1:00 pm EST, February 21, 2018

Harry Potter and the false dichotomy of fandom

By averita

Last week, in a Twitter thread that gained some traction, I expressed my disappointment in J.K. Rowling, a woman who has shaped my life in ways that I can’t begin to articulate but that I know millions of people relate to.

I criticized some of the decisions that she’s made, approved, or defended recently, and I tried to explain the hurt and anger that so many fans are feeling not only at these decisions, but at the lack of empathetic acknowledgment of why we’re so upset. You can read the full thread here.

This particular outcry — the latest of many in response to disappointing, bewildering news from the Harry Potter universe — stemmed from an interview with David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter movies and is now directing the Fantastic Beasts series. In the interview, he confirmed that Albus Dumbledore — the only queer character in the entire series, though that has yet to be made canonically clear in any written or onscreen capacity — will not be portrayed as “explicitly” gay in the upcoming movie. The movie, which will largely center around Dumbledore’s relationship with Gellert Grindelwald (who, according to Rowling, Dumbledore was in love with), will mark yet another Potter-verse installment without queer representation.

A few years ago I would have wholeheartedly defended Ms. Rowling (who wrote the screenplay) and told fans who were upset that there are still three movies to go, that for all we know there will be other queer characters in the movie, that we just need to have faith. But the consistent, damning, and disappointing silence from Ms. Rowling and those involved in this franchise, as well as a few statements that have only made things worse, have taught me not to believe so blindly.

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The Harry Potter fandom is well-versed in controversy — largely fan-driven, but Ms. Rowling has provoked her fair share even before the original series ended. (No one versed in the history of the Potter fandom is likely to forget the “delusional” incident any time soon.)

It’s been the post-book era that has garnered the more serious discussions about representation, lack thereof, and problematic appropriation, issues that were becoming more relevant in society and media discussions at the same time Ms. Rowling was beginning to expand her universe beyond the original seven books. As that has happened — first with Pottermore, then the Fantastic Beasts series and The Cursed Child — I’ve wrestled with how to reconcile material that doesn’t fit with the world as I viewed it, and, more acutely, how to look at the series and beyond with a critical eye as criticisms started to pile up.

First there was the History of the American Magical Community on Pottermore, which I read with mounting disbelief, and the outcry from Native Americans about the incredible cultural appropriation. In a time where Ms. Rowling was increasingly interactive on Twitter, I was convinced that she’d address the disappointment and justified anger with an apology and a promise to do better in the future. That didn’t happen.

Then there was Remus Lupin’s backstory, which many fans saw as a targeted disavowal of the popular theory that Remus was queer (a theory made even more powerful considering that the character was created as a deliberate commentary on the stigma against HIV).

Was that the intent? Probably not. But in a time where representation was becoming an important topic of conversation, it stood out, as did the entirely straight and mostly white casts of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and The Cursed Child. (The Cursed Child also garnered some controversy over queerbaiting.)

As a queer kid in Louisiana, I wasn’t desperate for queer representation in the books I was reading, but it wasn’t because I didn’t need it — it was because I didn’t know it was missing. When I watched the movies, I saw a cast of characters who looked like me and the people in my community; I felt like I could be Hermione, and it wasn’t until the black Hermione headcanon became popular that I realized that other girls might have longed to feel that same way. I was elated when Ms. Rowling announced that Dumbledore was gay and to this day, I don’t particularly blame her for the fact that the book series is almost entirely white and straight. I believed that if she was writing them today, in a world where diversity and representation are at the forefront of art and entertainment, they would look different; the fact that she encouraged fan interpretations and was a vocal ally in so many ways bolstered that belief.

Casting Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in the original stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was a brilliant and bold statement. I was delighted to see Hermione portrayed by a powerful, stunning black woman, and I can’t imagine what it meant to girls around the world to see themselves in a beloved character in such a visible way. But even as that casting decision made headlines, so did another one: Johnny Depp as Grindelwald.

That was the breaking point for me. There was a time when I couldn’t have imagined not being first in line for a new Harry Potter movie, much less not going at all, and it was really heartbreaking to realize that this world was going to have to live on without me. As the daughter and granddaughter of women who have been victims of domestic abuse; as a bisexual woman, like Ms. Heard, who lives with the knowledge that one in two bisexual women will be victims of domestic abuse at some point in their lives; above all, as a woman who believes other women and strives to support them however I can, I could not support a film starring a man accused of the heinous acts that Depp was.

I told myself, even as I wrote to Ms. Rowling once again, that there was probably nothing they could do. The contract was probably ironclad, it had been signed before these accusations had been made, and if they were able to recast him they’d jump at the opportunity. Even as months dragged on with no public word from her, I was convinced that it was because she wasn’t able to say anything, not because she didn’t want to.

David Yates’ response in November 2017, in which he not only defended Depp but dismissed Ms. Heard as “one person who took a pop at him and claimed something” and the abuse allegations as “a dead issue,” alarmed and infuriated me.

It was Ms. Rowling’s statement, though, which revealed that they had made the choice to keep him in the role after the abuse allegations were made public and then defended that decision, that broke my heart and shattered the illusion that this was out of her control. (The Leaky Cauldron’s Melissa Anelli summed up how I felt very eloquently.)

Creators don’t owe their fans anything. Not content, not stories that satisfy them, not explanations — it’s their world, and as fans, we get to enjoy and play in it. We also get to decide when what’s being offered is no longer acceptable. For me, that’s meant making the decision not to see or support the Fantastic Beasts movies, and talking about why I made that choice. None of this is about shaming or attacking or entitlement — it’s about wanting the world I love so much to be better.

In response to my Twitter thread, in which I tried to express the confusion, distress, and anger that I’ve seen reflected in so many others, I got a lot of comments from people saying that I’m not a “real fan.” A real fan, they argued, would defend Ms. Rowling and her choices, and would understand that the decisions she’s made both when writing the Harry Potter books and in the years since are consistent and understandable; that if I can’t see that, then I’m missing the point of the series.

As all of this was going on, I was making my way through Brené Brown’s “Braving the Wilderness.” In it, she wrote:

“In philosophy, ‘You’re either with us or against us’ is considered a false dichotomy or a false dilemma. It’s a move to force people to take sides. If other alternatives exist (and they almost always do), then that statement is factually wrong.”

She gave examples: gun owners who support common-sense gun control measures, individuals who respect and support police officers while recognizing the pain and necessity driving the Black Lives Matter movement. I couldn’t help but think of Ms. Rowling and my increasingly complicated feelings towards the person whose books formed the foundation of my value system. The central themes of the series — choosing to do what’s right rather than what’s easy, speaking out against injustice and committing to helping those who are marginalized or at risk, loyalty and courage and the different forms those can take — are what make it so difficult and disturbing now that I, and so many other fans, see the Potter franchise and those involved as not living up to those values.

I keep coming back to Brené’s words: the false dichotomy, the pain and perturbation of being a fan of someone who’s letting me down. The paradox of appreciating the lessons she’s taught me, of the place the Harry Potter series will always have in my heart, of wanting to believe that Ms. Rowling will eventually understand why so many fans are upset, and at the same time becoming increasingly angry and disillusioned as month after month, she and those involved in the ongoing franchise say or do things I can’t accept, and fail to address the consistent, valid, and widespread criticism from those who want to support them.

These last couple of years, I’ve had a lot of conversations with people in my life who have acted in ways or expressed opinions that are so contrary to my own belief system that I couldn’t imagine there was any common ground to be found. Painful, painstaking conversations and a commitment to being open to them has taught me otherwise; if nothing else, I can understand the thought processes driving those words and actions, and sometimes — not always — make peace with them.

I’m very aware that this is a different situation. For 17 years, Ms. Rowling has been an ideal — someone I’ve felt very connected to, someone that I once met for 45 seconds and to this day remember every moment of — but someone that, as an adult, I know could never live up to the standards I’d held her to. It’s not fair to ask that of her, or of anyone, and the truth is that we as fans don’t know her.

We don’t know her thought process, and we don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. I’ve always given her the benefit of the doubt, but I can’t do that anymore, and more painfully, I don’t have a way to make sense of it. She doesn’t owe fans an explanation, and any that we might get would be heavily filtered anyway. That disconnect — this broken trust, and no way of reaching out to mend it — makes it even harder to see her making snarky comments on Twitter and even blocking users who are respectfully expressing their feelings, and trying to make her understand where it’s coming from.

Does Ms. Rowling understand why people are reacting the way they are? I think that if she did, she’d be less inclined to write off the reactions to Yates’ comments about Dumbledore as fans believing “every bit of clickbait” that we see (much less “mute” fans who have shared those reactions). I hope so, anyway. It’s not about Dumbledore, or how queer characters might be represented in the franchise’s future. It’s that a pattern has emerged — criticism from marginalized groups that are either ignored or glossed over — and no one has given us any reason to believe that this is the time the pattern will break.

I will always be a Harry Potter fan. I will always respect and be grateful for the world that Ms. Rowling has created, and that I found a home in. It’s because, not in spite of, my love for this world and all that Ms. Rowling has meant to me that I expect and will continue to hope for better, so that I’m able to participate in and be a part of the expanded, ongoing universe of Harry Potter.

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