By Poppy Willis
Long before J.K. Rowling was accused of transphobia in a 2020 Twitter storm, there was ample evidence to suggest she was always problematic, and the Harry Potter books aren’t exempt from coding her questionable values. But when you love a book, and indeed an entire story world, it’s easy to overlook certain things that you don’t want to see.
I read Harry Potter for the first time in my formative years and often heard the argument that Rowling’s portrayal of goblins in the series was anti-Semitic. I couldn’t believe it at first, eventually conceding, ‘well, I’m sure she didn’t mean for it to come across like that.’ Looking back, the Harry Potter books had the power to influence my moral values and world view, even in concerning ways. And they did – despite the fact I didn’t grow up to share the same views as Rowling. Regrettably, I still overlooked her wrongdoings. ‘It’s just fiction,’ I would say.
Rowling may not have intended her books to be anti-Semitic, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t. Dan Kahan writes, ‘of course, the intention hardly matters. The fact of the matter is that the Gringotts Goblins are absolutely coded as anti-Semitic Jewish stereotypes…’ Both the goblin’s physical appearance and characteristics are considered to be Jewish stereotypes, and are reminiscent of Nazi-era anti-Semitic indoctrination. The goblins are described as hooked-nose creatures, who are greedy, secretive, money-hungry misers that run the wizarding world’s economy. Literary agent Connor Goldsmith has also suggested that the series is ‘ostensibly an allegory for the Holocaust,’ which makes the portrayal of goblins as Jewish caricatures all the more disturbing. This admittedly doesn’t sound great for Rowling. And yet discourse on the matter remains a political battlefield. There are an alarming number of articles discussing the ingrained racism, sexism and transphobia in the narrative world of Harry Potter.
Contrarily, Rowling is ‘surprisingly good’ at calling out anti-Semitism in the media. But being a self-appointed anti-fascist doesn’t invalidate the multitude of problems in her books. Whether she meant to be offensive or not is irrelevant. It might have been acceptable to conclude that Harry Potter was merely a product of its time, if only Rowling wasn’t so vocal about her conservative views in recent years.
Literary theorist and critic Roland Barthes discusses the death of the author and questions how important authors really are in analysing their work. After all, the reader has their own autonomy when it comes to interpretation. But what about when the author refuses to ‘die’? Whether it’s an attempt to stay relevant in our ever-evolving cultural climate, or an inability to let go, Rowling is notorious for providing extra-textual information about her books to retroactively paint them in a progressive light. The most notable example of this was revealing Dumbledore’s homosexuality just months after the final novel of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in 2007.
Looking back, I’m embarrassed by disregarding valid criticism against the books. At the time, I wasn’t ready to accept the fact that this story world I was deeply in love with was so problematic. To acknowledge the multitude of issues is one thing, but what can I do now that I’m aware of it? As I sit here pondering this dilemma, my gaze sweeps over the myriad of Harry Potter merchandise in my bedroom: the complete series of books, the illustrated versions, countless postcards, and my Gryffindor scarf. I think about the sheer amount of money that I alone have contributed to the Rowling empire. Am I allowed to still like Harry Potter? Can I just pretend the books were actually found in a cave and written by some anonymous author? Where do I go from here?
I’m not alone in my questioning. The tenets of the Harry Potter fan base diverge greatly from the author. Two of the major Harry Potter fan sites, The Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet, recently denounced Rowling. It’s staggering that my generation can love a story so much yet disagree so firmly with the author. However, if you agree with Barthes, a book is essentially a combination of ‘citations from the thousand sources of culture.’ Why should the author’s opinion hold so much weight? After all, intertextuality is commonplace. Harry Potter could be considered a patchwork text derived from many sources of inspiration. Looking through a postmodern lens, it’s only natural that each reader will have a different interpretation of the books, depending on their lived experiences – after all, ‘the true locus of writing is reading’.
If Rowling continues to be the ‘undead’ author, it won’t be the Harry Potter books that fade into obscurity; it will be Rowling herself, and her role in creating them. She seems unable to accept the fact that her intended meaning of the books isn’t the only one that matters. If she continues with her problematic rhetoric, she will only further alienate her fan base. And she may have gotten away with the morally questionable subject matter in the books, if it wasn’t for all the pesky additional information that she consistently forces on the fan base, not to mention her transphobic twitter activity. No amount of retroactive progressiveness can make up for the problems that are already rife in the books.
Most of my friends who grew up reading the Harry Potter series are, like me, left wing. Many of them identify as the very minorities that are characterised negatively. Whether they choose to continue loving the series or not is their choice. But for me, a cisgender white woman, where do I go from here? This is a question I may have to navigate for a long time.
Poppy Willis is a writer and editor living in Melbourne/Naarm. She is currently completing a Master in Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Her work has appeared in Farrago and Turn It In.
Cover photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash