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fan culture: the case of J.K. Rowling | culture

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

If you were to read the Harry Potter books with no knowledge of the text that surrounds them, you might’ve assumed that Hermione was white, or that Dumbledore was straight, or that there weren’t any Jews at Hogwarts. But you’d need only a cursory scroll through J.K Rowling’s twitter feed to realise your ignorance.

There, you’ll find swathes of her tweets responding to fans’ questions about the text, rewriting all its wrongs, peppering in bits of woke-ified canon as she goes.

From the onset of Harry Potter’s popularity, JK has shown a keen interest in engaging with the fandom. Even before she learnt how to tweet, she had an entire website dedicated to debunking fan theories and answering FAQs about the books.

And historically, JK’s engagement with the fan world has been a force for good, she’s been happy to answer any and all nerdy questions about her wizarding world, and has been actively encouraging of the fanfiction that surrounds it.

But the Potterverse has swelled to proportions that not even the omniscient JK could’ve predicted, and the cracks are beginning to show as she strains to keep the canon under her belt.

From the way JK interacts with her fans it is clear that she sees herself as the master of the universe she’s created, and in a sense, she of course is. But a difficulty with this arises in her tendency to post-scripturally insert meaning and intent into her text outside of the canon itself.

‘I never said Hermione was white’, she’ll jeer at you, the assumptive reader, despite the fact that there are only three people of colour in all the books, and all have their skin colour or ethnicity listed as a character trait.

The lack of diversity in the original books is a problem, but not one that is unique to Harry Potter. Most books written in the late 90s and early 2000s are sorely lacking in BAME characters, and when they do appear they are almost always secondary.

The books were progressive for the early 2000s, but inevitably less so by today’s standards, and it’s fine to acknowledge they’ve dated a little. But rather than admit this, JK pretends that black Hermione was the representation she’d always intended, and takes credit for a creative choice that wasn’t her own.

Rowling has also said for years that Dumbledore is gay, yet there is zero mention of these queer elements in the books or the films. And it’s not as if she’s not had the opportunity to codify Dumbledore’s sexuality since. There have been two fantastic beast movies since JK first revealed that Dumbledore and Grindelwald had an ‘incredibly intense’ sexual relationship, yet it’s not even hinted at in the films.

I think this is when the tide began to turn slightly for JK, with fans’ frustrations at her failings to codify any of her representation resulting in one of the better memes of 2019;

JK’s adding bits here and there in 140 characters or less feels like shoehorned tokenising for the sake of staying relevant, except without having do any work or take any risks.

It’s grating to watch JK try to cloak the boomer energy she so naturally radiates with this thin veneer of wokeness- particularly when she does it so smugly. It’s a shame too, for the kind of pull J.K. Rowling has in the upper echelons of Reddit could easily spearhead a needed dialogue about representation for marginalised characters in fiction.

Given the way culture is trending, fanfiction being such a powerful force and focus on personal brand and identity only increasing, perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect an author to let their work speak entirely for itself. But if JK cannot or will not take her own voice out of the equation, then she should at the very least put some of it into the damn canon.

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