October 24, 2007

J.K. Rowling’s pathetic and disingenuous attempt to retroactively introduce a gay character in Harry Potter

I can’t believe I’m blogging about this now-lingering Harry Potter story, but I suppose anything is possible in an infinite Universe. I’m motivated to write about this because I’m pissed off at what J.K. Rowling has done and how the news of a gay character has been received in some quarters.

Shame on Rowling for “outing” the character of Dumbledore after the completion of the series. While some are heralding this as a step forward in terms of the growing acceptance of gays and gay characters, it is in reality a step in the opposite direction.

By outing the character in this way -- without any serious intimations in the books that Dumbledore was in fact homosexual (come on, Rowling, who do you think you’re fooling?) -- it comes across as a pathetic attempt to look progressive and tolerant after the fact. By doing this, Rowling has instead created a token gay character for which she can now pretend to herself and lie to her readers that they should have known it all along.

Here's a novel idea: how about having an openly gay character from start to finish? Perhaps Rowling is experiencing an acute case of heterosexual woman's guilt by not doing so. Whatever the reason, this back-peddling is really quite sad and is not helping the cause.

Shame also goes out to all the homophobes who have reacted negatively because it is now known that there is a gay character in this so-called children’s series, or because of their unease with the suggestion that a gay man was permitted to routinely interact with children. The squeamishness that some people have over the idea of gays interacting with kids is abhorrent and unfair; it belies the many misconceptions and unfounded fears that a number of people have about homosexuality.

Thankfully, in my household, where these topics are discussed openly and matter-of-factly, my Harry Potter obsessed children took no issue with the revelation that Dumbledore was gay, nor could they understand what all the fuss was about.

It all starts at home.

15 comments:

Jensen said...

I agree whole heartedly. If she really wanted to make Dumbledore gay she would have written it into the story but she didn't. Taking a true stand on an issue is tough and I understand that making Dumbledore gay in the Potter series may have effected book sales, but if she's going to take a stand then take a stand. Making the statement that Dumbledore is gay without even writing the smallest hint doesn't cut it. All she's doing by making the statement now is lowering her credibility as a writer and insulting the gay community.

Dale Carrico said...

I don't get it. Rowling often discussed details about her characters with her fans, even when these details didn't play out in the books themselves.

By outing the character in this way -- without any serious intimations in the books that Dumbledore was in fact homosexual

Serious intimations -- like what? I guess I might take your point if you thought there were explicit counter-indications on which key plot points rested or something -- in which case the announcement might seem more like a stunt. I thought the disclosure deepened the stakes of the Dumbledore backstory considerably, and also made Dumbledore a more fully-dimensional character. All to the good. References to a straight love story would have done the same sort of work -- I wouldn't have found that objectionable either.

(come on, Rowling, who do you think you’re fooling?)

Why are you so convinced she is? I just don't get this reaction.

-- it comes across as a pathetic attempt to look progressive and tolerant after the fact.

Wow, "pathetic"? Do you disagree with Rowling's disclosure in the same discussion that the books represent for her an extended plea for tolerance and the need to question authority? It all squares with my impression of the books all along. I think the Potter books have always seemed progressive and tolerant throughout.

By doing this, Rowling has instead created a token gay character

Dag, Dumbledore? That's one rather looming presence for a "token," surely?

for which she can now pretend to herself and lie to her readers that they should have known it all along.

It is hard to imagine how you would substantiate the claim that Rowling is telling a lie, in fact it is hard to know what such a claim even means in a context like this. You should pause and reflect on this more. It seems like something else is afoot here -- and knowing you as I do I certainly doubt very much it is anything like homophobia!

George said...

Hi Dale,

I don't get it. Rowling often discussed details about her characters with her fans, even when these details didn't play out in the books themselves.

If it’s not in the book, it doesn’t exist as part of the Harry Potter canon. Otherwise, Rowling and her fans can make things up as whim dictates.

Serious intimations -- like what? I guess I might take your point if you thought there were explicit counter-indications on which key plot points rested or something -- in which case the announcement might seem more like a stunt. I thought the disclosure deepened the stakes of the Dumbledore backstory considerably, and also made Dumbledore a more fully-dimensional character. All to the good. References to a straight love story would have done the same sort of work -- I wouldn't have found that objectionable either.

How does a late disclosure like this compare to a “straight love story”? The fact that this didn’t happen is completely the point! A fully-dimensional character is a fully-dimensional character within the text only. An author cannot retroactively flesh out a character in a press conference.

And by intimation I mean anything that would indicate the character’s sexual orientation – some kind of device that could prove that Rowling’s recent disclosure wasn’t fabricated after the fact. If it was important to announce the character’s sexual orientation upon the close of the series, than it should have been equally important to have hinted at this in the books themselves.

This disclosure also complicates and constrains liberal interpretations of the story and the character.

Why are you so convinced she is? I just don't get this reaction.

Perhaps because I’m cynical of these things? That if she was genuinely interested and invested in these issues she’d have the guts to make it explicit in her books? Or that this is likely a marketing ploy intended to spin-off side-story novels? Or as a publicity stunt meant to generate more book sales?

Wow, "pathetic"? Do you disagree with Rowling's disclosure in the same discussion that the books represent for her an extended plea for tolerance and the need to question authority? It all squares with my impression of the books all along. I think the Potter books have always seemed progressive and tolerant throughout.

These are nice messages. Too bad she didn’t have the courage to permanently embed the gay tolerance message in her books and venture into more politically dangerous territory.

Dag, Dumbledore? That's one rather looming presence for a "token," surely?

Token in the sense that his sexuality is closeted. As one gay commentator noted on CBC radio this morning, obscuring Dumbledore’s sexuality in this way was worse than the demeaning portrayal of gays in movies during the first half of last century.

It is hard to imagine how you would substantiate the claim that Rowling is telling a lie, in fact it is hard to know what such a claim even means in a context like this. You should pause and reflect on this more. It seems like something else is afoot here -- and knowing you as I do I certainly doubt very much it is anything like homophobia!

Agreed, I don’t know for certain that she is lying. Sure, she may have known it all along. That’s a possibility. But my brain tells me otherwise, and that’s what I’m going by.

As for your suspicion that “something else is afoot here,” you need to clarify what you mean.

Cheers,
George

Apollo said...

I think there may be another take that casts the revelation in a better light. Why would Rowling need to reveal Dumbledore's sexual orientation specifically any more than she would need to reveal other characters' preferences for gender or other traits? If it didn't serve the story to focus on this then it would be best not to reveal it. Fleshing out characters outside the story is fine, I believe. Many writers create worlds with many fascinating and mundane details they don't include in the pages of their books because it doesn't further the plot. Neil Gaiman responded to this controversy and added some clarity, I think.

Kale Manusco said...

Rowling has been eyeing the vacancy left by the death of Princess Diana. She is the closest thing to a neo-Princess Di, and she felt that a few inane politically correct "off the record" addendums (strictly among us fans) to the canon might put her over the mark.

Steve said...

It seems that she hasn't just decided D. is gay after the fact, as she apparently told one of the movie directors not to write in mention of a love interest for him.

On the other hand, if D. was known to be gay, why didn't Rita Skeeter uncover this for her expose of him?

Tom said...

Once a work of fiction has been published, the author should shut up. If Rowling wants to re-write/edit/polish the whole damn thing and come out with a "new vision" edition of the series, that would be jolly. The public can accept or reject the "new vision" - or learn to live with multiple versions of one story, as we do with "The Wizard of Oz."

Meantime, she has a billion dollars in her bank account, in exchange for which the original Harry Potter series belongs to us, The Masses, and we should be left alone to find and imagine whatever we will in the text.

As to the specific issue of Dumbledore's sexual orientation: Rowling has no more say about it than anybody else.

Tom said...

I just got an email from Shakespeare. He's decided that Hamlet was gay.

Gnorb said...

Various comments here have caught my eye. I think the answer to all of this was best put by Neil Gaiman:

*Question to Gaiman*
In Ross Douthat's recent column in the Atlantic Monthly concerning the J.K. Rowling press of late (http://tinyurl.com/yq2wz2), Douthat suggests that "a writer confident in her powers wouldn't feel the need to announce details like this". It seems odd to me that ulterior motives are so quickly suspected -- she was an author answering a question with additional information not previously known. Do you find yourself withholding information during Q&A if it's not already contained in the story? Why or why not?

*Answer from Gaiman*
All that tells us is that Ross Douthat doesn't write fiction.

You always wind up knowing more about your characters than you can get onto the page. Pages are finite, and the story isn't about giving you all the information about everyone in it any more than life is. Things the author knows about characters (or at least, strongly suspects -- it's never really real until it hits the page, because the process of writing is also a process of discovery) that don't make it onto the page could include the characters' backstory, what they like to eat, the toothpaste they use, what happens to them after the story is over or before it began, and what they do in bed. That something didn't turn up in the books just means it didn't make it onto the page or wasn't relevant to the story...

Neverwhere has two gay characters who are Out, as far as the book is concerned, and one major character who is gay but it isn't mentioned, simply because that character was one of many people in that book who don't have any sexual or romantic entanglements during the story. So it's irrelevant.

Sometimes even the author doesn't know for sure ... And, truth to tell, sexuality tends to be such a minor thing, if you have several hundred characters running around in your head. You know more than you've written.
*End Answer from Gaiman*

You can see the full reply on his blog.

In short, I think this is much ado about nothing. If the details of his sexuality weren't important to the story, then they shouldn't have been in there. I'm a fiction writer myself, and I've created characters who people understand and believe to be one way, but I as the writer, understand at a much deeper level, one that cannot -- and should not -- necessarily always make it to the page, whether this be because of word length constraints, or more commonly, because it doesn't really matter to the story. Sometimes adding it in might even detract from the story.

Anonymous said...

excellent post ... what a trite excuse to show a progressive attitude ... sad

Tom said...

Once a work of fiction is published, the author should butt out. Whether it is progressive or disingenuous or whether she has a lot of extra material about her characters or wants to nicely answer readers' questions shouldn't matter. She really MUST shut up.

She has been paid. The story once was fully hers, now it fully isn't.

As I commented earlier, she can rewrite the whole damn thing if she wants as sort of the movie equivalent of a "Director's Cut." Then, we can have two versions out there for the public to wrestle with. [In addition, of course, to the movie versions of the books.] But the original Potter series is the public's, now, to think and dream about and she must stay away.

How would it be for Romeo and Juliet to survive and run away together? or Gatsby to run off with Daisy in the end. Blasphamy!

Damien said...

You're not an author or artist, are you Tom? Only someone ignorant to the creative process would say "butt out" to the author of a book, especially when dealing with undisclosed backstory.

You didn't write it, I didn't write it, SHE WROTE IT. It's her world, and her word is law. Don't like it? Too bad, artists aren't beholden to literary Luddites.

Mark said...

Ok, this is just dumb. Rowling creates back stories of only minor significance all the time. There is nothing special about this back story other than all the press it has gathered; that's the press' problem, not hers. Your reaction mystifies me.

Mark said...

Good point Tom, I didn't think of that. Now I'm going to go burn the blasphemous Silmarillion in protest.


To think an author would have thought through characters more than actually typed on page! The HORROR! And then to answer a direct question after the fact! She should burn in Hell for this.

yea

Scot said...

I found Rowling's statement to be fully within her right to make. With arguments against it citing a need for the author to back away from his/her work after it's been published, it's easy to understand the frustration many people have been expressing.

My thoughts weigh in at a hearty "meh, it's her world. She can do what she wants with it." I find her writings to be entertaining and as I do not care a whit about the sexuality of strangers to me in reality, I just can't muster the effort to do so in this case either. If a person is gay, wonderful for them. I expect their road to a romantic bliss is going to be every bit as confusing and challenging as it was to me or any other heterosexual.

In trying to be transhumanist, should we not also strive to be transsexualist? *wink* Is not the goal to be above petty concerns of societal limits in order to achieve a greater understanding of ourselves? How does being outraged at the sexuality of a fictional character factor into this? As a layman would ask, "What's this got to do with the price of rice in China?"