Separating the Art from the Artist: Rowling and Harry Potter
We all enjoy and partake in entertainment, whether it’s laughing (or crying) at a romantic comedy film, getting lost in a fantasy book, or allowing the music of your favourite album to take you away. We also know that our entertainment did not just spring from nowhere — that creators and artists of all stripes are responsible for the media we love, and that some names and faces are almost synonymous with that media. Can you think of Matt Groening without also thinking of The Simpsons? Can you think of the number 1984 without thinking of George Orwell’s eminent novel? Therein lies a deeper question; how much can we separate the art from the artist? More significantly perhaps, how much should we make that distinction?
With seemingly endless revelations coming out about the celebrities once idolised by society, we have to ask ourselves how our perceptions regarding their creations and legacies now stand. Some, like Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile, in light of damning evidence, have rightfully had their careers thrown to the wayside by the vast majority. Jim’ll Fix It is held in as much contempt as its creator, and we understand why. Others, however, have enjoyed long, successful careers and continue to do so despite the disclosure of any number of immoral and criminal acts, ranging from the sexual assault charges faced by Kevin Spacey, to Chris Brown’s assault of Rihanna.
Why, even when faced with unambiguous evidence, do we allow some celebrities to stay in the limelight? Is it a conscious choice to ignore the bigger picture in order to hold onto something that matters to us? But then, what matters to us more — the integrity of our morals, or our pleasure? Is it right to enjoy Chris Brown’s music knowing what we know of his abuse towards Rihanna, as well as the numerous other criminal charges he’s faced? What about his early music, before the violence? The same can be asked of scores of musicians, actors and creators who’ve had their morality called into question — Mark Wahlberg and his assault against two Vietnamese-American men, Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitism, and the string of child abuse allegations against Michael Jackson.
Of course, no matter our answers to these questions, the work of such high-profile celebrities cannot simply be scrubbed from existence. There’s a lot of weight to the argument that indiscriminate censorship of that work would be wrong anyway, even if it was at all possible. Even the paintings of Adolf Hitler are out there to be seen and, God forbid, enjoyed. Despite what our perceptions of the above celebrities are, despite their actions, their work will always be out there to be appreciated by at least some portion of the population. The legacies of such people as Michael Jackson and Mel Gibson are too extensive to be swept under any kind of rug, and despite everything, their public personas remain too beloved to become the villains.
There are, unfortunately, far too many names to mention in this particular vein and going into detail on all of them would require its own article, or three. For the purposes of this piece, I want to focus on J. K. Rowling, her of Harry Potter fame. She’s hardly the most egregious candidate for this particular public flogging, especially when the likes of MJ are mentioned above, but the recent focus on her questionable moral views, as well as the impact these have had on the Harry Potter fan community, will go a good way in illustrating the point.
Not only that, but I hold something of a personal stake in this argument. I was a part of the generation who grew up with, and was absolutely enchanted by, the Harry Potter series. As a relatively weird and lonely kid who often needed a way to escape, reading about another weird and lonely kid was everything to me. I read the third book until it began falling apart. I watched my video copies of the movies to death. I dressed up in the robes, I waited for my letter, I even went through a phase of pretending a pebble from my back garden was the philosopher’s stone. In short, I loved these stories.
And while I’m not nearly as big of a fan now I’m 28, there’s still some residual love and nostalgia that I will always feel when dipping my toe back into the fandom. I’ve spent the better part of a decade trying to decide just how much Harry Potter does mean to me, and what that means in relation to J. K. Rowling, a woman who I did once admire for what she’d given to the world. I suppose it’s the kind of soul-searching we all do when it turns out that those we revered are not actually worthy of our worship, nor of our money or support. So, what are they worthy of, if anything?
For those who don’t know, as I’m sure there are many, Rowling’s controversy began in June 2020, when she retweeted a piece that chose to avoid using the word ‘woman’, or ‘women’, and instead used ‘people who menstruate’ as an inclusive, catch-all term. Rowling took issue with this, seeing it not as inclusive, but rather exclusionary to cis women, dismissive of the woman’s intrinsic experience relative to her sex, and dangerous because the boundaries between sex are blurred without cogent use of the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’.
A few days later, Rowling wrote what some deemed a transphobia manifesto on her website, outlining her concerns regarding the effects of the trans-rights movement on things like education, safeguarding and above all, the rights of women and girls. She compares the trans experience to her own typical adolescent struggles with feeling apart from her peers, and laments the possibility that increasing ease of access to hormones and surgery for trans people will open the floodgates, and allow anyone, particularly unsavoury types, to abuse the system.
In short, Rowling is terrified that the acceptance of trans people and the progression of trans rights will erode the concept of ‘womanhood’, and open the door to predators looking to lurk in the dark corners of women’s bathrooms. But this fear is almost laughable. Predators are surely out there, but the kind of predator who jumps through hoops to be seen as a woman in the eyes of the law, just so they can barge into the women’s changing rooms, is a committed predator indeed, and doubtless a rare one. Predators can, and already do, attack anywhere, wantonly and without restraint — access to women-only spaces is not a prerequisite.
All of this, along with her showing support for several other similarly bigoted women (Maya Forstater and Magdalen Berns specifically), earned Rowling the title of TERF, standing for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist, as well as a hearty cancelling from fans and non-fans alike. While she still has many supporters, she’s considered something of a laughing stock in many, many online circles.
And I surely feel some level of sympathy for Rowling, particularly when she mentions being a survivor of domestic abuse and sexual assault in her essay, but upon further self-reflection, it’s likely she’d find that her bigoted views are perhaps an extension of that trauma. What happened to her is awful, but that does not excuse her prejudice, and dressing that prejudice up as a heartfelt defense of ‘womanhood’ is disingenuous at best.
Funnily enough, trans people also care about things like education, safeguarding, and the rights of women and girls. They also care about their identities and lives not being called into question by people who evidently have very little understanding of where they’re coming from. They care about living their lives as they see fit without being forced to jump through any more hoops than they already have to, and least of all by an influential public figure who many of them no doubt also once admired. Rowling is so hellbent on clinging to her own identity and fragile concept of what it means to be a woman (whatever that means) that she is wilfully attacking the identities of an entire community to do so. The only floodgates to have opened here are the ones she has opened herself, for other bigots to come marching through, claiming her as a powerful figurehead in their campaign.
So clearly, this is not a simple open-and-shut case of assault allegations or criminal acts. Rowling’s infractions are not on that kind of scale. She is, however, undeniably not a very good person. She’s certainly not the kind of person I’d invite round for tea, or even want to share a seat on the train with. Perhaps you think she’s simply misguided or ignorant about the subject, but then it might have been prudent to have stepped outside the realm of her own experience before posting such a hurtful and hateful thing online. For those of us who are in the trans community, or have friends and family in the trans community, or even give a single stuff about the trans community, the unapologetic expression of such bigotry against a group who have fought so long and so hard for their rights, and are still fighting, is unforgivable. Your ‘womanhood’, Joanne, is safe. The safety of my trans friends, however, is always on the line.
(For a more comprehensive breakdown of Rowling and her scourge of controversies, this video by YouTuber Natalie Wynn, aka ContraPoints, is fantastic and thorough.)
What does this mean for Harry Potter, then? The popular opinion seems to be that the stories can and should still be enjoyed despite the author’s immorality. But I’m not too interested in the popular opinion. Popularity does not always correlate with doing the right thing, and the thing about passion (such as that felt by the Harry Potter fandom) is that it often leads people to irrational or silly conclusions.
It’s understandable, however, that so many people want to hold on to something so dear to them, as Harry Potter is to so many. So let’s discuss art for just a moment. Art is a broad subject that encompasses a lot of different mediums, including literature. When anyone makes art, whatever it is, it’s a rule of the human experience that a part of that creator’s essence (for lack of a better word) is forever within it. You can’t remove yourself from your own head, and thus you can’t create something without it being intrinsically yours in a number of ways — the way you write or paint or draw will be unique to you, and what you choose to create is a choice also unique to you. Even if you have a group of 30 people painting the same scene, every single piece will turn out different, and say something about each individual artist.
When we consume art, particularly something as immersive as the Harry Potter franchise, it can feel almost like a bonding experience between you and the creator. Here, after all, are over 1 million words, painstakingly pored over by Rowling herself. Here, after all, is an entire world, complete with its own flora and fauna, built from the ground up by Rowling herself. There would be no Harry Potter without her. It can be said that there’s no way of being closer to someone than being allowed a glimpse at their art, and at Rowling’s, we have read, reread, dissected, analysed and most of all, fallen in love.
And, knowing what we know of her now, that affection for something so inseparable from her raises some difficult questions. Most of the people who love Harry Potter are undoubtedly the same people who would never subscribe to Rowling’s views themselves, and yet it’s logical to say that the choice to consume her work can be seen as an indirect acceptance, a casual overlooking of a serious problem. How, many have asked, can we ethically enjoy the work of somebody who is so bigoted? Does it not poison the well?
Again, here we must be careful of passion running away with us. While desperately clinging onto Rowling’s work as a comfort blanket is a response born of passion, so too are the calls for censorship and the burning of books. Going too far in either direction is dangerous and can lead to several slippery slopes of blind acceptance, or the restrictions on art and freedom of speech. Either way, like the above celebrities, Rowling has too far of a reach to be swept aside no matter what her infractions, and Harry Potter has become so much a part of the public consciousness that it will likely remain there forever.
The answer to the question of this piece, like so many others, is not easy or concrete or probably even satisfying. People feel very strongly about the matter one way or the other and want a conclusion that reflects that, and while I understand that, there is a middle ground to be found here. Compromises are important things to navigate, especially when we consider, in this case, that Harry Potter, although innately connected to Rowling, is not an awful thing by any measure. In fact, the revelation that the author of such a beautiful set of stories could be such a terrible person was shocking to everyone, and probably accounts for a lot of the defense afforded to her by some people.
And we have to consider the enormous ripple effect that such stories have had on people, young and old, around the world. I grew up happier for them, and no doubt so did many other kids who felt alone, or ostracized or different. No doubt there are still kids today growing up happier for them. The love people have for Harry Potter is surely proportional to the pain they felt learning about Rowling’s hurtful beliefs — a sense of betrayal felt so keenly because, to many, Rowling was a respected woman, an almost magical figure herself, having bestowed such a gift onto the world.
This is not to say that the love of the Harry Potter fandom affords Rowling herself an ironclad blanket of defense against any wrongdoing — in an ideal world she would receive a comparative punishment and/or see the error of her ways before vowing to do better. However, we have to work within the parameters of our reality, and our reality is far from ideal. We are not in control of any punishment, beyond a brief cancelling on Twitter, that Rowling may receive. We are not in control of the beliefs she may or may not hold, whether harmful or progressive. We are only in control of our own reactions to the events that have already unfolded.
And in that vein, all we can realistically do is be aware of the context surrounding any media we choose to consume. Being aware of the flaws of the creators we admire, and keeping them in mind as considerations before we choose to consume their work is important, whether it’s Rowling or anybody else. Knowledge is power — or so they say — and the more you know about any given thing, the more power you have in making informed decisions. Not only that, but the more power you have in informing others of that knowledge. We should not be a public kept in the dark about the things we consume or believe.
So, continue to enjoy Harry Potter, in spite of Rowling. The two may forever be inseparable, physically, emotionally, legally, but that does not mean we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. What it does mean is placing limitations on our pleasure. While that might sound pessimistic, it’s something we should all be doing in all areas of life as responsible adults. We know we shouldn’t overindulge in things like sugar, drugs or selfishness because we know they’re bad for us, even if we do enjoy them. The same should always go for our entertainment. Choosing not to consume blindly, especially when that blindness is wilful, is a basic ethical principle we should all strive to live by.