Death to Death of the Author
J.K. Rowling, continuing a pattern of behaviour that only becomes more obvious in retrospect, once again showed her horrible transphobia to the world when she remarked upon the phrase “people who menstruate”, and fear-mongering against the Trans community, challenging the notion of inclusion for those who do not subscribe to the gender binary structure Rowling and many other transphobes find faith in. I am not here to litigate this specific issue, because all I can do is amplify the voices of the Trans communities who are the most impacted by someone with such power attacking them. Trans Lives Matter, and J.K. Rowling is transphobic. She is also the author of beloved series of novels-turned-film-franchise-turned-empire, Harry Potter.
In the aftermath of the latest of Rowling’s antics, fans of Harry Potter are scrambling to reconcile their love for the series with the intense bigotry of the author. Anecdotes include tattoo parlours being booked up until 2021 by people wanting to remove Harry Potter tattoos, pretending that Hatsune Miku wrote the series, or even jokingly claiming the series just magically appeared one day, fully formed with cover art. They’re funny, but they point to an issue with media literacy that leads back to one idea: Death of the Author.
Roland Barthes, in his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, rejected the notions of traditional literary criticism that centered discussion on the intention of the Author, the progenitor of the media-in-question. Barthes argued that the intention of the Author does not matter, for they are a separate entity from the media that they create. Once a novel, or a film, or a painting has been put out into the world, it no longer belongs to the Author. Their intent need not be considered, for theirs is but one of a trillion perspectives on a piece of art.
Rowling, herself, is often at the center of discussions surrounding Authorial Intent. Since the release of the final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling has gone back to the well many times to make claims about canonical elements of the characters and the world. Most famously, Rowling declared that Dumbledore was actually gay, and was once a lover of Grindelwald, a villainous figure in the history of the series. While appreciated by fans, it is important to note that in no form of what is oft-considered “canon” does Dumbledore’s sexuality come into play. Dumbledore never acts or speaks in a way in which his sexuality matters; he doesn’t pine after any male characters in the books or the films, not even Grindelwald. When Rowling and director David Yates were given the opportunity to do so in the second Fantastic Beasts film, they didn’t go for it. Dumbledore’s sexuality is window-dressing meant to make the franchise more diverse.
Death of the Author, as a concept, is intended to separate the media from the author. In this way, I think it’s helpful. Morally-dubious people make good art all the time, and rejecting authorial intent allows for a textual analysis and critique in order to evaluate the art on its own merit. Of course, this was easier to do in 1967, when contact with authors was much more difficult. With the onset of social media, something Barthes could not have been able to account for, access to the thoughts of and perspectives on creators is so readily-available it is almost voyeuristic. In the social media era, to truly divorce the author from their creation is not only nigh-impossible, it is irresponsible. Art is not made in a vacuum, and every artistic decision is informed by the worldview and the lived experiences of the author(s). The words chosen, the imagery picked, and even style all come from the perspective of someone who made the art happen.
With Rowling and Harry Potter, it is impossible to separate Rowling’s view of the world and marginalized groups from the genetics of the series. From Cho Chang and the exotic fetishization of her character as being only an object of lust for Harry, to the race of house-elves who enjoy being slaves, and the Goblins which have “hooked noses” and control all the money in the Wizarding World. These characters and their roles and descriptions weren’t simply formed from nothing. Someone created them. A woman who has been known to support racist, transphobic people made them. It is a textual reading of Harry Potter to draw comparisons between the house-elves and African slaves; it is made much clearer why Rowling, who made a subplot in which Hermione tries to free the house-elves from the kitchens of Hogwarts, now views the character as Black.
I need to be clear that I am not saying “all of your faves are problematic”, nor am I saying that by reading the works of Rowling that you, yourself, are an inherently racist or transphobic person. So, what’s the next move then?
The way I see it, there are two ways to move forward, learning from the situation involving Rowling and the backlash by the stars of the films, and members of the fan community. The first is to drop the franchise altogether. Declare that you will not support anymore work by Rowling, and that you will find other art to consume and enjoy. That’s perfectly valid, and it makes sense to do. The challenge with this is that, because of the commodification of art, your financial support of an author or creator who you believe to be a good person may also benefit those who we would consider “bad” people. The web of people who are involved in the presentation of art is tangled, and it is nearly impossible to untangle it and only support certain people in the process. Maybe the book cover artist has questionable views, or the publisher prints racist literature. While on the surface it may seem easy to pick and choose to support only those who have morally-upstanding views and actions, it is an exhausting venture to try and keep any evil from benefitting from your support. In short, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.
The other option is to engage. Engage with the art you consume, and understand that it comes from someone who may have views that are harmful to you, and to your loved ones. The creator behind your favourite film, or music, or book series, may be a bad person, and they may use their platform to harm others. Learn from how it makes you feel, and grow from it. It may be comforting to pretend that Harry Potter wasn’t created by Rowling, but it’s not the reality of the situation, and refusing to engage critically with the text knowing who created it is irresponsible. You can still love something, and understand that it is not a morally infallible creation.
As Eliezer Yudkowsky once said: “You are personally responsible for becoming more ethical than the society you grew up in”. That includes the art created in that society. Even if it hurts.