A LITTLE OVER A month ago, JK Rowling announced a new children’s book. A fairy tale book, The Ickabog, it was going to be released online in a serialised format, finally coming together as a book in November. Ten years ago, this news would have set the world on fire. The return of Rowling to the children’s book genre, her first ever since the Harry Potter series, should have made the book instantly the most awaited cultural product of the year, maybe, even the decade. But this hasn’t happened.
And you can tell why this is. The internet does not find her woke enough.
For the last couple of years, many individuals who would have grown up reading the Harry Potter books have been turning against her. Her public support last year for a woman who lost her job at a think tank because she made some comments that were construed by some as being transphobic, her following of certain Twitter accounts who again are called transphobic, and even before all that, her decision to support the casting of Johnny Depp in the second movie Fantastic Beasts has made her something of a controversial figure. To be fair, Depp has always denied allegations of physically assaulting his now ex-wife Amber Heard, and had by then reached a settlement and divorced her; although there is another ongoing court case now where he claims she used to assault him.
In the growing estrangement between her once fans and her, people have reread the Harry Potter books to find it has a diversity issue. Some have found the Chinese character in the Potter books, Cho Chang, too close to an ethnic slur. Some have even wondered aloud if the goblins in the Potter universe’s Gringotts Wizarding Bank with their hooked noses do not prove that Rowling is anti-Semitic. The latest storm occurred a few days ago when she shared an article titled ‘Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate’ on Twitter. ‘People who menstruate,’ she tweeted along with it. ‘I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?’
There were abuses and denouements. She was called a TERF (Trans-exclusionary radical feminist, an acronym coined by trans activists); one person, she says, even called her Voldemort. Warner Bros issued a statement; celebrities piled on, including several members of the Harry Potter film cast. Daniel Radcliffe, who as a child played the boy wonder, said, “To all the people who now feel that their experience of the books has been tarnished or diminished, I am deeply sorry for the pain these comments have caused you.”
At the heart of this debate Rowling is embroiled in is whether the sex one is born with should have any relevance. Many of the activists who criticise Rowling want gender identity (or what a person feels their gender is) to override sex as a legal and practical category. This means, for instance, a person with a male body can become a woman by simply identifying as one. This is a far more complex subject with far-reaching consequences than those who have criticised Rowling will admit. What Rowling and Maya Forstater, the woman who she defended last year, try to point out is that increasingly they find no clear space for discussion on this subject. Ideology, they point out, has invaded civil society, media, law and even science. Increasingly, governments are being pushed to allow people to change their legal sex at will, and to access single sex spaces of the opposite sex, even when there’s been hardly any debate on how this would impact women. Rowling isn’t a transphobe. She does not deny the violence and abuse many transsexuals face. But she worries that defining womanhood as a feeling rather than a biological fact has implications for the protection of women’s rights. She has defended her ground. Some days later, she wrote a lengthy and personal article detailing her interest in the subject and reasons out her opinions.
Whatever you think of Rowling’s views, you have to acknowledge that she has arrived there after thought and care. And it is hard to say the same about the online mob baying for her blood.