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JK Rowling created an army of liberals – now they are turning against her

“I just think she wrote many beautiful things in Harry Potter, but she doesn’t live up to them in real life.”

Alice’s magic wand is made of pine, and it has a phoenix feather in its core. The 17-year-old Italian knows this because she uses Pottermore, a website where Harry Potter fans take quizzes to find out what life would be like if they lived in the wizarding world. On Twitter, she spends two hours a day updating her profile with clips, quotations and pictures from the books and films. But while Alice loves everything about Harry Potter (she has read each of the seven books 14 times), she does not like JK Rowling.

“I strongly dislike her,” Alice (who does not wish to disclose her surname) says. “I just think she wrote many beautiful things in Harry Potter, but she doesn’t live up to them in real life.”

In 2007, Rowling announced that one of her main characters, Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore, was gay. Fans initially rejoiced at the news, but many became disillusioned after the character’s sexuality was never mentioned in seven books, nine films, and a two-part play. When the director of Rowling’s latest film franchise, Fantastic Beasts, announced at the start of February that Dumbledore would not be “explicitly” gay in the upcoming film about his youth, fans tweeted their anger at Rowling. She responded by muting them and insinuating that Dumbledore would eventually come out in one of the other three remaining Fantastic Beasts films.

To those uninterested in the cult of Harry Potter, it’s a tame scandal. Rowling certainly can’t be accused of homophobia, and her defenders note that no other children’s film has featured an explicitly gay main character. Yet fans such as Alice are angry because not only do they strongly feel that representation is important – they feel Rowling herself taught them this lesson about life.

“The Potter books in general are a prolonged argument for tolerance, a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry,” Rowling said in 2006. In the books, mythical creatures represent the mistreatment of minorities, while the series’ overarching plot is an anti-racism allegory. An entire generation grew up with Potter, and many feel it informed their liberal politics (one political scientist even claims the series “played a small but not insignificant role” in electing Barack Obama).

Cece Ewing, who is 22, has a Harry Potter tattoo. “For me, Harry Potter has always been there,” she says, explaining she started reading the books at the age of 12. She says the novels’ focus on “outsider” characters taught her moral lessons. “It was an essential influence in shaping my initial understanding of discrimination.”

Multiple studies have found Harry Potter readers grow up to be more liberal than children who haven’t read the books, but in 2014, academics set out to prove cause and effect (after all, liberal parents might be more inclined to read Potter at bedtime). Researcher Sofia Stathi, a psychology lecturer from the University of Greenwich, gave two groups of primary school children extracts from Harry Potter to read. The first group read Potter passages related to prejudice, while the second read generic extracts from the book.

“We found that after reading and discussing Harry Potter passages that related to prejudice, children who identified with Harry showed more positive attitudes toward immigrants,” Stathi tells me now. “Importantly, the effects were evident while controlling for other major variables such as pre-intervention attitudes towards immigrants.”

On social media Rowling has embraced politics – supporting the Union during the Scottish referendum, disparaging Brexit by saying the villainous Vernon Dursley would have voted Leave, and comparing Donald Trump to the Dark Lord Voldemort. When she emphatically announced “Corbyn. Is. Not. Dumbledore” in 2016, many millennials turned against her, with Vice publishing a piece last year headlined “JK Rowling Can Dream of Wizards But Not of a Better Future”. In essence, then, Rowling taught a generation liberal values – now, they’re using them against her.

On Twitter, fans quote Rowling’s own words back to her, reminding her of Dumbledore’s famous line: “We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” Dumbledore wasn’t talking about the £77m Forbes estimated the Fantastic Beasts franchise would lose if it were banned in China and Russia for featuring a gay character, but the sentiment remains much the same.

“When the news broke that Dumbledore’s sexuality would once again be kept out of canon, I was furious,” says Ewing, who is a lesbian. “This is a series I have dedicated years of my life too, and one that has continually let me down.”

This isn’t the first time Potter fans believe Rowling has chosen the easy way over what is right. In December 2017, she defended casting Johnny Depp in the films, stating she was “genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character”. This provoked a backlash because Depp has been accused of abuse by his ex-wife Amber Heard (the pair later reached a settlement and jointly announced “there was never any intent of physical or emotional harm”).

Jackie Terry is a 20-year-old student who – like Alice and Ewing – feels that Harry Potter “shaped” her “as a person”. Rowling first disappointed her after the Depp statement. 

“For her, who’s talked about how she dealt with domestic abuse, to defend someone who was accused of being an abuser, it was like a slap in the face,” says Terry. “The final nail in the coffin” for Terry was when Rowling tweeted about muting fans for “abusing” her, as Terry felt the author was dismissing feedback from the LGBT community. 

“I won’t burn my Harry Potter books or anything ridiculous like that because she already has that money from me,” she says. “However, her actions make me upset and I don’t think I’ll support any further series she creates.”

Unlike most of her characters, Rowling is simply human, constrained not by magic but the mundane. Perhaps it would take an epic battle between Rowling and Warner Bros before an openly gay Dumbledore was allowed on screen. But it was Rowling herself who taught young people that these battles are worth fighting.

Rowling has created many armies in her fiction. In Harry Potter, giants, spiders, werewolves, wizards, and mermaids are all prepared to fight for what they believe is right. But the largest army she has helped to create – a generation of millennials who grew up reading her books and have fiercely liberal values – is now out of her control. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.