J.K. Rowling and the Impossible Predicament
It has happened again. A website on the Internet has taken J.K. Rowling’s words, jumbled them up ever so slightly, hyperfocused on the words out of context from the setting in which they appear, and created a social media hell storm by either shocking or offending swaths of people. Is anybody surprised? This is very much the online world we live in now. But things are heating up for JKR lately, and the outcome for fans will not likely be a good one.
Only eight weeks have passed since Rowling’s Pottermore (which, FYI, is not run by J.K. Rowling) chose to dig deep into the author’s old writings on its website for an innocent social media feature and unearthed a tidbit about wizards from hundreds of years ago relieving themselves where they stood. In addition to the general shock at how gross the information was at face value, this raised all sorts of questions across the Internet such as, “Why is this information even out there? Why did J.K. Rowling write this in the first place? Why is she telling us this now?” Well, as was already stated, the information was not new. The information, in fact, was part of a history blurb about the Chamber of Secrets and that particular tidbit seems to have been Rowling’s way of (humorously) avoiding a plot hole about how the entrance to the Chamber, which resides in a modern bathroom, was never discovered during construction of said bathroom.
This time, Rowling’s comment was made in a special feature on the Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald home video release. Specifically, it occurs in a featurette on the character of Dumbledore, who has debuted in this prequel film series with this entry. And while he had been name-dropped in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, his emergence in this one forces Rowling to tie up a loose end that began almost 12 years ago following the release of Book 7. In her October 19, 2007, appearance at Carnegie Hall in New York City, Rowling, when asked if Dumbledore had ever been in love, revealed that she had always seen Dumbledore as being gay (and that he had a crush on the Dark wizard Grindelwald, now the main villain of these films).
It can easily be recalled that even then there was quite a furor over the information Rowling held within her. Members of the LGBTQIA+ communities, who might naturally have welcomed the representation in a worldwide best-selling mega-franchise, rightly questioned why, if true, the information was only alluded to and not explicitly revealed in the canon. Dumbledore was a pretty big character; why was it left out? And so people kind of decided on their own whether to believe or not if it were true and what Rowling really intended.
Looking back, Rowling’s post-canonical outing of Dumbledore was a watershed moment for the entire franchise and its worldwide community of fans. For kids who had grown up being the same age as Harry Potter when the books were written, it shed light on some adult political realities that were hitherto unexplored, like the illegality of gay marriage in many countries. To a large group of readers, it meant that they had just read their first gay character in literature. And from a literary theory aspect, it invited debate about what defines canon and whether Rowling was still in a position to control the truth of the fantasy world since her series had wrapped up.
But it also was the first time I can remember people who had READ the Harry Potter books actively scorning them or their author. Sure, the Potter series had plenty of people trying to ban or burn it before for its allegedly sinful depictions of witchcraft, but these were Rowling’s own fans calling her out in some way or another. Some people preferred, since Dumbledore’s sexuality was not overtly stated in the books, that Rowling had kept that tidbit for herself for all time. People would have preferred to have ignored the author’s opinion entirely and presumably maintained a headcanon among themselves in which Dumbledore’s pastel wardrobe and fondness for knitting was mere happenstance.
This week’s article by Complex (titled “J.K. Rowling Reveals Dumbledore and Grindelwald Had an ‘Incredibly Intense’ Sexual Relationship”) is only the latest in a long line of articles with headlines that are either intentionally or mistakenly misleading. Due to the still-global phenomenon that is Harry Potter, our fandom is particularly susceptible to these bouts of brash and baseless clickbait. The backlash to this article is particularly reminiscent of Web coverage of J.K. Rowling’s interview in Wonderland (February 2014) wherein popular clickbait headlines stated, “Rowling regrets pairing Hermione with Ron” (FYI: she never said this). For Complex, the author of this article, Jose Martinez, has shamefully and quite irresponsibly juxtaposed two concepts JKR touched on in the Dumbledore featurette on Crimes of Grindelwald‘s special features.
What Rowling actually says about Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s relationship, as quoted in Complex‘s article, is that “their relationship was incredibly intense. It was passionate, and it was a love relationship.” Separately, Rowling added that she believes there was a sexual component to the relationship but that she as a writer is more interested in exploring the emotions that the characters were feeling. This is not the same as Rowling saying Grindelwald and Dumbledore had “incredibly intense sex.” Shame on Complex, and shame on Jose Martinez for writing what would obviously be misunderstood.
Harry Potter fans, already upset about the recent revelation of wizards defecating in the halls of Hogwarts, now balked at what appeared to be Rowling commenting on her bestie and the baddie (of the new film franchise) getting it on. As if she just regularly dumps unwarranted, profane information on the public. This is not the case, people.
In truth, there are more curves and detours in the timeline of Dumbledore’s sexuality and the public’s reaction to it than could be enumerated quickly, but prior to the theatrical release of Crimes of Grindelwald, comments made by director David Yates sparked controversy when he stated that, in the movie, Dumbledore would not be “explicitly” gay. Rowling was again accused of convenient inclusion since, if these films aren’t going to actually show Dumbledore and Grindelwald, I don’t know, getting it on, then she’s only saying Dumbledore is gay for the likes.
Today, I read criticism that to say Dumbledore and Grindelwald had incredibly intense sex (which again, she DIDN’T say) was to oversimplify gay characters into crude sexual beings. That is precisely the opposite of what Rowling said, since she approached their relationship in this interview from an emotional standpoint and stated that she would like to explore that side more. If anything, her comments work toward explaining why a sex scene didn’t happen in the film or in the past of her published work, but she felt the need to include the words “I believe there is a sexual dimension” likely so that people would not accuse her of castrating her most prolific gay character! For if Dumbledore is gay, but doesn’t have sex with another man on screen, is he really gay? Ridiculous.
Rowling is damned if she does, and damned if she doesn’t. And this is not a good time to be a Harry Potter fan. Rowling has already taken a 65-day break from Twitter, where she had regularly been active, presumably so she can rework the script for Fantastic Beasts 3, which has been delayed in production. What is to stop her from keeping that hiatus on Twitter indefinitely? If I were her, reading the Internet today, I probably would myself. But Crimes of Grindelwald had so many more problems that I want answers for, and this general uproar about something Rowling didn’t even say is absurd.
With every headline that incites an uproar among Harry Potter fans, we are getting further and further away from ever getting Rowling’s real thoughts on what the heck Queenie was thinking or trying to achieve in Crimes of Grindelwald, why Rowling or the creative team thought it was okay to omit any explanation for half of the film’s impressively large cast of characters’ motivations for the entirety of the movie, and whatever it was that happened to the giant mess that became the barely-there but much-hyped character of Nagini in the film’s final version. When we get so fired up about headlines that are designed to mislead us, when we participate in the malicious jokes and memes that make fun of Rowling, we become the kind of fandom that doesn’t really deserve the answers we seek. We may have been the first truly online fandom, but right now we are very much behaving like it. Let’s not be the trolls in the dungeon. Let’s think critically and ask the questions that really matter of Jo.