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.”

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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 freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

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