By: Tanya Cook, Kaela Joseph, and Jamie Puglin
On June 10th, J.K. Rowling, author of the beloved book series Harry Potter, released an opinion essay detailing her reasons for her continued support of biological essentialism with regards to sex. Biological essentialism refers to the belief that men and women carry innate gender characteristics of woman-ness and man-ness based on their chromosomes. This runs counter to prevailing definitions within medical and psychological communities which label sex and gender as separate concepts, with sex referring to a broad range of biological characteristics and gender referring to a social construct by which people self-identify.
Many of the claims made by Rowling in her essay came across as transphobic, which felt especially hurtful to members of transgender communities who grew up reading Harry Potter and connected strongly with themes in Rowling’s books. Rowling’s essay was also jarring given that it came at a time when many other celebrities and news outlets were using their platforms to elevate worldwide protests calling attention to police brutality against Black Americans, including Black transgender people, specifically. Rowling has over 14 million twitter followers and is able to command media attention, meaning what she says matters in that it directly shifts media to her platform and has the potential to impact the values and beliefs of the millions who follow her. Indeed some politicians are already using her essay to oppose LGBTQ legislation.
In this essay, we explore Rowling’s connection to fandom-based activism and social justice initiatives. We use her latest (erroneous) statements on gender identity and transgender rights to conceptualize the loss of a starticipant, (or shift to a counter starticipant), for a fandom-activist community. In other words, we discuss how Rowling’s public statements motivate transgender activists and allies to rally against biological essentialism.
Before we explore that idea however, we want to state that Rowling’s essay defending her stance on prioritizing biological sex is dangerous, logically flawed, and just factually incorrect. She is not personally or professionally qualified to speak about this. One of the blog’s authors, Dr. Kaela Joseph, is professionally qualified to speak on this, as a clinical psychologist and gender scholar with over a decade of experience working with trans and gender conforming clients and communities. We considered laying out a thoughtful rebuttal to each of Rowlings erroneous points about biological determinism, but in the end decided that it gave her words more power and attention than they deserve. Instead, we chose to focus on the resilience and activism of trans and allied communities in response to Rowling. If you would like to read a deconstruction of her essay, however, we recommend this analysis by Evan Urquhart.
One of the most impressive fandom-based activist organizations is The Harry Potter Alliance. Founded in 2005 with the explicit purpose to use popular culture to engage young people in activism, The HPA continues to grow and expand its network of wizard activists. Notable HPA projects include successfully lobbying the WB to use fair trade chocolate for chocolate frogs, establishing an annual activist training camp (the Granger Leadership Academy), and donating over 400,000 books through their Accio Books campaign. The HPA has no affiliation with Rowling, but instead relies on the themes in the books to connect mostly millennial and Gen Z youth to social justice causes. The HPA is explicitly committed to LGBTQIA+ equality and intersectional feminism, and for the past several years activist fans have wrestled with the specter of Rowling as problematic creator. Before Rowling’s most recent statements, attendees at the annual Granger Leadership Academy’s meetings discussed problems with Rowling’s public support of actor Johnny Depp during allegations of spousal abuse, lack of inclusion of BIPOC, and stereotypical portrayals of minoritized groups in the Harry Potter series.
At the HPA’s 2019 Grander Leadership Academy, guest speaker Dylan Marron showed a video compilation of all the spoken dialog by non-white characters in eight Harry Potter Movies. The total amount of screen time for characters of color with speaking lines? Six minutes.
Starticipants and Counter Starticipants
Drawing on our research on fandom-based activism and charity work, we have conceptualized the concept of a “Starticipant.” Starticipants are actors, performers, or public figures who deliberately construct their celebrity personas in dialog with fans and then use that relationship to push fandom toward charitable action and activism. Misha Collins of Supernatural, and his scavenger hunt GISH that benefits the all-volunteer charity he founded, Random Acts, is our defining example of a Starticipant. John and Hank Green with their annual telethon-style charity fundraiser, Project For Awesome, are other examples. To be clear, we understand that fans have engaged in charity work and collective action since the beginning of fandom. With the concept of Starticipant, we want to understand how and why some celebrities are intentionally tapping in to the social movement potential of fandom to great effect.
Starticipants are impactful because of the power they hold in society. Not only do folks reference stars and celebrities in their choices but celebrities have power to influence opinions. When celebrities start campaigning for politicians or social justice issues they can shift opinions by lending their voice. For example, Taylor Swift has recently come out against Donald Trump. By doing this, she influences her fans to share opinions and campaign for the same things she does.
This can have an exponential effect on young people. What makes Rowling so dangerous is that her work presents a myriad of characters we see as points of reference, but now the voice behind it does not embody the love and allyship she appeared to write about. Not only does this create cognitive dissonance, but those who once held her aloft are experiencing grief. This leaves wizard activists to try to reconcile loss, misinformation, anger, and a whole host of negative impacts.
In addition, Rowling’s most recent statements doubling down on the biological essentialism of sex and rejecting decades of scientific research and, more importantly, the lived experiences of transgender individuals, solidify her position as what we call a “counter starticipant.” Here we draw on the concept of a countermovement in sociology — a movement that is deliberately opposed to the accomplishments or goals of an existing social movement. As a counter starticipant, Rowling may motivate fans to divest time and money from charities funded by her trust, and may lead them to trans rights activism. In this way, instead of rallying fandom to her cause, her opinions push fans to advocate in the opposite direction.
While we cannot yet measure whether transgender rights activism has increased directly in response to Rowling’s statements, this example shows some of the actions being taken in support of transgender rights. Recently, an exchange between author Stephen King and Rowling ended with King officially making a trans-inclusive statement. In response, Rowling deleted her initial positive reply to King and unfollowed him.
How to Be a Fan of Harry Potter Without Supporting JKR
Finally, we wanted to leave you with ways you can still love Harry Potter without supporting Rowling. Most of these suggestions have to do with how to consume HP content without giving additional money to Rowling. That said, of course learning about transgender rights and following and supporting transgender activists is even more crucial at this time. After our suggestions on how to ‘obliviate’ Rowling from the joy of HP, we end with links to resources and organizations in support of transgender rights.
1. Books: Purchase the Harry Potter books from a used bookstore, preferably a small, locally owned one, or borrow them from your local library.
2. Movies: Most of the movies are also available to borrow for free from your local library, but many are also available via streaming services; watch them on television or via streaming services versus as new releases to divest from Rowling.
3. Email, call, or write to Universal Studios and Warner Bros. Studios and ask them to denounce Rowling’s statements.
4. Support The Harry Potter Alliance by donating, volunteering, or joining your local chapter. https://www.thehpalliance.org/
5. Self Care: Radical self care is always important. If spending time with Hermione, Neville, Luna, and Harry isn’t right for you now, there are other universes there right now, the authors recommend: Avatar: the Last Airbender (recently added to Netflix), Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts (Netflix), The Dragon Prince (Netflix).
6. Read the National Center for Trans Equality document titled, “52 Things You Can Do for Transgender Equality” https://transequality.org/issues/resources/52-things-you-can-do-transgender-equality
7. Learn about Black lead LGBTQ organizations here https://www.bustle.com/p/32-black-led-queer-trans-organizations-to-support-22959025