Why J.K. Rowling’s Controversies Crushed Harry Potter Fans and Changed Celebrity Culture
J.K. Rowling’s legacy is definitely a complicated one. But do her recent mistakes negate the positive impact she’s had on the world?
It can be difficult to talk about J.K. Rowling in 2022. For many of us, she was the author who encouraged our love of reading. She’s known for being the first billionaire author and for giving away much of her fortune to charitable and philanthropic organizations. The Harry Potter series was an undeniable pop culture cornerstone that helped define a generation.
On the other hand, her recent additions to the world of Harry Potter have left long-time fans scratching their heads — or cringing. In 2019, after supporting transphobic rhetoric on Twitter, she doubled down in tweets and an essay, and led much of her fanbase to turn away from her work.
Obviously there’s no justification for transphobia, and this article makes no excuses for Rowling’s bad behavior. But J.K. Rowling’s conflicted legacy does beg the question: should we judge an author’s fiction by the real-life views of the author?
J.K. Rowling Is the Survivor of an Abusive Marriage
The narrative of Harry Potter’s origins is just as compelling as the novels themselves. As the series of novels took off around the world, journalists were hooked on the Cinderella story behind it. It’s easy to romanticize J.K. Rowling’s origin story: a penniless writer crafting her work, not knowing that it would one day become the then-best-selling fiction series of all time.
The truth of J.K. Rowling’s journey to fame and fortune is quite a bit darker than the TV spots and celebrity profiles made it out to be. To put it mildly, Joanne Rowling had a difficult time after graduating from Exeter University in 1986. Despite her degree, she struggled to find consistent work.
Then, less than four years later, her mother died of multiple sclerosis. Rowling was devastated by the loss of her mother. Seeking a fresh start in life, she took a job teaching English in Portugal. Among the belongings she packed were the first three chapters of what would become Harry Potter.
It was in Portugal that Rowling met the 22-year-old Jorge Arantes. The couple had a passionate if dysfunctional relationship. Verbal altercations were common, and some fights even became physical. On one occasion, Arantes pushed Rowling down into the street and the police were called to intervene. Despite her friends urging Rowling to leave Arantes, the couple were married in 1992.
The marriage was a volatile one, despite Rowling’s hopes that marriage would give her life some direction. Things came to a head in their relationship in 1993, when Rowling announced during a fight that she would be leaving with the couple’s infant daughter, Jessica. Rowling ended up leaving alone that night, returning for her daughter in the morning alongside a police officer.
How Did Harry Potter Help J.K. Rowling Overcome Poverty and Depression?
Newly single, jobless, and with a baby in tow, Rowling decided to move to Scotland to be closer to her sister Dianne. Her depression worsened during this time, and she soon found herself on welfare and “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless,” as she described later in her Harvard commencement speech. “By every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”
Rowling has since admitted that she considered suicide during this time. But she held on, thanks to her love for her daughter and the writing project that would become Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Rowling had written novels in the past, but was as of yet unpublished. Famously, 12 publishing houses rejected her manuscript before Bloomsbury decided the put out a limited first print run of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. After that, everything changed.
How Did Harry Potter Change an Entire Generation
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was a sensation across Britain when it was published in 1997. It won the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize, and was well-received by critics and readers alike. It wasn’t long before Harry Potter made its way across the pond to the States.
Scholastic won the bidding war for the American rights to the now-retitled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, paying a whopping $105,000. The novel came out in the U.S. in 1998, and by the next year was on the New York Times Bestseller List.
J.K. Rowling became a household name as children around the world clamored for the next instalments of Harry Potter. It isn’t a stretch to say Harry Potter was the gateway for a generation’s love of reading.
Kids were waiting outside bookstores at midnight to buy the new Harry Potter book, the way earlier generations waited for concert tickets, then stayed up all night to read them. They waited to receive their Hogwarts letters, and speculated on which House they and their friends would be sorted into at the school of witchcraft and wizardry.
How Did J.K. Rowling Get Rich and Famous?
In 2001, Warner Bros. produced a film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which brought Harry Potter to an even wider audience. Thereafter, J.K. Rowling went from what she later described as “utter obscurity” to international fame. In 1999, Rowling was already Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year, and her fame was still growing. Recounting the experience to Oprah in 2010, Rowling said, “It was like being a Beatle.”
As love for her series grew, Rowling was lauded for promoting literacy in children. Most notably, she is a Knight in National Order of the Legion of Honour, France’s highest order of merit, while every instalment of the Harry Potter series has also won multiple awards.
Between the books, films, and avalanche of available merchandise, Rowling became unbelievably rich on top of her astounding fame. It was in this period that Rowling was dubbed, “The First Billionaire Writer.” This was a title Rowling herself questioned, in large part because of the many charitable and philanthropic causes she supported.
When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released in 2007, followed by the two-part film adaptation in 2010 and 2011, everyone wondered if this would be the end of Harry Potter. Naturally, there were still many opportunities for expanding the world’s most successful franchise. But what exactly those expansions would look like was anybody’s guess.
How Pottermore Changed J.K. Rowling’s Public Perception
In 2011, Rowling announced the launch of Pottermore, an online repository of all things Potter, Hogwarts, and J.K. Rowling. The author herself filmed a video advertising the new site, promising an interactive “online reading experience unlike any other.”
To say that fans were stoked would be an understatement. People clamored to be a part of the beta launch, and in October of that year, fans were finally able to find out, once and for all, what Hogwarts House they belonged to, officially. The site offered games, challenges, and added details and lore for the world of Harry Potter.
But from the start, the site had its issues. For one thing, Pottermore wasn’t quite as interactive as some fans would have liked. Some of the behind-the-page world-building was also problematic, and fans started asking themselves if they really wanted answers to the questions they’d been asking (or in some cases, not asking) for years.
Among the worst of the new additions was Rowling’s assertion that Native and Indigenous wizards never figured out how to use magic, and had to be taught by European settlers. Naturally, this was taken poorly by readers and Indigenous groups alike.
How The Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts Changed Harry Potter
The year 2016 was a busy one for J.K. Rowling. It saw the release of a Harry Potter stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and the first film in a new series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Both were met by fans with enthusiasm, but left audiences and critics with some important questions.
While completing a successful theatre run,The Cursed Child presented audiences with plot holes and odd additions to the lore of the world Rowling had created. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them received even more backlash, with accusations of racism and homophobia.
The film revealed that Nagini, Voldemort’s snake, was actually an Asian-American witch who was cursed to become a snake permanently. It goes without saying that turning one of the few highlighted Asian characters in one’s fictional world into an old white man’s pet is incredibly creepy and offensive.
It was also announced that Dumbledore’s homosexuality wouldn’t be explored or mentioned in the new films. This was an issue for many LGBTQ+ groups, considering that a young Dumbledore and his first love, Grindelwald, would both feature in the films. Rowling revealed that Dumbledore was gay offhandedly after the book series was completed, and LGBTQ+ groups were looking forward to some much-needed positive representation in film.
Why J.K. Rowling’s Controversial Tweets Got Her Cancelled on Twitter
In 2019, a British woman named Maya Forstater tweeted about what she perceived to be an injustice in the system. She felt that her previous contract had not been renewed due to her “gender critical” views, and subsequently lost her employment discrimination complaint with the London Employment Tribunals. Rowling liked Forstater’s tweet, leading some followers to accuse her of transphobia.
Instead of apologizing, explaining, or letting the backlash die down, Rowling began tweeting, not only supporting Forstater, but expressing her own “gender critical” views. This led to even more Twitter backlash, culminating in an essay on Rowling’s website titled, “J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues.”
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In the essay, Rowling outlines why she believes there should be more barriers for those who wish to transition and that trans women should be excluded from women-only spaces. Soon after, her most recent novel Troubled Blood was released. The detective novel features a serial killer who dresses as a woman to put his victims at ease before he attacks.
This was the last straw for much of the Harry Potter fandom. People who had loved the novels and films for decades now vowed to not spend any money on Harry Potter-related film tickets, books, or merchandise. Ironically, they cited the values they learned from Harry Potter for their choice to staunchly oppose hate in all its forms.
What Is J.K. Rowling’s Future after Her Recent Controversies?
J.K. Rowling is nowhere near the first author to disappoint fans with personal views. Author of Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card, for instance, is lauded for his highly inventive works but denounced for his homophobia. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is beloved, while contemporary fans are critical of the anti-Semitic stereotyping in his works.
There is no defending Rowling’s transphobic rhetoric. It’s especially harmful since she remains an influential figure, and her writings can have very serious real-world affects on the lives of trans folks around the world. It’s clear that for many people, Rowling is absolutely cancelled and her recent outbursts have spoiled the magic of her fictional world.
It’s yet to be seen whether Harry Potter will outlive its author’s cancelling. Many fans will likely never introduce their children to the work, and perhaps that’s for the best. Still, there’s a chance that, like Card and Tolkien before her, Rowling’s works will survive past her tarnished reputation.
Perhaps one day kids will be able to enjoy Harry Potter again, while considering its problematic author through a nuanced lens.