This article deals with the sensitive subject of transphobia and may be uncomfortable for some readers.
When the Harry Potter books emerged in the late 1990s, I missed out on the craze at first. It was only around the time of the third book in the series that I was convinced to check them out; it had become an unavoidable phenomenon by then, and even though I was outside of the nominal target age range and had long since moved beyond kids’ stories, I felt that the Harry Potter stories were good fun and had a lot to offer. I even went as far as to pre-order a couple of the remaining titles, reading them as soon as they were available.
Although I was never “in” the Harry Potter fan community, I definitely held the books in high regard, and when the films came along I enjoyed those as well. Harry Potter became a point of pride, in a way, as a British person; in an entertainment landscape so utterly dominated by the United States, Hollywood, and American films and television shows, here was a distinctly British entertainment property that was taking the world by storm.
When the Harry Potter film series came to an end at the beginning of the last decade, so too did my involvement with the franchise. I found the first Fantastic Beasts film to be poor, I wasn’t in a position to be able to see the Cursed Child stage play, and although I’d still have said that the films and books were decent, I was in no rush to go back and re-read or re-watch any of them. Harry Potter had come and gone for me – as indeed it had for most of its audience outside of the hard-core fandom.
The recent conversations around JK Rowling, prompted in large part by the upcoming video game Hogwarts Legacy, have dragged up the Harry Potter series for me, though, and it’s fair to say that my feelings have changed a lot since I first sat down to read the books more than twenty years ago. JK Rowling has leveraged the fame and money that Harry Potter brought her to go to some pretty dark places, and as a result I’m one of a growing number of people who can’t support, enjoy, or take part in the Harry Potter series, Hogwarts Legacy, or anything else related to it any longer. In this piece I want to explain, as best I can, why I feel that way.
First of all, I believe that each of us has an inalienable right not to be compelled, forced, or shamed into supporting a company, product, or public figure when what they say and do conflicts with our values and beliefs. This applies to conservatives who say they won’t support “woke” corporations and it applies equally to anyone who doesn’t want to lend their support to companies and individuals who express homophobic, transphobic, and other kinds of bigoted views. Whether we agree or disagree with someone about the importance of an issue, the fact remains that we all have the right to determine what’s important to us, where our values lie, and to try – insofar as possible in a corporate capitalist system – to avoid companies and entities that don’t share those beliefs and values.
This is the very definition of “voting with your wallet.”
It doesn’t have to be explained in such lofty philosophical terms, but this is basically what it boils down to. For some folks, JK Rowling’s transphobic public statements, her continued financial support for transphobic organisations, campaigns, and causes, as well as other decisions she’s taken and statements she’s made mean we don’t want to support Harry Potter, Hogwarts Legacy, or anything else in the franchise.
Now I’d like to get into some of the reasons why I came to the decision to undertake what essentially amounts to a boycott of Hogwarts Legacy and Harry Potter.
I first started to feel uncomfortable with the way JK Rowling was treating the franchise when she began going back to the books and clumsily tried to insert characterisations and narrative elements that were simply not present – nor even implied to be present – in the original work. She seemed to be doing this for “internet points;” for the clout of being able to claim that she had actually created a series that was more progressive than it truly was.
What Rowling was attempting to accomplish with an unsubstantiated claim that, for instance, the character of Dumbledore was gay, was to award the Harry Potter series – and herself as its author – further prestige and recognition that was unearned. At a time when Rowling’s other endeavours were failing to come anywhere close to recapturing the magic (no pun intended) of Harry Potter, making very public statements about her only genuinely successful work was a way for her to retain a level of attention and relevance – and by keeping a spotlight on Harry Potter at a time when many of the series’ more casual readers and viewers were drifting away, it was a way to try to keep the cash flowing.
Long before JK Rowling started down a path that would lead to overt transphobia, I think it was pretty obvious that she was someone who was struggling to let go of Harry Potter. By returning to the series to put out a sequel in the form of a stage play, signing another deal with Warner Bros. to make films based on the book Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, and having the online forum/community Pottermore created, Rowling signalled both a desperation to stay in the spotlight and a cold-hearted greed as she sought to keep the money coming in.
But during this period, Rowling was more a figure of fun than anything harmful. Sure, it wasn’t great to see her trying to almost arbitrarily assign new sexualities and other traits to characters in the Harry Potter books, but it came across more as pathetic attention-seeking than anything malicious. Rowling saw that the LGBT+ movement was advancing, felt that the lack of open or even implicit LGBT+ characters in Harry Potter was hampering its ongoing success, and tried to remedy that in a pretty shameless way. It was sad, almost pitiable… but something I felt was, at most, worthy of being joked about.
JK Rowling’s very first public step down what we now know to be a transphobic path seemed pretty innocuous at first. I actually interpreted her Twitter post – in which she responded to an article by Devex that used the phrase “people who menstruate” – to be harmless wordplay. People who write a lot often like to play with words, as I can attest, and by sarcastically responding to the post it seemed, for a moment at least, that what she was doing wasn’t anything serious.
But over the following months and years, Rowling has clearly become increasingly transphobic.
Let’s define what we mean by “transphobia” so there are no misunderstandings. Someone who is transphobic has an irrational hatred toward transgender and gender non-conforming people. In this context we aren’t using “phobia” to refer to a fear, but to refer to dislike, disapproval, prejudice, discrimination, and/or hatred. And to be especially clear: if someone says they believe that transgender people, and trans women in particular, should be “treated with dignity,” but then refuse to even accept that transitioning is possible or oppose laws that would affirm someone’s true identity, they are transphobic. Saying they believe in treating people with “dignity” has become a buzzword in some right-wing circles, but if they can’t back up that word with any meaningful action, then it’s nothing but cover for something overtly harmful.
One half-serious Twitter post that may have been tone-deaf does not constitute transphobia, although it clearly hinted at a deeper dislike or disapproval of transgender and gender non-conforming people. But if that had been Rowling’s sole contribution to the debate, or if she had walked it back, apologised, or even simply ignored transgender issues thereafter, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But she didn’t – when faced with pushback, she doubled-down.
Although JK Rowling had begun to lose her status as the Harry Potter series slipped out of the mainstream cultural conversation, she was still someone who was held in high regard. She’d become far less important as Harry Potter began to be eclipsed by other, newer franchises, but if you had asked almost anyone throughout the 2010s about JK Rowling, chances are you’d have heard them say something positive about her – or at least about the Harry Potter series. This pushback that she got for her initial transphobic post was the first time since becoming a household name that she’d gotten any kind of major criticism in public – and it clearly had a huge psychological impact on her.
Rowling’s initial beliefs about sex, gender, and gender identity may be understandable, to an extent, because of the era in which she was born and the society in which she was raised. Even when I was at school in the ’90s, “sex education” lessons entirely excluded any mention of homosexuality, and the idea that someone could transition from one gender to another was never even discussed in any health or even biology lesson. If transgender people were mentioned at all, it was for the sake of mockery; “trannies” were the butts of jokes and figures of fun, and nothing more.
Some people of my generation still cling to those beliefs even as science and society have moved on in leaps and bounds – but thankfully, better education, increased awareness, and more scientific and sociological research into sex, gender, and gender identity have already changed minds. Unfortunately, though, people are using JK Rowling’s public and vocal transphobia to try to push back against the societal acceptance of trans people – and even to attack legislation that protects trans rights.
Rowling herself has become the figurehead of this movement, and the current Conservative government in the UK has been able to turn the question of trans rights into what is insultingly termed the “trans debate,” in part using Rowling and others like her as cover for some seriously harmful legislation that either seeks to block the advance of trans rights in the UK, or in some cases, actively rolls back pre-existing trans rights.
This is the real crux of the JK Rowling problem: her status and wealth have allowed her free rein to spearhead one of the worst and most aggressive anti-trans campaigns anywhere in the western world, lending undue legitimacy and standing to a point of view that is mostly shared by a bizarre coalition of religious fundamentalists, paleoconservative reactionaries, and internet trolls. At a time when LGBT+ rights were advancing across the board, Rowling stepped in and has actively worked to push back against those rights, scoring some successes as the current Conservative government and its allies use her and the people who support her as a shield.
This is why I can’t “separate the art from the artist,” as some folks have suggested. Because what JK Rowling is doing is still happening and is continuing to actively cause harm to trans people, I find myself in a position where I can’t support the Harry Potter franchise. Moreover, with Rowling retaining ownership of the franchise, any purchase of books, films, video games, and other merchandise gets her a cut of the proceeds – and as we’ve just been discussing, Rowling uses some of her money to provide financial support to transphobic campaigns, causes, and organisations. I feel that making any new purchase of Harry Potter merchandise, at this time, is akin to donating to such causes myself – something I would categorically never do.
Last time we talked about JK Rowling we touched on this concept, which is referred to in some academic circles as “the death of the author.” Taken from the title of an essay by French critic Roland Barthes, “death of the author” is primarily about discovering one’s own interpretation of a published work independent from the original intent of the author and who they are or were – but I would very strongly argue that it doesn’t apply in this case, and that separating JK Rowling from Harry Potter is impossible as long as she remains in control of the franchise and continues to monetise it.
There are plenty of authors and other creators whose work I would also choose not to support under similar circumstances – but they’re either long dead, no longer actively involved in their franchise, or their franchise has been taken over and moved on. This is the key difference, and while there are many, many creative people who were unpleasant or even harmful during their careers and lifetimes, JK Rowling is continuing to cause harm to her targets right now.
I also found some of JK Rowling’s recent attacks on the Harry Potter fan community to be pretty distasteful, showing how little respect or appreciation she has for the people who quite literally gave her the position and power that she’s wielding. In her recent book The Ink Black Heart, Rowling clumsily inserts a character as a stand-in for herself, then makes that character the target of an angry and murderous mob stemming from an online fan community. The book, much like everything else Rowling has tried outside of Harry Potter, got mixed reviews and didn’t sell especially well. But the intent was there – and Rowling has shown her true colours, sneering at and judging the very people who made her who she is.
One interesting thing that has come out of this whole unfortunate mess that is to the overall good, I feel, is a reevaluation of JK Rowling’s work and the Harry Potter series in particular. While the setting of Harry Potter captured the attention of a worldwide audience, there’s a reason why it’s always still referred to as “Harry Potter” instead of its official title: “the Wizarding World.” The world of Harry Potter doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and without its titular characters and the admittedly engaging story that they were part of, it doesn’t feel as though there’s anything else of substance there.
Look at franchises like Star Trek or Star Wars – deep world-building created rich, lived-in settings in which characters could get lost, where their skills and talents mattered and could be applied to any number of roles in those universes. Harry Potter, in contrast, is both shallow and inconsistent; a cobbled-together mix of English folklore, tropes of the fantasy setting, and even elements and narrative beats directly plagiarised from other literary works. It invented practically nothing new, and its few original elements are actually its weakest points. As a setting and a fictional world, it doesn’t survive more than a cursory glance.
And that’s totally fine. Not every author can be brilliant, not every fictional setting can be wonderfully rich and deep, and for its intended purpose and target audience, there’s nothing wrong at all with the setting of the Harry Potter books. But it does raise a wry smile when I hear people leaping to its defence, claiming it’s a unique and brilliant fictional setting comparable with the likes of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. It isn’t… and it was never meant to be. JK Rowling simply doesn’t possess the talent to create something anywhere close to that level.
There are some deeply troubling and problematic depictions within the Harry Potter books, too. Goblins who run the Wizarding World’s banks – and who are set to be a major villainous faction in Hogwarts Legacy – clearly and obviously draw on anti-semitic tropes and stereotypes. The Wizarding World practices slavery, enslaving “inferior” house elves to do the bidding of witches and wizards. And when, in the books, a character tries to point this out and campaign against it, she’s ridiculed not only by her friends, but really by the narrative itself. Harry even takes ownership of a house elf at one point, sending him to complete tasks for him; his own personal slave.
JK Rowling also seems to delight in making fun of people with different body types, using “ugliness” and fatness as indicators of maliciousness and evil. And, of course, Harry Potter falls into the trap of racial stereotyping, with its tiny number of minority characters being deeply problematic.
It’s actually been good to see more and more folks taking a critical eye to the Harry Potter series in light of the issues surrounding JK Rowling. Some criticisms of the books at the time of their publication and in the years since had been written off or just ignored – and for folks who always felt uncomfortable with certain aspects of the stories or the ways in which they treated marginalised and minority groups, it must be cathartic to find more support.
I won’t ask anyone to boycott or refuse to purchase Harry Potter merchandise or Hogwarts Legacy, because I don’t think it’s my place to do that. This piece wasn’t intended to change minds or convince people on the fence to adopt a certain point of view. It was more a way for me to get my thoughts in order and share why, as someone who talks a fair amount about the video games industry here on the website, I won’t be covering Hogwarts Legacy this year. Hogwarts Legacy could end up being a bust, at the end of the day – an overhyped, mediocre video game not worth all of this fuss and bother.
As I said at the beginning, we all have the right to decide for ourselves which products, companies, and public figures we want to support – and which ones we don’t or can’t support. For me, Hogwarts Legacy and the entire Harry Potter series now fall firmly into the latter category, and unless there’s a massively compelling reason to discuss the franchise in future, I hope that this will be the last time I have to comment on it.
I would love to see greater acceptance of transgender and gender non-conforming people. I myself am non-binary, and it isn’t always easy in the UK in 2023 to be open about that. People like JK Rowling have caused and are continuing to cause harm to trans women in particular, and unfortunately her very public attacks on trans folks have been seized upon by people and organisations with pre-existing anti-trans views and agendas to halt and reverse trans rights.
Hogwarts Legacy and the Harry Potter series may not be openly transphobic in terms of narrative, but because a cut of the proceeds go to someone who is, and who uses the wealth, fame, and status she has to contribute to these causes, I’m now in a position where I can’t support them. As a consumer in a capitalist marketplace, all I can do is vote with my wallet – so that’s what I’m choosing to do.
This is not an easy subject, and for people who are much greater fans of Harry Potter than I ever was, all I can really say is that I empathise with you. I keep thinking how I might feel if this kind of controversy were engulfing something I deeply care about, like Star Trek, and whether I could realistically cut off the entire Star Trek franchise as a point of principle. I genuinely don’t know what I’d do in that situation – so I sympathise with any Harry Potter fan who feels that way.
I also don’t think that many of the “hot takes” floating around on social media on this subject are doing anyone any favours. Viral videos proclaiming that anyone who purchases Hogwarts Legacy must be transphobic and is automatically a “bad person” don’t help the discourse around this complex and sensitive subject, and such polarising language arguably pushes away just as many people as it converts to this cause. So I feel that, while passions are understandably high, we need to try to approach these conversations, and our interlocutors on the other side of the debate, with as much calmness as possible.
So that’s it. I hope you now have a better understanding of why I can’t support Hogwarts Legacy and the Harry Potter series.
This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.