We need to talk about J.K. Rowling. I know, I’d rather we didn’t, too. I have nothing but a vague, childhood nostalgia for Harry Potter, one of many childish things that were put away once I discovered (as a teenager) that there were different kinds of wands1That’s right, I know how sex works with which one could play. Whatever affection my younger self might have had for the boy wizard was poisoned long ago, though not by Ms. Rowling’s disagreeable views on trans women—those were revealed long after the magic was already gone for me—but rather, by the liberal obsession with regarding this particular magical universe as a singularly powerful tool for parsing and explaining the confusing, adult world.
Let me catch you up on the last few days of J.K. Rowling-related drama. She [We choose to use this pronoun to indicate that she’s a woman -Ed.] appeared to take umbrage2No, not Dolores Umbridge, you fucking nerd. at the use of the phrase “people who menstruate,” which—while admittedly a little clunky—is a fairly widely-understood term that has been adopted by those for whom gender-inclusive language feels important. After receiving some—ahem—push back, she doubled down on using a specific kind of phrasing that can be read as excluding trans women from her definition of women:
What stock should we put in 100% really biologically female, definitely-a-woman-with-womanly-lived-experiences author J.K. Rowling’s latest comments? Take a bored, wealthy woman3Yep, she’s definitely a real woman, she continues to stress, and definitely very wealthy with a history of being extremely online and a penchant for cryptic sniping at trans activists, throw in some muddled second-wave feminist gender essentialism, add a liberal Twitter outrage machine that is studiously avoiding talking about the protests outside, and you get a perfect little internet shitstorm.
Don’t worry, J.K. will be fine—her books will continue to be read by millions, and her hundreds of millions (of pounds) will continue to be at her sole disposal. It’s much more interesting to try to understand what the paroxysms of agony and the gnashing of liberal teeth mean for the rest of us. Why, oh why, does the author of this beloved series of books deserve such close attention for her non-literary output? What does the love that liberals have for Harry Potter tell us about who they are, really?4By “who they are,” I mean how they think of themselves in any sense except gender identity, which apparently isn’t canon in the Harry Potter universe
Why is it so important for these anguished Potter-lovers to try to separate this particular art from the artist? This isn’t something most liberals have ever worried about doing before. If you’re confused about the stakes here, you must understand one thing: There are people who take this Harry Potter stuff very, very seriously. There are, at this very moment, adults within workplaces—with actual hiring and firing power over other people—that will describe themselves as “a Gryffindor” without even a hint of irony or guile.
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When faced with emerging political phenomena or societal challenges—say, the Trump presidency, or the campaigns of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, or the protests and violent clashes following the murder of George Floyd—there’s a nontrivial number of people who will recast these situations—which have actual stakes—into the universe of these children’s books in order to analyze them and decide how they should orient themselves politically. How do I know this? Because they tell us, incessantly. They’ll proudly post about Trump being Voldemort and Warren being Hermione, or wisely opine on the many similarities between the rioters and Dumbledore’s Army. The pinnacle of this deeply embarrassing tendency is surely the wildly successful podcast mash-up of moral philosophy (for adults) with a story about wizards (for children), Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.
This particular podcast series, hosted by a woman who describes herself as an “atheist chaplain” and a guy who runs a human-centered design consultancy5It’s apparently called Sacred Design. Gag. has produced hundreds of episodes, filtering basic moral, spiritual, and ethical questions through the Harry Potter intellectual property universe. Both of the hosts are graduates of the Harvard Divinity School and have the perfect liberal intelligentsia resumes, stuffed full of NGO gigs and social entrepreneurship. They even offer meet-ups for those with similarly-troubled minds to gather and consult the sacred texts! It would be funny if it weren’t quite so sad, and if their podcast didn’t attract a monthly audience approaching 100,000 confused souls. There’s clearly something missing in your life when your best source for moral wisdom is a couple of adults who have made a job out of talking about baby shit to other adults. Is this an escape to fantasy to avoid engaging with the actual complexity and messiness of the world, or it is the result of a dearth of shared literary touchstones? Have expensive liberal arts educations so completely failed us that children’s fantasy novels are the only literary reference we can muster?
You may think I’m being uncharitable here—maybe the affection for Harry Potter is all a bit knowing, or all in good fun, and people don’t actually take it all that seriously. Perhaps, but we have to look at the results. We cannot say for sure that the ideology and the Harry Potter obsessions exist in any causal relationship, but the fact that liberals are so eager to separate the art from the artist in this case—something they’ve never felt the need to do for people like Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, or the (apparently) homophobic author of Ender’s Game, Orson-Scott Card6One Twitter moral philosopher reflected on the difficulties of separating Harry Potter from J.K. Rowling by admitted to feeling “conflicted” about being curious to try the music of notoriously anti-semitic composer Richard Wagner, 140 years after the latter’s death.—suggests that there’s something more personally devastating about learning that the creator of this special, magical universe of child wizards is an imperfect member of their political tribe.
So what is so appealing about this magical universe? Why has it persisted for so long, for so many people, and particularly for those who are now well into their thirties with families, careers, and (presumably) an adult understanding of the world? J.K. Rowling has been on a never-ending magical quest to load the novels up with additional, deeper meanings since the last one was published in 2007—telling us that Dumbledore was actually gay, the werewolf stuff was an HIV/AIDS metaphor, and that Moaning Myrtle’s full name was Myrtle Elizabeth Warren. Perhaps the atheist chaplain and her always-looking-surprised-in-photos buddy are onto something with their years of Potter-based interpretive podcasting. Can an overly-close reading of the Harry Potter universe actually reveal some clues about the human nature that is driving this liberal obsession? Let’s give it a shot!
First, let us consider the life of the eponymous hero. What can Harry Potter’s rags-to-riches story tell us about human nature as filtered through liberal ideology? The tragic death of his parents at a tender age brought him much hardship and a tough, suburban upbringing. Thankfully, through absolutely no work whatsoever, he is quickly invited to join a secret society in which he is very special and everyone regards the fact of his existence with astonishment and wonder. This specialness is due to the circumstances of his birth and his magical parentage. This all seems a bit on the nose when you think about liberal self-narratives about their own achievements, which all too often seem to end up being “I worked really hard after my parents got me a media job.” Just in case there was any danger of needing to confront the wretched lot of someone whose family were neglectful or unsupportive, we’re quickly shown the benefits of having a giant inheritance from your parents that prevents you from ever needing to think or talk about money ever again7in a secret bank operated by hook-nosed goblin bankers, nonetheless. Truly, there’s much wisdom contained in these texts! I can certainly see how having a substantial inheritance could be just the thing that might propel a supple liberal mind towards loftier pursuits, like saving the world.8Could there be a relevant cultural lesson about liberals’ obsessions with good and evil and having your parents’ substantial financial backing before you put on silly outfits and go fight the forces of evil? Perhaps we’ll never know..
It seems like we can go deeper, still. The entire Harry Potter wizarding world is hidden in plain sight; one must have special, arcane knowledge and innate magical abilities in order to perceive it at all. From Russiagate conspiracies to revealing hidden codes in Trump’s speeches, the liberal mind has always derived pleasure and legitimacy from having inside knowledge. For liberals, this secret knowledge is the mark of their inclusion, accessed by attending the right college, wearing the right safety pins, and learning the delicate social graces that are the marker of their social stratum. This is all in service of being connected to what’s really going on, which—within a cultural project that prizes being smart and naturally gifted—is the only form of merit deemed worthy of financial and social reward. It’s not difficult, then, to see what is so appealing for these Potter-obsessed liberals about the idea of receiving a merit-based admission letter to a special, hidden wizarding school based upon your innate magical talents. This is precisely the society that liberals desire, and it is the one that they have always attempted to construct—substitute “muggles” (non-magical folk) for “deplorables” and you’ll follow my interpretation of the text. Wow, this Harry Potter textual analysis stuff is really taking us places! What else can we possibly learn, hidden in these seven volumes of collected wisdom?
Uh… I know! Liberals don’t like moral ambiguity. There are inherently good (deserving) people and inherently bad (undeserving, evil) people, and those are just essential characteristics that are probably biological–or something—or at least integral to one’s identity and relationship to the world. Thankfully, the wizarding world has a magical sorting hat that will magically reach into your head and magically tell you which high school clique and/or magical wizarding house you belong to at this special fancy prep school for special little boys and girls9With accompanying checks for biological sex and chromosomes, presumably who never needed to apply because there’s a magical admissions system that can measure innate talent! There’s no need to struggle with the complexities and limitations of people when there’s literally a magic hat that identifies the thoughts in your head and says if you’re a jock (Gryffindor), a nerd (Ravenclaw), a bully (Slytherin), or not included in this tortured metaphor (Hufflepuff).
We learn that these affiliations carry through into adult life, too. Magical or non-magical, Death Eater10Basically Harry Potter’s version of the Nazis, if the name didn’t make it obvious that they’re the bad ones or non-Death Eater, and Gryffindor or Slytherin are immutable characteristics—just like race or sexuality! Your personal character arc shall be forever defined by the magical thoughts in your head, and there’s just no escaping that fact. Or you could be born a house-elf, in which case you’re literally just a slave and everyone seems to be fine with that. Nobody can change their “inherent nature” in this magical universe, which apparently applies especially to those whose gender identity may undergo some sort of character development. Sure, magical humans can turn into cats and dogs and werewolves and shit before visiting Professor Dumbledore in the magical castle or flying on a broomstick to Diagon alley, but changing gender? How very silly that sounds.
Which finally brings us back around to J.K. Rowling herself, and her thoughts on trans identities negating the “lived reality of women.” What does the Harry Potter universe have to tell us about what’s driving her behavior and attitudes here? I think I speak for all of us when I say: Who gives a shit what she thinks, and read another fucking book.
|↑1||That’s right, I know how sex works|
|↑2||No, not Dolores Umbridge, you fucking nerd.|
|↑3||Yep, she’s definitely a real woman, she continues to stress, and definitely very wealthy|
|↑4||By “who they are,” I mean how they think of themselves in any sense except gender identity, which apparently isn’t canon in the Harry Potter universe|
|↑5||It’s apparently called Sacred Design. Gag.|
|↑6||One Twitter moral philosopher reflected on the difficulties of separating Harry Potter from J.K. Rowling by admitted to feeling “conflicted” about being curious to try the music of notoriously anti-semitic composer Richard Wagner, 140 years after the latter’s death.|
|↑7||in a secret bank operated by hook-nosed goblin bankers, nonetheless|
|↑8||Could there be a relevant cultural lesson about liberals’ obsessions with good and evil and having your parents’ substantial financial backing before you put on silly outfits and go fight the forces of evil? Perhaps we’ll never know.|
|↑9||With accompanying checks for biological sex and chromosomes, presumably|
|↑10||Basically Harry Potter’s version of the Nazis, if the name didn’t make it obvious that they’re the bad ones|