In 2009, when J. K. Rowling launched Pottermore—a unique website where Potter fans could read more about their favourite characters from the book beyond canon, and could discuss the series and keep its legacy alive—like any other Potterhead, I was thrilled. The last book in the series had been out for two years, and the last Potter movie was only a couple of years away, so naturally, there was this sense that this series, which had substantially shaped my formative years, was going to end, and with it, my childhood. Let me paint a picture of what 2009, and the years leading up to it were like: Tumblr was in its nascent stages and hadn’t reached out to as many people, which meant that fandom and fan culture largely flew under the radar andfan conversations, fanfiction, fanart, and so on happened illicitly, in forums buried deep into the recesses of the internet. In such an environment, an author as big as J. K. Rowling pledging her open support for fanworks, and fandom in general was a HUGE deal. Pottermore was a huge deal. It was her legitimizing the existence of fan imagination, of fan narratives. But slowly, things went down south.
Once Tumblr fully and properly took off fandom was legitimized in a much bigger way than what Rowling was doing. In fact, once Tumblr made being a ‘fangirl’ or ‘fanboy’ cool (and even mainstream)—the fan community started to realize that while Rowling’s support was still great, it had certain shortcomings. In the past couple of years, it seems as if Rowling has become desperate to control the fan narrative that has emerged in the wake of fandom being normalized, and even becoming a somewhat academic discourse. She’s started adding tidbits and additions to the story on Pottermore and on Twitter which seemed to come out of nowhere—calling it ‘representation’.
But here’s the deal, though. What she’s doing with her post-series additions is not real representation—in fact, it’s her trying to cover up the utter mess that is the representation of race, gender, and LGBT+ issues in the original series.
Race, in the Original Series and Post-Series
Remember Cho Chang? Yes, Harry’s brief love interest in the fourth and fifth books.
Weird how we remember her only as a love interest, isn’t it? Because, that’s exactly what she was reduced to. While she starts out being described as an accomplished quidditch player and a Ravenclaw (“those of wit and learning”), she later becomes seen only in relation to her relationships with Cedric or Harry. Rowling didn’t add much to her personality beyond that.She becomes a stereotype—right down to her name. ‘Cho Chang’ isn’t even an actual Chinese name—it’s a mashup of two Korean first names. Rowling just lazily threw together two East-Asian sounding names and thought it would be representation?!
Other characters of colour—Parvati and Padma Patil, Lee Jordan, suffer similar fates and are hardly given any kind of importance in the larger plot.
The only character of colour who does have a somewhat fleshed-out role is Dean Thomas, but even then, his sexuality is ignored (more on that in the next section), and he hardly gets any speaking lines in comparison to his fellow ‘white’ characters.
But if that wasn’t enough, how Rowling has taken to adding to these stories outside of the books/canon is stupefying.
A couple of months back, Rowling released information on four new Wizarding Schools which exist around the world besides the ones mentioned in canon. Among these four, one was in North America, one in Brazil (South America), one in Japan (Asia) and one in Uganda (Africa). This essentially means that there are three Wizarding schools in Europe (the ones in canon) whilst the whole of Asia, Africa and South and North America get only one each! This is Euro-centricism at it’s worst—because Europe as a continent is tiny compared to the vast geographical expanses of Asia and Africa (which aren’t too favourably portrayed in Western media anyway).
But the latest, and perhaps her most problematic addition is about the American wizarding community. On 8th March, Rowling released some major information about American magical history from the 14th through 17th centuries. As Dr. Adrienne Keele rightly points out, the brutal colonization of America is totally glossed over as she calls European colonizers “benign explorers“. Further, Rowling reduces Native American culture to a monolith, by simply calling it “the Native American community” when in reality, it never was one single community but a multiplicity of communities and cultures that are diverse, complex and very different from one another. She is appropriating Native American myths, trying to pass them off as her own, and even worse, representing Native American culture as primitive, and saddling it with dozens of stereotypes. Dr. Keele sums up the various problems better than I do in her posts.
Add to that how Rowling also completely glosses over America’s history of slavery and racism. When asked about racial segregation among wizards and whether slavery existed within the wizarding community, this is how she responded:
.@ridd1kulus No, there was mutual respect and a sense of kinship between all wizards, no matter what their race.
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) March 8, 2016
Are you really telling me that racism wasn’t an issue amongst wizards in North America? North America, where people of colour are fighting for basic civil rights even now? If she imagines a wizarding world without racism, that’s her prerogative as a writer, but given that race representation in Hogwarts was sort of one-dimensional, her tweet comes off very much as “white lady doesn’t want to talk about race”. The Wizarding World has never existed within a historical vacuum—there are mentions of real historical events like the Salem Witch Trials in the books—so it’s inexcusable that Rowling erases the entire history of slavery in America.
LGBT+ Representation, And Its Lack Thereof
In 2007 (after the book series had freshly ended) Rowling announced that Dumbledore is gay, to the joy of LGBTQ fans worldwide. To be honest, in the beginning, even I rejoiced. But then, she kept doing this—randomly stating that this character was gay, and that character was Jewish—and I couldn’t help but wonder where the hell is the proof in canon? Never is it anywhere even remotely hinted that Dumbledore could be gay (okay yeah, there was that something with Grindelwald, but if his sexuality was really canon—why not explicitly mention that their relationship was more than platonic?). It almost seems like she didn’t mean for this originally, and, when being called out for having no LGBT representation, sloppily added it in being all ‘Oh I guess Dumbledore is gay now’.
Further, Rowling stated that she supported Dean and Seamus having a relationship, and had initially imagined them being in one, but she didn’t write it into the books because it would have been “distracting” to the main plot. Really, J. K.? That’s your excuse? A healthy, interracial gay relationship between two relatively stereotype-free characters would have been anything but distracting—in fact, it would have been inspiring.
Fanworks Are What’s Actually Giving Us Representation
Genderbent, Racebent, Queer fanart and fanfiction; i. e. fan works that imagine the original characters as being anything but cisgender, white and heterosexual; is what’s actually giving us the representation we need. I remember, as a teenage brown girl who was just coming to terms with her queerness, discovering fan fiction with a Black Hermione, with an Indian James and Harry Potter, with a Trans Remus Lupin, with queer romantic pairings and so on—and feeling like ‘yes, these are my characters too, and I relate to them’.
This is what fan narratives do—imagine a world that’s more equal, and less dominated by harmful patriarchal tropes that surround us. That’s what really gives us representation and fills in the untold gaps, in a way that the original books never could. But, with all her additions, Rowling’s trying to take over these narratives, stifle them even, almost as if she’s trying to say, ‘No, this is my series and only I can continue it’.
And that’s just disappointing. More so, to a die hard fan.
There’s no doubt that J. K. Rowling’s a great writer. She created a series which is not just fantasy, but also has real-world resonations that are relevant even though it’s nearly a decade since the last book came out. But Rowling, if you really want to represent a culture, or a certain sexuality by doing full justice to it—please do some basic research first. Most importantly, it’s time to stop making last-minute additions for the sake of diversity. Let the legacy be in the hands of the fans, because it’s much safer there.