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Outgrowing our problematic faves

By OLEEN FLORENDO, The Philippine Star Published May 14, 2021 5:00 am

Among the novels sitting on the old bookshelf in our bedroom is J.K. Rowling’s greatest commercial success.

I grew up watching my older sister collect the Harry Potter series. She’d meticulously cover each book with the spare plastic we used for her schoolbooks, and stick a cutout of her name on them like a prized possession. 

When she was in school, I would sneak into an empty room in the house with a Harry Potter book in hand, and try to read it just the way she would: with me propped against a stack of pillows, one foot over the other. My first love of reading can be traced back to that particular moment even if, looking back, I could barely comprehend the narratives flowing from it.

It was only some years later that I finally understood the magic of Rowling’s fantasy books. Reading them felt like falling through trap doors that only used to exist in my imagination: the idea that, outside our normal world, there exists magic in another alternate reality.

Harry Potter, naturally, became an indispensable part of my youth. And when the series ended, with it came a hole in my heart.

My insides would catapult just by thinking of the type of wand I’d get from Ollivander’s, and the mere possibility that somewhere along the platforms of our train lines, an untapped Platform 9 3/4 was waiting. 

Harry Potter, naturally, became an indispensable part of my youth. And when the series ended, with it came a hole in my heart. I read it at a time in my life when happiness and comfort could be achieved by reading novels.

When the Pottermore website was launched, I remember holding my early access to it like an accolade that only mattered to a certain group of people. The books gave me my first taste of an internet community. And for years, my memory of it remained unchanged and suspended in the pendulum of my youth.

For the sake of sentimentality, I’d often refuse to reread the books for fear that emotions attached to them would be altered. So, when J.K. Rowling decided to spin new meaning into the series long after the final books had hit the bookstores, I felt gutted. 

In June 2020, during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Rowling, at a very critical time for BIPOC, saw fit to express her dismissive stance toward the trans community.

In a tweet, she expressed how womanhood is exclusive only to women who menstruate. She followed it up with statements posing herself as an ally, in the guise of feminism, only to further reveal her trans-exclusionary beliefs insinuating that a trans woman identifying as a woman meant robbing “real” women of their rights.

After receiving immediate backlash, she published a long essay entitled “TERF Wars” which in summary was just a confluence of backhanded sentences of support to transgender people and a reiteration of her belief that the biological functions women are born with are the only way to classify as a woman.

She wrote, “So I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe.”

Unfortunately, this wasn’t surprising to many. Her transphobic beliefs had already surfaced earlier in 2019 when she supported Maya Forstater, a worker who was dismissed from her job after sending anti-transgender tweets. Only this time Rowling was more explicit in her views.

Separating the author from their work has always been difficult; often, it comes down to an internal debate. This not only concerns written pieces of work, but other arts, from film, to music, even to comedy.

To think that Harry Potter was written by a woman with a worldview that discriminates against the transgender community is disappointing to say the least. 

Cancel culture would tell us, right off the top, to stop supporting the creator and their work; but others object.

Arguably, it’s unrealistic to hold people to unbelievably high moral standards outside of their art, but when I think of the dangerous implications of regressive rhetoric made by people celebrated for their influence and power, I think it’s only fair to do so.

Blind spots are natural, but to continually express bigotry despite all attempts of others to educate can be considered a deliberate choice to invalidate a fight towards a discriminatory system. To think that Harry Potter was written by a woman with a worldview that discriminates against the transgender community is disappointing to say the least. 

It leaves us with questions: how do I consume art created by problematic people? And to what lengths will I let their statements supersede the way I perceived the book? Or do I just reconcile myself to the idea that the work should be “cancelled”?

While the Potter series was not my first foray into what inclusivity meant, the stories were significant contributors to what my idea of belonging meant while growing up, and its characters defined my childhood.

It felt dishonest and disingenuous to divorce Rowling’s personal beliefs from Harry Potter’s principal themes. Learning where Rowling stood felt like a betrayal of the triumphs of the characters she created. Admittedly, it took a while before I started becoming critical of her. It was a product of my privilege, as my rights had remained unthreatened and intact.

Judgment when mixed with nostalgia can get clouded, and weighing the uprightness of a choice can be a confusing process. The books, to my mind, have been tainted, but I also can’t discount the fact that they have taken on a life of their own outside Rowling.

But seeing how her colleagues tried to call her out — and watching Rowling still justify her intolerance all the same — was the dealbreaker. It’s appalling and baffling how she could put in the effort to declare herself an ally of the trans community, while refusing to tap into their lived experiences of oppression.

I wish her personal politics didn’t negate the values Harry Potter promoted; that her statements did not disintegrate the core of the novels.

I could have ignored it all — just held on to the memory I had of Harry Potter as a child — but I didn’t want to keep something just for the role it played in my life, especially when the person behind it continually disrespects the rights of a marginalized group.

To disassociate ourselves from a piece of work may be a bare minimum contribution to their fight, and how we choose to engage with it is always up to us. But essentially, it’s important that we confront and understand the implications of such statements on a community that has long been met with prejudice.