A Syllabus for JK Rowling
Hello, Internet. I am an angry person.
Sure, a lot of my anger has stemmed from the 2016 election and the havoc that ensued in America, but some of has stemmed from a little-known Scottish writer, J.K. Rowling.
I don’t think I’ve met a single person since I was seven who didn’t at least have a vague sense of Harry Potter and the world she created. She helped define a generation, and I don’t think I can over-exaggerate the impact her writing has had on me.
That said, I am angry with her. After the conclusion of the original seven Potter books in 2007, everyone thought it was the end of an era. But we were all so, so wrong.
Instead of using her bucketloads of money to retire to the countryside and write books no one reads, as she originally planned, J.K. Rowling has decided to continue the Potter universe far past what we ever expected or wanted. (See: Pottermore, Fantastic Beasts, and theme parks. Okay, the theme parks are pretty nice.) And coupled with her expansion of money-generating franchise, J.K. Rowling has decided to use her voice in the way many others have, on Twitter.
Suddenly, the illusion of the rags-to-riches writer was shattered. We discovered that J.K. Rowling, just like everyone else, was problematic, in many ways. Initially, she angered fans with author overreach on Pottermore and her moderate political views, advocating to vote against Scottish independence. But now, four long years after that, she has revealed many other #problematic aspects to her personality (see: liking tweets from TERFs), and worse, has included many of them in our precious Potter universe.
Internet, I am angry. But because of my lifetime of love of the Harry Potter series and the powerful woman J.K. Rowling is, I believe that she can get better, if she just does what she got me to do when I was six years old: read.
And so, I present to you, the J.K. Rowling syllabus.
Orientalism by Edward Said
This text is a staple of basic cultural foundations classes and provides the groundwork for the exploration of colonial and postcolonial studies. I remember reading the introduction in my freshman year of college, and my worldview changed. Suddenly, I could express why, Mom, I did not want to be an “Indian princess” for Halloween. This text articulated what I had lived through my entire life as an Indian-American. The cultural west viewed the “East” as an exotic commodity, cultures from which white people could pick and choose their favorite bits and leave the rest to rot. This is the mindset that called India the “crown jewel” of the British Raj while simultaneously engaging in wars with the native people, and also created and exacerbated an opioid epidemic in China.
When J.K. Rowling announced that the snake-character of Nagini was actually an Asian woman enslaved by Lord Voldemort, I realized that she had no clue of what she was wading into. She was mixing up cultures, with “Naga” being a South Asian term for divine snake-beings, which she cited as being from South East and East Asian cultures, not realizing that there was a difference.
This kind of blurring of cultures is exactly what Said explores in Orientalism.
Additionally, she does not seem to realize the issues with having the only East Asian character be a slave, only doing the bidding of her master, Lord Voldemort. (These issues, along with the many others with this casting, are outlined in this great essay by Desiree Annis Miranda)
History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault
Remember that time Dumbledore was gay? Me neither. This text by Michel Foucault outlines how sexualities other than what we call straight, have existed and will continue to exist for as long as mankind will.
After the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling announced that the wise character of Dumbledore was gay. And at the time, it was met with widespread backlash. Remember, in 2007, only three countries had legalized gay marriage, to say nothing of how trans and nonbinary people were viewed.
However, in 2018, the LGBTQIA+ community is far more widely accepted, and having a prominent gay character shown to be gay in film would not be a big deal. Despite this, we will not be seeing Dumbledore’s romantic relationship with Grindelwald in the new Fantastic Beasts movie. Queer representation in media is an uphill battle, and has always been, but after being denied a chance to see a beloved character be his true self once, we had hoped that we would be able to see it the second time around. Especially because this time, it makes a lot more sense. Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s relationship is at the crux of the war between the light and dark side in the pre-Voldemort era. It is, in this day and age, ridiculous that we wouldn’t be able to see this play out in its fullest form.
I hope this book serves as a reminder to J.K. Rowling that being gay is not a sin, it is not something that is inappropriate for children, and that queerness has always existed.
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
For those of us unfortunate enough to remember Pottermore, it may still be difficult to remember the addition to Potter canon known as Ilvermony, the American school. According to the site, the school was founded by an immigrant witch who sailed to America on the Mayflower, crossdressing for no reason to be found here.
However, the issue to be had with Ilvermony is simply J.K. Rowling’s lack of any understanding whatsoever of the treatment of indigenous people by the white colonizers. In Rowling’s version of wizard America, the Wampanoag and Narragansett people are casually allowed to attend Ilvermony, and the colonizers happily live in harmony with the indigenous community with seemingly no repercussions from the muggle world throughout history. The only issues in Ilvermony stem from the wizarding world itself. This is despite the fact that many witches and wizards canonically have muggle ancestry and would bring their own prejudices into school with them. And the fact that the wizarding world never seems to take well to outsiders.
Additionally, magic is treated as a gift that the European settlers brought into America instead of something that native people had to begin with. Considering the other things colonizers brought into America, like smallpox and guns, it’s hard to align that with the “gift” of magic. It also harkens back to the European notion that they were civilizing natives by showing them the right way to live in the world, when they were really just erasing indigenous culture. It’s possible that native magic already existed, just not in a form that the European mindset can recognize.
But obviously, we can’t expect J.K. Rowling to know American history that most Americans don’t even know. And of course, we can’t expect her to stay in her lane either. So I suggest this book, a look at American history through the eyes of a Native American, so J.K. Rowling can develop some understanding of the pain and suffering the indigenous community has gone through and continues to go through in America.
Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft
Most people know the highlights of J.K. Rowling’s story, that she was a single mother with no money when she started working on Harry Potter, that she taught in Portugal, and that she had the seventh book almost completely planned before she even started writing the first. So, it is also pretty common knowledge that Rowling was, once upon a time, in an abusive relationship. In addition, the seven books of Harry Potter outline the sheer torment he goes through while living with the Dursleys. Fans of Harry Potter are no stranger to witnessing abuse, which is why we will not tolerate it.
When Johnny Depp was cast in the first film of the Fantastic Beasts franchise, it was upsetting, but largely written off, because the allegations of abuse from his ex-wife came after the film had completed shooting, and because he was only in the film for two minutes. That’s a little different than seeing the back of Johnny Depp’s bleached head on every other poster in Manhattan, advertising the second film. (And I suddenly understand why Jude Law’s Dumbledore maybe wouldn’t be in romantic scenes with him.)
While these allegations of abuse are only that, allegations, and both parties put out the statement “Neither party has lied nor made false accusations for financial gain,” we know that Amber Heard donated the $7 million of her divorce settlement to charities focused on stopping violence against women. It’s hard to reconcile J.K. Rowling, champion of the abused and the underdogs, with the J.K. Rowling who go out of her way to defend casting Johnny Depp, which is exactly what she did.
This time around, the casting department had plenty of time to find a replacement actor. They could have brought Colin Farrell back to play the role. They could have found someone else, anyone else, and brought fans back into the fold. Instead, everyone involved with the film doubled down and decided that this was the hill they were willing to die on.
I recommend this book to J.K. Rowling to remind her that awful men have their good sides, and maybe Johnny has convinced you that his good side is his only side. This is to remind her that once upon a time, she was where Johnny Depp’s ex-wife was, and she could have used the support that Harry Potter fans are giving Amber Heard by protesting this casting and refusing to see the film.
I genuinely hope that J.K. Rowling takes the time to read up on the issues surrounding her work, and truly understands why I and so many other fans are angry. But with all of these issues, and the negative reviews pouring in, I have no plans to see the second Fantastic Beasts movie. Instead of seeing the film, I will be donating double the cost of my ticket to both Futures Without Violence and RAINN.