J.K. Rowling and the Problem of Heroification

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In an interesting bit of synchronicity, in early December I read an article about the upcoming Harry Potter Reunion (for the record I watched it first thing this morning) and the “problem” of J.K. Rowling at the same time I was listening to the book Lies My Teachers Told Us on audio. The author of that book, author James Loewen has a chapter where he discusses the problem of history textbooks turning our forefathers into heroes when they had feet of clay. I thought the same could be said of J.K. Rowling.

As a society, we bristle at any criticism or people we admire. We have a tendency to deny or minimalize negative parts of their personality. In history texts, that often means outright ignoring those multi-faceted sides of their lives. People don’t want to hear about who among the Founding Fathers owned slaves. Some textbooks completely ignored the Trail of Tears when talking about Andrew Jackson. Until recently, you rarely heard anything about Woodrow Wilson’s racism. People want them to be flawless heroes in our history.

They’re not – they’re humans like all of the rest of us. They did some great things, and some things that were not so great to outright horrific.

However, history is written by the winners. Particularly in the case of history textbooks, that means leaving out those not-so-great or horrific things in an attempt to create heroes society thinks students should admire. The problem is it’s not a complete picture of the complex human they were, who, like so many of us, sometimes get it right and sometimes get it very wrong.

The Harry Potter books were a source of joy to an entire generation and then some. My oldest daughter read them with a fervor she didn’t have for much else, and her love of the books eventually got me to love them as well. The core theme was that not being popular or part of the “in” crowd was okay because it would lead to bigger things down the line. Since I was sort of a nerd and a misfit in my younger days, I immediately identified with the themes, even as an adult. Young people across the spectrum who felt excluded in society embraced the books.

And then J.K. Rowling opened her mouth about transsexuals and pretty much killed her legacy.

Alas, she wrote some great books with a deep meaning that are still loved, but the author is a flawed human like the rest of us.

I experienced some of that myself this year in regard to Neil Peart, the late drummer of the band Rush who is also a great author. He lost his daughter and common-law wife within a year of each other. How he dealt with that grief was an inspiration to me, having lost my mother and daughter and several other people in the period of a very bad 12 months. I read through his books about his travels and dealing with grief and getting on with your life after such events as a source of solace. However, I noticed in several places he refers to American tourists in a derogatory way and comments on their weight. I bristled at the descriptions, knowing that my “hero” would likely have judged me the same way. My conclusion was that Neil Peart was human like the rest of us, with good and bad in him.

This is the problem when we lift people up and put them on a pedestal. We are creating something false and ideals that our fellow human beings cannot possibly live up to.

We need to do more to see the complex humans all of us are – our good sides and bad sides – that make up all of us. Of course, I’m not excusing what Rowling has said. I think she’s wrong and I think her views are horrible. But should that take away from the solace that her books have provided to a generation of children who have found a sense of belonging from her books? Even if she doesn’t “get it” about people’s sexual identity, that doesn’t mean that these books and movies that show young people it’s okay to feel like a misfit and that you don’t belong should be dismissed. She gets it right there, even if she doesn’t completely understand her own message.

Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Andrew Jackson committed genocide against Native Americans. Abraham Lincoln wanted to send former slaves back to Africa. Woodrow Wilson was blatantly racist. Neil Peart has a “thing” about overweight people. And J.K. Rowling is a transphobe (although I think it’s more she just doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to try to, rather than being afraid). That doesn’t mean everything she’s done in her life is bad. It just means she’s human like all of us.

Take what you want and leave the rest.

6 replies »

  1. Excellent points, Patti. Each person has multiple sides and multiple opinions, based no doubt upon multiple lived experiences. Rowling did excellent work in showing kids dealing with PTSD, as Neville and Harry do, and working through those issues. That is valuable work.
    Happy New Year,

    • That’s exactly it. I know so many people who identified with the books and felt like it supported who they were. At the same time I know people who don’t want the books in their home anymore because of what Rowling has said. I kind of think the books are more important than the author.

      • Good grief, seems a bit of an overreaction, to me, and I agree, what the author said is much more important than the author as a person, for the most part. Or, rather, as long as the author’s writing isn’t merely a loss-leader to something nefarious.

  2. All of what you said is true and I won’t argue, but I think a different attitude can be taken with people who are alive and can change and those who are dead and cannot change. For example, were Thomas Jefferson still alive and still in a position to own slaves, one could certainly petition/demand/boycott him until he no longer owns other human beings. Throwing J.K. Rowlings’ books out isn’t going to change her outlook on trans people. Perhaps declining to purchase further books or see further movies might, though.

    Just my two cents. Do I expect her to be perfect? Hardly. I’ll worry about another human being’s perfection the day after I achieve my own. Given past performance, that’ll be something when there’s a snowstorm in hell. But encouraging a little compassion doesn’t hurt.