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Author Archives: mcbender

Victim Mentality, Intersectionality Failure, Oppression Olympics (& of course TERFs)

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]

Some video links:
Breaking down Rowling’s transphobic essay” by Jessie Gender on youtube
TED talk by Emily Quinn, “The way we think about biological sex is wrong” (an intersex perspective)

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

Alyssa Gonzalez, “My ‘Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria’ was anything but

Captain Cassidy, “JK Rowling and the Measuring of a Woman

Dr Sarah, “To JK Rowling: A Reply to your Letter on Transgender Issues

———–

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.

 
16 Comments

Posted by on July 9, 2020 in mitchell

 

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Sigh. Guess I have to talk about Rowling being a TERF again.

I didn’t want to write about J.K. Rowling’s transphobia again, and considered myself to have said all I wanted or needed to on the subject the last time this came up. That said, the discussion has been raging over the last few days, and I feel guilty for not having said anything.

Let’s get this out of the way first: The Sun’s interview of her abusive ex-husband, in which he brags about assaulting her, is unacceptable and unwarranted (and I shall not be linking to it). That said, I don’t know why anyone would have expected better from the Sun, nor why anyone thinks mentioning it is a defence of her. It’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time: we can condemn both of them. The Sun doing this appalling thing to Rowling does not in any way excuse her for the appalling things she herself has said about trans people and the harm that those words will do.

While Rowling’s manifesto of transphobic dogwhistles is certainly more substantive than anything she’d said on the subject before, most of it is not surprising given what we already knew she believed. The danger, I’ve seen argued and I think I agree, is that a lot of her rhetoric is superficially plausible and may look convincing to people who know little about the subject (as most TERF rhetoric is designed to be), and she has a very large platform due to her fame and wealth, so it’s likely to be widely read.

The other aspect is that her tweets and manifesto came at a time when they distract from widespread civil unrest that actually seems to be having an impact for once. The protests against police brutality and systemic racism set off by the murder of George Floyd are incredibly important, and Rowling managed to divert the media attention to herself instead. Even if this is a mere coincidence, it shows incredibly bad judgment and a certain degree of narcissism; if not, it looks like a deliberately racist act.

It is, however, an encouraging sign that so many members of the Harry Potter movie casts have spoken out against her, including Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Evanna Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Rupert Grint, Katie Leung, Bonnie Wright, Noma Dumezweni and I’m sure others I’ve missed or am failing to recall at the moment. Kudos to them for doing this. It doesn’t erase the damage Rowling’s words have done, but I hope that it at least helps mitigate it a bit for those transgender fans who are hurting right now.

I want to highlight a few things I found noteworthy in this conversation:

First: this thread (unrolled version) highlights an incredible irony, which I’ll summarise, but I highly recommend reading the entire thing because it’s wonderful. This line is quoted:

“‘Harry, your eyesight really is awful,’ said Hermione, as she put on glasses”
—Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, chapter 4, “The Seven Potters”

This is from the scene in which multiple people use Polyjuice Potion to transform into Harry. As the tweet puts it, “At this point in the narrative, if you’ll forgive me for putting it so bluntly, Hermione has a penis and testicles.” Her body is currently identical to Harry’s (even to the point of his myopia), and we know Harry is cis male. Yet Rowling instinctively knew to continue using “she” for Hermione, because her gender identity didn’t change despite not matching her current physical configuration.

(On the subject of pronouns, it’s also… interesting, let’s say, that in the awful Silkworm scene involving Pippa which has been rightly criticised so often, which comes up every time this issue gets discussed, Rowling’s narrative gets her pronouns right. She wrote a scene in which a stereotyped trans woman is villainised and threatened with prison rape, but she got her pronouns right. If anything, Rowling’s transphobia has gotten worse since then. She’s not learning, and if anything she’s being radicalised.)

This is beyond just Rowling – I’ve definitely seen other transphobes instinctively use the correct pronoun for a binary trans person, only to then “correct” themself in order to deliberately misgender them. They already know.

Second: once you start looking for it, transphobia isn’t hard to find in Harry Potter canon. For example, look how Rita Skeeter is described [quote source]

“Skeeter was described as having blonde hair set in elaborate curls that contrasted oddly with her heavy-jawed face. She wore jewelled spectacles studded with rhinestones, and had thick fingers ending in two-inch nails, painted crimson. Her blonde curls were curiously rigid, suggesting it was styled with the magical equivalent of hairspray. In addition, she had penciled-on eyebrows and three gold teeth, as well as large, masculine hands. Her bright scarlet painted fingernails and toenails were usually likened to claws or talons.”

Hyperfeminine presentation. “Heavy jaw”. “Masculine hands”. It reads like a litany of dogwhistled stereotypes. Rita may or may not actually be trans, but this certainly looks like she’s coded that way. And beyond that, I saw someone point out that the rest of Skeeter’s character starts to look more sinister, in that she transforms her body to sneak into places where she doesn’t belong and spy on children. That sounds very similar to the bathroom invader nonsense.

Third: what I didn’t know about “Robert Galbraith”

Robert Galbraith Heath is apparently the name of a psychiatrist who pioneered gay conversion “therapy” and was extensively involved in human experimentation (not to put too fine a point on it, torture).

Again, it is possible Rowling chose the name Robert Galbraith by coincidence and did not know this (Galbraith is a surname that people still have), but it seems unlikely, given Heath was by far the most prominent, and if she had done a cursory Google search of the name before choosing it as a pseudonym he would definitely have come up. So we’re required to believe either (a) she picked a pseudonym and didn’t bother doing any research on the name at all, or (b) she saw this history and said “yes, this is definitely the association I want”. Neither of these are a good look.

Fourth: on underlying bigotry and how to engage with literature

Let’s not pretend that this is the first time we’ve learned Rowling has bigoted views, nor that transphobia is her sole offence. There is a deep social conservatism underlying all of the Harry Potter books, which I hope I’ve managed to point out instances of over the years. They are deeply fatphobic. The goblins are an anti-semitic stereotype. The portrayal of house-elves reiterates a common apologetic for slavery, as well as implying activism is naive and foolish. There’s Cho Chang.

The books aren’t even feminist, despite Rowling’s pretensions. From the beginning you have the narrative that maternal love is inherently magical and special, most women are discussed in terms of their roles as wives and mothers, and so on. Love potions exist and are never condemned, to the point they’re played as a joke; this culminates with Cursed Child presenting a supposedly sympathetic character (Ron) as an advocate for date rape.

The supplemental material doesn’t help either; recall the discussions of cultural appropriation and racism against indigenous peoples in “history of magic in North America”.

(And one of the reasons I’ve spent so much time defending Slytherin over the years is that not to do so would be to go along with the books’ conceit that some forms of bigotry are correct.)

I could go on, but I hope I’ve made my point. None of this is to say that you can’t enjoy the books, but (as I’ve said before) it is important not to ignore these things. I won’t tell anyone not to read HP Lovecraft, for instance, but to do so without noting his incredible level of racism and that it’s a fundamental theme in his work is extremely irresponsible. Lovecraft fans, to their credit, know this, and tend to be willing to engage with it.

Harry Potter has become such a cultural touchstone, for better or worse, that I understand the desire to read it and know about it. I’m glad I’m not a parent, and don’t have to wrestle with the decision of whether or not I want to give these books to my children. What I would say is, go ahead and read them, but unpack the implications rather than ignoring them. I’ve written about this before. At the same time, I would also say don’t read these and ignore works from authors whose work is less problematic, and especially seek out writing by authors of colour and authors who aren’t cishet, so that this isn’t the only view they get.

I am also not going to tell anyone they can’t continue engaging in fandom activities. As I’ve argued before, fanfiction is inherently conversational, any piece of fanfiction is by mere fact of its existence a response to the source material and that’s part of the beauty of it. Interpreting works in a way that runs counter to the author’s intent, and using them to explore these issues in more nuanced ways, can be very valuable and even therapeutic.

The author isn’t dead, but we can work to kill her. (Note for any alarmists reading this, I obviously don’t mean this literally, but in terms of the literary concept of “death of the author”. Please don’t physically harm anybody.)

I do think it’s imperative to stop purchasing the books and merchandise. Stop giving Rowling money, she already has far more than any one person should.

Here are a few recommendations for reading/watching on the subject:

Ashley Miller did a point-by-point rebuttal to Rowling’s manifesto at the Orbit.

Here is a very thoughtful and in-depth video essay on the subject by Sarah Z, I second pretty much everything she says here; I’d say if you follow only one link from this post, make it this one.

Here’s another good one by EssenceOfThought, who is a nonbinary trans person.

I can’t link to everything valuable I’ve seen in this conversation, there’s been so much over the past few days, but I think all of these are worth it.

That said, by writing about this I recognise that I too am contributing to the problem of distracting from the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and institutionalised racism. Please don’t ignore them, nor let the media get bored and downplay them. They are continuing to happen and still need all the support they can get.

 
6 Comments

Posted by on June 13, 2020 in mitchell

 

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Deniability is no longer plausible. Stand with trans people.

I should apologise for not having written recently; there are lots of things I want to talk about (and frankly should have talked about), but my depression’s been really getting to me and I’ve barely had the energy to be functional a lot of the time.

That said, I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but I think I/we need to weigh in because we’ve discussed the subject here before (there’s been a spike in hits to a certain chapter of the Silkworm review, as there often is when something like this happens). As I don’t use Twitter, I’ll be commenting on the brouhaha here instead.

Joanne Rowling is a transphobic asshole, click through to see it in her own words. She’s not even trying to hide it any more. No more “oops how does the internet work, what is a like button teehee” shenanigans. No more “but Cormoran Strike is transphobic, that doesn’t mean she necessarily agrees with him” excuses.

Let’s unpack this just a little bit. She’s literally going out of her way to perform wokeness on as many other axes of bigotry as possible, before getting to the punchline of “trans women? nope, not them”. Unlike everyone else, she seems to say, trans people deserve special condemnation and transphobes are the real victims.

(A helpful bit of context in case it isn’t clear what she’s commenting on there.)

I can’t say I’m surprised. This isn’t news; everyone who’s more than vaguely aware of the things Rowling says on Twitter should already know this (as friend of the blog Ana Mardoll has already pointed out), but she said the quiet part out loud this time so more people are noticing. Good.

(This made me laugh, admittedly. Image of a fanzine titled “Harry Potter and the Problematic Author”)

I’m not going to tell anyone they shouldn’t read her writing or can’t continue to be fans of Harry Potter, if they get something out of it. Goodness knows my life wouldn’t be the same if not for those books; Harry Potter fandom is the reason I met the person I love most in the world, and I can’t imagine who I’d be if I hadn’t. Go ahead and employ death of the author to your heart’s content and make something better out of them (but maybe give someone else your money).

But that fondness is not an excuse to ignore transphobia, or any other form of bigotry. I realise it can be hard to be a fan of problematic things while still acknowledging those problems, but the alternative is denial and apologetics. You can like things without them being perfect, and you can like things without that necessarily being a referendum on your character. Nearly everything is problematic in some way, after all. But we cannot deny the existence of bigotry just to make ourselves feel better.

And the natural consequence of that sort of denial is extrapolating it. If we train ourselves to think that a certain work of fiction we like can’t possibly contain bigotry because we’d feel uncomfortable liking it if it did, what then happens if we come across a similar example of bigotry in real life? The easiest way to resolve that cognitive dissonance is to refuse to see the real life example also, and that tends to be what people do.

So it is likewise important to acknowledge when a person has shitty beliefs, and that those beliefs might come out in their work.

I’ll say this as nicely as I possibly can: fuck off, J.K. Rowling.

There is a serious problem with transphobia (and specifically the TERF variety which parasitises and exploits feminist rhetoric) in the world right now, and it’s especially virulent in Britain for some reason. This is not to say it’s not a problem elsewhere, of course, but we can’t ignore the trend. Pay attention.

And if you know a trans person, for fuck’s sake let them know you support them.

[I don’t have anything else to add except to repeat: fuck off, J K Rowling.]

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2019 in mitchell

 

Character Development vs Character Assassination, a Failure Mode Analysis

Well, hello there. This is Mitchell, the person you’ve probably forgotten exists because I’ve barely written anything substantial for the better part of two years (fuck depression and fuck the ability of politics to exacerbate depression), but technically this is my blog too. I’m back to talk about a story about wizards and how it disappointed me. No, not that one, sorry. The other one.

Over two years ago, I wrote this post, and, more significantly, the Magic: the Gathering fanfic I link to in it. That context may be helpful to understand the rest of this post, but I’ll try to write this in a way that is comprehensible without it. I mainly want to use this opportunity to talk about character development, what makes it work and ways it can go wrong, but in order to do that I’ll need to go into detail about this particular example.

Honestly, writing about this at all is a bit self-indulgent, but please bear with me, I think there are some useful lessons to take from it.

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Posted by on April 9, 2019 in mitchell

 

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Bad Movies Are Bad, Film at 11 (but don’t watch The Crimes of Grindelwald)

We all knew it was going to be bad, the only questions were how bad and what kind? Reviews have been coming out and the picture isn’t pretty, needless to say, so here’s a link roundup for the time being. I haven’t yet decided whether I’m going to subject myself to this (I may do next week, solely so I can write about it, but I’m not sure), but hopefully this will tide you over for now. Honestly, these reviews remind me of nothing so much as the first leaks of Cursed Child spoilers; it’s just ludicrous.

Emily Asher-Perrin at Tor: The Crimes of The Crimes of Grindelwald (This is the most detailed dive into the wtfery, if you only read one I suggest this one)

Jeremiah at The Fandomentals: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a Post-Mortem for J.K. Rowling

Ani Bundel at NBC (yes, NBC): Harry Potter Franchise’s new Fantastic Beasts sequel should not have been written by J.K. Rowling

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw at the Daily Dot: Queerbaiting is Ruining the Fantastic Beasts Franchise

To make a long story short, it sounds like there’s pretty much a bingo here. Character assassination of some of the last remaining likeable characters, pointless unexplained retcons (among other things, how the fuck is Credence alive when the climax of the first film was literally him being killed? I’ve still yet to see an answer to this), needless overdramatic bullshit, plotlines that make no sense, forced cameos and attempts at continuity that somehow just break everything further, casual appropriation without even a good reason… oh, right, and Johnny Depp. Can’t forget about him.

[Links above contain extensive spoilers, obviously. For my part I have nothing to say that hasn’t already been said; it’s more of Rowling’s tiresome refusal to put the franchise out of its misery already. It ruins everything that was decent about the first film, it invalidates the entire point of the first film, and it fucks up every single story arc without even having the grace to do it well on a technical level. There aren’t enough pretty imaginary animals in the world to compensate for this one.]

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2018 in loten, mitchell

 

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On Nagini apparently secretly being a human

Apologies for the dearth of content recently. I don’t have much excuse except that I just haven’t had the energy to write; hopefully this will change soon, but I can’t make any promises.

[I’ve had some stuff going on recently that drains my free time and energy. Chamber of Secrets has not been abandoned but it could be a while yet.]

I have to admit that we haven’t had our ears to the ground in Harry Potter fandom as much lately, so we’d missed hearing about this one until All-I-need brought it to our attention in the comments. Here’s the article she linked us to.

So. Um. That’s a thing, apparently. Nagini is now a “Maledictus”, a “blood curse that only affects women, and one that Nagini has no control over”. Charming. So it’s like a werewolf but not because reasons, like an animagus but not because reasons, and it only affects women because why not have more sexism? [There’s been no mention of a male equivalent. Unless werewolves are the equivalent, since it’s just occurred to me that we’ve never heard of a female werewolf in this universe, but I didn’t see Greyback being turned into Voldy’s pet/food source/soul vessel and deprived of all agency and freedom.]

There is also apparently a fair amount of discussion about racism happening, because the actor is Asian and this may have been an attempt to use something from Southeast Asian culture (and no doubt badly, given Rowling’s track record; that said, I don’t know enough to comment on that). [All I know for sure is that Nagini is the name of the female cobra in Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, and given Kipling’s usual naming conventions it probably just means ‘female cobra’. Potterverse Nagini is not a cobra. Beyond that, I have nothing.] What I can say is that “maledictus” is far too Latinate a name, which comes off as rather colonialist: if it really is based on something Asian, why not use the actual name, or come up with a variant on that?

Rowling claims she’s been waiting to reveal this for 20 years. I categorically do not believe this, because it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, and it is very typical of her tendency to retcon things that didn’t need changing for the sake of shock value. I would be utterly shocked if there was any evidence of this being a thing before the last year or two at best; it seems obvious to me that it’s an attempt to link the Fantastic Beasts films more closely to the original series in an effort to increase fans’ investment in them. [Yeah, it’s obviously a total ass-pull that came to her while putting together this clusterfuck of a script.] Also, the maths just don’t work (as per usual) – 20 years ago would have been 1998. The year Chamber of Secrets came out. It would be two more years before Nagini the character existed in canon.

So let’s get this straight. Rowling’s best idea for adding a female character of colour to the story is for her to have nonconsensual transformations into a snake form, previously only seen being used to obtain potion ingredients via milking venom, fed human flesh, made a vessel for Voldemort’s soul (again, presumably without her consent?), possessed and controlled (even just saying that feels gross in this context) as a weapon, and eventually killed. Killed only in order to make Voldemort vulnerable, for the exact same reasons as various inanimate objects: she has the same level of narrative agency as a goblet. [It’s particularly troubling since we now have a woman of colour being turned into a literal possession owned by a white supremacist. These people really do have no awareness whatsoever.]

This also raises the question of why Nagini’s venom would have been an effective restorative for Voldy if she wasn’t (as we previously thought) some product of his own power or a unique magical species. [And this also becomes yet another thing Dumbledore supposedly knew about all along – since he’s in this film – and just never bothered to mention.]

(On the human flesh thing, Loten’s complained about this to me before. Rowling doesn’t know how snakes work, a snake eating something as large as a human corpse would go into a near-hibernation state while digesting and that might well take over a month. I also seem to recall that snakes tend to prefer live prey to corpses?) [Yes, most snakes prefer live food. I suppose this stupid handwave would somewhat explain why Nagini doesn’t act like a snake; in addition to this, she never seems to shed her skin and seems unbothered by the temperature.]

I don’t have much else to add. If this Nagini character was a willing participant in everything Nagini did in HP canon, then it’s basically just another Bellatrix, another hate-sink character who is evil for evil’s sake and doesn’t serve much of a useful narrative purpose. If she wasn’t, then this is yet another female character being created solely for the purpose of her exploitation. Neither is a good look, really. (Also, is she older than Tom Riddle then? I’m not entirely clear on the timeline, but that also seems weird to me. Why would Rowling do this?)

[Presumably there will be a reason why Nagini is in human form in Fantastic Beasts 2 but only ever exists as a snake in the main canon timeline. Presumably this reason will be terrible.]

Before reading the article, my first thought was that Nagini being human was a (bad) attempt to patch the Cursed Child timeline problems – if Bellatrix didn’t have time to be pregnant, why not shoehorn in another female character who could be Dolphin Sue’s mother instead? (The mental image of her hatching from an egg or something and later being told Bella was her mother is something I have to admit I did find amusing.) This doesn’t appear to have been the motivation at all, but if anything there seems to be even less purpose behind it, so I figured I might as well share that for a laugh.

I really can’t see any way this could have been a good idea. I guess Rowling wanted more attention or something. Honestly, it’s all so stupid I’m having a hard time remembering it’s also problematic and offensive.

[Of course Rowling’s latest shock reveal is tiresomely racist and misogynist as well as making no sense whatsoever. Why wouldn’t it be, most of the others have been.]

Edited to add this – in case you wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, don’t.

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2018 in loten, mitchell

 

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Get Out (2017) initial reactions and review

My apologies to our regular readers for our silence recently; we’ve had a lot going on offline and haven’t had as much time to write as we’d have liked (though we do have a few more posts in the works that should be coming relatively soon). Thanks for your patience. In the meantime, have a thing I dashed off pretty quickly.

One of my coworkers recommended “Get Out” to me recently; I ended up watching it last night, and wrote up my thoughts shortly afterward to aid in the subsequent discussion. I hadn’t really intended to do a blog post, but I realised it would probably be publishable with a bit of minor editing and there might be discussions worth having about this film. The remainder of this post will contain spoilers for the film, and for various genre reasons this is a film which is probably best watched unspoiled, so if you are interested in seeing it you may not wish to proceed. That said, I was not nearly as impressed as I was led to believe I would be, and can give it only a lukewarm recommendation at best, so I am not necessarily saying to stop reading this post if you haven’t seen the film.

Also, as an advance warning, this is a film that deals directly with racial issues and seems to have been written by Blacks primarily for Black audiences; as such, I feel a bit uncomfortable as a white person criticising it and there may well be things I missed due to not having the cultural context. Let’s get that disclaimer out of the way.

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Posted by on November 20, 2017 in mitchell

 

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More Fangames: A first look at Pokemon Sage (Demo 2.0)

Last year, I wrote about my experiences with some fan-made games, one of which was Pokemon Uranium. One of our commenters made us aware of Pokemon Sage then, and I thought it looked promising and would be well worth keeping an eye on. At the time, I got the impression it was still in a very early state, there was plenty of concept work to look through and a short playable demo but not enough to draw any firm conclusions one way or another.

I later stumbled across discussions of Pokemon Sage again, in reading discussions of Pokemon Uranium in a Let’s Play thread by Orange Fluffy Sheep on the Something Awful forums (the Let’s Play forum is a guilty pleasure of mine, I lurk but don’t participate). People there were much harsher on Uranium than I was (I think rightly so; I do still mostly like it, but I’ll readily admit most of the flaws they tore it apart for are real and deserve the mockery), and several of them kept bringing up Pokemon Sage as an example of a Pokemon fangame that gets right the things Uranium got wrong.

To make a long story short, they’re absolutely right. But we’ll get to that.

Anyway, I was in the mood to play some Pokemon recently, and remembered that earlier this year (late July, I don’t know the exact date) a more substantial demo of Pokemon Sage had been released. I don’t normally care for playing incomplete games – I can tolerate incomplete or abandonned serial fiction, but when it’s a video game and you add to that the possibility of getting psychologically invested in a save file (which may not be compatible with future versions of the game even if it does continue to update), the frustration level increases greatly. That said, Sage intrigued me enough and the new demo had enough of it implemented that I thought it was worth giving a try, so here’s my review of Pokemon Sage Demo 2.0.5 (this version released 10 August 2017, available here) after having played it to completion.

[I won’t be contributing much to this one, I haven’t played it yet – it looks really promising and I probably will, but I also want to try and wait for the full game.] Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2017 in mitchell

 

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Epilogue Day has come and gone

Last Friday came and went and I nearly didn’t notice. I had a niggling feeling in the back of my mind that I was missing something – I’d noticed that it was September 1 and something seemed significant about that, but didn’t quite put my finger on what it was until afterward. September 1, 2017 was, in fact, the date on which the awful ‘Nineteen Years Later’ epilogue would have taken place and I almost let it pass by without noticing (and without comment). I may well be less attuned to Potterverse things than I used to be, but then on top of that it’s also the bloody awful epilogue we’re talking about so it may not be as surprising it didn’t immediately come to mind, but even so, you’d think I’d have thought about this and prepared a post in advance. I feel rather guilty about not having done so.

Here’s a link to a relevant Twitter thread, the sentiments expressed amused me greatly.

Also, Tor.com had an article.

Apparently this was a big deal to some people. Loten tells me it was all over the news and people actually gathered at King’s Cross, among other things. I’ll admit a part of me likes that idea, and almost wishes I’d been able to go and/or had the inclination to do cosplay of some kind (in the back of my mind there are fantasies of mocking the epilogue via live-action subversive fanfic – I could probably pass for Harry, unfortunately – but I know I would never actually do something like that). Or, I don’t know, call in a satirical tip to the British police about Ron Weasley’s fraudulently obtained driver’s licence.

Then, too, on some level I wonder if it will change how people think about the series to realise that even the distant-future epilogue is now in the past (or if they will even notice that; thinking about it, I’m not actually sure any explicit dates are actually mentioned in the text). There’s always that hint of surreality when reading a text like Nineteen Eighty-Four or 2001: A Space Odyssey or the like which is clearly written as if set in the future, but given a date that we have now passed. And maybe it will aid the books’ fade into eventual cultural irrelevance, though that does not necessarily excite me as someone who is invested in criticising them.

So in ‘honour’ of this ‘significant’ moment, shall we utterly pick apart a bit of the text?

‘He’ll be all right,’ murmured Ginny.
As Harry looked at her, he lowered his hand absent-mindedly and touched the lightning scar on his forehead.
‘I know he will.’
The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well.

“All was well” is the part that most people poke fun at here, and rightly so. I remember Rowling saying for years in interviews (before the final book) that she’d had the ending written from the beginning and the last word was going to be ‘scar’, but in the end she did this instead. Looking at it now, I actually think changing that was a mistake: I assume that means the final sentence was originally some reworked variant of the previous one (e.g. ‘It had been nineteen years since Harry last felt any pain in his scar’), which is a functional enough way of implying ‘Voldemort was gone for good and the core conflict on which these books focused has been resolved; rest easy, reader’. It becomes problematic when the next sentence comes along and says ‘all was well’, which even when charitably read falsely implies ‘all of the societal problems in these books have been fixed’ and that’s laughably not in evidence (and, frankly, factually contradicted) even just taking the epilogue in a vacuum. For fuck’s sake, the epilogue includes Ron confessing to having used illegal magic on a Muggle driving instructor, and nobody present notices or cares beyond a vague ‘ha ha isn’t he silly’.

What I also notice is that Harry’s behaviour here is bizarrely superstitious. He’s worried about his child, so he reassures himself that nothing bad could possibly happen to him because there’s no Voldemort? This really does not follow, Harry. There are lots of other things that can go wrong for a child at school; even plenty of Harry’s schoolboy misfortunes had nothing to do with Voldemort! (This is also pretty hilarious in light of Cursed Child being a thing, admittedly. We know quite well that all was not, in fact, well, even in the fictional universe of Harry Potter and ignoring how everything’s been going to shit in the actual 2017.)

In a way, I suppose it could be argued that all of this is ridiculously uncharitable and obviously ‘all was well’ is only being used as shorthand for ‘the story is over now’, much like ‘they lived happily ever after’ and such. But as I said earlier, the previous sentence already accomplished that, so I think we have to conclude it’s doing additional work. ‘All was well’ is not merely saying ‘the conflict has been resolved’, it is also saying ‘and what remains is a good and proper state of affairs’. The deviation from Status Quo has been corrected, Our Side Won, and everything is now the way it should be, there’s no more work to do! Oh wait, I’m not talking about Harry Potter any more, now am I? That sounds a lot like something else that’s awfully relevant in this year of 2017. (And in case you think I’m talking only about Twitler and his zombies, I’m not, though that does describe them: some of the responsibility for their movement’s virulent rise has to go back to leftist complacency after Obama was elected, and our failure to recognise the extent of the racist backlash and take it as seriously as we needed.)

It’s kind of interesting how that dovetails, isn’t it? Especially since I’ve barely begun to address the hilarity of the ‘all was well’ scene occurring in 2017 of all years. And that is because the problem is an underlying attitude and mode of thinking, moreso than any particular sequence of events (never mind that, again, 2016-2017 is especially egregious, that’s not the point). The epilogue’s attempt at a pat ending just lays bare the fact that, in reality, ‘all was well’ is a statement that can probably never be true and there will always be more issues that need addressing. What the person saying it inevitably means is ‘I’ve decided this is good enough’, or, more bluntly, ‘I’ve got mine so fuck you’: it is fundamentally a statement of willful ignorance or complacency.

And to be complacent in the face of systemic oppression and societal inequality is to be complicit in the harm it does.

I’m not always the best about this myself, I have to admit – if nothing else I have a tendency to just observe and try to be well-informed (and to call out bad behaviour when I see it around me), I’m not great at actually taking action on anything, and I’ve been overwhelmed enough that I’ve not managed to do much by way of writing either – but that’s something I’m aware of and something I’m trying to work on.

I’m not sure if I have a greater point here, but this is where my thoughts on that scene took me. Happy belated Epilogue Day.

[Loten here. I have no input. As far as I’m concerned the epilogue doesn’t exist, after all.]

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2017 in mitchell

 

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Egotistical douchebags and the women they imagine will love them

Here’s a quick response to a stupid thing on the internet, because reasons I guess. If you have not already seen this train wreck of a website, that’s what it’s about (Here’s the original URL but he’s taken it down to put up a declaration of victory because apparently the internet laughing at you is a win? the Wayback Machine doesn’t forget). We learned of its existence from Captain Awkward on Twitter and while her response really does adequately describe the situation, this thing is too much fun to mock to be worth ignoring. (PZ Myers has a take too.)

The timing was good, as I’ve been having a lot of job-related anxiety and distress this week, so having something so perfectly stupid to snark about was quite welcome. (Long story short, a spontaneous opportunity presented itself which I found really exciting – that particular kind of excitement being a very rare thing for me – had some interviews which seem to have gone well, but the result of those interviews is that I seem to have convinced the firm in question that they need to take the project in a different direction and the role they were considering me for no longer exists. I may have talked myself out of the job.)

I’ve transcribed (and edited slightly for readability) some fun excerpts from our initial conversation after discovering this… person’s… website. Among other things, I cut out the bits where we compared him to Donald Trump and Christian Grey, because both of those should really go without saying. Enjoy.

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Posted by on August 26, 2017 in loten, mitchell

 

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