COMMENTARY

"Harry Potter" & the problematic creator – What's left for a fandom raised on false tolerance?

"Harry Potter" fans are faced with trying to separate art from artist after a live-action series is rumored

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Published January 27, 2021 7:00PM (EST)

Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (Warner Bros.)
Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (Warner Bros.)

If you look at a graph detailing the frequency and dates of Google searches for the term "separate art from artist," there has been a veritable mountain range of high peaks and minor dips from April 2017 onward. It's a digital representation of the initial stirrings, and subsequent explosion, of the #MeToo Movement, which left many people contemplating whether they could still, in good conscience, enjoy works by filmmakers and artists like R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. and Jeffrey Tambor, all of whom faced credible allegations of sexual assault or harassment. 

Numerous thinkpieces considered various ways into a single question, "Can you actually separate the art from the artist?" Inherent to this discussion are a number of lingering sub-questions: Should a creator's checkered biography or personal views affect how their art is and continues to be seen? Does it matter if they are living or dead? There's concrete differences between the alleged actions of, say, comedian Aziz Ansari and director Rob Cohen. Should their work be treated or boycotted in similar ways? 

Separating art from an artist is messy business precisely because there's no uniform answer to any of these questions, which are all so heavily intertwined with topics like cancel culture, ethical consumption and the growing trend of trial by social media. Emerging from the quagmire is the concept of problematic faves; it's a phrase used to denote beloved cultural touchstones that have become sullied, either because of issues within a piece or the people who brought it to life.

This is the landscape in which a "Harry Potter" live-action series – which, according to the Hollywood Reporter, is rumored to be in early development at HBO Max – appears. It's been 24 years since "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" was first published and 20 years since the movie adaptation globally immortalized the characters, and a lot has changed in the interim. 

As a millennial, I feel like I grew up with the "Harry Potter" series. I aged alongside the characters and like to think that I absorbed at least some of the values the books promoted — the idea that bravery can come in many forms, that people can surprise you and that it's okay to lean on your friends when you need support. 

The sense of online community surrounding the series was unprecedented, as well. As Constance Grady and Aja Romano wrote for Vox, people wanted to talk, sometimes obsessively, about what they read, and this pattern coincided with the rise of "Web 2.0," a term to describe the advent of more participatory websites. Readers of young adult fiction, fantasy and science fiction were able to cultivate early internet fandoms. 

"This was still a pretty bold concept in the early 2000s; geek culture was largely still underground, and fantasy was seen mainly as an immature hobby — for instance, in 2003, critic A.S. Byatt's excoriation of 'Harry Potter and the childish adult' claimed that adults 'like to regress' when they read children's literature," they wrote. "But between 'Harry Potter,' the 'Lord of the Rings' film adaptations, and the emerging visibility of online 'Harry Potter' fandom, it was increasingly difficult to ignore fantasy and science fiction as a driving force of culture, and to write off fans of these genres as niche." 

They continued: "By the time 'Twilight' took over from 'Harry Potter' as the reigning young adult phenomenon in 2005, the idea of a modern, mainstream fandom coalescing around a major sci-fi/fantasy series was well-established and generally accepted." 

In many ways, that fandom is still thriving, boosted in recent years by the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, the play "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," and the development of the "Fantastic Beasts'' franchise. But simultaneously, criticism of the series' depiction — or lack thereof — of characters of color and LGBTQ characters has intensified, as have calls for boycotts due to creator J.K. Rowling's vocal transphobia. 

Therefore, the creators of a new series have a number of considerations to keep in mind to create a show that feels right for contemporary viewers. It raises some questions, too. Can the wizarding world be adapted to be more reflective of "Harry Potter" fans? Due to the proposed series' proximity to Rowling, is this a situation in which art can be separated from artist? Or is it preemptively doomed to become, for some, a problematic fave? 

Let's break it down. 

What do we know about the proposed television series? 

According to the Hollywood Reporter, sources told the publication that HBO Max executives have had multiple meetings with potential writers centered on expanding the "Harry Potter" universe to television. "Sources say broad ideas have been discussed as part of the early-stage exploratory meetings," Lesley Goldberg wrote. 

Conversations are still in the very early stages, and no talent or writers are officially confirmed for the proposed series. However, as Goldberg wrote, continuing to release new content related to the series remains a priority for HBO Max and Warner Bros., which along with creator J.K. Rowling, controls rights to the property. 

These talks come at a time where HBO Max is leaning heavily into its most valuable assets and intellectual property, like DC Comics films, with reboots or reunions also planned for seminal series like "Friends" and "Sex and the City." Additionally, HBO is also expanding the "Game of Thrones" universe with the development of "House of the Dragon" and the newly announced "Tales of Dunk and Egg," both of which would live on HBO Max, as well. 

How inclusive are the original "Harry Potter" stories? 

The "Harry Potter" books, as well as the subsequent films, notably lack diversity. Think about it. Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, Severus Snape, Draco Malfoy, Dolores Umbridge, Professor McGonagall — even Voldemort. This is a series that is primarily centered on white characters and their journeys. 

The few characters of color felt incomplete, or like an afterthought based on tired real-world stereotypes. Take, for example, Cho Chang. Readers have pointed that, in a universe filled with the colorfully named Luna Lovegood and Bellatrix Lestrange, Cho's name is a lazy mashup of two very common surnames — Korean and Chinese, respectively — ostensibly as a way to overtly signal the character's Asian identity. 

Rowling also opted to perpetuate the "studious Asian" stereotype through Cho, by making her a Ravenclaw whose defining characteristics include that she is serious about her academic studies, and that she is a meek first love interest for Harry Potter (who serves as a counterpoint to Ginny Weasley's forcefulness later in the series). 

Similar narrative shortcomings could be seen with the depictions of the Patil twins, Padma and Parvati, and especially with Nagini, who was played by Claudia Kim in "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald." As a refresher on Potter lore: Nagini was Voldemort's faithful snake servant and Horcrux, who was actually a Maledictus — a woman who carries a genetic curse that causes her to eventually morph into a serpent. 

"In the books, Nagini is literally a servant enacting the wishes of a dominant white male, Voldemort, and is never given any real personality or voice – she's defined by her relationship to Voldemort," Megan C. Hills wrote for Marie Claire. "It goes without saying that nobody should be defined by another person, but there's a colonial undertone here that reinforces white superiority that's kind of gross."

Those problematic characterizations aside, Rowling has made an effort to appear more of an ally of inclusivity, especially after Black actress Noma Dumezweni was cast to play the role of Hermione Granger in the two-part play "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," after Hermione in the films was portrayed by white actress Emma Watson. Defending the casting choice, Rowling tried to retroactively state that Hermione could be interpreted as having been written as Black and tweeted: "Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione." 

However, readers were quick to point out that in Chapter 21 of "The Prisoner of Azkaban," one line reads, "Hermione's white face was sticking out from behind a tree." As one Reddit user posted, "[Rowling] clearly intended Hermione to be white and to state otherwise is a slap in the face to our intelligence."

"I had a bunch of racists telling me that because Hermione 'turned white' – that is, lost color from her face after a shock – that she must be a white woman, which I have a great deal of difficulty with," Rowling told The Guardian prior to the play's opening. "But I decided not to get too agitated about it and simply state quite firmly that Hermione can be a black woman with my absolute blessing and enthusiasm."

This discussion also reignited a controversy that plagued the "Harry Potter" film franchise. The character of Lavender Brown was played by three different actresses over the course of the eight films — the first two actresses were Black, the final was white. Lavender starts out as a minor character, who eventually grows into a larger role as Ron's love interest, as well as one of the original students who joined Dumbledore's Army, an organization meant to stand up against Dolores Umbridge.

The recasting from Black to white took place as her narrative arc was really taking off. Some sites, like Screen Rant, speculated that Warner Bros. simply opted to "go with a more established actress in Jessie Cave," since the previous two appearances were non-speaking roles. However, many fans pointed out that the decision felt like unnecessary whitewashing — why not simply find an older, more experienced Black actress to play the part? 

With that in mind, hopefully the writers of the rumored "Harry Potter" live-action series will not only cast diverse actors to populate the narrative, but will truly endeavor to provide those characters with nuanced and imaginative stories to tell. Additionally, while race-bending in film and television can give opportunities to people of color and improve overall representation (as in the case of Hermione on stage), whitewashing is an act of erasure that negates that good work.

Were there any LGBTQ characters in the original series? 

Much in the way Rowling came out after the publication of the books to retroactively amend — or at least comment upon — Hermione's race, she revealed in a 2007 panel with fans that Albus Dumbledore, the Hogwarts headmaster, was actually gay. This was done after the publication of the final book in the original series. 

She doubled-down on this assertion in DVD commentary for "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald," wherein she said that Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald, a dark wizard, had a relationship with a "sexual dimension."

In the DVD commentary, Rowling says: "Their relationship was incredibly intense. It was passionate, and it was a love relationship. But as happens in any relationship, gay or straight or whatever label we want to put on it, one never knows, really, what the other person is feeling. You can't know, you can believe you know. So I'm less interested in the sexual side — though I believe there is a sexual dimension to this relationship — than I am in the sense of the emotions they felt for each other, which ultimately is the most fascinating thing about all human relationships."

But, as Washington Post columnist Richard Morgan wrote in 2019, these "retcon revisionist" statements are a display of false allyship and queerbaiting, or the act of creators hinting at same-sex romance or LGBTQ representation, but never actually depicting so as not to offend bigots who dislike inclusive plotlines. 

"Viewers and readers especially can't know feelings between two characters when neither uses words nor actions to express them. There's a word for that: Closeted," he wrote. "By imbuing Dumbledore with a sexuality that does not speak its name, ink its page, or fill its screen in 2019, Rowling outs herself again as a 1990s throwback of a grandstanding faux-ally."

Other than Dumbledore and Grindelwald, there are no other confirmed LGBTQ characters present in the Wizarding World. The live-action series could change that, either by expanding on current characters' backstories or including new plotlines and romances. 

Why is J.K. Rowling's stance on trans people problematic for fans?

Many fans of "Harry Potter" are disappointed and angry with Rowling because of her vocal transphobia. For several years, fans had murmured about Rowling's apparent alliance with leaders of the TERF — or trans-exclusionary radical feminist — movement, but it wasn't until 2019 that Rowling confirmed her views online. Rowling tweeted in support of Maya Forstater, a tax expert whose contract with the Centre for Global Development, wasn't renewed after she posted statements like "men cannot change into women," and "it is unfair and unsafe for trans women to compete in women's sport" online. 

Then in 2020, Rowling mocked a headline that included the phrase "people who menstruate." 

"I'm sure there used to be a word for those people," she wrote on Twitter. "Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?"

Rowling went on to write several blog posts, including a 3,500-word essay, filled with tired transphobic talking points, like the idea that allowing individuals to use the public restroom associated with their gender identity is a greenlight for predators to harass young women. 

"I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe," Rowling wrote. "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."

Many trans "Harry Potter" fans have had to come to terms with the fact that the author of a series that guided them through their adolescence didn't recognize them as individuals deserving of protections. They, and their allies, had to determine whether the fandom could exist separate from Rowling after her views were made public. 

Some, like Vox writer Aja Romano — who identifies as nonbinary — realized they would have to view their participation in the fandom as something from their past. 

"I still talk nearly every day to people I've known in 'Harry Potter' fandom since my earliest days there," Romano wrote. "I resolved to compartmentalize my 'Harry Potter' fandom identity as something over and done with, instead of thinking of it as a cornerstone of my identity." 

Others, as the New York Times reported, have endeavored to make the fandom more inclusive, regardless of Rowling's personal views. "J.K. Rowling gave us Harry Potter; she gave us this world," Renae McBrian, a young adult author who volunteers for the fan site MuggleNet, told the publication. "But we created the fandom, and we created the magic and community in that fandom. That is ours to keep."

With all this in mind, how should fans respond to the new series?

Even if the proposed live-action series is a gripping addition to the Wizarding World universe, filled with diverse characters and plotlines, this tension between Rowling's transphobia and the values of many in the "Harry Potter" fandom (and those of even just casual fans) is going to be the biggest hurdle facing its creators. 

While there was some understandable excitement about the prospect of the new series, after the news reached Twitter on Monday, many fans shared a similar sentiment once it was clarified that Rowling still controls the rights to the property, along with Warner Bros. "Wanting more 'Harry Potter' content but not wanting J.K. Rowling to make any money off it," one user wrote. 

"J.K. Rowling will profit from any and all new 'Harry Potter'-related media," another wrote. "If you spend money consuming that media, you are giving J.K. Rowling money. That's it. That's the tweet." This was echoed by another user, "It's time to do the 'Stop enabling J.K. Rowling from getting royalties challenge.'" 

As a fan of 20 years, I think about a line found at the end of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Dumbledore commends Neville Longbottom for trying to stop Harry, Ron and Hermione from sneaking out of the Gryffindor dorms. 

"'There are all kinds of courage,' said Dumbledore, smiling. 'It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.'" In the case of any future "Harry Potter" projects, I think the courageous, or at least right, stance for me personally to take is against someone who continues to dehumanize already-marginalized communities, no matter how beloved she, and the world she created, once were to me. If I really want to revisit my childhood, I'll put my money behind the upcoming "Percy Jackson & The Olympians" live-action series, instead. 

 


Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's deputy food editor.

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