Sex and Gender

Harry Potter and the strange absence of J.K. Rowling

Rowling is right – sex does matter … People can claim to be whoever they like – I might fancy being the King of Siam – but male and female are not the same.

Harry Potter returned to Hogwarts this weekend for a 20th anniversary special. He was joined in the Gryffindor common room by Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, but not – controversially – the woman who created it all.

JK Rowling’s conception of Hogwarts, a school of witchcraft and wizardry, has become an institution. The books have sold more than 500 million copies worldwide, while the film series grossed almost $10 billion at the box office. Not a bad return for Warner Brothers, who bought the rights to the first four books for a reported £1 million.

But Rowling’s foray into the trans debate has created a headache for Warner Brothers. Let’s be clear: she has said nothing that diminishes transgender people like me. Her concern is for women and girls. But while her books are full of magic, she knows that in real life the word woman means something more than a feeling in a man’s head.

JK Rowling / Twitter

This ironic post led to a hurricane on social media. Four days later she published her reasons for speaking out. Rowling’s 3,700 word essay should be required reading for anyone who comments on her contribution to the debate. Her concern is an ideology that she described as ‘a movement that I believe is doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode “woman” as a political and biological class and offering cover to predators like few before it’.

She is right. But the response has been ferocious. In her essay she explained that:

‘I spoke up about the importance of sex and have been paying the price ever since. I was transphobic, I was…a bitch, a Terf, I deserved cancelling, punching and death. You are Voldemort said one person, clearly feeling this was the only language I’d understand.’

JK Rowling

Even the three lead actors appeared to speak out against her. Daniel Radcliffe (who played Potter) was blunt: ‘Transgender women are women. Any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people.’

Emma Watson (Granger) tweeted: ‘Trans people are who they say they are and deserve to live their lives without being constantly questioned or told they aren’t who they say they are.’

Finally Rupert Grint (Weasley) said his piece: ‘I firmly stand with the trans community and echo the sentiments expressed by many of my peers. Trans women are women. Trans men are men.’

Whatever the three actors think is hardly relevant: The rallying call, ‘transwomen are women’ is simply not true. Rowling is right – sex does matter – but it is also the clear distinction between transwomen (who are male) and women (who are female). People can claim to be whoever they like – I might fancy being the King of Siam – but male and female are not the same.

So with all this baggage, it was maybe not surprising that Rowling did not join the three Hogwarts alumni in the common room to discuss old times. Speculation has been rife about the reason, with suggestions being made that Rowling had been cancelled from her own creation. But what was clear was the director of this 98-minute TV special kept the focus on the creation rather than the creator. Rowling was not erased – archive footage of her was used sensitively and in keeping with the show, and she was mentioned fondly by some of the interviewees. Indeed, had it not been for the recent furore, her absence may have been unremarkable. This was a programme about the actors and the crew, and their memories of the production.

The impact on Radcliffe, Watson and Grint was profound. They were cast as children, and their entire teenage years revolved around the filming of eight movies. By the time the production run finished, they were adults. Grint recalled that, ‘towards the end it was kind of a weird time’. He added,

‘I feel I lost track of who I was and who the character was. I didn’t really know where they ended or began. … Even my name didn’t feel like my name. I felt like I knew how to do one thing. I knew how to play Ron.’

Rupert Grint

Grint gained so much but what did he lose? The demands on him and the others changed them for ever, all three will always be associated with their characters. Whether children should be put in such a position is a question that needs to be explored. Should primary school children ever be asked to commit their entire formative years to a series of movies?

For them the question is now moot but, without Rowling in the room, the opportunity to explore in depth the conflation of actor and character was lost. She created Harry, Hermione and Ron, and she developed them. The answers to who they were are in Rowling’s head. Her absence left the cast talking about what the characters were like, but they were only able to speculate about the why.

Without the trans debate, it is hard to envisage that the director would not have moved heaven and earth to get Rowling into those conversations. So if she was not actually cancelled, she was certainly overlooked and that was a big loss to the programme.

The biggest question of all, however, is how this movement – to use Rowling’s word – became so powerful that is has seemingly removed Rowling from the discussion.

No other political schism comes close. Not even Brexit or the integrity of the United Kingdom. We may disagree on those, but we can still sit down and talk about other things.Declaring that transwomen are not women, however, is beyond the pale. The tragedy of course is that it is totally unnecessary.

The world Rowling created is full of magic but it is also an exercise in nuance. Characters are a mixture of good and bad – with the notable exception of Voldemort – and no group is better than another. Wizards do not sit above muggles, dragons are just as valid as thestrals. Everyone has their own role. But one thing is clear, goblins cannot turn into gnomes. In real life men cannot turn into women; but after expressing that truth, Rowling has been separated from the world she created.

Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.

* This article was first published by The Spectator on 3 January 2022: Harry Potter and the strange absence of J.K. Rowling.

By Debbie Hayton

Physics teacher and trade unionist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s