Becoming Part of a Fan Community
People from the dawn of time have been flocking to different cities, artists, philosophers, films, and books; as time has gone on their passion has increased to where it is today, where people have conflated their identity with their fandom. The more popular things are now, the more distinctive these fan communities are. As you probably know, Harry Potter is one of the biggest media franchises in the world, just behind properties such as Star Wars, Marvel, and Disney. It is a property that has generated billions of dollars, spread all throughout the world, and ran the gamut of media types, turning books into films, games, theme parks, etc. It is the best-selling book series of all time and there are fans all across the world, young and old, and for many, the series and the connection they felt with the world and its characters have been extremely formative in their life, which is why it has been so hard to grapple with the path that series author J.K. Rowling has been using her platform to hurt trans people.
In the days before the internet, fans were more disconnected and sparse. People discussed their passions with friends and family, and could become active in fan clubs depending on their proximity to major cities. Periodically there would also be gatherings and conventions share their exploits with others. With the spread of the internet, being connected with other fans was more accessible than ever. Not only could you of your fandom, but you could also discuss it in forums, share fan art and fan fiction, and establish a sense of community with others who had been touched by a show or book in similar ways that you had been. An additional aspect of the internet was the proliferation of sharing passions with strangers. As a fan, you could go online and find a fan community for it, while also finding something with and quickly falling down the rabbit hole of your new passion.
However, the Harry Potter fandom is unique. Like other fantastical properties, much of the core thematic message is that your capabilities are greater than you think. At the same time it reinforces the idea that no amount of ostracization can deny you a community like Hogwarts. Previous media franchises with a large fan following like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Star Trek all had mainstream appeal and reinforced ideas like “you are the chosen one” or Harry Potter resonated differently with some fans imagining themselves already part of an established world. The wizarding world was also our own. I all along. A concept like magic was universally understood as simple incantations and the exposition behind it was not needed, rather it was something that everyone could perform if they were a witch or wizard. In this magical world, everyone had the potential, and as a result, its fans believed they did too.
Fans were so devoted that they would earn many informal characterizations to describe their ardor from mainstream media. The craze was termed ‘Pottermania,’ fans were called ‘Potterheads,” and throughout the digital space a wide variety of fan material was emerging. Harry Potter fans were making use of the space to create forums such as “The Leaky Cauldron” and “MuggleNet,” and in 2005 some of the first ever fan podcasts were emerging like “MuggleCast” and “PotterCast.” The fan culture quickly became inseparable from the series’ life, and fan groups were incredibly common following the release of the 4th book, Goblet of Fire in 2000. An aspect of the Harry Potter fandom that should also be understood at this point is that, unlike other fandoms where there is a separation between the fan and their fandom’s object, J.K. Rowling was heavily ingrained in the fan’s conscience. She was a vocal supporter of the fans, going so far as to have multiple interviews with fan sites, give out “fan site awards” on her website, and promote fan material. Even in the years since the series’ conclusion, she has been engaging with fans on platforms such as Twitter and created the site Pottermore which was flooded with secondary material about the series. J.K. Rowling was inseparable from the franchise that she created. This is why the fandom has had such a difficult time attempting to reconcile with the series following Rowling’s public statements degrading trans people, of which a sizable portion of the fanbase identify as.
J.K. Rowling’s Controversies
Rowling was a problematic figure before this point though. Fans for years have had to deal with the truth that the series reflects Rowling’s cultural perspective in 1990s Great Britain. There is a severe representation problem in her story, as the majority of the characters in the story are white and straight, and those who are not are painted in broad stereotypical tropes. This can be seen in characters such as Cho Chang or in the goblins who control the conomics of the wizarding world while closely resembling the damaging stereotypes of Jewish people, a similarity that though it may not be intentional, is hard to ignore. On top of this already problematic narrative, in the years since the release, Rowling as attempting to insert new ideas and representation post-scripturally. She has stated that Dumbledore was gay, the discrimination of lycanthropes in her story was allegorical to that of diseased persons living with AIDS (ignoring that one of her lycanthropes was a villain seeking to infect young people with his disease), and that there were Jewish students at Hogwarts (specifically a character she named Anthony Goldstein) in addition to Native-American wizards. Much to the dismay of her fans, she has been continuously doing this since the series began, but nothing would hurt her credibility and the fandom as much as when she began revealing more of her ideology in regards to trans people.
In 2019, Rowling tweeted support for a woman who stated “men cannot change into women,” and would write something similar the next year: “if sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased.” She was criticized for being anti-trans, and she would double-down, saying that she was empathetic to trans people, but that the identity of trans women erased the lived experiences of real women. In the year since these brutal comments, Rowling has continued to advocate against trans people, even penning an essay about abuse and sexual assault where she wrote that “When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman…then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside.” In response, many of the actors from the series have spoken out in favor of trans rights, with Daniel Radcliffe writing an essay for The Trevor Project that says “Transgender women are women. Any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people and goes against all advice given by professional health care associations who have far more expertise on the subject matter than either Jo or I.” Many fans of Harry Potter responded similarly, but there was still a whole lot of confusion within the fandom on how to proceed, how to cope with the truth that the author so present in the fandom that was so formative for their lives was using their platform to perpetuate harm, particularly against her trans fans.
Some fans have taken to embracing literary critic Roland Barthes’ idea of “The Death of the Author” where the intentions and context of an author are irrelevant to the way readers interpret something. It is theorized to enhance someone’s understanding of a text by removing oneself from authorial intent, but in the context of Harry Potter, it is to separate the art from the artists, something nigh-on-impossible. Many fan sites and groups like the Leaky Cauldron have vocally condemned Rowling’s statements, with the owner Melissa Anelli saying things such as “It’s going to be so hard and take so long, but we’re going to make sure that we reclaim these spaces that frankly Rowling is trying to poison right now. And to do that, we’re saying that, in this community, everyone is equal, everyone is who they say they are.” The story revolves around underdogs overcoming evil and the importance of standing up against the powerful who disparage and disenfranchise minorities, and Rowling is oblivious. She genuinely believes what she is saying too, which makes the damage she is doing all the more real. These stories and characters are monumental for fans, and they do not want to believe that something which validated their existence could come from someone who is simultaneously invalidating them.
Simply boycotting Rowling and Harry Potter’s new releases is insignificant. For progress to be made and Rowling’s platform to be weakened, previous fans of the series need to leave it entirely. Fans have to compartmentalize their personal interest and connection to the series as the way people interact with this intellectual property is now forever tainted, and will ultimately support a person advocating a damaging position. If fans follow the idea of the death of the artist and that you can separate the two, you can compartmentalize it. An issue that still remains though is with this division, her work still remains in the public and gains influence that she can then use to continue her harmful rhetoric. I personally feel that in today’s time, with the inundation of media we live in, we can drop something like Harry Potter. Yes, it was formative and exciting, but we can turn that connection into a stepping stone for more personal and thoughtful works from lesser known artists. The best way to bury J.K. Rowling’s influence is to pretend like she and her work do not exist. The greatest form of protest is not condemnation, but apathy accompanied by excitement for something new that promotes what Rowling decries.