For the past decade, J.K. Rowling’s relationship to her own work has been incredibly cynical and stunningly mercenary. As a serious fan of the Harry Potter books, I’m thankful for her obvious talents and the richness and beauty of the mythology she’s made. Her mammoth wealth and fame is just. What is much harder to empathize with is the way that Rowling seems determined to dry up all the wonder and joy from her stories and turn them into low-rent cultural memes.
The first way she does this is through the Potter media franchise. I can’t find a sourced quote, but I seem to remember that when the final Potter book was published, Rowling said something to the effect that the story was finished. She had said what she wanted to say, and the adventure of Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Dumbledore had been completed. Just kidding, apparently. Since that last book, Rowling has trotted out an army of sequels, prequels, spinoffs, and tie-ins. Through the online role-playing game Pottermore, Rowling has even taken to writing supplementary material, which, since it comes from Rowling herself, is automatically considered “canon.” Predictably, the vast majority of this content is not very good. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play-turned-book, was aggressively marketed as a resurrection of the Potter tale, before being panned by critics and more than a few fans.
Rowling’s inability to let her stories rest is in some sense a larger indictment of our stagnant cultural imagination, graphically expressed in Hollywood’s enslavement to reboots and franchises. Rowling authorizes all of this because she knows people will buy it. Hats off to her for capitalistic acumen. But is there not something disheartening about the fact that, 11 years since the “final” book and 6 years since the “final” movie, new Harry Potter trivia is being created every day? There’s an undead quality about it all, as if “happily ever after” is now unacceptable and what we need instead is for Harry and the gang to persist into eternity. It feels as if it is no longer enough that our stories live in us; we must go on living in them.
That brings me to the other way that Rowling has cynically exploited her work: politics. If the last decade is any indication, Rowling’s ambition is to use social media to turn her Potter stories into a kind of sociopolitical shorthand. A few months after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows officially tied off the tale of Hogwarts, Rowling declared (in a Q/A session in New York) that Dumbledore was gay. This revelation thrilled many. Granted, Rowling had announced this ex cathedra; the books themselves do not say a word about it, and the general sexual worldview of the books skews pretty conservative. Was Rowling being genuine, or was she trying to score a political point with no threat of commercial risk to her already-finished anthology?
It’s important to understand that Rowling has stoked crowd loyalty to her through her politicking on Twitter. She has called Donald Trump “worse than Voldemort,” compared supporters of Scottish independence to the murderous Death Eaters, and has quoted her own sage Dumbledore in rebuking political opposition to mass immigration. The politicization of Harry Potter that even some non-conservative journalists are growing tired of is quite obviously not irksome to Rowling. On the contrary, she has exemplified it at every turn. It’s Rowling herself who seems to read and appropriate the Potter series as a touchstone for a feminist, LGBT-friendly, cosmopolitan liberalism.
Or does she? Fast forward to 2018. Rowling had made it clear that Dumbledore was romantically linked to a character whom we do not see in the 7 Potter books, but whom we would see in the spinoff series Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Unfortunately for Rowling’s many progressive young fans, the producers of the upcoming Fantastic Beasts 2 preemptively announced that Dumbledore’s sexuality would not, alas, be made explicit. Rowling’s LGBT fans were eager to see a major onscreen representation of gay Dumbledore, and Rowling’s willingness to go there made her a rock star to socially conscious millennials. But are they just being played?
Some are starting to think so. Read this:
On Twitter, fans quote Rowling’s own words back to her, reminding her of Dumbledore’s famous line: “We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” Dumbledore wasn’t talking about the £77m Forbes estimated the Fantastic Beasts franchise would lose if it were banned in China and Russia for featuring a gay character, but the sentiment remains much the same.
“When the news broke that Dumbledore’s sexuality would once again be kept out of canon, I was furious,” says Ewing, who is a lesbian. “This is a series I have dedicated years of my life too, and one that has continually let me down.”
I’m not poo-pooing Rowling for being socially or politically progressive. Contrary to what some silly people on the Right seem to think, rich and popular celebrities are entitled to their beliefs, and their followers are entitled to take them seriously. No, Rowling’s offense is not her politics, but her pretenses. Harry Potter was fine literature, but the Frankenstein monster that is the Harry Potter cultural phenomenon is pumping out both bad art and bad politics. It’s unfortunate enough that scores of young people seem unable to think in terms other than Potterpolitics. How bad is it when the author herself encourages this cynical, un-thinking appropriation of her work? And how much worse does it reflect on her that she seems eager and willing to politicize her stories as long as it does not run the risk of actually alienating some buyers?
Rowling’s shtick is tiresome, but unfortunately it represents a spreading cultural sickness. It smacks of what Patrick Deneen describes as the “anticulture” of modern liberalism. Unable to discern transcendent virtue in our art, we pimp it out to the pet sociopolitical causes of the day, always in service to rootless ideals of personal autonomy. The fact that some young adults see no value in the Potter stories unless they confirm their progressive politics should be met with sadness and regret more than mockery. The fact that an imagination as rich as Rowling’s could give itself to this project should be met with all three.