Gender Fluidity and the Shadow

J. K. Rowling’s transgender phobia in her novel, The Silkworm

Iain Spence
Jul 21, 2020 · 10 min read
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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixbay

Crime fiction tends to cast a remarkable number of violent criminals who are transgender even though they are more likely to end up the victims of such crimes themselves. J.K. Rowling’s The Silkworm is a typical example.
Rowling’s transgender character is called by the diminutive name Pippa Midgley, perhaps in some attempt to control her perceived threat as a transgender woman. A midge (for those outside the UK) is a tiny insect with an annoying bite.

Rowling presents as ‘Robert Galbraith’ for her detective novels

Rowling attempts to generate excitement as her detective, Cormoran Strike, confronts his main suspect, a bullying woman called Elizabeth Tassel. She has the dead eyes of a shark and ‘large mannish hands’, curling into claws. These descriptions turn up on the same page where she’s described as a murderous sociopath. Notice how the conflation of male and female leads Rowling down to the dangerous, raw animal with its claws. But why conflate male-female in such negative terms? I’ve personally met women with some pretty big hands in the past, calloused and gnarled through years of hard work on farms. They were some of the most loving hands you could ever see. Other novelists have used effeminate traits in men, in the same way, to imply malevolent, dishonest behavior and outright murderous intentions.

Rowling’s Silkworm sheds little light on the need for society to confront its clumsy, inferior shadow in relation to transgender people. It also jars with the fluidity of the anima/animus within effeminate men and butch women. It might however serve as a gateway for the author to ask why the subject takes on such a negative aura, both for herself and a certain part of British culture.

Having presented her readers with her fictional armed stalker, Pippa Midgley, Rowling then shared her fears of transgender women to her Twitter audience years later. Imagine someone trying to come to terms with transgender issues via the collective unconscious of 14 million Twitter followers: as Rowling said later in retrospect, she shouldn’t have expected a ‘nuanced conversation’. Not surprisingly she conveniently forgot to mention that one of her own tweets was bordering on hysterical, in which she referenced one of her friends screaming, ‘Fucking yes!’ down the phone at her in support. She also forgot to mention that one of the women she followed in the past would tweet garbled abuse to readers like the following: ‘You are fucking blackface actors. You aren’t women. You’re men who get sexual kicks from being treated like women. fuck you and your dirty fucking perversions. our oppression isn’t a fetish you pathetic, sick, fuck.’ And then she went on to connect with another user of the same platform who’d previously made a ‘joke’ referring to the ‘Rainbow Reich’, in relation to a poster on LGBT rights. Compare this to a recent comment by Ms Rowling herself:

‘None of the gender critical women I’ve talked to hates trans people; on the contrary...’¹

So no, ‘nuanced conversations’ aren’t common it seems on Twitter, not if Ms. Rowling’s contacts are anything to go by. Is she even aware of the number of LGBT people killed by the oppression of the Third Reich? Is she aware of the torture endured by the 5000–15000 homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps?

Rather than running around the skittish, polarized playground of Twitter, she could have turned back to examine her own ‘Robert Galbraith’ pseudonym. She could ask if her presentation as male might have led her into a confrontation with gender fluidity along with her shadow. Ms. Rowling has attempted to process her negative father complex by conflating it with the trans community: she openly suggested that her father wanted her to be a boy. She claims that if she were in her teens today she could easily attempt transition. Leaving the absurdity of the remark to one side, it represents at least one naive step towards an (unformulated) understanding of her animus in relation to transgender people.

Controlling the transgender with the trivializing diminutive

The name ‘Pippa Midgley’ is an example of a typical ploy used in children’s novels to guide the young reader to think of the character according to their name. It is often considered condescending to play out the process on older children, but Rowling certainly milked the trick with successful effect in her Harry Potter series. The fact that she uses the same method to guide the adult reader (initially herself) to interact with her trans character shows where she currently stands with her understanding of transgender people. If she wants to convince her readers to relate to transgender issues in her fiction, she’d be best to treat her audience like adults, not easily-led children. Pippa Midgley is described as a tall person in her novel, but the name sounds like a trivialising diminutive. Pippa Midgley will be reduced to tiny Pip dammit before I leave this book…and yet midges can be so damned annoying.

I’d suggest that Ms Rowling is currently relating to the gender fluid community with its, ‘dangerous talons’. She’s keen to diffuse it to the size of a little pip or a midge, but she still perceives it to be a wild collective animal that she can’t and never will control. As Jung once said, ‘The archetype hypnotises, it takes possession of you, and you will be captivated by it’.² The anima and animus are archetypes, as is the shadow. Jung’s old clunky play on the anima/animus was considered dangerous psychology in the 1930s: who’d imagine anything so strange, that every man has an inner woman and every woman an inner man? In present times gender fluidity (to the point of transition) could be considered part of the same archetype. Both have a close relationship to the shadow.

The inferior shadow of twitter

Rowling demonstrates the same connection with little grace in The Silkworm, but she then dumps her own shadow onto the transgender community (via Twitter) rather than dealing with it herself. In the bedlam of Twitter the shadow can remain unconscious and therefore unacknowledged. Twitter is often geared towards emotionalism, projection and extreme polarity rather than being a platform of calm debate and personal growth. We go there to exercise our collective demons rather than confront our personal shadow for integration and possible growth.

Rowling has also suggested that her interest in transgender people relates (in part) to her experiences of previous physical and sexual assault at the hands of a man, or men. Again, she suggests this openly in her online essay on the subject. Rowling thinks that transgender women (and crafty men presenting as transgender) might gain easier access to abuse children and women if the law is changed to define what constitutes a ‘woman’ and ‘man’. She states openly how her experiences of assault have made her jumpy ever since. To quote from her essay: ‘My perennial jumpiness is a family joke — and even I know it’s funny — but I pray my daughters never have the same reasons I do for hating sudden loud noises, or finding people behind me when I haven’t heard them approaching’.³ Such jumpiness is not ‘funny’. Her humorous interpretation may be a well-worn, necessary defense, but hasn’t this weak ‘joke’ outstayed its temporary welcome?

I challenge anyone to read The Silkworm and not find obvious parallels with Rowling’s transgender stalker Pippa and the author’s ‘jumpiness’. The similarities are obvious. But the transgender community is not responsible for her previous assaults. They’re not there to reenact her trauma for her. Rowling needs to withdraw her blatant projection.

Who’s the biggest threat in toilets and changing rooms?

Rowling has stated on Twitter that 120 cases of sexual assault were reported to the police in the UK, in council based unisex buildings in a recent year. That is in contrast to 14 in buildings with same-sex changing rooms. She forgets to mention that concerning all other cases of sexual assault, the 120 cases are tiny. To put this in perspective, around 126,000 cases of sexual assault are reported to the police just in England and Wales alone each year.

Rowling is playing to extreme emotions running wild on Twitter and not to reasonable debate, including basic common sense. She would have more effect by concentrating her own time, effort and large income to tackling the 126,000 cases than concentrating on 120. No doubt she already does much to alleviate human suffering with her money, but she’d do a lot more if she’d stop conflating sexual assaults with the transgender community.

Whilst it’s difficult to quote an actual number of transgender women in the UK, we can say that more cis women have likely been convicted of carrying out sexual assaults than the number of transgender women who even exist in the same country.⁴ A report in The Guardian (ten years back) put a conservative estimate of women, sexual offenders, at over 48 thousand.⁵ There is no blanket ban in place for women with sexual convictions from using public toilets and changing areas, only banning orders, which are most often temporary. The number of women ‘with previous’ for such crime stands at several thousand. Likewise, 10,000s of women with previous convictions of physical assault can use public changing areas and toilets without any regulation. Meanwhile many masculine looking, biological women are now becoming wary of using public toilets or swimming baths, because of the phobia spread by people like Rowling. With this in mind, J.K. Rowling’s arguments sound increasingly like the desperate nonsense spread during the hysterical Satanic Panics of the 1980s and 1990s.

The adorable and the thuggish

J.K. Rowling:

‘I’ve been told to ‘just meet some trans people.’ I have: in addition to a few younger people, who were all adorable…’⁶

Transgender people are not an extension of Rowling’s youthful, trans character who dabbles in repeated stalking, two attempted stabbings, and posting human excrement into a person’s private home.⁷ They happen to be a self-respecting community who ask for little more than some measure of respect from the rest of humanity. That includes how they’re generally portrayed in fiction. Rowling needs to transcend the extremes of her ‘adorable’ trans youths (who she keeps perhaps in a box below her bed) and her thuggish version who’s kept safely diffused in The Silkworm. She doesn’t need to romanticize or demonize the transgender community. Her wish to play to such extremes represents a basic shyness of ordinary, transgender people.

J.K. Rowling’s ‘Robert Galbraith’ is partly based on her hero figure, Robert F Kennedy.⁸ Her naive play on the bright side of her literary animus conjures up the dark side of her Phillip Midgley. Her Robert Galbraith is romantic and heroic, while Phillip’s Pippa Midgley is demonic and beastly.

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A Union of Psychic Opposites

Gender fluidity however does not sit well with Rowling’s shadow, hence her need to conflate her problems with the transgender community via Twitter. Ordinarily she’d have been ignored for such projection, but instead the whole fiasco is maintained by her celebrity status.

This article doesn’t constitute an analysis of Ms. Rowling’s private life. Instead, it suggests that she has carried out her flawed self-analysis (via her website) after emerging from the collective unconscious of Twitter. Rowling’s melancholic self-reflection represents her first futile attempt to take aspects of her personal life and to integrate them into her frank obsession with transgender people. But candid self-reflection does not equate with an in-depth analysis. For that, she’d have to delete her Twitter account and return to her darkness of The Silkworm. She needs to internalize gender fluidity along with her shadow.

Less anyone thinks I’m overtly moralizing here about how novelists ‘should’ or ‘should not’ portray transgender people; I’m not. It’s not something I’m emotionally involved with. I’m more interested in the relationship between the shadow and near-death experiences, and also the fluidity of gender in relation to the shadow. Then I found myself becoming curious again at how transgender people are collectively portrayed in fiction. I think they’re still treated in disproportionately negative terms, apart from some rare examples where they’re not used like out-dated exhibits in a freak show. Rowling’s Silkworm is just yet another example of how transgender people are still often portrayed negatively.

Last thoughts

Cis people mainly present shadow according to their gender. So speaking as a cis male, my own shadow presents in my dreams as a disgusting, inferior male. But how does the shadow present in a transgender person’s dreamscape, for example during their transition? And does their inner anima/animus go through a change in gender over time? Is it time the whole anima/animus concept was replaced with a more fluid, iridis? I think these are questions for the transgender community to answer and not for cis people to explain.

Part 2 of Gender Fluidity and the Shadow can be found here.

Photo, book cover:
The Silkworm cover, from the first edition. Low-resolution for critical debate, fair use. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Silkworm

References:
1 — J.K. Rowling, J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues.
2 — Carl Jung, Children’s Dreams, Notes From the Seminar Given in 1936–1940, p. 196, Princeton University Press, 2008.
3 — J.K. Rowling.
4 — Certainly the number is much greater than the number of transgender women with a Gender Recognition Certificate. More general estimates of how many women are transgender in the UK are rather varied.
5 — Mark Townsend, Rajeev Syal, Up to 64,000 women in UK ‘are child-sex offenders’, The Guardian, 4 Oct 2009.
6— J.K. Rowling.
7 — J.K. Rowling (presenting as her male author) Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm, pp. 321–330, Sphere, 2014. The TV series of the same novel has been altered from the book. As executive producer to the series, J.K. Rowling completely removed her vile transgender character.
8 — J.K. Rowling, interview, Robert Galbraith website, 2018.

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Iain Spence

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Based in Scotland. Interests in pop culture, mythology and psychology. Profile photo is rather out of date.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Iain Spence

Written by

Based in Scotland. Interests in pop culture, mythology and psychology. Profile photo is rather out of date.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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