Leviosa 2019: The Great “Canon vs. Fandom” Debate
Leviosa 2019 was packed with interesting panels and speakers, but one of the panels I most enjoyed was “Canon vs. Fandom,” led by Bayana Davis and Robyn Jordan of Black Girls Create (follow them on Twitter here). Davis and Jordan were joined by Potter scholar Nancee Lee-Allen and longtime fanfiction writer RurouniHime.
I was particularly excited for this panel because, in the age of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the Fantastic Beasts franchise, questions of what counts as canon and the role of fandom are more relevant than ever. The question that most drew me to this panel was what happens when the fandom feels that canon and its creators no longer share their values? What commenced was a thoughtful discussion between the panelists and the audience about the importance of critical consumption.
The first question the panelists addressed was, “What is canon to you?” Together, they outlined a conception of canon that is similar to my own. To RurouniHime and Robyn Jordan, canon is comprised solely of the seven Harry Potter books. To Nancee Lee-Allen and Bayana Davis, canon can also include things that Rowling wrote outside of the seven books. Davis emphasized that it is important that extracanonical information does not contradict the original seven books.
When asked what they thought of the extended canon, the panelists were less than enthusiastic. From that point on, we delved into the questions of why much of the fandom is reluctant to accept extended canon and why it is important that fandom is allowed to challenge and critique canon.
We first discussed why Fantastic Beasts doesn’t feel satisfying to so many fans. One reason put forward was that the story itself, which tries to combine Newt’s adventures in Magizoology with Grindelwald’s campaign of terror and Dumbledore’s struggle to stop him, is trying to do too much, with the end result feeling incohesive.
Another reason the panelists gave is that, as Davis beautifully said, “When you write what you know, that’s when it becomes most universal. It’s harder to connect with things when you write what you don’t know.” Now that Rowling is trying to expand the wizarding world onto new continents and into other cultures, the story she is trying to tell does not feel as genuine as Harry Potter feels.
Moreover, Rowling does not seem to have researched the countries and cultures she is trying to incorporate, as exemplified by her story about American wizardry. Fans criticized the way she fell back on racist and offensive tropes to incorporate Native Americans into her story and that she did not seem to understand why those details are harmful to Native American readers. The panelists and audience also discussed other examples of racism within the Potter franchise, including the portrayals of Leta Lestrange and Nagini in the Fantastic Beasts movies. This discussion brought us to the final and most important questions of the panel. What happens when canon does not reflect the values of the fandom? Does Rowling have a responsibility to her audience?
The panelists and audience concluded that Rowling does have a responsibility to her audience now that her audience is vast, diverse, and global. She should be more aware of her audience and listen when they say that certain elements of her story are harmful. Davis and Jordan went on to discuss that especially when Potter fans are speaking up about those harms, Rowling and other members of the Potter fandom should listen to them rather than suppress their voices. Davis and Jordan both expressed their frustration at seeing the fandom, as Jordan put it, “use canon as a bludger to silence people who are speaking out about it.”
Jordan: I’ve never gotten into more fights on Twitter than when I’ve said this sucks and this is harmful and I get tons of people raining down on me. I’m speaking out about harm, actual harm that is being committed to my community, to the fans that I have met with and made connections with… and we should be allowed to be critical when things are actively harming us or other groups of people are speaking out. … It is worth exploring how the fandom interacts with canon, and when they use [Rowling’s] word as law to silence people who are speaking out about it.
Being critical of Harry Potter does not have to diminish your love of Harry Potter, as evidenced by all four panelists. The last topic the panelists and audience members discussed is that the best thing about being part of the Potter fandom is the sense of community born from the love we all share for the Harry Potter series. To many fans, maintaining that supportive Potter community will always be more important than canon or extended canon. I hope that the Potter fandom continues to both love the Harry Potter canon, no matter what they include in that canon, and challenge its creators to do better.