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Queerbaiting
5 min

Does someone need to cast a Silencio spell on JK Rowling?

By using queerness retroactively, Rowling has turned her legacy into a farce

JK Rowling has conned us again — retconned us, that is.

In a newly released Blu-ray feature interview for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Rowling revealed that our beloved Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore and Nazi-style baddie Gellert Grindelwald, did, in fact, have an intense, sexual relationship.

“It was passionate, and it was a love relationship,” she says. “But as happens in any relationship, gay or straight or whatever label we want to put on it, one never knows really what the other person is feeling. You can’t know, you can believe you know.”

If Rowling expected to get praise for claiming two of her characters were actually in a same-sex relationship, even though she never wrote it into her books or into the Fantastic Beasts screenplays, she was greatly mistaken.

Fans of the Harry Potter franchise have long been retconned — retrospectively revising a part of a work by introducing new information that changes the interpretation of the original work — by Rowling, whose novels came out more than 20 years ago. But where the occasional insight into what our favourite characters were up to after the books ended was thrilling, Rowling has fallen victim to TMI, oversharing on Twitter to the point that fans feel scammed by these seemingly random insights. This is especially true of her back-and-forth over Dumbledore’s sexuality and her reluctance to make him explicitly gay.

Back in 2007, three months after the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling said during a Q&A at New York’s Carnegie Hall that she “always thought of Dumbledore as gay,” even though it wasn’t mentioned in the Harry Potter series. She had her chance to be more explicit about his relationship with Grindelwald when the first Fantastic Beasts film came out in 2016, for which she wrote the screenplay (though Dumbledore wasn’t in it).

She had another chance to create a multidimensional openly gay character last year with Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Instead Dumbledore’s sexuality was coyly alluded to. In response, queer fans were angry over the snub — Jude Law (who plays the wizard) said that kids were ready for a gay Dumbledore, but the franchise couldn’t have an openly gay character because of overseas box offices. The love between these wizards was rendered to a pseudo-cryptic line (“we were closer than brothers”) and a longing look into an illusion of his lover in the Mirror of Erised.

Rowling’s retroactive release of key information has been happening for years — from telling fans what house James S Potter is sorted into, how much tuition costs at Hogwarts and that Voldemort’s snake Nagini was once human. Following criticism over the casting of a Black woman as Hermione Granger in the stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Rowling suggested that Hermione was never actually white. And two months ago, she scandalized us all by telling us that in the 18th century, Hogwarts had no plumbing, so wizards would shit on the ground then use a spell to make it disappear.

Perhaps coincidentally, or to ride on the success of the Cursed Child, much of this retroactive information was offered up around 2016, at the start of a new, polarizing political climate, one that was very different from when Rowling wrote the series: the presidency of Donald Trump, the climbing numbers of hate crimes and mass shootings, the fight against white nationalism. This climate has also produced a fierce era of progressiveness among marginalized groups: the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, global fights for LGBTQ2 rights. The LGBTQ2 American population has grown to 4.5 percent and teens are identifying as gender fluid and non-conforming more than ever before.

We’ve come a long way since the Wizarding World, one that was written into existence over two decades ago. Now, Rowling is playing catch-up, trying to garner the respect of progressive potential readers and retain the loyalty of fans, despite having very little racial and gender diversity in her novels. That’s why Rowling’s allusions to Dumbledore’s gayness is all the more offensive: it feels like an half-baked attempt to attract and keep a queer fanbase.

We expect queerbaiting in films, those which promise or toy with the idea of same-sex love stories then rip them away, claiming it fell victim to the cutting room floor. We’ve seen it in music, with straight artists co-opting queer culture when they write songs about queer love. This is an era that, thanks to social media, makes it easy to publicly shame authors and celebrities for not being inclusive or diverse, for queerbaiting — whether in their current work or past. Perhaps Rowling feels that she’ll be called out for her lack of queer characters, or maybe, as an outspoken advocate for the underdog, she feels much freer to speak out publicly then a decade ago when social media was viewed as a threat to an author’s career.

Instead, what she’s done is anger her loyal fans, turning queerness into a late-in-the-day  discovery, as an “update” and last-ditch effort to appeal progressive. She’s using queerness as a means to keep herself relevant today, and the worst part is that she doesn’t have to.

Potter fandom is already loyal and thriving. Since the last Harry Potter film was released in 2011, Rowling has enjoyed tremendous success. Pottermore, an interactive digital platform sharing Potter-related news and articles, is still going strong. She wrote Casual Vacancy, an adult novel, which was made into a BBC/HBO miniseries; the Cormoran Strike series written under the pen name Robert Galbraith, a non-fiction book called Very Good Lives, and has enjoyed a freelance career writing Time and The Guardian, among others. The Fantastic Beasts films have brought out old fans and new, and Rowling has finished writing the script for the third instalment. The Cursed Child brought in Broadway lovers and a new book for fans, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios gets fans from around the world. Oh, and let’s not forget the merchandise. She is the highest paid author in the world, with a net worth of $1 billion.

By rewriting her canon, Rowling has disillusioned fans and changed the way they’ve interpreted the books for themselves. And now she’s become collateral damage to one of this era’s favourite pastimes: a meme.

Following her latest update on Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s sex life, Twitter flooded with NSFW memes, poking fun at her random offerings of information that no one asked for or wants. For a series that has been careful about expressions of sex and sexuality, fans have traded in their childhood envisioning of Harry Potter characters to create kinky, queer and hilarious memes that mock Rowling’s revelations.

By retconning Potterdom, Rowling has turned her legacy into a farce, one that can quickly happen when trying to play the field of progressive politics on social media — and when you try to play your fans. And there’s no way to Obliviate the mess she’s gotten into now.