On JK Rowling, Metaphor and Storytelling Responsibility
I saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them for the second time today. I enjoyed it as a continuation of the Harry Potter universe and I’m excited to see the exploration of Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s relationship. But as I mulled this second viewing over in my head, I realized something crucial.
We need to talk about JK Rowling.
JK Rowling is a woman I deeply admire. She’s the definition of self-made, and she’s endlessly creative and philanthropic. I respect so much of what she does, and I’ll never be able to thank her for bringing Harry Potter into my and so many other’s lives. But she has a very evident problem with her storytelling. She loves to express real-world complicated situations through magical metaphor. And a lot of times in fiction, that’s fine — the “magic as drug addiction” metaphor in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s sixth season makes for a powerful storyline and provides Willow with some great realizations about herself and her powers (though let’s not go into how her relationship with Tara winds up — that’s for a different post.)
The problem I have with the way Rowling employs metaphor is, most of the time, it serves as an excuse for not showcasing how real-world problems can show up in the wizarding world. For example, the character of Remus Lupin — one of my very favorite characters — is famous for being coded as an HIV-positive queer man. The way she communicates this is his lycanthropy: Lupin was bitten as a child by violent and aggressive werewolf Fenrir Greyback and has suffered once a month ever since. In theory, this metaphor translates. Once parents find out a werewolf is teaching their children, they are vocally antagonistic towards him, which provokes his resignation at the end of Prisoner of Azkaban.
One can see how Rowling would make this connection: Most famously, California’s Proposition 6 in the ’70s would have made it legal to fire teachers for being gay, due to what many voters perceived as their predatory nature. She’s clearly drawing a parallel between the two, and it might be alright when left alone. Once examined, however, this metaphor proves problematic at best. Why doesn’t she just make Lupin a queer werewolf character? Many fans (myself included) read him to be queer anyway — why didn’t she feel comfortable with taking the plunge and committing?
This ties directly in with Rowling’s issues with diversity, and boy does she have issues. She’s very comfortable with focusing her stories on straight white people and having minorities on the fringe (such as the Patil twins, or Angelina Johnson.) It’s only as a postscript that she brings minority characters to the forefront, such as her big “Dumbledore is definitely gay, y’all’ moment, as well as the sentiment that “Hermione’s skin color is never specified” when certain fans were upset with black actress Noma Dumezweni being cast as Hermione in the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
These afterthoughts may seem progressive at first glance, but beyond that it’s easy to ask why she conveniently forgot to include those character traits in the books themselves. I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt and say that she always meant for Dumbledore to be gay and Hermione to be racially ambiguous, but it’s obvious she intended neither of those things in the process of writing.
Lupin is only one example of Rowling thinking metaphor is the end-all be-all for social commentary. House-elves and giants are recipients of coded racism all throughout the books — house-elves are thought of as subservient and therefore incapable of rational thought beyond “must serve master,” while giants are seen as violent brutes who can’t keep with civil society. Both of these prejudices are presented as wrong in the story itself, although Hermione founding SPEW to secure rights for house-elves in Goblet of Fire is never truly taken seriously by anyone, even the (usually) morally upright Harry. These are interesting prejudicial dynamics, but actual racism is almost never shown as an issue at Hogwarts. The only instance I can think of where a human’s race is seen as lesser is in chapter 14 of Order of the Phoenix:
“Hey, Johnson, what’s with that hairstyle, anyway?” shrieked Pansy Parkinson from below. “Why would anyone want to look like they’ve got worms coming out of their head?”
Angelina swept her long braided hair out of her face and continued calmly, “Spread out, then, and let’s see what we can do…”
Angelina Johnson is probably sporting cornrows in this scene. Black hair is incredibly present as a source of pride and culture within the community, and Pansy’s remarks aren’t unlike those spouted by racist school administrators or others looking to critique black hair. This is a good scene to include, but again: It’s the ONLY instance of human racism in a series that focuses greatly on prejudice.
It might be pointed out that communicating racism, sexism and homophobia to children through images of werewolves and giants might make them more susceptible to the message of tolerance. And you know what, that may be true. But Harry Potter has such an incredibly large reader base — people pick up Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time every day — that she could have seen fit to include actual social issues in her stories while keeping the magical element.
Finally, we get to Fantastic Beasts, and what I think is Rowling’s greatest infarction to date. (I hope it’s a given that there will be spoilers ahead.)
In the film, we meet Credence, a young man abused by his evangelical anti-magic adoptive mother. He is withdrawn, skittish and eager to please — all common symptoms of regular abuse. We also meet Percival Graves, a magical government employee who is trying to get Credence to help him find the evil monster destroying the city. Graves is convinced the evil is coming from one of the children Credence lives with, and urges Credence to root out the source. He promises Credence that he’ll be revered among wizarding kind — something Credence obviously wants desperately.
The relationship between Graves and Credence is fraught with a power imbalance. Graves promises to take Credence away, to give him magic, to provide him with everything he’s never dared to want in his life. In one of their meetings in an alleyway, Graves pulls him into an incredibly intimate embrace, and the audience isn’t sure whether or not the two are going to kiss.
There is a scene later in the movie where Credence is cowering in a corner with fear, begging Graves to help him after a monster attack. Graves hits him and tells him, in no uncertain terms, that Credence is useless and Graves has no intention of carrying on their relationship.
We find out in the film’s biggest reveal that Graves is actually a transfigured Grindelwald, trying to harness the monster’s power to expose wizardkind. This is the only reason he ever had any contact with Credence.
The big, glaring, upsetting problem is this: Graves is undoubtedly coded to be a predatory queer man. There is hardly any other way to read this character. He sees an uncertain young man in proximity to something that Grindelwald wants, and he “seduces” him with the promise to give Credence enough power to escape his abusive home (while never attempting to remove Credence from the abuse himself.) The fact that Grindelwald is canonically queer does not help this scenario whatsoever — when Rowling finally sees fit to do away with metaphor, the character preys on victims of child abuse. It’s frankly irresponsible to portray these characters this way and propagate the views so many people have of older gay men — predatory, manipulative and scary.
Rowling is a marvelous storyteller, and for a while I would pair my criticisms of her writing’s lack of diversity and decisions to retcon her own characters with, “I just know she’s better than that.” For a while, I really thought she was. But seeing Fantastic Beasts calls it into question. While the stories take place in the wizarding universe, her storytelling choices can have real life consequences. I wonder if this is a lesson she’ll ever really learn.