How J. K. Rowling Became Voldemort
The backlash against the Harry Potter creator is a growing pain of her fandom.
It has taken two decades, but I am finally ready to admit that I was the world’s most annoying teenager. My parents are Catholic, and I used to delight in peppering them with trollish questions, preferably several hours into a long car journey. “Why does the Mass service refer to God as ‘he’ and ‘father’?” was a favorite. “Does God have a Y chromosome, then? Does God have, like, testicles?” I was openly dismissive about transubstantiation, by which the host is consecrated, and according to Catholic doctrine, literally turns from mere bread into the body of Christ. “But all the atoms stay the same!” I would insist. “That makes no sense!”
My parents humored me, but predictably, I didn’t find their responses satisfying. Realizing that your omniscient parents are, in fact, just regular, flawed humans is a vital part of growing up. So is learning that their values are different from yours—that they are products of a particular time and place. Ideas and beliefs that they accept without question make no sense to you, and vice versa. As the 20th century ended in the liberal West, the tenets of feminism seemed irrefutable to me: Of course I would go to university and get a job. A family would come later, if at all. (My mother, by contrast, had her first child at 25.) Gay rights were the same: Why on earth couldn’t two men get married? In my 20s, when The God Delusion came out, I bought it immediately. I was proud to call myself an atheist. Religion was nothing but a tool of patriarchal oppression.
Younger Millennials—those born around 1990, the same time as Harry Potter’s lead actors Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson—feel just as strongly about transgender rights. To many of them, it is the social-justice cause, their generation’s revolutionary idea. They see little difference between the objections of some older left-wing feminists to the idea that individuals alone decide their gender, and those of social conservatives: Both groups are reactionary, trapped in outdated concepts of what it means to be a man or a woman.
And Millennials dominate the Harry Potter fandom, a community large enough to have spawned hundreds of thousands of pieces of fan fiction. So it is unsurprising that two major fan sites, The Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet, have distanced themselves from the books’ author, J. K. Rowling, after she argued last month that “woman” should remain a biological category. The two sites announced last week that they will remove her photograph from their sites, stop linking to her website and writing about her other endeavors, and tag Twitter posts that include news about her with the hashtag #JKR, so users can filter out triggering content from their social-media feeds. To preserve their love of Harry Potter, its fans must erase its author. Rowling, like Voldemort, is so evil that even mentioning her violates a taboo: She Who Must Not Be Named. (Dumbledore would not have approved of this practice. As he tells Harry in The Sorcerer’s Stone, “Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”)
What can account for the level of anger now directed at Rowling? If an eighth Harry Potter book were to be published, we could call it Harry Potter and the Desperate Desire for Things to Be Simple. Fans are discovering that someone they once treated as omniscient, someone they loved with a ferocious, possessive, childish love, is an entirely different person, with different values from their own.
It is almost a cliché at this point to note that the average Millennial is notching up the markers of adulthood more slowly than their parents did. (My mother, a few months ago: “I still think of you as my baby. But when I was your age, I had three children.” I have none.) Middle-class kids born after 1990, the kind whose parents bought them books and movie tickets, entered the workforce in the postcrash decade, when a comfortable adult life began to seem like an unachievable dream. Much of this generation grew up alongside Harry Potter, and many kept shipping Harry and Draco into their 20s, in between Instagram posts about how “adulting”—cooking a meal, say, or doing laundry—was hard. And they weren’t entirely wrong, because adulting, for them, was hard: Many bright, book-loving college graduates who could have expected to walk into secure jobs 10 years earlier were instead trapped in precarious work and tiny apartments. Want to buy a home in a big city? Good luck saving for a down payment. Want to start saving into a pension? You’ll need stable employment for that.
The difficulty of adulting also includes the acknowledgment that people are fallible, and the world is complicated. Parents, and heroes, have feet of clay. Call it a loss of youthful idealism, or call it pragmatism, it is what allows us to survive in the adult world. And this is the struggle facing Harry Potter fans. They have long resented Rowling’s continued involvement in the Potter universe, which pollutes their pristine childhood memories of the work. There was disquiet when she only retrospectively made the original books more inclusive—announcing that Dumbledore was gay—and when she referenced “Native American wizards” in a story on Pottermore. Both incidents forced fans to confront the fact that the series is the product of Britain in the ’90s, a time and place whose unquestioned assumptions were different from those of the here and now. The first book was published in 1997, when British popular culture was startlingly white, the legalization of gay marriage was more than a decade away, and the country’s most popular newspaper carried a picture of a topless woman on its third page every day. At the time, the Potter books—with their well-rounded female characters and their rejection of the idea of aristocracy—were progressive. Now they are historical.
The acres of Harry Potter fan fiction have allowed its Millennial audience to rewrite the stories to fit their own values, easing their discomfort (while still luxuriating in the nostalgic setting of the British private-school system, an institution designed to perpetuate elitism). Rowling’s newer work in the Potter universe reminds them, however, that none of this is canon—that, in the language of the internet, their fave is problematic. This fan-creator relationship is a peculiarly modern one, a mixture of entitlement and intimacy: In their lifetimes, Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl were not troubled by consumer revolts over their personal opinions or their plotlines. (Dahl had a history of making anti-Semitic statements, and Blyton’s books are studies in casual racism.) They didn’t live long enough to see complaints about the whiteness and straightness of their books, or to upset their readers with unguarded tweets.
Rowling’s views on gender, although compassionate, are undoubtedly challenging to the cherished beliefs of her Millennial fandom. Her post raised questions about sexual violence, early transition, and the climate of intimidation that surrounds discussions of these topics. She argued that her own experience of domestic violence had taught her the value of single-sex spaces, but also wrote about her sympathy for transgender victims. This counted for little to her critics. In Vogue, Raven Smith characterized the author’s post as “a long scroll of rhetorical emotion usually confined to those long-ass breakup texts from your ex.” In Vox, Aja Romano called it “a profoundly hurtful piece of writing, riddled with hand-wringing, groundless arguments about villainous trans women, outdated science, and exclusionary viewpoints. Especially gutting was the essay’s self-centeredness.” Romano, who uses both they and she as pronouns, recounted how she had removed Rowling’s books from her shelves, unable to reconcile her Potter fandom and her nonbinary identity.
It is understandable that transgender people feel weary and harassed; their identities and their bodies have been conscripted into a culture war. Many feminists who support Rowling feel the same. But a ceasefire isn’t possible without confronting, and resolving, the questions Rowling posed. Instead of a respectful discussion, though, we get Watson, who played Hermione Granger, offering empty pieties: “I want my trans followers to know that I and so many other people around the world see you, respect you and love you for who you are.” Radcliffe’s statement was longer, but also offered no advice for navigating this legal and cultural thicket. “Transgender women are women,” he wrote. “It’s clear that we need to do more to support transgender and non-binary people, not invalidate their identities, and not cause further harm.”
Some of the social-media reaction to Rowling has been vicious, and many of the most outraged posts have shown a notable lack of interest in her disclosure of sexual assault. Hurt feelings have trumped Rowling’s physical injuries. Admitting that Rowling’s views are influenced by her status as a survivor of male violence—and admitting that many women have similar experiences—complicates the easy division of oppressor and oppressed. “Victim blaming” is taboo among progressive activists, but so is questioning someone’s gender identity. Instead of being confronted, though, this conflict was made simply to disappear.
Again, this is part of a desire for the world to be simple. The Millennial generation has grown up in a world shaped by the gains of the ’80s, when a rainbow coalition of queer activists, feminists, and left-wingers took on the establishment and religious right: AIDS denialists, golf-club sexists, segregation sympathizers, and televangelists ranting about Sodom. The lines are not so easily drawn now, and the modern left finds it hard to parse clashes between two oppressed groups, such as conservative Muslim parents and LGBTQ-friendly school curricula.
Much of the fan commentary following Rowling’s article has focused on what the Harry Potter series was “really about,” and whether its author has betrayed those principles. To outsiders, these discussions can seem bizarre—arguments about fascism and eugenics play out with references to goblins and Polyjuice Potions—but they are a reflection of how deeply some Millennials have been shaped by Rowling’s world. This emotional synthesis of reader and writer happens only with books we love when we are young. (I am sad, but strangely relieved, that my own beloved Terry Pratchett is safely dead.) On The Leaky Cauldron, one commenter argued against presenting “sanitized news coverage in the way the ministry and news media do in light of Voldemort’s return.” Another replied that Voldemort demonized mudbloods and muggles for not inheriting wizarding ability: “Guess who else is demonising people for not having the correct blood to be who they say they are?” Rowling gave these fans the tools they use to think about the world. Now they are having to unstitch themselves from her universe, and discover where Harry Potter ends and they begin. It’s a wrench at least as big as leaving home.
As for me, these days, there are no more fraught car journeys with my parents. I’m still an atheist, but I see now what I couldn’t then: that their religion guided them toward a moral life. When I was growing up, they volunteered in soup kitchens, and our Christmas dinner table often had a seat for someone who would otherwise have been alone. In the past few months, my mother has agonized over her regular visits to the sick and dying in hospital, worried she might bring COVID-19 into the ward. (Never mind the fact that she is 75.)
My questions about my parent’s beliefs are still legitimate: It shouldn’t be taboo to ask them. My criticisms of organized religion are too. But you can’t live by doctrine at the expense of humanity. Adulting is hard because the world isn’t Dumbledore’s Army versus the Death Eaters, and Rowling hasn’t morphed into Voldemort overnight. You may disagree with what she writes about sex and gender, but she is still a rare multimillionaire who pays the same tax rate as you and me, a tireless campaigner for single parents, the founder of a charity to spare children from living in orphanages, and the woman whose response to the pandemic was to give away £1 million.
Those who feel rejected and disoriented by that should look for comfort in the character who is the true moral center of the Potterverse. It was never Harry, the boy who happened to live, whose luck always holds, whose mistakes are minor. It is Severus Snape, who was made miserable by Harry’s father and took it out on Harry, who loved Harry’s mother and betrayed her friends, who redeemed himself with a morally repugnant act. A bully, a victim, a villain, and a hero: a human.