29 December 2021

On Jo Rowling’s cultural and gender politics

I still consider myself a Harry Potter fan, though nowhere close to as obsessive a one as I once was. My daughter is only now getting into the books, which she dearly loves, and small blame to her. They do immerse and fire the imagination of a nine-year-old in ways that few other books can. And having grown up reading the books myself I can still see their intrinsic merit. Who doesn’t love a good story about an orphaned underdog experiencing the pain of growing up ‘weird’, and finally entering a community of similarly-‘weird’ people where he can make friends, discover his roots, risk his life, fall in love and start his own family? There is a great deal in the Harry Potter books still to love, and I disagree strongly with the detractors who are now, belatedly, saying otherwise. I’m not going to deny my daughter a much-needed degree of literary escapism on account of any real-world political disagreement I might have with the author.

Having said that, looking back on them as an adult, it is a lot easier to spot their flaws. The series certainly isn’t written in high prose. And upon re-reading the series after having come back from my study abroad year in college, I found I had developed a keen and heartfelt detestation for certain aspects of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in particular. Not only was said book a trend-setter in terms of being a turgid doorstop, but I also discovered (again, only with the perspective afforded to me by travel and hindsight) that it featured some truly patronising and retrograde cultural politics.

Although the villains of the set piece themselves are essentially the equivalents of ultranationalist soccer hooligans, the entire Quidditch World Cup was an extended exercise in a certain Little Englander nationalism on Rowling’s part. The ‘international’ backdrop serving largely to point out how backwards and funny-looking all those foreign-looking types are. (Arab wizards use magic carpets and cheat people! African wizards do voodoo! American witches are from Salem!) And unfortunately, even after the QWC is over, the Triwizard Tournament doesn’t give us a break from the cultural politics either. The textual treatment of the French characters from Beauxbatons is pure cringe, as kids say these days. They all seemingly speak with John Cleese’s faux-French ‘outrageous accent’ from Holy Grail. The Beauxbatons young women (and occasionally young men) all act like coquettes when they aren’t behaving like snoots – as though all people from France behave like the worst stereotypes of parisiens. And the treatment the Eastern European characters from Durmstrang get is seemingly worse. Again, they all speak in thick, exaggerated Rocky & Bullwinkle accents. But those of them who aren’t greasy, chauvinistic, thick-headed or displaying wretched table manners are dark and sinister, and certainly not to be trusted.

Despite her oft-stated internationalism, Rowling’s cultural politics as expressed in Goblet of Fire essentially seem to boil down to: England is best because England is normal. An odd sentiment indeed from an author with a clear sympathy for the underdog and the outsider. (Speaking as a fan, the thing that most drew me to the books in the first place was the portrayal of a Britain that was idiosyncratic and countercultural.) To be sure, she does redeem this in later books. Fleur Delacœur is shown to be both passionate and principled in Half-Blood Prince, and Viktor Krum shows himself to be a man of character in Deathly Hallows. Personally, I tend to credit this to Jo’s greater exposure to an international fandom.

However, even after the later books were published, Rowling’s internationalism still had hard and fast limits. Her comments about Palestinians and BDS in the wake of Palestinian-Scottish actress Mia Oudeh’s fan letter were more than just condescending; they were thoughtless and insensitive to the point of cruelty. And then there was her voluble public excoriation of Jeremy Corbyn on Twitter because he dared to talk to Iranians, of all people. Rowling has continued to have a serious blind spot when it comes to any sort of ‘internationalism’ outside the comfortable zone of the OECD nations, and unfortunately that blind spot has shown itself consistently.

But note that Jo Rowling was never ‘cancelled’ from polite society for any of her stances on international politics, whether right or wrong, well-informed or (more often) ill-informed. She was never disinvited from fan events. There were no calls to burn her books from Scottish independence types or ‘Leave’ supporters. She never received mass hate mail of any sort, that I could tell, from Palestinian activists or comrades of the Palestinian cause. (Mia Oudeh was, throughout her entire exchange with Rowling, unfailingly polite and diplomatic while still standing up for her position – and she herself rejected the ‘cancellation’ of Rowling explicitly in her second fan letter.) In general, those of us who paid attention to what she was saying at the time largely attributed her stances to a kind of studied ignorance. She was speaking about things she didn’t understand.

Contrast that to the reactions now, to when Jo Rowling speaks about things that she does understand on a personal level. To wit: the abusive treatment of women by men.

These days she is called ‘hateful’, ‘bigoted’ and ‘transphobic’, and deluged with hate mail, sexist abuse, rape threats and death threats, because she offers her support and considerable cultural clout to such evident irredeemables as Maya Forstater, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Julie Bindel, Rosa Freedman, Kathleen Stock and Marion Millar. What is the difference here?

Well, the first difference I can see is that here, Rowling actually knows what she’s talking about. That makes her dangerous. Rowling has never (to my knowledge) been to Palestine or Iran. Therefore she poses no threat to the prevailing mainstream logic on those topics, in anywhere close to the same way that Mia Oudeh or, say, Abby Martin or Rania Khalek do. But when she speaks about the physical and material vulnerability of women, and when she speaks up on behalf of working women like Forstater who are in danger of losing their jobs over free speech issues, she is speaking from experience as a formerly working-class single mother and as a victim of abuse.

The other difference is that Rowling is here taking a stand that runs counter to the neoliberal shibboleth that the person in all her aspects is fungible, interchangeable and marketable. Rowling is in trouble for essentially saying that there are certain aspects to being a woman that cannot be bought or sold – that there is a depth to the adult female human that goes beyond the performative (and therefore marketable) aspects of ‘gender identity’, and that goes beyond the synthetic means available to men to Polyjuice-potion themselves into women. Women having bodies, having natural bodily functions, having families, having communities or having any other kind of social networks not mediated by market forces—these are all things which the current capitalist order cannot abide and is working to erode.

Now, Jo Rowling has taken some truly admirable stands on other issues. Like Dolly Parton, she has donated herself out of the billionaire class, largely by giving back to people in need in places like Haiti. So please understand that I say the following out of respectful disagreement and not out of rancour.

I will note that Rowling did not take this stance regarding snooty French, sinister Bulgarians, shifty Middle Easterners and all those other funny-talking non-Britons in Goblet of Fire (though, again, to her credit, she bought a lot of this back in her later books). Note that she did not take this stance over Dumbledore’s ad hoc Korrasami sexuality, or over Hermione’s ambiguous blackness. Note that she did not take this stance regarding Palestinians over BDS, or Iranians over nuclear peace talks. Note that she did not take this stance regarding the support Corbyn organically enjoyed among economically-disaffected young people in Britain. But further: note that in all of these cases where Rowling sided with (or at least did not side against) the neoliberal capitalist order and its contempt for personhood, economic dignity, organic community, indigenous cultures and so on, she did not get into any serious trouble with the broader culture and its gatekeepers.

It is important to defend Rowling now precisely because, like Dave Chappelle in The Closer, on this issue she is putting skin in the game, she is speaking from experience, she is not being hateful but instead speaking out of genuine compassion. But it’s also necessary to keep reading her books and discussing both their strengths and their flaws honestly with younger readers.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate this article, however your statement that JKR's words "were more than just condescending; they were thoughtless and insensitive to the point of cruelty" seems incongruous with her own words -- "The Palestinian community has suffered untold injustice and brutality. I want to see the Israeli government held to account for that injustice and brutality."

    Most of your observations in this post seem relevant, but perhaps here your point is blunted?