The author of the Harry Potter books now finds controversy raging around her in the press and social media that began with one tweet on gender rights
A simple story with a happy ending, with evil unmasked and defeated, has great appeal, especially if there are grim threats and obstacles to negotiate along the way.
For two decades JK Rowling has not only delighted readers with this sort of tale, but also stood as living proof of triumph over adversity, having written her children’s books hopefully, inside that Edinburgh cafe, in an effort both to keep warm and to earn a new life for herself and her baby daughter.
Now, Rowling’s legions of admirers are waking up to the complications of the real world, one where no individual is safe from re-evaluation, and context is all.
“Oh no, why are we making Harry Potter a gender war?” wailed one Rowling fan online last week as a row about the author’s views on transgender rights spread across social media sites. “She has proven she is a literal villain,” argued Eden@wrath on Twitter.
This weekend the dispute looks like a major confrontation in a war between the generations; and not just a skirmish in the children’s fiction section of the library. One of the most successful writers in the world stands accused of deserting some of the most vulnerable in society, those who feel they were born in the wrong body.
As a result, the stars of the film franchise based on her novels, once happy to share a red carpet, seem to have stepped politely away from Rowling’s side. Emma Watson, who played Hermione Grainger, said that transgender people had a right to be who they say they are without anyone questioning it. Daniel Radcliffe, who starred as Harry Potter, has spoken out in similar terms, although cautiously noting he did not want it to be assumed he was attacking Rowling.
Since then politicians, novelists and actors have been called upon to make their positions known, as have Warner Bros studios, which was poised to make a lucrative new Fantastic Beasts film.
The flurry of statements and tweets has further frayed the tattered demarcation between traditional liberal and conservative attitudes. Although the battle lines do appear largely age-related, those under Rowling’s banner are characterised by some as older and slow to recognise altered priorities. Even the author’s favourite Potter fansite, The Leaky Cauldron, has urged followers to stop buying the books or watching the films, while a school in West Sussex has changed the name of one of its houses from JK Rowling to Blackman, after Malorie Blackman, crusading author of Noughts & Crosses.
A key sign of the confusion is the fact that on Friday it was a sensational headline in the Sun that won Rowling, a socialist, her most voluble support. Heralding an interview with the author’s first husband, Jorge Arantes, in Portugal, the front page exclaimed: “I slapped JK and I’m not sorry”.
The Sun’s editors claim it was an attempt to shame Arantes, but many commentators, including domestic abuse charities, have criticised the newspaper for giving voice to a man accused of violence.
Arrayed on Rowling’s side are some of the veteran voices of feminism, including the radical Julie Bindel, who spoke out in support this weekend: “Her political position is nothing to do with transgender issues. She has always been a feminist and she has inspired generations of young women and men to look into issues of sex-based discrimination,” she told the Observer.
The roots of all this clamour and the fresh focus on Rowling’s personal life lie in her decision last week to talk about her experiences as a way to explain her stance on transgender rights. But while Rowling has lifted the veil on violence she once endured, in fact there has been no unmasking of a hidden identity. She has long been politically outspoken and active on both parliamentary and social issues and is by now used to being vilified.
Back in December 2018 she adopted faux biblical language on Twitter to respond to those attacking her criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn. “And lo, unto her did appear a host of Corbyn defenders, who did descend upon her mentions and she was not sore afraid because she was used to it.”
Born in Yate, Gloucestershire, as Joanne, the 54-year-old author and Exeter university graduate lost her mother in 1990. She travelled to Portugal soon afterwards to teach English and met Arantes, then working as a television journalist in Porto. A relationship that they both agree was tempestuous was formalised briefly by a wedding in 1992 and the birth of their daughter, Jessica, the following summer. Rowling left for Scotland only six months later and took out a restraining order on Arantes when he tracked her and the baby down in Edinburgh.
Then followed the period of Rowling’s life of which she claims she is most proud, struggling to look after her daughter on state benefits while writing her saga of boyhood wizardry.
Once published, her books became a cult, before escalating quickly to the status of powerful cultural institution and making the author one of the richest people in the country.
Rowling, who had since remarried to a doctor, Neil Murray, and become a mother for a second and third time, continued to take creative risks. When the Potter books finished she wrote a well-received novel for grown-ups, The Casual Vacancy, in 2012 and then anonymously produced a series of thrillers under the name Robert Galbraith.
Rowling’s battling spirit had already been in evidence in 2011 when she publicly took up arms against the British press for intruding into her private life. She spoke at the Leveson inquiry of her horror at reporters’ efforts to find out about her family life.
More problematic for some of her fans, however, was the oppositional stance she took while Corbyn ran the Labour party. She regularly criticised his approach on social media and began to show herself to be at odds with the transformational brand of leftwing politics gaining ground with the younger membership.
Today’s inflamed debate began with a teasing tweet. Rowling had commented on an online article that referred to “people who menstruate” by writing, “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”. Absent from the social media platform for a while, the author had returned to talk about her new children’s book ,The Ickabog, and said she had immediately been labelled a Terf, a derogatory acronym meaning “trans-exclusionary radical feminist”. Then on Wednesday came her statement, headed TERF WARS.
In it she revealed the abusive nature of her first marriage to Arantes and spoke of an earlier sexual attack she had survived. She also wrote of her uneasiness about the numbers of young girls she said are now offered transitional surgery because they are unhappy in their bodies. She did, though, recognise that “transition will be a solution for some gender dysphoric people”.
In her childhood she argued “the allure of escaping womanhood would have been huge”, adding: “If I’d found community and sympathy online that I couldn’t find in my immediate environment, I believe I could have been persuaded to turn myself into the son my father had openly said he’d have preferred.”
Rowling was quickly accused of being transphobic, initially by activists, although she argued it “isn’t hate to speak the truth”. She considers contemporary mores to be the most misogynistic she has experienced, she has said, lamenting: “It isn’t enough for women to be trans allies. Women must accept and admit there is no material difference between trans women and themselves.”
The controversy looks unlikely to die out soon precisely because Rowling still means so much to so many. The contending attitudes also go to the heart of the question of whether transgender rights affect the rights of women and girls and of whether the transgender community’s fears of abuse and violence are more valid and pressing.
Beyond even that, the very nature of feminine and masculine characteristics, and of who gets to define them, seems to be in flux. When the dust settles it remains to be seen if the reputation of JK Rowling survives intact.