Note: This was how I introduced a discussion session about gay representation in Potterverse at MISTI-Con. These remarks were meant to provide general background only and to get the conversation started, not to be analytical or comprehensive. — LK
Delivered Saturday, May 21, 2017 at MISTI-Con.
Twenty years since Philosopher’s Stone was first published. Seven books in the series, eight movies, three tie-in books, a stage play, and now a new film series. Hundreds of characters. And how many of them are identified as gay in canon? Add in extra-canonical author comments, and the total rises to one.
How is it that the Potterverse, created by a woman who must know people of all sexual orientations, who has tweeted her support of LGBTQ people, is more heteronormative than the world at large to such an extreme degree? Within Harry Potter canon, when Rowling has shown her characters to have any sexual orientation, it has been heterosexual. Homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, any type of queerness — she simply has not named it. Even if we take the lowest commonly accepted estimate, that 1.5% of the population is gay, that’s still a higher percentage than what Rowling has chosen to show.
She made headlines ten years ago with her unplanned announcement that Dumbledore is gay. On the one hand, the way Rowling got hundreds of millions of people worldwide to love the humanity of a fictional character and then identified him as gay, as just one more aspect of his personhood, is exactly how to combat homophobia and reduce prejudice. On the other hand, when you identify your one gay character casually, in an author appearance and not your official text, making it clear that you created gay characters but chose to keep that information off the page, that is a textbook case of marginalization rather than representation.
There’s a school of thought that holds that the author’s intent or personal background are not important for determining the meaning of a piece of writing. Many within HP fandom have drawn strength from this stance to mold Potterverse to their own needs; many choose to ignore Rowling’s extra-canonical comments about the series, say they wish she would stop talking about closed canon and let it stand on its own, and form headcanons that they protect from contradictory author statements. For example, some fans have spectacular headcanons about Professor McGonagall belonging to the powerful tradition of lesbian educators, and maintain these headcanons regardless of the heteronormative, celibate backstory that Rowling gave her on Pottermore.
This stance of selectively ignoring the author is useful, but it takes effort to maintain, because after all, the author is very much alive and still creating. She is a cisgender white heterosexual woman, British, married, Christian, a mother, originally middle class, gifted — and the closer her stories stick to terrain that she knows, the more authoritative her writing feels.
For example, when she writes of Aunt Petunia’s kitchen, or interviews, or the dynamics of Hermione, Lavender, and Parvati beaming falsely at one another, people familiar with such scenes report a sense of deep recognition. Her writing has a flatter affect when it’s about things less central to her experience: Harry’s classmate Anthony Goldstein, for example, has the one acknowledged Jewish surname in Potter, with no identifying character traits of any sort, creating an effect of tokenism, of name-checking without depth. Now that this surname has resurfaced in a World War II-era setting, we shall see how confident we feel about Rowling’s ability to write Jewish American witches with nuance.
When she has written people of color, sometimes the results have ranged from off-base to hurtful to harmful. Cho Chang, Angelina Johnson — more instances of tokenism. Tamela J. Ritter has a talk tomorrow about some of the hurtful implications of Rowling’s appropriation of elements of Native American religion and culture for her Ilvermorny backstory. I love the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but I did wince at the representation of blackness in 1920s New York — a jazz singer who is a goblin rather than human, an executioner with a distinct mammy vibe. Rowling, and the people involved closely in the making of this film, did not flag these things as uncomfortable, but they made me tense up: after Rowling’s faux pas with the Ilvermorny backstory, I didn’t know how much I could trust a Rowling film to handle the complexities of American race politics.
I argue that a “death of the author” approach is not going to work for Potter fans engaging with new Fantastic Beasts output. It’s understandable that we might wish for it anyway: it’s uncomfortable to be constantly in the position of worrying that we may find wrong notes that we may have to forgive or ignore in our desire to remain fannish about something that has given us so much. We may be afraid, too, of being judged if we didn’t notice something that others find hurtful. For the record, I do not believe that there’s moral superiority in either boycotting or remaining within a fandom after troubling output from a creator. It just…is, a series of decisions. I saw Rowling misuse a word of Asian origin in a racist manner, I winced, and I stayed. And I track her progress with each new work: Has she heard the feedback? Has she grown?
To be aware of the author is an enjoyable analytical pastime, and it is also self-protective to be prepared: based on prior evidence, what do I expect of this author? Should I keep my expectations low on some fronts? Should I steel myself?
So what are we to think when this author, who has never written canonically about a Potterverse character being gay, gives us Graves drawing physically close to Credence in a shadowy side street?
There were references to homophobia and same-sex anxiety within the Potter series, occasionally. Dudley mocked Harry’s nightmares with wording that suggests a terrifying gaybashing: “Don’t kill Cedric! Who’s Cedric? Your boyfriend?” Infuriatingly, Rita Skeeter called Dumbledore’s relationship with Harry “unhealthy, even sinister”: “there is no question that Dumbledore took an unnatural interest in Potter from the word go. Whether that was really in the boy’s best interests — well, we’ll see.” Without ever naming Dumbledore as gay in canon, here, Rowling conveyed the insidiousness of the prejudices that many homophobes level at gay teachers.
A form of that implicitly gay-related anxiety from Deathly Hallows reappears in Fantastic Beasts. Rita Skeeter’s insinuations were pure hatemongering — there is plenty to say about the Dumbledore-Harry relationship, but it stings to think of it maligned from that angle. But that is the dynamic we see Graves invoking with Credence. We know his true interest in Credence is neither personal nor sexual, but he was using the narrative of the sexually abusive predator as a cover for a motive that is, almost unbelievably, even more exploitative.
Fantastic Beasts puts a new angle on the Dumbledore story from Deathly Hallows. We knew Dumbledore desired Grindelwald, but not whether Grindelwald felt the same or only manipulated Dumbledore’s attraction for ulterior motives. Grindelwald’s scenes with Credence give us an up-close look at the dynamic. From the information in Deathly Hallows, it had appeared that Grindelwald wanted Dumbledore’s company in subjugating the world, and Ariana would be an afterthought; we know now to suspect that Ariana was Grindelwald’s target after all. He never resumed contact with Albus after Ariana’s death. We don’t know if it was because of guilt and fear or because Albus without an Obscurial was of no use to him.
We don’t know Grindelwald’s orientation, but he was sensitive to male-male attraction and comfortable with encouraging it. Even without being named, then, male-male attraction exists in the Fantastic Beasts universe. We see a hint that the nonjudgmental Queenie has matter-of-fact knowledge of it, as well: she tells Jacob that “Most guys think what you was thinking, first time they see me.”
Do we read Credence as gay, or would this lonely wizard have responded to attention from anyone? It seems probable that Grindelwald knows enough Legilimency to know that attraction would be one of the ways to hook Credence, as well as promises of education and special attention. To add layers to this reading, the abuse from Mary Lou Barebone could easily read as an attack on homosexuality rather than magic. She calls Credence’s birth mother “wicked” and “unnatural,” words associated with antigay rhetoric as well as witch hunts. Her command of “Take it off” to Credence, followed by the ritual of him removing his belt, gives a horrific sexualized tone to the punishment.
The secret meetings with Graves, the repressive abuse from the parent — these images and emotions are evocative of experience with homophobia. The film uses gay people’s experience to create a metaphor and draw emotional impact from those associations. To me, it feels oddly outdated and possibly misleading for Fantastic Beasts to centralize this dynamic so heavily without grounding it in context by naming gayness and showing matter-of-fact gay characters.
Even 10 to 20 years ago, it felt curious to me that Rowling chose to reveal no canonically gay characters in her encyclopedic universe, when that ground had already been broken in YA lit, and she was in a position to dictate rather than follow rules within publishing. I felt frustrated to see Rowling use timeworn tactics such as coding to signal that some characters could, if knowing readers chose, be read as gay, such as the infatuated Dumbledore or the short-haired, pipe-smoking Grubbly-Plank. Some readers have speculated that Rowling held back from identifying Potterverse characters as gay because the series was meant for an underage audience. Putting aside, for the moment, how misguided that strategy would have been, if true — the Fantastic Beasts series is targeted to an adult market. Subversive literary coding of gay characters has been essential in more oppressive times and places, but I confess that I grow impatient. Is it too much to ask that the remaining films in the series include realistic LGBTQ representation? What do you think?
Let’s open this up for discussion. What are some of your thoughts on gay representation in Fantastic Beasts and Potterverse? Where do you think the rest of the series will go? What do you hope to see?