dress as women are dangerous and trod the same tropes as Psycho and Silence of the Lambs. The hashtag #RIPJKRowling topped the trending list, with users suggesting the author's career was over(Twitter even had to explain that Rowling had not actually died).

But the plot is a little thicker. The character, serial killer Dennis Creed, who presents as a woman to trick his female victims, is not labelled as a "transvestite" or as transgender. As a boy, Creed stole underwear and masturbated into them and he is described as having a "convivial, sexually ambiguous persona". One near-victim reports he is "dark and stocky because he was wearing a wig at the time and all padded out in a woman’s coat." The novel is more than 900 pages long and, reviewers have pointed out, Creed is one of several suspects, not the prime villain and his cross-dressing is not a key component of the novel. Rowling posted on Robert Galbraith’s website that Creed was “was loosely based on real-life killers Jerry Brudos and Russell Williams – both master manipulators who took trophies from their victims”.

Why is it important?

The satirical website The Betoota Advocate this week published the article "Year 4 Students Boycott Philosopher's Stone After Learning J.K Rowling Got Cancelled". The headline teases the apparent distance between social media, where the latest Rowling saga has once again largely unfolded, and the offline world where Harry Potter is still Harry Potter. In the year to June alone, Rowling sold nearly 2.6 million books. Local publisher Hachette said more than 35,000 copies of Troubled Blood had been sent to local bookshops, making it the biggest Robert Galbraith release for Australia on record.

But to dismiss what happened as a social media spat is to also miss a chance to consider the dynamics of the so-called culture wars and cancel culture, and to have complex conversations about gender identity. Rowling was long seen as an ally of the left, but her comments have opened a debate about how cisgender women, feminists and trans and non-binary activists interact. The saga also reveals a generation gap, both in terms of the platforms where current cultural debates are being held and their content. It shows how "cancellation" doesn't apply equally to everyone. Rowling herself has poked fun at her repeated "cancellation" – she is too wealthy, too well known and too well-connected to ever be truly silenced. The response to Troubled Blood also offers a chance to consider how a writer's public politics affect the framing of their work. Fans who once went to bookstores at midnight to pick up the latest Harry Potter novel and now see Rowling as perpetuating transphobia are left asking, what do we do when the gilt of our idol rubs off on our hands?

Harry Potter fans who see JK Rowling’s comments as transphobic have been left re-evaluating how they relate to her novels.Credit:Alamy

While a fascinating case study of a cultural climate, some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in our society say they have been harmed by Rowling's comments. Those who have struggled with their gender identity feel they have lost the refuge they once found in Harry Potter. Sex and the City actor Cynthia Nixon highlighted this sense of heartbreak when she described how painful Rowling's comments were for her transgender son Max who grew up reading the series. "The books seem to be about championing people who are different, so for her to select this one group of people who are obviously different and sort of deny their existence, it's just… it's really baffling," Nixon was quoted as saying. Rowling hasn't directly addressed the discussion provoked by Troubled Blood, and even though the novel was likely turned over to editors before she doubled down on identity politics this year, it is hard to imagine she wouldn't have been aware that her use of gender performance as a characteristic would be controversial. Perhaps this week has ultimately proved a useful reminder that, to quote Hogwarts' headmaster Dumbledore, words are "our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it."

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