Who Did J.K. Rowling Become?
Rowling had never been a particularly controversial figure. Her books sold hundreds of millions of copies, they inspired films that brought in billions of dollars, and she used the money she made to save children from orphanages. In 2012, she gave enough to charity and paid enough in taxes to knock herself off the Forbes billionaires list. In 2020, she was tweeting links to a store that sold pins that said F*CK YOUR PRONOUNS.
Read another way, though, the latest turn in Rowling’s story looks perhaps less perplexing than inevitable. It is the culmination of a two-decade power struggle for ownership of her fictional world — the right to say what Harry Potter means. The Harry Potter books describe a stark moral universe: Their heroes fight on behalf of all that is good to defeat the forces of absolute evil. Though the struggle may be lonely and hard, right ultimately beats wrong. For fans, when it came to the matter of trans rights, the message of Harry Potter was clear. For Rowling, this was no less the case.
“She absolutely believes that she is right, that she’s on a mission, and that history will eventually bear her out,” Anelli [the administrator of a prominent Harry Potter fansite] told me. “She thinks she’s doing good work right now.”
I started seeing posts attacking Rowling on Tumblr in early 2018, but none of them actually explained why people were so angry with her. When I tried asking what was going on, I’d get vague answers along the lines of “she liked the tweet of a bad person a few years ago and then said it was a mistake.” 2018 was a year of people on the internet becoming extraordinarily upset about space wizards, so I brushed the accusations against Rowling into the same category as assertions that fictional characters in Voltron and Steven Universe and Star Wars were “abusive.”
I assumed that Rowling, who is active on Twitter, had probably made a few tweets about British politics or politicians that didn’t make sense to young Americans and left it at that.
Wow was I wrong about this. I was so wrong.
This became embarrassingly obvious when Rowling made her stance on transgender rights clear toward the end of 2020 in a way that was so public and performative that it was picked up by mainstream news outlets, but plenty of signs were indeed there beforehand. The article I linked to above is quite lengthy and does an excellent job of explaining exactly what’s been going on, and I appreciate that it provides the context for this discussion in a way that isn’t centered on American culture and politics.