Not My Patronus: Why JK Rowling is No One’s Ally

By Robin

No matter when you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance that JK Rowling has made headlines this week. Maybe she’s retroactively made another “dramatic” reveal about some side character in Harry Potter, or maybe she’s signed off on yet another spinoff movie, play, or textbook-turned-novel. Most likely, though, she just tweeted something. Oh, forgive me, JK Rowling never just tweets. She “comes to the defense”, she “shuts down”, she “slams”, “blasts” or “brilliantly takes down”. She’s “epic”, “perfect”, and a “savior”. Except, she isn’t.  Look, we all love a good Twitter burn. It’s satisfying, it’s funny, and I think we can all agree that Black Twitter is a gift from the heavens. But tweeting alone is not activism, and it is especially insulting from someone who has the financial and social means to create actual change.

As of this writing, Rowling’s net worth is unknown. We do know that she gives a fair amount of money to charity and that at in 2012 she dropped off of the  Forbes list of billionaires (although it was more due to taxes  than her charitable donations, and she was not, as was widely reported, the first billionaire to do so).  I will just take a moment to point out that paying one’s fair share of taxes according to the law is not heroic, but a fucking legal requirement. I don’t care that other rich people find shady ways to dodge their tax responsibilities, she’s still just doing what’s mandated. It’s “heroic” in the same way a man not cheating on his wife on a business trip even though all his coworkers cheat on their wives all the time and this hot woman TOTALLY flirted with him is heroic.  You know what? I’m not impressed that Rowling donated 16% of her fortune to charity. I’m not impressed because she made that money by refusing to stand up for her alleged ideals, and is now using Twitter as a way to pretend she’s down for the cause. I’m not impressed because she made that money by appropriating other peoples’ cultures and perpetuating stereotypes and keeping LGBTQ people and people of color out of sight.

My annoyance with Rowling as a self-styled ally began way back when she first amazed her loyal followers by announcing that she had “always thought of Dumbledore as gay”. Well, cool, but she didn’t write him as gay. She didn’t share this headcanon with the actors portraying him, or with LGBTQ fans desperately looking for representation in mainstream media. And this was in 2007. Harry Potter had been a cultural force for years. The fifth movie was out, and Rowling already had a massive fortune. To say, long after the fact and only after you can be reasonably sure that your personal finances won’t be affected, “oh yeah, he was always gay, totally” is not being an ally. Rowling did the same thing in 2015 when she responded to a woman of color being cast as Hermione in a play by implying that she intentionally left Hermione Granger’s race unspecified in the books. Again, it’s great (I guess?) that she accepts a WoC take on Hermione, but there’s a world of difference between saying “well, I never said she HAD to be white” and actually writing a black character. Oh, and where was she when it was time to use her considerable clout to have a WoC cast as Hermione in the MOVIES? Where was she when Lavendar Brown was recast as a white girl after having been played by two black actresses? Rowling could have used her influence to demand that the casting of the movies match the incredibly progressive image she supposedly had of these characters (Neil Gaiman recently did so for the adaptation of American Gods). Hell, she could have at least insisted that a known abuser not take a major role in the film adaptation of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”. Instead, she quietly took her money and declined to say anything on the matter unless someone else said it first and it proved popular. This is not what allies do.

I could go on with countless examples of how Rowling contradicts her actions with her tweets (like when she denounces sexism but signifies silly, stupid, or evil women in her books as liking pink and being girly, or when she “comes out against fat-shaming” but continues to use being overweight as lazy writer’s shorthand for being cowardly, sloppy, or greedy), but I’d rather discuss the more concrete ways she enriches herself at the expense of others. The most egregious example of this is her recent foray into straight up colonialism in her webseries “History of Magic in North America”. When informed by actual Native American writers and activists that her representation of their cultures was offensive and inappropriate, her response was SILENCE. Silence, from a woman so ready to troll the president of a country she doesn’t live in, so ready to say “sure, why not?” when others read a radical agenda into her work, so willing to tweet to her 10.8 million Twitter followers about definitions of a travel ban in another country (which conveniently allows her to ignore devastating immigration policies where she actually lives), rather than do anything concrete to help the estimated 65 million refugees and displaced persons in the world. This is not an ally. This is an opportunist looking to maintain a certain public image without doing the work of an ally.

I could go on, but I think this is a good summary of my biggest beefs. So, what’s the takeaway? Why do I spend my energy and time ranting to anyone who will listen about this? Because everyone needs to be held accountable. Because it’s exhausting to see “Dumbledore’s Army” used as a rallying cry for resistance to injustice while knowing that the mind behind that literary resistance doesn’t actually care about the things she preaches. It’s exhausting to hear my peers fawn over their latest Pottermore personality quiz results without knowing or caring that their entertainment comes at the expense of Native communities. And it’s exhausting to see someone whose primary weapon lives exclusively in a tiny bubble of social media be held up as a shining example of activism. If you’re going to be an ally, look to actual marginalized communities for ways to help. Fight for others’ rights all the time, not just when it’s convenient. Listen to the perspectives of women of color, queer women, poor women. Make sure you are actually being helpful, not just preserving your own image. Look to anyone but yet another rich white woman.  And, maybe, don’t join Dumbledore’s Army. Resist in a way that includes everyone.


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