Books · Film

Exploring how J. K. Rowling underestimates the homophobia in the Harry Potter canon

*Before you read this, I just want to let you all know that I really do love Harry Potter, so please don’t think I’m trying to ruin an amazing story. Also J.K.Rowling…. I love everything you’ve done!

Secondly, this is an essay I did for my university course. It was my final essay ever and I’m quite proud of it. This means that yes I have now completed my degree and have got some pretty amazing results!! So hopefully, there will be no more setbacks or late posts on this blog as I really have no excuse now.

I’d love to hear any good (or bad!) feedback so please comment even if you hated it!

I hope you enjoy!

**References are at the bottom of the page in the bibliography and I use the Harvard referencing style, which is why it is just brackets after the quotes.

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This essay will look at the whole of the Harry Potter universe. This will include a general look at all seven Harry Potter books (c. 1997-2007) and their eight counter-part films (c. 2001-2011). Then it will move on to explore how, or if, any changes have occurred in the production of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (c. 2016). The basic argument will look at Harry Potter being considered as a children’s text and the association that this has with regards to homophobic themes. The main argument will be the lack of support for people who have homosexual relations and also people suffering from illnesses (such as AIDS or HIV). According to the author, in several interviews and online sources (which will be discussed later), everything was said to benefit people who were unable to speak for themselves. However, this essay will look at whether or not the author, J. K. Rowling, was successful in this attempt as most homosexual themes in children’s texts are censored or removed. As Virginia L. Woolf has argued such attempts to censor the availability of children’s texts with homosexual themes stem from homophobia, which ‘still keeps most gay families hidden and accounts for the absence of information about them. It also keeps what information there is out there outside of the library, especially the children’s room, and makes it difficult to locate through conventional research strategies’ (Woolf 1989: 51). From this, it is clear that there has always been difficulty in securing homosexual themes in children’s texts, as Woolf suggests that this is not what people want. If this is the case, then we can easily link this to Harry Potter and can discuss the problems that have been brought to people’s attention over the years involving the lack of sympathy towards homosexual themes.

The first aspect that will be explored is how homophobia was a problem for people at the time that the Harry Potter universe was being created. As a book that was intended for children to read, it would seem highly probable that anything remotely related to something homophobic is unintentional.  Yet despite this, when the third book of the Harry Potter series came out in 1999, called Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it would seem that the author still believes that her intentions were good (despite the seventeen years that she has had to have realized how homophobic these certain remarks are regarding Remus Lupin). Rowling’s claim is that the character of Lupin who is introduced in the third book is the perfect metaphor for AIDS (or other such illnesses). Lupin is a character who suffers from lycanthropy. Rowling explains her decision for this in Short Stories From Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship, and Dangerous Hobbies by saying that ‘all kinds of superstitions seem to surround blood-borne conditions, probably due to taboos surrounding blood itself. The wizarding community is as prone to hysteria and prejudice as the Muggle one, and the character of Lupin gave me a chance to examine those attitudes’ (Rowling 2016: n.p.). At first glance it would seem that Rowling is trying to do good, however, upon further reflection and study, it is clear that during the time that this was written, Rowling actually has little sympathy or did not think too much about the whole picture that she was creating.

With retrospect, background knowledge is needed to understand better the problems that have been created with Rowling’s metaphor. Although this is a British book series, due to the use of the internet and more frequent use of email this point is relevant. What started in America in the 1980s was the urban myth called the “pinprick attacks”. This was the assumption that people who tested positive for HIV or AIDS, were purposefully leaving infected needles on trains, buses or cinemas for example. The idea behind this was that they wanted to infect innocent people (especially children). This point becomes relevant when we compare it to the presentation of werewolves in the text. Lupin is not the only werewolf in the series. There is one other called Fenrir Greyback who is described in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as ‘perhaps, the most savage werewolf alive today. He regards it as his mission in life to bite and to contaminate as many people as possible, he wants to create enough werewolves to overcome the wizards’ (Rowling 2015: 279). But to make it worse, it is explained that ‘Greyback specializes in children [. . .] bite them young, he says, and raise them away from their parents, raise them to hate normal wizards’ (Rowling 2015: 279). Now if he were just a simple werewolf and nothing more, then although this idea is horrible, it is acceptable because it is just a story (a story that contains bad and good people). However, by having Rowling advocate that being a werewolf is a metaphor for AIDS or HIV, then it just confirms people’s suspicious that clearly everyone who has this illness is set to destroy the world.

Greyback may not be the main representative for the werewolf community. However, his character can still be used to represent something, even if it was not Rowling’s primary intention. If we take her claim to be true that lycanthropy is a metaphor for certain illnesses, then we can certainly understand the problems that Lupin felt when he went to Hogwarts (as both a student and teacher). To add a background to Lupin’s character, on the website Pottermore (which is an online site that contains relevant information on characters, locations, spells, and other things), we learned that Lupin was actually infected by Greyback as a small child because Lupin’s father insulted Greyback for being a werewolf. Lupin is then a poor innocent child, who unfortunately has to struggle with this “illness” through no fault of his own. We, as the reader have sympathy for him and most notably when we see Lupin’s character throughout the Harry Potter books, we see him as a hero through the eyes of young Harry Potter himself. Rowling’s strength comes from the fact that when we are introduced to the character of Lupin, we see him through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old boy. A boy who respects and admires him. However, the sad truth is that this respect does not make any difference. The parents of the children at Hogwarts still fear werewolves. At the beginning of the third book, Lupin was only allowed to work at Hogwarts because his condition remained a secret, very few people knew about it. However, once word broke out, he had to resign because a fellow teacher revealed his secret. As Lupin states ‘this time tomorrow, the owls will start arriving from parents – they will not want a werewolf teaching their children’ (Rowling 2015: 450 ). From this, Rowling is attempting to establish a clear comparison between the stigma that follows people that have HIV. Lupin is shown as the metaphor for the outsider, the person who is feared by those who do not know any better. Rowling is trying to send a clear message out, that despite his good deeds that saved Harry, he will always have people who fear him. The truth of this matter is that this is exactly the same for people living with illnesses in real life so that comparison seems to work in Rowling’s favor.

This favor is, unfortunately, short-lived as Lupin himself says a line that does not quite seem to fit. He states that ‘after last night, I see their point. I could have bitten any of you… that must never happen again’ (Rowling 2015: 450). Lupin is taking the high road, an admiral approach. He is aware of the dangers of his illness. However, unlike people carrying certain illnesses, there is little chance of people accidentally “biting” an unexpected bystander. As people who carry HIV or AIDS, are normally aware of it and the majority of people do not want to knowingly spread it. This separates Lupin’s werewolf character from people who do carry certain illnesses. Furthermore, the fact that this homophobic metaphor about HIV and queerness is Lupin, who just so happens to be a straight character, only adds to the idea of the “pinprick attacks”, in which a “queer man” infects innocent straight people (as Greyback is seen as the “queer man” infecting the innocent heterosexual Lupin). To add insult to injury, what is revealed to us in a cast interview in 2011, is that Rowling originally meant to write Lupin as gay but then ‘the character fell in love with Tonks [his wife]’ (Robinson 2016: n.p.). There is even evidence suggested that others viewed the character of Lupin as gay (before it was revealed that he was to fall in love with Tonks). As ‘Alfonso Cuarón [the producer], in the rehearsals, without J.K. Rowling’s knowledge, told [him] that [Lupin] was, in fact, gay. So [he’d] been playing a part as a gay man for quite a long time. Until it turned out that [he] indeed got married to Tonks. [He] changed [his] whole performance after that. Just saw it as a phase he went through’ (Robinson 2016: n.p.). How he plays his character as gay remains a mystery. As having rewatched the films with this knowledge, that he played his character as though he was gay in the third and fifth film, you cannot really see a difference. So in part, that comment seems irrelevant.

The irony of this point though is the way that David Thewlis (Lupin), describes it as ‘just a phase’, shows how little he cares about his character being gay. But further to this is the fact that until viewing this interview, it could almost be perceived that Lupin was hiding his sexuality. This conjures up ideas of shame or alternatively, the fact that maybe it just was not seen as relevant. Certainly, the idea of shame comes up in the Harry Potter franchise, particularly regarding the werewolf metaphor. As the character of Newton Scamander, who is the lead character in the new Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, tells us another part of the werewolf metaphor. We have been given the information (from the factual online site called Pottermore), that although he was an animal lover and greatly deemed a hero in the film, he was in 1947 the main person responsible for creating the werewolf register. If Rowling had not been so set on having werewolves be a metaphor for HIV, then maybe there would not be so much problem with the details given. However, it seems as though she said it, without really thinking more about it. As though she just wanted to please people. Although there is no information to support this claim, the lack of thought or care about the rest of the texts shows that Rowling did not realize how huge her metaphor really was or the implications that would come from it.

With the introduction of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, one would have assumed that this was the perfect opportunity to stop spreading anything remotely homophobic, but this is not the case. As previously stated, the protagonist of the film is the person who created the werewolf register. However, this is only a small detail when we compare it to the larger problems that come with the film. Since this film was first presented in 2016, it would have been the perfect timing to keep up with the time – that people are apparently more tolerant of things, such as being openly gay and the advancement of medicines for treatment and control for HIV. In an article by Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, she writes upon the relationship between Percival Graves (who is actually Grindelwald in disguise) and Credence Barebone (a young outcast who Grindelwald cruelly manipulates during scenes that have an obvious gay subtext). Credence becomes the perfect example of someone who has to repress a certain aspect of their life, as in the film he has to repress his magic. Again, Rowling uses another metaphor to reflect upon real life, as this metaphor of repression can be used as an example of people who have to hate their own sexuality or even hide it because of their societal upbringing.

The relationship between Credence and Grindelwald is never fully described as queer. However, it would seem that the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing. An alternative approach that the filmmakers could have made would have been to have Grindelwald seen as a fatherly figure for Credence, a person that he could look up to. Instead, there is a sexual undertone to it, which comes across in a slightly creepy and controlling way. As Baker-Whitelaw points out, that by ‘understanding that Credence is starved for physical affection, Grindelwald caresses his face, holds his hand, and hugs him as tactics of emotional manipulation. Their scenes are filmed in intimate close-ups or distant shots of their bodies close together in dark alleyways’ (Baker-Whitelaw 2017: n.p.). From this point, it is clear the creepiness shown in the character of Grindelwald can be tied into the queer subtext. Furthermore, Baker-Whitelaw states that ‘Grindelwald arguably follows Hollywood’s tradition of queer-coded villains, a subtly homophobic tradition that is especially prevalent in children’s movies’ (Baker-Whitelaw 2017: n.p.). There are two approaches that can be taken to this, as this is a children’s film (and the Harry Potter books are also subsequently children’s books), we can assume that they have an aim towards education. So we can naturally assume that everything they watch is something that will affect them in their later life, this is how children learn. So the fact that Grindelwald is a character who preys on innocent young men, who are starved of affection, children may begin to see that any affection between men is consequently not good. This is because there is another motive. It may not seem that notable at first, or to some, it may not be relevant. But everything that children read or see has an effect on them in their decision making later on in life.

Apart from the educational side, the casting of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is also problematic and slightly controversial. To put all that has been said aside for a moment, and should we chose to believe that neither the films or books had any intention of being homophobic. Then the problem still remains of the casting of Johnny Depp as one of the main characters in the film Fantastic Beasts. In today’s society where scandal is everywhere, one would have thought that the best course of action is to avoid adding to it. However, even though Depp does not join the film till later (He plays the real Grindelwald, as Colin Farrell was just a magical disguise), he plays a character that has a huge impact on the love life of another man. From recent news stories, however, what is to be believed is that their relationship will not be topical in the film. Furthermore, Depp as a person has apparently had problems with his ex-wife, who came out as bisexual and he apparently did not like the fact that she had had relations with other women. Nothing has ever been confirmed, but despite all of this, one would have assumed that because Professor Dumbledore was in love with Grindelwald, they would have chosen an actor who had no controversy surrounding them.

From what we do know, the character of Professor Dumbledore (who is in Harry Potter and also a younger version of himself in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), was never outed as gay in the Harry Potter books. But rather it was revealed to us through an interview with the author, as ‘she took audience questions and was asked if Dumbledore found “true love”. “Dumbledore is gay,” she said, adding he was smitten with rival Gellert Grindelwald, who he beat in a battle between good and bad wizards long ago’ (BBC 2007: n.p.). Despite never fully answering the person’s question to did he find true love, she replied that he was gay. This was revealed to us after the book series had finished but before the sixth Harry Potter film had been released (the sixth film/book is also the one where Dumbledore is killed). The Warner Bros studios that created the Harry Potter films and Fantastic Beasts, have still yet to take advantage of this and portray it in this films. There have been many instances of people in the Harry Potter universe that have been described as almost becoming gay, but then Rowling changed her mind. One example is Lupin, (as previously mentioned the ‘character changed and fell in love with Tonks’ (Robinson 2016: n.p.)). Dumbledore is now the only character that has been actually defined as gay. From the website Pottermore, it has been confirmed that there were at least eight hundred characters (before the release of Fantastic Beasts and the play: The Cursed Child (c.2017)). Although not all of these characters are named, we know the names of at least two hundred characters.

The number of characters is relevant. As if we take the fact from Peter Vardy that about ‘ten percent of the male population are exclusively homosexual and a smaller percentage are exclusively lesbian’ (Vardy 2009: 204), then we can come to the mathematical conclusion that it is statistically improbable that only one in eight hundred characters is gay. Just out of the two hundred characters that we know more about, it would seem more likely that at a minimum there would be ten characters who would define their sexuality as gay. However, this is not the case. Instead, the only gay character that is in the book is Dumbledore and few readers would realize that his character is gay in the text. In addition to this, by outing his sexuality after his death, it can be compared to those in real life who have to hide their sexuality. It is a good thing that Rowling did this, as it conjures feelings of regret for not telling people that you are gay. However, this idea may not always be the first thought people have. On the one hand, as Aja Romano points out ‘Rowling effectively placed Dumbledore within the longstanding, problematic “dead gays” trope, instead of showing him living out his queer identity — or, even better, giving kids examples of queer characters Harry’s own age that they might be able to more effectively relate to than a 150-year-old sock-loving school principal’ (Romano 2016: n.p.). There are multiple examples of young heterosexual relationships in the books, Harry himself has at least two relationships between the entire series. So the fact that Rowling deemed it relevant to have heterosexual relationships but not homosexual ones, could make the reader question her intentions. However, it is perfectly possible to believe that although now, we are aware of how much this book series has affected the lives of children (and adults), it does not mean that the book has to be an educational one.

However, the main problem is the fact that Dumbledore is the only example that children have of a gay character in the series. Within the canon, he is a lonely and slightly odd old man whose love life is never explained (or for that matter deemed relevant). As Romano points out, we are only told this after he is dead.  Rowling has a perfect moment in her text to reveal to us that Dumbledore is gay in Rita Skeeter’s unauthorized biography (this biography would have come out after Dumbledore died, however, if Rowling had decided that Dumbledore was gay she should have put this information in the text, as the biography is quoted in some chapters in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). Skeeter would only have had to have mentioned it briefly, but it seems that most people think it is important. This is particularly true with the adaptation of Fantastic Beasts, as this is the prequel to Harry Potter, and means that we have the opportunity to see the tragic love story that Dumbledore has. It has been suggested that he was in love with Grindelwald, it never has been told if Grindelwald returned Dumbledore’s feelings. However, we know that despite what may have been between them, this relationship was doomed because Dumbledore had to defeat him, essentially, to save the world. So, in the context of what we already know about Grindelwald and Dumbledore, Grindelwald is an abusive queer character who preys on the affection of men he knows are attracted to him (Dumbledore) or who look to him for emotional support, as shown through the character of Credence (Merodeadora 2017: n.p.).

There is much to be said when we look at the whole Harry Potter universe as a whole. From a reader’s perspective, it is clear that the queer subtext was never the author’s intention at the start. The story of Harry Potter was never intended to demonize or support gay people. It is the support of the fans of the canon that created the uproar regarding Rowling’s intention. The problems came not in the text, but rather what happened after the stories were published. The interview given in 2007, about Dumbledore being gay, created problems. The problems were not because he was gay but the way that the readers were told that he was gay. There was little, to no evidence in the text and it seems more of an afterthought than a proper dedication to his sexual preferences. Certainly, it is true that the Harry Potter universe has been created over such an extensively long time that character developments will change. With this in mind, it is then perfectly plausible to have Dumbledore being portrayed as gay, even though the books never state it. If the Harry Potter canon only contained the books and nothing else, then perhaps people could believe Rowling when she said that it was never important to the story at that time. However, as the Harry Potter universe built and grew, it became something bigger. Despite this, even though there is an online factual site called Pottermore and the production of the film Fantastic Beasts, there is still little evidence from the producers to suggest that they want to explore Dumbledore’s gay relations further.

Despite the modern ways of the world, the Harry Potter canon fails to deliver upon requests to have an openly gay couple on screen, or even in other texts. There are around eight hundred to one thousand characters that we know of. Yet Dumbledore is the only example given (of the main characters). The problems do not just stop with Dumbledore, but also the lack of thought put into the character of Lupin and his illness is a metaphor for HIV and AIDS. The sentiment is there. It is clear that Rowling was trying to do good and appeal to people. Unfortunately, the werewolf metaphor when looked at as a whole just does not stand up to scrutiny. Being a werewolf fits in well with the magical world of Harry Potter, however, it is lacking in support for people with certain illnesses. Furthermore, it would seem that Rowling wants to achieve greatness by appealing to her readers, without knowing the full consequences of her actions. It would seem that she would rather try and please everyone than realize the full weight of her decisions. Not only that, there is actually little that Rowling can add to her texts since they have already been published. With this in mind, it can then be said that Rowling has no place to express her opinions, or reveal hidden facts that are not in the texts, or the Harry Potter universe. All that is left to be discussed is up to the reader and not the author. Rowling claims, she wished to educate her readers regarding gay relationships. Then why, knowing that her readership had grown up with the texts and that they would be starting to discover their own sexuality, did she not introduce an openly gay character. This clearly would support her readers who may or may not be gay and educate all to accept those who may be different from themselves.

Bibliography:

Baker-Whitelaw, Gravia (2007), What ‘Fantastic Beasts’ and Grindelwald mean for the future of queer representation in ‘Harry Potter’ [Received from Daily Dot] (Accessed on Friday 4th May 2018).

BBC (2007), JK Rowling outs Dumbledore as gay [Received from BBC] (Accessed on Friday 4th May 2018).

Merodeadora, Andrea (2017), The inherent homophobia of the Harry Potter series [Received from Medium] (Accessed on Saturday 5th May 2018).

Ortiz, Meant (2007), “PotterCast Interviews J.K. Rowling, part one.” PotterCast #130 [Received from Accio-Quote] (Accessed on Saturday 5th May).

Pottermore (2018), The Digital Heart of the Wizarding World [Received from Pottermore] (Accessed on Friday 4th May 2018).

Pugh, Tison (2010), Innocence, Heterosexuality, and the Queerness of Children’s Literature (London: Routledge).

Robinson, Joanna (2016), Why J.K. Rowling’s Latest Apology Is Even More Meaningful than It Seem. The Harry Potter author made a lot of fans happy today [Received from Vanity Fair] (Accessed on Saturday 5th May).

Romano, Aja (2016), The Harry Potter universe still can’t translate its gay subtext to text. It’s a problem. [Received from Vox] (Accessed on Friday 27th April 2018).

Rowling, J. K. (2015), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (London: Bloomsbury Publishing).

Rowling, J. K. (2015), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (London: Bloomsbury Publishing).

Rowling, J. K. (2015), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (London: Bloomsbury Publishing).

Rowling, J. K. (2016), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay (Pottermore from J. K. Rowling).

Rowling J. K. (2016), Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (London: Little, Brown Book Group).

Rowling, J.K. (2016), Short Stories from Heroism, Hardship, and Dangerous Hobbies (Pottermore from J.K. Rowling).

Vardy, Peter (2009), The Puzzle of Sex (Norwich: Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd).

Woolf, Virginia L. (1989), “The Gay Family in Literature for Young People.” Children’s Literature in Education 20, no. 1: 51-8.

Yates, David (2016), Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them (London: Warner Brother Studios) DVD.

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