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Category Archives: mitchell

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

 

Harry Potter, going forward

It’s time to address the elephant in the room that is the Harry Potter series. I keep getting asked whether it’s going to continue, which is understandable given how long it’s been. (Incidentally, I see all comments, not just the ones on the most recent posts. If your comment isn’t about the newest post, please try and leave it on a relevant post instead.)

The honest answer at this point is that I don’t know. I want to keep going but every time I think of starting up the next chapter I just don’t have the motivation. When we started, it was supposed to be fun; we were supposed to enjoy at least the first two books and gradually ease in to the bad stuff later on, and slowly pick it apart over time while still preserving the good parts. Yeah, that didn’t happen.

I never thought these books were the most amazing literature to ever grace the earth, but I really didn’t think they were this bad, and part of me doesn’t want to keep going because I don’t want to end up actively hating them. This series has been a huge part of my life and had a tremendous impact on who I am, dumb as that is, because of what it led to, and I don’t want to lose that or taint the memories. I’m also still planning to write more fanfics someday (ah, the elusive someday), and while I don’t think I’m ever going to end up hating my favourite characters specifically, I’m not going to be able to write about them if I hate literally everything about their entire universe and canon history.

Rowling is really not helping matters by her constant gleeful abuse of a very, very dead horse. Everything she says about the franchise makes me dislike it more, which makes me harsher when analysing it, which makes my opinion sink further.

So I don’t know. I’m doing some thinking and juggling some ideas, I’ll try to come up with a way to keep going without burning out and ruining things for me (obviously in consultation with Mitchell). It might be that he takes over and I just drop the occasional comment, though he’s not much more motivated than I am at this point. It might be that we stop doing every single chapter and just cover scenes we think are worth discussing. Not promising anything, it might well be that we stop completely.

[Honestly, the most likely outcome is that I take over so that the brunt of the impact falls on me. It helps that I’m more comfortable hating them than Loten is, so that particular issue isn’t a deterrent for me, but it’s still a matter of not knowing when I’ll have the energy. I’ve tried to start the next chapter on my own a couple of times and didn’t get anywhere, but I’m not giving up yet. One of the reasons we started this project was that it was something to do together, after all, and doing it separately is less appealing. There are a lot of things in the series I do think are well worth getting to, but I guess we’ll have to see.]

I am aware that most of you are only here for Harry Potter content and that the other stuff gets far, far less attention, but so it goes.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2019 in loten, mitchell

 

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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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Monthly Spotlight: Tamora Pierce

something something Harry Potter soon mumble mumble

This month we’re looking at Tamora Pierce, a rather underrated young adult author who seems less well known now than she was when I started reading her stuff aged twelve or so. In many ways she is the first ‘young adult’ author, I suppose; her first book was published in 1983 and nobody was quite sure how to categorise it. Which caused a few issues, as we’ll see later. She’s known for decent female protagonists (before the world and his wife started throwing around the term ‘strong female character’) and for addressing everyday practical concerns such as menstruation and birth control.

Her books mostly consist of quartets following individual characters, and are set in one of two fantasy worlds, Tortall and Emelan. I’ve talked to a lot of her fans over the years, and without exception it seems that the ones you read first are the ones you like best. It has to be said that one of the reasons for this is probably because there are quite a few similarities in character and storyline between the two, but more on that later. Since I read Tortall first and Mitchell has only read Emelan so far [I did read the Alanna quartet also, just not the rest of them yet], you get both of us rambling at you this month. I’ll let him go first, under the cut. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on May 24, 2018 in loten, mitchell

 

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Monthly Spotlight: Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time

This month we’re going to look at some epic fantasy. The Wheel of Time turns throughout fifteen monstrously huge books (well, fourteen and one shorter prequel novel) that make the A Song of Ice and Fire books look like novellas in magazines. Seriously, I could kill someone with one of the hardbacks without much effort. The first eleven were written by James Oliver Rigney Jr, also known as Robert Jordan; after his death the series was finished by Brandon Sanderson. Mitchell gets to have some input this time too. Cut for length, though this is nowhere near as long as the Pratchett post.

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Posted by on March 27, 2018 in loten, mitchell

 

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Chapter Six

Been a while, hasn’t it?

The chapter illustration purports to show a mandrake. We’re going to be talking about those later. For now let’s jump into what turned out to be a pretty tedious chapter that was almost entirely padding. Try not to step in the foreshadowing.

Chapter Six: Gilderoy Lockhart

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Posted by on January 14, 2018 in loten, mitchell

 

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