‘Sex is real:’ J.K. Rowling’s descent into hatred and the studio left in the lurch

All is not well.

Over the past several years, J.K. Rowling, author of the widely beloved “Harry Potter” franchise that invented a literary genre and defined the childhood of a generation, has decided to spend her time, artistic ability and considerable wealth and fame advocating against the rights and dignity of transgender people. She’s done this in a difficult political environment where fascists foster allies out of any brand of bigotry and anti-trans disinformation is a primary recruitment method, but also one where media platforms have realized that racial and queer inclusivity is extremely profitable. 

We’ve written at length in this space about how Rowling has bound herself to this franchise. You can also check here for a purely theoretical rundown of what makes her such an interesting case study in how we interact with art. As with any issue that requires navigating Trump-era fascism, everyone who’s unfamiliar should peruse the spectacular series The Alt-Right Playbook for tools to better decode actors in this political environment, what they really think and what they really mean by what they say. 

Rowling’s stance on this issue has been an excruciating betrayal to a core audience that has always been extremely queer friendly – her iconic character spends the first decade of his life in a literal closet, after all. After drenching her work in seemingly contrary politics for decades, Rowling has worked to make sure this one aspect of her politics eclipses all the others, and appears to have decided to wallow in the backlash she’s receiving from her fanbase and the contrarian support from other anti-trans activists, putting Warner Bros., desperate to monetize every property it has access to, and everyone else hitched the Fantastic Beasts gravy train, in a thorny position.  

Joanne Rowling, bigot

Rowling’s anti-trans turn is not benign. It is not mistakeable, ignoreable, explainable or forgiveable. The anti-trans activists and businesses she has supported are juvenile, immature and exploitative, and she has deliberately incorporated anti-trans tropes into her work and closed herself to any corrective action. She has designated this as her hill to die on, and she appears to want to die on it. Her activism is lousy with giveaways that she knows what she’s doing is damaging and wrong.

The first hint of Rowling’s transsexism came in 2018, when she “liked” a Tweet calling trans women “men in dresses.” Her publicist said this was due to her mishandling her phone.

In 2019, British development research contractor Maya Forstater sued her former employer for not renewing her contract, alleging that she was let go because she said that people could not change their biological sex on social media and that this was a protected belief under the Equality Act of 2010. Rowling tweeted her support for Forstater, who was crowdsourcing legal fees for her stunt lawsuit, which is ongoing.

Though Forstater’s lawsuit is concerned with speech protections and scamming people on GoFundMe, Rowling, like many of her supporters, focused directly on their agreement with Forstater’s anti-trans disinformation. In 2020, Rowling published a lengthy essay explaining that she believes male-to-female trans people trivialize her own femininity and she is worried that, if they are allowed to use women’s public restrooms, they will use the access to rape cisgender women. In line with many anti-trans screeds, Rowling’s essay betrays a cripplingly gendered worldview, deep insecurities about her own gender identity and an extreme hatred for men. Rowling revealed that she is a survivor of domestic abuse and sexual assault in the same essay, and her stance here appears to be wrapped up in that trauma. She followed this up with a tweet asserting that medical transitioning is a new kind of gay conversion therapy, a viewpoint that cannot be held by anyone who understands what any of those things are.

One of the defining traits of Donald Trump’s collaborators, particularly in the aftermath of his 2020 defeat, is constant mask slippage. They’re so used to their supporters only consuming news from extremely friendly sources that they don’t seem to always know when they’re on camera. Rowling demonstrates the same gap in logic – when she crafts her statements, she’s concerned about safety in public bathrooms and making sure other queer people aren’t left out of the conversation, but when she’s absent-mindedly browsing Twitter, her support is for playground insults like “men in dresses” and “fuck your pronouns.” She constantly undermines the reasonable face she tries to put on the issue. Image by Tom Williams, GQ.

Pursuing her defense of private beliefs, Rowling has gone out of her way to make sure her beliefs have public effect. In addition to directing attention to Forstater, Rowling has also directed her considerable social media following to support a store with merchandise that read “trans women are men,” “lesbians don’t have penises” and “fuck your pronouns.”

In her next book, “Troubled Blood,” published under the pen name Robert Galbraith, Rowling wrote a serial killer named Dennis Creed who dressed as a woman to commit murders, an anti-trans trope so consuming that, for several decades, it was the only trans representation in media at all. I was surprised Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore didn’t contain similar anti-trans messaging.

Rowling has always been a political figure and has always laced politics into her work. Having navigated domestic abuse and extreme depression and poverty by the time she published “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” with the help of the U.K. government, she’s spoken publicly about the importance of the safety net that held her. She modeled the villains of “Harry Potter” on the Nazis, and when they came to the screen, guided their costumes to be based Ku Klux Klan robes. The series demonstrates a fundamental understanding of how bigotry hollows people out and the opportunism that festers in fascist political parties.

It’s not as simple as “crossing the isle,” worldviews are more complicated than right vs left, but Rowling’s work rails quite literally against the specific hatreds in which she now participates. One of the Nazis’ first waves of violence was to remove queer people from Germany, which included burning down the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, which was decades ahead of its time in terms of understanding gender as a spectrum. 

Rowling’s heel-turn was not an eventuality, this is an about-face. What happened?

The absolute state of global conservativism

Rowling’s views on trans women are repugnant, frightening and completely contrary to the science of gender, but they’re also very silly. She seems to imagine a world in which “I identify as a woman” are magic words, and the inability to say them has been holding back a flood of public restroom rapists all these years. It should go without saying that trans men and women use the bathroom of the gender they present as all the time as things currently stand – there’s already no way to enforce who goes into which bathroom, so people who aren’t cisgender are accustomed to going where they won’t make anyone uncomfortable.

Public restrooms are usually quite busy places with relatively little privacy, not good for raping. Statistics on sexual assault show that eight out of 10 rapes are committed by perpetrators known to the victim, often an intimate partner with whom they share a home or a professional superior with whom they share an office. Studies of convicted rapists who did not know their victims, so that 20% that don’t share a private space with them, don’t explicitly eliminate bathrooms, but offer several other patterns for where stranger rape occurs.

The epidemic of sexual assault, particularly in the U.S., should never be minimized, but any scenario in which legally allowing trans people to go to public bathrooms they already use every day would contribute to it is silly. This is a goofy, stupid thing to believe. And I don’t think Rowling actually believes it.

Reactionary conservativism has a long history of fumbling around for arguments against progressive policies to see what sticks, something that is even easier to track in the social media era, and these arguments move with the times. The Civil Rights movement was followed by a bevy of increasingly coded arguments against black Americans, with Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens” fantasy sticking and eventually morphing into euphemisms about higher crime rates and drug use. As the gay community gained more prominence and acceptance in the ‘90s and ‘00s, conservatives started talking about marriage as a uniquely Christian tradition that can only be performed with participants from each of the two genders, and the refusal to allow gay couples to enjoy the legal and tax benefits of marriage was an expression of “religious liberty.”

When a bunch of people come up with the same terrible idea at once, it isn’t a coincidence. It is an evolutionary process of searching for the most resonant way to euphemize disinformation. In some cases, it’s literally focus-grouped, but during his presidency, Trump gave us all the joy of watching him spitball talking points in real-time – but, and this is the important part, the people who were invested in his presidency backed him up on whatever he said. No matter what.

So it’s not really a surprise that when Rowling came out against trans people she was focused that absurd bathroom scenario. That was the fantasy de jure in the mid-‘10s, when, immediately after gay marriage was legalized, social conservatives retreated to a new front and started looking for an excuse to exert power over trans people, and Republicans from dozens of states, by a spectacular coincidence, all had the same terrible, legally unenforcable idea at the same time.

This is what I mean when I say Rowling doesn’t actually believe it – the people who repeat in-fashion canards like this, they never actually believe them, not the way you’d believe roses are red or two and two make four. This is just part of how political parties that are willing to exploit bigotry operate – it’s a constant search for ways to affirm the voter base’s hatreds. The people who originated the trans bathroom nonsense moved on to fears about the migrant caravan next cycle and have already moved on to Critical Race Theory after that, a movement that’s even more transparently a branding exercise as the Republican party relies on stupider representatives whose masks slip more often.

So when I say Rowling has decided to be this way, she didn’t do it entirely on her own. She didn’t come up with the idea of trans women raping cisgender women in public restrooms. She was exposed to the idea, it affirmed her trauma and she lacked the understanding of trans people to refute it, and after years of immersion in what looks more and more like a virulently transsexist internet bubble, she decided to throw her public weight behind this branch of the global fascist movement.

An era of unprecedented trans visibility

Because fascism is inherently opportunistic, there is a tendency for fascists to limit their cultural battles by hiding underneath reactionary movements. In recent years, they’ve been picking fights with the trans community, and, at the risk of minimizing the troubles they still have, the trans community won the bathroom fight pretty handily.

Republicans introduced variations on the Alliance Defending Freedom’s anti-trans legislation in 24 states, and despite complete party control over many of them, only two managed to pass, and other states passed contrary laws to ensure that trans people can access public restrooms. Anti-trans politics have since fallen back to legislating who can participate in boys’ and girls’ sports.

A big reason trans bathroom bills mostly failed in the U.S. was because of a concurrent movement toward inclusivity in mass media. In the mid ‘10s, as gay marriage was legalized and social media drove the expectation for businesses to take stands on day-to-day politics, a lot of people realized that being seen as inclusive was the more profitable way to go. It’s a cynical process often disparaged as “rainbow capitalism,” but they really stepped up to the plate on the bathroom thing. National retailers like Target got in front of the proposed laws, and traveling businesses made public stinks about hosting events in states with anti-trans bathroom laws – in the highest profile example, the NBA pulled its all-star game out of North Carolina in solidarity with trans employees, and Georgia and Texas faced similar threats. None of those states’ anti-trans bathroom laws made it onto the books.

Increasing visibility for marginalized groups is usually traceable through how they’re treated in mass media. “Gay people that die win Oscars” is usually seen as a harmful trope, but its rise was a reflection of increased gay visibility as the AIDS crisis began to wind down.

Trans people saw a small version of this trend in the ‘10s. Jared Leto won his Oscar as a trans character in Dallas Buyers Club, and Eddie Redmayne approached his second in a biopic about the first recorded woman to undergo gender affirmation surgery. Both movies and performances were roundly rejected by the trans community, but the public sympathy they drew from to get made in the first place is real, and that’s to say nothing of the explosion of trans characters on television, a medium that can chase headlines much more easily. 

Redmayne would leverage his Oscar prominence into a cushy starring role in the Fantastic Beasts series, which he now uncomfortably holds onto. Image courtesy Warner Bros.

As mainstream media has trended toward favoring trans people, and as Trump and several acolytes have demonstrated that entire political careers can be birthed overnight by stoking the right fears at the right time, a disturbing submarket has grown in conservative media. There are entire fortunes to be earned playing the heel on “the trans debate,” and prominent people are making this decision – and it does very much look like a decision.

Perhaps the most prominent and upsetting example of this is legendary comedian Dave Chappelle, who has decided to incorporate anti-trans disinformation into his comedy sketches. Chappelle is a genius and a master of his craft, and the idea that he doesn’t understand the things he’s saying, why they’re incorrect or why it’s wrong of him to repeat them is ridiculous. But surrounding himself in controversy has certainly raised the profile of a career that had spent years languishing on Netflix comedy specials, which must certainly feel to him like where comedians go to get old and die. 

Chappelle has a great deal in common with Rowling. They’re both massive stars from the late ‘90s and ‘00s who moved out of the public spotlight and came back into it around the same time. Both have spoken at length against hate, if entirely from their own perspectives, and both seem like they should know a lot better than they’ve been doing recently. 

This is another big reason it’s so difficult to take Rowling seriously and why her heel-turn feels like such a calculated and personal betrayal. Her outbursts don’t operate like deeply held personal beliefs – such beliefs usually aren’t three years old and concerning a community you seem to have only just heard about. They operate like a career move. 

The parting of the ways

Through no small effort on her own part, Rowling has made sure that if Warner Bros. makes a nickel on her legacy, she’ll make a dime, and this already-questionable series started because Warner Bros. needs all the nickels it can get. 

Now, that’s all changing. 

There’s been a great parting of the ways. After Rowling’s disastrous 2020 confessional, everyone associated with the Harry Potter film franchise scrambled to affirm their support for trans people and distance themselves from her, including franchise icon Daniel Radcliffe and Evanna Lynch, the actress who credits Rowling with helping her fight annorexia before she was cast in the series. 

The distance has been weirdly literal. Rowling wasn’t invited for HBO’s anniversary special for the release of the first movie, and the studio made sure to label all of her interviews as archival footage. The highly anticipated open-world Hogwarts video game “Hogwarts Legacy,” scheduled for quarter 4 of this year, will be the first piece of “Harry Potter” related media that Rowling wasn’t artistically involved in, and she may not be involved in the live-action series scheduled for late 2022 either. 

She was even separated from the cast on the red carpet at the premiere for Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore – everybody knows the score here. She’s a stink bomb, and the correct career move is to try and stay with the franchise while making sure it doesn’t get on them. Rowling has been canceled not by a woke Twitter mob, but by the invisible hand of the free market – inclusivity is in right now, and bigotry gets the “wait-and-see.” 

Rowling and other figures like her who have spent existing fame on anti-trans disinformation they themselves do not appear to believe are banking on the idea that people will vote with their wallets, and that even if the audience that agrees with them is smaller, it will be more consistent. At the center of a billion-dollar international film franchise, one that has been brought back from the dead because its owner thought it was so vital, we’re watching the audiences part ways in real time. 

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