A part of me is reluctant to publish this, because who the fuck is Mitchell Bender that anyone should give two shits what they think about something like this? It’s not like I’m a billionaire with a massive cultural platform giving me an unearned perception of authority, or anything like that. I’m nobody more than a person with opinions. I don’t fit neatly into the cis-trans dichotomy either (down with dichotomies!), certainly not in a way that entitles me to any kind of authority on these issues: I am agender but pass as cis male, and therefore am a recipient of privilege on this axis in nearly every way that matters. I want to disclaim that up front so that anyone who feels that disqualifies me from this conversation can stop reading now. That said, the angle I want to approach this from is one I haven’t seen much of in the overall discourse, and I think it’s important.
Also, it’s a predictable cycle at this point: Rowling says some bullshit, it gets spread around and then against my better judgment I feel compelled to reply (although this essay is about more than just her). To be honest, I’ve spent most of today in a bizarre haze comprising utter fury and panic attacks, while working on this.
I want to talk about underdog worship, and how it factors into this conversation.
We have a cultural tendency to fetishise and root for underdogs (I was going to say “in the US” and I do think it’s stronger there, but as this conversation is actually about Britain, I’m forced to admit it extends beyond and pervades Western culture more broadly). I don’t think this is a particularly controversial observation. The easiest way to garner sympathy for a cause or a person is to portray them as embattled, victimised, threatened, outnumbered. As an underdog up against a vastly more powerful enemy. In a vacuum I’d say there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and it’s probably better than the alternative of defaulting to rooting for the powerful, rooting for authority… but in practice what this means is just that authoritarians find a way to play at being underdogs, because in so doing they establish plausible deniability about their authoritarianism and people feel comfortable supporting them. (I think this mechanism may actually be behind some of Trump’s support, incidentally. This is one of the very few things I think he’s legitimately good at. For certain definitions of ‘good’.) With these cultural predispositions in place, if the underdog is always the hero, then it’s sufficient to merely establish oneself as an underdog (and thus strip heroism of all other meaning). This often ends up being very effective rhetorically.
This perversion of the underdog leads to things like arguments about “playing the victim” or “playing the race card” – people who think that’s a thing genuinely seem to believe that “look, I’m a disadvantaged minority” is a set of magic words that forces someone to agree with you and give you what you want. (How many times have you heard a wealthy, well-connected white person jealously bemoan affirmative action in this way?) Which is just not how anything works. (Full disclosure, I’ll admit that a younger and more foolish me absolutely thought this was how things worked.)
You may notice that the same powerful people who use this kind of victimhood rhetoric are very quick to accuse people who have actually been wronged of “playing the victim” in order to silence them; whether this is disingenuous, or just because they’re so used to being disingenuous they can’t conceive of anyone being otherwise, I leave as an exercise for the reader.
If you believe that is how the world works, Oppression Olympics are a natural consequence. If you’re the most oppressed, you’re the most credible and everyone has to listen to you! You get all the cards! (All the trump cards, I almost said, but that feels like it means something different now).
And yes, even some more sensible beliefs can lead into Oppression Olympics if we’re not careful, and that is a problem. For instance, slogans like “believe victims” or “believe women” – which is a reaction to the fact that women and victims are so often disbelieved by default – can easily be misinterpreted as “nothing a victim/woman says can ever be false”. Or the fact that individuals are experts on their own lived experience and oppression: this is true, and important, but easily misused by bad-faith actors to manufacture credibility.
This is, of course, not how it actually works. Marginalisation establishes credibility about that particular axis of marginalisation. Being marginalised does by nature confer expertise about that subject. But people have a tendency to (whether good-faith or not) interpret this as “marginalisation establishes crediblity, full stop”, and then assume this credibility is transitive when that’s just not how expertise works. So “I was sexually assaulted, therefore I have some authority to speak about the experience of sexual assault” becomes “I was sexually assaulted, therefore my credibility cannot be questioned when I write a fact-free screed about transgender people”. This just doesn’t follow. It’s a complete non-sequitur. It’s the same phenomenon as Nobel Syndrome: the Nobel is an indicator of very specific expertise in one area, but this gets overinterpreted as “genius omnidisciplinary expert” and people take seriously an engineer’s belief that vitamin C is a panacea or the suchlike. Oppressed individuals are experts on their lived experience of oppression. They are not magical truth-machines who can say nothing wrong on any subject.
This kind of rhetoric is a blatantly manipulative attempt to manufacture credibility and force acquiescence, and I find it despicable. (Yes, among other things, I’m talking about J.K. Rowling using her experience of spousal abuse and sexual assault to establish her authority to disparage trans people.) It’s important to understand this tactic so we can identify it in action, because it’s often very effective.
The result of this kind of infighting and jockeying for position on the marginalisation ladder is a destruction of solidarity amongst groups who should be united in opposing the systemic power structures that disadvantage them all, which directly benefits that system. Many of those promoting such infighting obviously know this and are doing it deliberately. This is why we need concepts like intersectionality to properly understand the interactions of multiple axes of oppression. You can’t condense this down to a single axis without losing so much relevant information as to render things meaningless.
This is also how you get a bunch of incredibly privileged authors and journalists with huge platforms (and who still have those platforms despite any supposed “cancellations”) writing and/or signing a whiny open letter in Harper’s Magazine complaining that people dare to criticise them and occasionally be heard and how this is a betrayal of the principle of FREEZE PEACH. Here are a few good responses. (Note: there’s some sketchiness here, some of the signatories seem to have been unaware of what they were signing or what company they were keeping in doing so.) They want the power of the bully pulpit without the responsibility to be accountable for what they say, and they believe that framing themselves as victims is the route to maintaining that power. The sad thing is that there’s a lot of cultural scaffolding in place that makes that likely to work.
This is a perspective that requires a significant amount of privilege and ignores the impact this ‘dispassionate’ debate has on the people actually affected by the issues in question. Note too how certain people involved (cough cough) immediately turn on and attempt to bully their fellow signatories and their critics as soon as they take a step out of line.
This isn’t about “freedom of speech”. What they want is freedom to abuse and freedom from criticism. “Cancel culture” objections only ever go one way.
Here’s some more context at Digby’s: This isn’t only about trans people, it’s also about explicit fascism. This is power positioning itself as powerless to in actuality entrench that power. It’s incredibly sinister. It’s the well-known abuse tactic of DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender), writ large and aimed at the entire population. (Here is Fannie making the same point. “Overlords posing as underdogs” she calls it, which is precisely right.) And as Sam Wilkinson notes here, this comes at at time where peaceful protests are being met with state violence in the US, yet the threat to free speech is insufficient deference to the powerful? We see you.
It is also worth recognising the subtext of the Harper’s letter, as Katelyn Burns points out here: a preponderance of the signatories have come under criticism specifically for transphobia, to the point that it’s impossible to read the letter as the general statement it purports to be. This is a letter explicitly advocating for “freedom of speech” in order to spout bigotry and specifically against transgender people.
Loten here with a friendly reminder: the ‘constitutional right to free speech’ that bigots love to whine about means that the US government does not have the right to arrest its citizens for criticising them. (I’m sure Trump cries himself to sleep every night over this.) Nothing more. Discriminatory hate speech in all its forms is still a crime, people still have the right to disagree and shout you down and call you out for being an asshole, nobody has an obligation to provide a platform for people to spout bigotry and you can and will be banned from any platform that does not support your hate. Free speech does not imply freedom from consequences.
All that said, to return to Rowling for a moment, I do think there may be a sense in which she could be legitimately a victim in the context of TERFism being a cult (please follow these links, I don’t say this out of nowhere). Bear with me a moment. Observe that her beliefs have been growing more and more extreme over time, and every time she speaks out on this. So let’s imagine this scenario for a moment: at one point, she was merely ignorant, and may have held some beliefs that were naively sympathetic to transphobia (as many people do who haven’t thought about the issue). TERFs noticed this and targeted her for recruitment, couched their beliefs in language that made them sound reasonable, and encouraged her to say transphobic things (things she may not even have noticed were specifically targeted at transgender people, even). This naturally drew in criticism, which led to her thinking of herself as an embattled victim (“I just said vaguely reasonable things, like ‘sex is real’! why is everyone dogpiling me?”) and doubling down. This is when TERFs really come in with the love-bombing and establish themselves as the only ones she can trust, the underdogs fighting against a clearly massive and powerful enemy: you can see how powerful the enemy is by how numerous they are and how vociferously they condemn your bigotry! Go forth, brave warrior of TERFdom! We know this is a tactic they use. And Rowling has been, objectively, a fantastic get for them, in giving their beliefs an enormous platform and using her fame and popularity to gain political influence. She has done so much damage to the discourse around this subject and advanced their agenda incredibly effectively. So I do think there’s a high probability that she was targeted for radicalisation and it worked. This is not an attempt to excuse her from responsibility, far from it, but I do think it could be important to recognise that the problem neither begins nor ends with her, and that if she’s capable of recognising what was done to her by this movement, that might be a viable off-ramp she could take. I won’t hold my breath, though.
The truth is that a lot of TERF beliefs can sound superficially quite reasonable and even obvious, if you don’t know better (I’ve fallen prey to this a time or two before myself). They’re designed to. It’s a specific kind of biological essentialism that cloaks itself in the language of science and scientism, while conveniently also lining up with the (basic, oversimiplified) model of genetics that gets taught in schools or to curious children, and ignoring actual science that says things are a lot more complicated. The thing about models is that they’re useful, but ultimately, they’re simplifications designed to render the phenomena they’re modelling more comprehensible. The TERF model of gender, in which there’s XX and XY and nothing else, and those have a one-to-one correspondence to all the features we expect in the two buckets of traits we’ve decided to call male and female, is the biological, sociological, and psychological equivalent of spherical cows in a vacuum. It is trivial to find real people who do not fit into this model, at which point the TERF answers “the model is right, let’s force anyone who doesn’t fit into it anyway”, in contrast to the sensible answer which is to say something like “a model that fails this often is no good as a foundation for a society, let’s work on making something better”.
I’m probably going to lose some people here, because superficially this sounds a lot like I’ve gotten the roles backwards. Doesn’t gender transition necessitate forcing a noncompliant person into one of two boxes in a binary model? retorts the TERF. (Sometimes this is phrased in terms of transgender people living as “caricatures” of their gender.) The answer is no for a variety of reasons. Gender transition is a decision people make for themselves, usually after a great deal of careful thought and introspection and consultation with actual experts on the subject (where available). Gender transition does not, in fact, necessitate perfectly shaping oneself to fit the box (though some do; in some cases, that’s because they’re trying to thread the needle of unethical medical gatekeeping, but sometimes it’s just because that’s who they want to be), and in fact many people transition into nonbinary states. Transition only looks like the enforcement of binarism to people who are sneaking in binarist presuppositions. (Bimodal does not mean binary)
Gender nonconforming, nonbinary, and transgender people just want to live their lives in the way that feels healthiest and most authentic to them. That’s it. Standing against them is a small but influential lobby that is divided between the actively malicious and willfully deluded, plus whatever naive elements of the general public they manage to convince: a lobby with a vision of status quo compliance on the one hand, and invisibility or nonexistence on the other. And they want to frame anyone speaking out against this as oppression. We must not be gaslit by this.
The other conclusion I’ve been reluctantly forced to accept is with respect to Harry Potter fandom (which feels much less important, but I think still needs to be addressed). I think my previous stance of “let’s reclaim what was good about the work and the fandom from the author, let’s not let her ruin this for us” may have been naive. I do think, in principle, there is value in subversion of authorial intent with respect to problematic works. Flawed but compelling writing does cry out to be fixed, and there are some spectacular examples of doing just that, I’ve read quite a few of them over the years.
At the same time, some things may be beyond saving. I’ve tried reading Potterfic recently, and it feels like it’s all turned to ashes; it’s just not working for me any more. I’ve made attempts to return to working on the deconstruction, and it just feels wrong. I can’t ignore who she is; I can’t unsee all this toxicity and hate long enough to get enjoyment out of her creations. A creator’s beliefs leave their mark on the creation, whether intentionally or otherwise (something I hope our deconstructions have helped point out over the years), and I just don’t want to spend any more time in her head.
Lindsay Ellis, in a recent video on this, compared Rowling to Orson Scott Card, and I realised that I’m not nearly so conflicted about him despite the fact he may have been an even bigger influence on me (albeit a negative one: in my adolescence, I built an entire moral philosophy out of things I’d “learned” from his works, and later had to unlearn and dismantle literally all of it). I’ve also occasionally looked to see if anyone has attempted fix-it fanfics of Card’s works, and there just isn’t anything. Perhaps this is just because he had a different sort of audience, but I can’t help interpreting it as a message that any such attempt would be doomed to failure. There’s just no fixing it, because the problems are so deeply ingrained that altering or excising them destroys the story in its entirety. Ellis argues that reducing our engagement with Potter fandom is the best way to make Rowling less relevant, because that’s the direct source of the power and influence she’s wielding, and I can’t find an argument against this. It may, in fact, just be time to let the fandom wither. It’s had its time in the sun.
As such, this is also an announcement that a continuation of our deconstruction (which we haven’t updated in four years, Christ, what is time any more?) is so incredibly unlikely as to be nonexistent. I tried; I swear I tried. But this is the last straw for me. The mere thought of reading Rowling’s words, even with the intent of tearing them apart, fills me with dread and misery. I’m sorry, but I can’t do it any more.
Loten can attest that I was having panic attacks while writing this, and felt the need to out of the blue assure her that I still loved her. So much of our relationship has been formed and developed in the shadow of Harry Potter that part of me is afraid it will be impossible to untangle. I do think we’ll get through this fine, though, don’t worry about us. You’d think it would be easier for anti-fans like us…
I can confirm. It’s his brainweasels talking, we’re okay. You may think he sounds melodramatic here, but we met via Harry Potter fanfic and most of our early conversations and friendship were entirely rooted in Harry Potter. Luckily there’s more to it than that…
I’m just angry at Rowling deciding to evolve into Graham Linehan Mark Two and forcing us to reckon with this again and again. It’s not like we didn’t know she held some pretty terrible and regressive beliefs before, but now we know exactly how important they are to her and that she intends to put them into practice. That’s a step too far.
I’m not sure I have more to say at this point, except that I do want to promote various links that have come to mind in this discussion (and which I couldn’t fit naturally into this piece).
Zinnia Jones at Gender Analysis has done an in-depth debunking of Rowling’s claims in three parts (interspersed with some well-aimed Harry Potter snark), this is extremely well-researched and comes with the highest recommendation I can give. [one][two][three]
Jim Sterling gives the best retort to “TERF is a slur”: “In gaming terms, the attempt to redefine TERF is akin to EA calling loot boxes ‘Surprise Mechanics’. I am happy to start referring to TERFs as ‘Surprise Bigots’ if they find that less offensive.” For a more detailed explanation of why TERF is not a slur, see this article by Hailey Heartless.
Here are two threads on sexism (not transphobia, just plain misogyny and gender/sex essentialism) in the Harry Potter books, these aren’t new observations but these are both laid out quite well and I appreciated them.
Z.R. Ellor on how every female character in the HP series is judged in terms of maternity and/or her relationships to men
Alexandra Erin on the genderedness of “witchcraft and wizardry”
Ana Mardoll unpacks the claim that transition is conversion therapy and the misunderstandings inherent in TERF worldview necessary to believe that for those who aren’t well-versed in how TERF rhetoric functions
Katherine Cross on transphobia in Britain and how it straddles the liberal-conservative divide, leading people to have difficulty processing it
A few threads on Rowling’s degree of political influence (she was cited by US Republican senators as a justification for transphobic legislation!). We’re not picking on her just because she’s an author who says nasty things, but because of her unmatched global audience.
A few pieces on how this conversation affects trans men specifically, and their deliberate erasure:
Andreas Avester, “Defining Women as People Who Menstruate”
Evan Urquhart, “JK Rowling and the Echo Chamber of TERFs”
A few more I thought made important points:
Katelyn Burns, “When Biology Becomes a Cover for Anti-Trans Bigotry”
Hi folks, Loten here – this isn’t just Mitchell. He’s said pretty much everything that needs to be said, and as a front line food retail worker during a global pandemic (which isn’t over yet, please continue taking precautions as much as possible) I simply have not had the time or the energy to spare for Rowling’s privileged poisonous whining.
For my part I’m not exactly sure where I lie on the gender spectrum but I don’t think I fit the cis definition, though I pass for cis female, and I am definitely non-cis in other ways. (Rowling doesn’t see me as a ‘normal’ woman anyway, since I’m fat and therefore virtually another species, and I’m possibly infertile so that’s another strike against me.)
My own opinion? “An it harm none, do what thou wilt.” The existence of non-cis people, whether it be gender, sexuality, neuroconformality, mental health or any other metric, does not hurt me in any way (I mean, how could it?), so why on earth wouldn’t I be willing to support them, wish basic human rights for them or even merely acknowledge that they are real and should be allowed to choose their own identities? I don’t have to understand someone in order to support their right to exist. I have no idea why these things matter so damn much to people who are not actually affected by them, but those people need to learn when to shut up and step out of the way.
And as Mitchell stated above, this is the official end to our Harry Potter coverage. We’ve spoken before about how unprepared we were. What was supposed to be a fun, wistful look at the myriad flaws in an entertaining series turned into the sad, angry realisation that there’s very little that isn’t one vast flaw, and we want to preserve what little positivity the series still holds for us. It’s okay to still enjoy the books. It’s just very, very difficult.
If anyone feels the urge to comment with dogwhistles, bigoted rhetoric or frankly stupid dribbling… don’t. I promise we don’t care.