Friday, March 27, 2015

Why J.K. Rowling's Response to the Dumbledore Tweet Was Far from "Perfect"

J.K. Rowling has been "trending" for her "perfect" response to a reader who Tweeted:

"I wonder why you said that Dumbledore is a gay because I can't see him in that way."

Rowling responded:

"Maybe because gay people look like....people?"

Perfect? I say it is highly flawed, both logically and in terms or plain-old courtesy. 

I'd like to illustrate my frustration by saying "I don't even know where to start," but I happen to know exactly where to start: the intentional fallacy.

J.K. Rowling "announced," in 2007, that the head wizard, Dumbledore, in the Harry Potter books, is gay. The intentional fallacy, which is widely-accepted by modern literary scholars, and that I came to whole-heartedly accept during graduate school study of literature, would say that knowing what the author had in mind while writing is not the path to "correct" interpretation. In fact, anyone worth his or her salt in the literary world knows that the idea of "correct" interpretation is foolish; worse, it is directly counter to the inherent richness of literary study.

Still, the general public thinks that if one wants to know the "truth" about a work, one has simply to ask the author; therefore, when Rowling "announced" Dumbledore's sexuality, most people accepted it as fact. This is a bad idea, if one (as one should do) buys into the veracity of the intentional fallacy. It is also foolish because of the lack ot textual evidence in support of the idea. (An embarrassingly lame attempt at "clues" to Dumbledore's sexuality, which I hope was supposed to be [but I fear was not] satirical and which, in and of itself, does nothing better than to reinforce stereotypes about gay men, was no help in supporting the "interpretation" of Dumbledore's orientation.)

So, in short, without real textual evidence of Dumbledore's sexuality, that sexuality is, at best, a non-entity, no matter what the author might say, even if she does say, as Rowling did, once: “He is my character. He is what he is and I have the right to say what I say about him." For the record, she does have the right -- it's just not grounds for interpretation. 

(In the interest of full disclosure, I read only the first book and didn't feel inclined to continue. I saw nothing pointing to Dumbledore's sexuality in the first book, which doesn't mean that evidence does not occur in other books; but I have seen no evidence of a case made beyond Rowling's "announcement." Personally, whether he is gay or not is irrelevant to me; the movies were fun to watch. [Saw no evidence there, either.] My only point is that the conclusion should be drawn from evidence in the stories, not the author's afterthought or [at least in terms of craft] her un-realized idea.)

Then, we come to Rowling's "perfect" response to that poor reader.

I can only assume that someone who got millions and millions of kids to start reading voraciously can not possibly be a moron. Her writing is competent, if a bit cliched to someone who has read the best of fantasy (Dunsany, Tolkien, Lewis, Beagle, White...) literature all of his life. She's smart, though, and no doubt, she has done great things for world literacy.

Since I can't conclude that Rowling is stupid, I can only assume she is intentionally pretending not to understand the fan's tweet, which was a sincere statement that the reader doesn't see evidence in the stories to support Rowling's claim that Dumbledore is gay. She couldn't possibly have interpreted the word "see" to mean only visuals; that the writer is saying Dumbledore doesn't "look" gay.

Instead, I have to conclude that Rowling saw an opportunity to endear herself to proponents of gay rights or to promote her beliefs regarding equality for gays -- or both. And it is not the promotion of equal rights for gays I have trouble with; it's the contortion of logic in the response, for the sake of promoting those rights in the 140 character world, that makes me angry.

As evidenced here, there was no bad-blood between Rowling and her reader, but the reader has since taken her account down, probably due nasty responses from those who want to color her as intolerant for having asked an honest question.

The reader's response was:

....amazing answer. Yes, you are absolutely right. Such an inspiration!!!

Well, I wish she had not been swayed. The girls was, unintentionally, bullied by the presence that is Rowling, into not thinking for herself; into believing anyone has a right to tell her what to think about a literary character; into limiting her independent thinking. Her legitimate question was dismissed by Rowling who should be promoting independent interpretation of her work instead of trying to convince audiences to fall in line with her her own philosophies and concepts. (For heaven's sake, even Jesus wanted his apostles to make their own meaning out of his stories.)

It was not an "amazing response." It was a weak response, even if it was a statement with a strong message. The problem is that we, as a society, are starting to be unable (or unwilling) to see the difference. Liking what someone said (and, as an isolated statement, I do like what Rowling said, very much; she's right!) doesn't make it brilliant in every context and it doesn't make it an okay way to respond to another human with a legitimate, literary-theory-supported question. No matter the happy outcome with her reader, I still think Rowling's response was illogical (in context), morally exhibitionistic and discourteous.

Maybe not in real life, but in literature, gay is as gay does. If Dumbledore does nothing in the books to illustrate his sexuality; if Rowling says nothing in the books in reference to it, his sexuality is a non-issue and claiming he is gay is a waste of time. It's like saying that Bilbo Baggins was transgender. It just ain't in there...


  1. Rowling's tweet—or, more specifically, the welcome it received—struck me as odd in an age of fan-fiction, mashups, and so on. Goodness knows no one waited for Gene Roddenberry's blessing to write Kirk/Spock romances, and fan culture today is about making a franchise your own, so it's unusual that fans treat Rowling's utterances like papal decrees. Maybe people just want so badly to believe that a world they love has a benevolent creator.

    1. I think there is a lack of balance, Jeff. In the tides of popular thought, one is allowed to cross all lines, except for the hot buttons. One is allowed, with impunity, to make Spock and Kirk lovers, but, if someone makes a statement that that's an urealistic interpretaton of their relationship, people cry homophobia. At least that is how I see it.

    2. Yeah, whatever's important Right Now is the priority, regardless of the principle we stood for yesterday or the principle we'll need to invoke tomorrow. Social media in particular has turned our cultural arguments into a coked-up game of Calvinball.