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Why JK Rowling’s statement on Johnny Depp’s Fantastic Beasts casting is so troubling

“Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.”

The casting of Johnny Depp as a major character in the new series of Harry Potter films has caused considerable debate for the past year. Depp was cast as Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them a few years ago, but it was kept a secret, as keeping his role under wraps formed a big twist in the first Fantastic Beasts film.

But in the summer of 2016, a few months before that film was released, Depp’s (now ex-) wife Amber Heard accused him of domestic abuse. A video of Depp throwing bottles and glasses and shouting at Heard, photos of Heard’s bruises, and text exchanges between Heard and Depp’s manager supporting her claims can all be found online. The couple later released a joint statement saying neither party had lied for financial gain and that there was “never any intent of physical or emotional harm”.

Many fans were upset that Depp was not re-cast, insisting that someone accused of domestic abuse should be removed from such a high-profile role, especially in a progressive children’s franchise. Their concerns take on new urgency in a post-Weinstein world.

Despite the clamour, JK Rowling has stayed remarkably silent on the issue – especially for an author so engaged with her audience on Twitter, and generally happy to speak on political issues. Today, she breaks that silence with a statement on her website.

In it, she writes that she and director David Yates “naturally considered the possibility of recasting”, but that “based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies”.

She adds that while “the inability to speak openly to fans about this issue has been difficult”, the “agreements that have been put in place to protect the privacy of two people”. She concludes: “I accept that there will be those who are not satisfied with our choice of actor in the title role. However, conscience isn’t governable by committee. Within the fictional world and outside it, we all have to do what we believe to be the right thing.”

Perhaps now is the time I should disclose something. I Was A Teenage Johnny Depp Fan. I discovered him, like many did, via the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise when I was 11, and quickly raced through his other movies thanks to my local HMV. I loved Edward Scissorhands, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Benny and Joon. But most of all I loved him. I would camp out at film premieres to shake his hand and thrust gifts of homemade jewellery at him, and then promptly burst into tears of adrenalin and relief that he was kind to me.

There were so many things I liked and admired about him, which would seem distasteful to list here now. In 2016, I no longer idolised him, and looked back on my obsession with nostalgic embarrassment. But when I heard Heard’s claims, it still broke my 11-year-old heart. I hear, believe and support Heard, but if I don’t watch myself, I feel that 11-year-old rising up in my brain, trying to persuade me not to.

Like almost everyone my age, I was, and remain, an enormous Harry Potter fan. So Rowling’s statement breaks my heart, too. It comes after Fantastic Beasts director David Yates spoke on the issue last Tuesday, telling Entertainment Weekly that the controversy is “a dead issue”. Contrasting the allegations against Depp with those against Harvey Weinstein, Yates said, “with Johnny, it seems to me there was one person who took a pop at him and claimed something. It’s very different [to instances] where there are multiple accusers over many years […] Johnny isn’t in that category in any shape or form. So to me, it doesn’t bear any more analysis.”

Yates sees the situation as being Heard making “a pop at” her ex-husband, placing the blame on her and not on Depp, and using language worryingly similar to those who insist Heard fabricated the story of her abuse for monetary gain. (Heard said she would donate her portion of the divorce settlement to charity.)

The most troubling element of Rowling’s statement is, for me, that she aligns her belief with Yates’s. She mentions him specifically by name and explains that “we naturally considered the possibility of recasting”. She refers to “our understanding of the circumstances”, “the filmmakers and I”, “our original casting” and “our choice of actor”. She says they are “genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies”. She does not, at any point, distance herself from his language. The implication is that she shares Yates’s thoughts on the matter. This would be incredibly disappointing.

Perhaps this is ungenerous; perhaps we are meant to infer something else from Rowling’s statement. She does not engage with specifics, so it’s hard to tell. One reading could be that when Rowling refers to their “understanding of the circumstances”, she does not mean that Depp’s alleged behaviour was fabricated, or justified, but that it was out-of-character, is genuinely regretted, and that he’s changed.

Perhaps she is simply stating her belief in rehabilitation, one that many will share (though whether rehabilitating someone into society, and giving them the privilege of a celebrated, high-profile, financially lucrative position in a beloved children’s franchise is, of course, a separate question). As with her other gestures towards the issue, her motivations remain indecipherable, and it’s impossible to say what her position actually is.

The problem is that we, the public who have to decide whether to spend our money supporting the Fantastic Beasts franchise, can’t know for sure why Rowling thinks it’s OK to keep Depp in her films.

She refers to “the inability to speak openly to fans” as a result of “the agreements that have been put in place to protect the privacy of two people”. This might be true – but there is little acknowledgement that this puts concerned Harry Potter fans in a difficult ethical quandary.

In fact, the opposite is implied: Rowling insists that it isn’t in our jurisdiction to have our moral concerns heard on the casting. In her own words, “conscience isn’t governable by committee”. Instead, we’re simply asked to trust her, ourselves not being trusted with enough information to come to a conclusion of our own.

The practice of giving men in power the benefit of the doubt simply because other powerful people vouch for them is sometimes known by another name: rape culture. This could not be more deafeningly obvious in 2017, a year defined by the discovery of known, high-profile male abusers and surrounding systems of enabling.

Rowling writes that “we all have to do what we believe to be the right thing”. She’s right. But we can only have the privilege of behaving according to our individual morals when we are given the tools to make both informed and empowered ethical decisions. Her statement robs her fans of that opportunity.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Sexless in space: the post-apocalyptic novels re-imagining the future of gender

In these fictions, the future has caught up with “those of gender-fluid persuasions”.

Devastating the world has a persistent lure for authors – not just because it gives them spectacular backdrops and unconstrained possibilities for their fiction. There’s also a political imperative to imagining catastrophe. “People are forever thinking that the unthinkable can’t happen,” says off-world survivor Christine Pizan in Lidia Yuknavitch’s post-apocalyptic The Book of Joan. “If it doesn’t exist in thought, then it can’t exist in life.” That’s a delusion that has proved costly to Christine’s society. Now, above a scorched and trashed Earth, a fragment of the elite is sustained on a vessel named CIEL, which Christine calls an “idiotic space-condom”.

The dream up on CIEL is of impenetrable self-reliance. Even the inhabitants’ bodies, mutated by radiation, seem to be conspiring in this idea: hair gone, skin blanched, primary and secondary sexual characteristics withered and sealed. “I have a slight mound where each breast began, and a kind of mound where my pubic bone should be, but that’s it,” explains Christine. “Nothing of woman is left.” The world, she says, has caught up with “those of gender-fluid persuasions”.

But this dream is both a lie and unsatisfactory. CIEL can only be sustained by extracting resources from the remnant Earth below. Its residents’ lives are docked at 50 years: any longer and they’d be an unacceptable burden on the finite reserves. Unfortunately, there’s no one to replace them. No sexual dimorphism means no having sex, which means no reproduction. CIEL is a dead end for humanity, and wombless, vaginaless Christine yearns for what used to be “between my legs, where a deeply wanting cavern used to cave toward my soul”. Female organs, so often presented as nothing but lack, are substantial enough to be missed when they’re gone.

In the absence of sex, the only thing left to do with one’s person is turn it into text. Culture on CIEL consists entirely of grafts – elaborate acts of storytelling scarified deep into pallid tissue, scrolls of skin stretched out and pouring down from the body, faces barely recognisable as faces after extreme modification. Christine is one great artist of the form; the other is Jean de Men, CIEL’s despotic leader, who converted trash fame into tyranny as the world fell apart. And yes, that does seem like a very on-the-heavily-customised-nose reference to Trump – but that’s not all the character is.

De Men is also a resurrection of his medieval The Romance of the Rose-author namesake, vicious misogyny and all – “all the women in his work demanded to be raped. All the women in his stories used language and actions designed to sanction, validate, and accelerate that act.” Stories are inscribed on bodies, shaping them to the culturally-imposed narrative; but stories can also be rejected, new ones written. Like the historical Christine de Pizan who blasted The Romance of the Rose in her 1405 The Book of the City of Ladies, Yuknavitch’s Christine kicks against the patriarch in writing. She authors a resistance by grafting a new and forbidden myth about the girl-soldier Joan of Dirt, who opposed Jean and was burned for her insurrection.

In Danny Denton’s debut The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow, the dystopia stays on the ground, in a version of Ireland where the rain is constant, surveillance universal and violence ubiquitous: “The city festered; the suburbs drowned. And the countryside changed forever… Ireland became a cesspool for deranged life.”

Like Yuknavitch’s, the tale Denton tells is one of storytelling. There’s a Sweeney who sits on a barstool, sputtering disregarded truths into his cups like the mythical mad king. The slammed-together science fiction and folklore echo Flann O’Brien, and so does Denton’s dizzying playfulness as he flits through narrators – parts are told by a Death-like figure called Mister Violence, parts in script form, all in a densely allusive future-dialect.

It’s another world where resources are overstretched and fertility is at a premium. “Are simply too many people fighting over what’s left?” asks one character, and the most fought-over thing of all is the baby that the Kid in Yellow begets by T, the daughter of gangster chief the Earlie King. T dies in childbirth, and now the two men (well, the Kid and the man) war for custody of their progeny, to Mister Violence’s delight. This leads to some spectacular set-pieces, but for all Denton’s stylish bluster, the story slips away. These are ciphers, not characters (compare The Third Policeman for proof that it’s entirely possible to do character while populating a fantastical hellscape), and what happens to them holds little weight.

Slight as the Kid, the King and the rest of them are, they do at least have the benefit of existing. Women, on the other hand, are thin on the ground. The Kid wonders: “Where the fukk are all the mothers?” It’s a good question, but an even better one is this: where has Denton put all the women who aren’t mothers, or substitute mothers, or whores, or dead? Unlike those of Yuknavitch, Denton’s metatextual flits don’t extend to an interest in the politics of who gets to tell these stories.

Maybe it takes Yuknavitch’s smarts about gender to write environmental dystopia: it’s impossible to think seriously about what humans are doing to the planet if you can’t think beyond the old macho ideas that fix the human subject as male (penetrating, hard, whole) and women (penetrated, soft, holed) as a subsidiary material. Vulnerability and humanity are not mutually exclusive, although our stories have long insisted otherwise.

In her own reading of the Joan of Arc story, Andrea Dworkin noted that Joan’s virginity wasn’t a statement of purity but “a radical renunciation of civil worthlessness rooted in real sexual practice”. In other words, Joan refused intercourse because
it would have marked her as female, with all the inferiority that entailed.

Yuknavitch’s weirdly beautiful Joan is a reinvention of what being human is. We are not something against nature but something within nature, permeable and dependant on the world, no matter how we tell ourselves we can stand above our planet and exploit it. 

The Book of Joan
Lidia Yuknavitch
Canongate, 288pp, £14.99

The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow
Danny Denton
Granta Books, 368pp, £12.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist