In Jo We Trust… Or Not
J.K. Rowling’s relationship with her fans has been a fascinating thing to observe over the years, and the recent events surrounding Dumbledore’s sexuality have been most illuminating on where Jo stands with the fandom. In all the hubbub, I found one thing most striking: Jo no longer has the benefit of the doubt from the Potter fandom. And I began to consider how it was we’d gotten here.
For those who can’t keep up with the news cycle: Entertainment Weekly ran a piece where director David Yates, in his usual oh-so-tactful fashion, said that Dumbledore would not be “explicitly” referenced in the film because “all the fans are aware of” Dumbledore’s sexuality already. This became a PR nightmare since it piled on top of already contentious things like the Johnny Depp debacle and the no-homo moment in Cursed Child. Fans all across the spectrum, from anonymous ones on Twitter to the webmasters of fansites, wrote messages excoriating Yates and the Potter franchise. But this time, Jo was included in people’s ire.
What struck me was that this was the kind of news that fans could have brushed off before. The comments are relatively vague: What constitutes “explicit” reference? What will the future movies look like? How accurate is EW’s reporting? Given that EW was among the worst offenders of the epidemic of “Rowling writes new Harry Potter story!” articles that came out every time a typo was fixed on Pottermore… why was there no presumption of good intent from Jo? It seemed like the fandom assumed the same thing Forbes did: that when Jo revealed Dumbledore’s sexuality, “Ms. Rowling wrote a check that she never expected to have to cash.”
Before we begin, disclaimers: I do not speak about all fans because obviously, the fandom is not a monolithic entity. For all I know, the responses recently were that of a very loud minority instead of the majority. But I still think it’s worth exploring how even a portion of the fandom lost faith in its creator.
Jo During the Golden Age & Interregnum
Back in the 2000s, Jo could do almost no wrong. She wrote the incredible Potter books for us and became incredibly well known for her charitable endeavors. She also made herself more accessible than almost any authors had been before; instead of the author being a name on a page, here was one who posted to her website answering our questions, who even asked us to call her by her first name. That didn’t happen in those days, and it led to a lot of essays in the mid-2000s about what an author’s role is in interpreting her works for fans.
As the years went by, we all worshipped at the altar of Jo Rowling. The HP fandom came to represent a larger portion of our lives over time, and we credited that to Jo. Even when there was a snafu (like the 2008 RDR Books trial), the fandom remained loyal. It seemed assured that the Potter fandom was the Jo Rowling fandom and always would be.
But when the 2010s rolled around, things began to change. For the first time, Jo began disappointing us. She used to be so careful about the HP content she released, but Pottermore was a mess. Her writing had always been beyond reproach, but The Casual Vacancy was absolutely awful. However, the prevailing attitude just seemed to be disappointment that Jo was as human as the rest of us and could make mistakes.
Things got interesting in 2014 when Jo became active on Twitter. Jo turned out to be surprisingly political, constantly fighting trolls the way we’d been taught not to do for our sanity’s sake. By and large, however, it seemed fans were happy to have access to her and either didn’t mind or didn’t care about the politics. The tone of the tweets at her seemed consistent with the hero-worship we’d cultivated for her.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
The change didn’t accelerate until the Potter Revival Era began in 2016. The environment was different. Jo had finally let go of her draconian grip on her brand and opened the floodgates for new Potter content. Meanwhile, the fandom had grown up. Fans had learned to think for themselves and to think critically about their fandom. I even noticed this in response to my columns – when I started out in 2011, fans would grab their pitchforks every time I dared critique something in the books; now there’s usually a lively debate in the comments section.
But the Potter generation was also entitled – that’s not a judgment, that’s an observation. They felt entitled to have access to all content whenever they wished it, having grown up with the Internet, and the decision to make Harry Potter and the Cursed Child inaccessible to much of the world did not go over well. This was illustrated nowhere better than in the #Wormtaily controversy. The last time Jo denounced a fan – the RDR Books trial of 2008 – the fandom had almost entirely stood with her, no questions asked (this writer was very much in the minority). This time, fans weren’t having it. Jo no longer got to dictate fandom content – if she wouldn’t make Cursed Child accessible, fans would side with those who did.
The Potter generation also felt entitled to representation in the fiction they consumed. If the Potter series mostly received a pass as a product of its time and genre, there would be no such amnesty going forward. So fans were livid upon reading Cursed Child: Despite flying a rainbow flag on the side of the Palace Theatre, the script threw in “No homo!” at the eleventh hour between Albus and Scorpius, keeping the wizarding world wholly devoid of homosexuality on the page. In 2007, saying “Dumbledore is gay” in an interview was a watershed moment for LGBT representation; in 2016, that was no longer good enough.
Cursed Child changed the relationship between Jo and the Potter fandom in one other major way: It was the first time control of canon was wrested away from Jo. Until then, everything Jo had added to the HP canon had been accepted – sometimes grudgingly, but always accepted. After all, it was her world – her control of it seemed axiomatic. But Cursed Child was just so awful, the fandom rejected it. (With all due respect to those who liked it… you are the small minority, as I’m sure you know.) When Jo insisted on Twitter that the play was canon, that single tweet killed the entire concept of an HP canon.
I considered making this its own essay, but instead, I’ll be brief. What is canon? It is something that most people can agree upon as the “official” text. If people don’t agree on what is canon, then the very concept of having a canon is invalid. Ever since Jo tried to make Cursed Child canon and fans were split about whether it was or not, there has been no Harry Potter canon. We can argue about whether or not it should be canon – indeed, we have ad nauseum – but if we agree on the fact that we disagree, then RIP canon.
I often wonder whether if Jo had produced (or sanctioned) something as bad as Cursed Child years earlier, the fandom would have been more accommodating. Would we always have rejected Cursed Child? Or was that rejection a byproduct of its moment in time? Food for thought. But my main takeaway is that Cursed Child opened the floodgates for acrimony in fans’ relationship to Jo Rowling. Jo had been protected from fans’ ire about the films by associating with them only remotely; if she decided to put her name on Cursed Child, she’d reap the consequences.
Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Johnny Depp
Much the same way that Casual Vacancy had poisoned the well for Cormoran Strike, the chilly reception of Cursed Child set the tone for the reaction to Fantastic Beasts. Now that fans had experienced an addition to the Potterverse that was low quality, they entered Fantastic Beasts with a healthy dose of skepticism that would have been unthinkable if it were the first post-Deathly Hallows entry in the wizarding world. Even though most fans liked it, there was no carte blanche acceptance of it as the Best Thing Ever purely because it was by Jo.
I was interested to see the response to my last piece, “Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Repeating the Potter Series.” It was the kind of pessimistic piece that would have had me tarred and feathered across the Internet in a less cynical time. Instead, the comments were split almost down the middle between worry and faith in Jo. I found that very telling.
That brings us to the last few months, where the erosion of trust in Jo collided with current politics in a really bad way. Johnny Depp, in an uninspired bit of casting, became one of the leads of the Fantastic Beasts franchise just as he was tarred by the brush of #MeToo and the Hollywood sexual abuse scandal. The Potter generation, in addition to its usual penchant for social justice (fomented in part by the Potter books themselves), was completely on edge after a year of Donald Trump. Right or wrong, Depp was presumed guilty until proven innocent, and the Potter franchise went on the PR defensive.
That may have been the last time Jo Rowling received the benefit of the doubt from the fans. Even if one blamed her for all the things I just wrote about – issues of accessibility, quality control, LGBT representation, etc. – fans were willing to believe Depp’s casting was out of her hands. Part of that was conditioning from a decade of absolving Jo of responsibility for how awful the HP films were; the film medium here made fans revert to their old patterns. Part of it was just resolute optimism and faith in the woman who shaped all of our lives for the better, the same way we tried to dissociate Jo from Cursed Child by saying she didn’t write it. Even as David Yates put his foot in his mouth, and everyone in the world threw their two cents in about Depp’s casting, as long as Jo stayed out of it, we could hope that it wasn’t her fault.
Then Jo came out with her statement. The salient portion read, “Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.” For better or worse, Jo was taking ownership of having Depp in the movies.
Ten years ago, fans would have nodded and smiled and agreed that Jo knows best.
Two years ago, we would have assumed she was trying her best to do right by us, even if it didn’t turn out great.
Now, the goodwill did not suffice. We did not take Jo’s word for it. She said she was behind the decision, but not why. “Never you mind, just trust me!” was not enough when most people had already made up their minds about Johnny Depp. Even if it wasn’t all fans – my colleague Catherine H. had a wonderful piece defending the other side – it was a big enough portion to dictate the discourse on the subject. Fans had expected better from Jo, and she had let them down in a big way.
Jo in 2018
That brings us to this week’s brouhaha about Dumbledore being gay. After reminiscing about the last two years, it becomes apparent why Jo no longer has the benefit of our doubt. First of all, she took ownership of the Fantastic Beasts franchise, both in general and with her statement about Depp. She’s involved, so these aren’t decisions being made by other people – she’s responsible. Second, she sanctioned the erasure of homosexuality in Cursed Child, so there is precedent for her being okay with not representing characters’ sexualities.
In some ways, her PR problems come precisely because she had always been meticulous about managing her brand in the 2000s. Fans are under the impression, fair or not, that Jo is powerful enough to do as she pleases. If Jo Rowling said to take out the Cursed Child “No homo,” it would have been done. Jo reinforced this when she announced, out of the blue, that Fantastic Beasts would be five movies – without clearing it with the director, producer, or (presumably) Warner Bros. These movies cost $200 million each. Jo is probably the only person in the world who can unilaterally announce she’s making a few extra movies at $200 million a pop and have everyone involved scramble to write her a check with no questions asked.
And while this may be negligible compared to the above factors, we must consider that the goodwill Jo built up from the Potter series has amortized over time. Give or take your reaction to Fantastic Beasts, the last time Jo produced something that the entire fandom both consumed and loved was around 2008, so the goodwill has only been eroding without growing for nearly a decade.
Jo seemed honestly surprised that any of the vitriol was directed at her this week. It’s easy to see why she’s taken aback; we used to have enough faith in her to wait to consume a story before critiquing, enough faith to await the conclusion of a series, and enough faith to assume that poor decisions came from the filmmakers and not from her. But her brand management since 2016 has been abysmal, and it appears that the unthinkable is finally happening: Jo is losing her fans.
What are your feelings toward Jo? Is she still your idol, are you disenchanted with her, or do you (like me) come down somewhere in between?