Sunday, January 2, 2022

Beating up J.K. Rowling won’t help

Fall '91, 1992 by Charles Ray
(The Broad, Los Angeles)
   Almost 30 years ago, I was scanning the Chicago Reader, looking for ideas, when I noticed a classified ad for a shop on Elston Avenue selling women’s clothing in large sizes to men.
     ”Now there’s something you don’t see in the paper every day,” I thought, and headed over.
     Chatting with the owner, I realized there was a larger story here. Not just one boutique, but a community. So I plunged in, visiting safe houses — cross-dressers often did not tell their spouses, so they needed places to store clothes and wigs — and attending a dance at a Northwest Side banquet hall, selecting “Miss Chicago Gender Society 1992.”
     The story holds up, in my view, because it isn’t condescending. It uses “she” to refer to the people encountered. Why? Because that’s the word they used. When you’re a reporter, it gets in the way if you stand in judgment. Honestly portray any group — a skill many people never master — and praise or blame won’t be necessary.
     The only outdated aspect of the story is the term “transvestites.” That is what they were called then. Or so I thought.
     At the dance, I found myself talking to Leslie, who seemed an attractive young woman. “So you’re gay?” I asked.
     No, she said, but she lives as a woman and dates men.
     That was almost a paradox. These days, she might instead say she “is a woman” rather than “lives as a woman,” and it is easy to tumble into that semantic gap the way J.K. Rowling, famed author of the wildly popular Harry Potter books, has over the past two years.
     Rowling began her slide into the bog of disrepute by defending a woman fired for angrily insisting on the preeminence of biological differences. The more Rowling explained herself, the more mired she became, until the stars of the Harry Potter movies felt the need to distance themselves from her. Fans wondered if she’d even be mentioned in the 20th anniversary show about the films that HBO Max began airing Saturday Jan. 1. She is.

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  1. I’ll start by saying that I’m a big fan of the Harry Potter books as well. I bought the first one for my daughter’s 10th birthday before it became a phenomenon, and over the years we read the entire series, several times, often aloud to each other.

    I do think, though, that you’re giving pretty short shrift to the trans community’s issues with her. Perhaps it would be more fair to include, alongside her own “cherry-picking” self-defense, a more complete picture of how others see it. Here’s one example: (Note: The case of Maya Forstater mentioned, which at the time this thread was written had been lost at a tribunal, ultimately decided in her favor.)

    None of which leads me to condemn J.K. Rowling as a human. I have read all of her post-Potter books for adults. Ultimately, I think she’s done far more good than harm. That doesn’t mean the harm should be ignored.

  2. I did read an article in the paper about he program on HBO Max. Who ever wrote about did have an advanced screening. There was very little about Rowling in the film.

    1. From what I read in the AV Club, it was all previously recorded footage from a while back.

  3. Nice work, Neil. It’s a hard and confusing world for those of us without human contact with trans people, and a good notion is to explore and listen like you did. And evolve. Performative support is well intentioned, but as you say- the real life issues are very difficult and require much more than arguments about semantics and biology. My kids were older than yours and read Harry without me. I think it’s time I loop back and visit this world. Thanks for the nudge.


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