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What the J.K Rowling vs. Piers Morgan Twitter feud says about celebrity power dynamics

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Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Beloved Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling and slightly-less-beloved former tabloid editor and current TV personality Piers Morgan recently got into a Twitter war. By the time things wound down, they had taken the war to cable news and brought Chelsea Clinton, Star Trek’s George Takei, and Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L. James into the mix — and delighted commentators from both sides of the political aisle had aggregated it all under headlines boasting how their preferred side had “destroyed” the other.

At its heart, though, the Rowling/Morgan feud is a culture clash not so much between liberal and conservative ideologies but between two different kinds of celebrity: celebrity based on depersonalized work (Rowling’s Harry Potter-created fame) and celebrity based on personality (talk-show fixture Morgan’s curated persona). And the disparity between these two kinds of celebrity fundamentally shaped the power dynamics of the pair’s feud.

Rowling and Morgan first clashed over Trump’s “Muslim ban”

It all kicked off shortly after Morgan appeared on Real Time With Bill Maher on February 10. Morgan, who is both a self-described liberal and a self-described friend of Donald Trump’s, was on the show to perform his signature maneuver: taking an ostensibly reasonable position and then insisting on it with such superiority and lack of nuance that hardly anyone could resist arguing it. Done correctly, the maneuver leads to many people shouting angrily at one another about something vaguely topical, which is more or less Bill Maher nirvana.

In this case, Morgan was insisting that Trump’s recent executive order on immigration is not a Muslim ban. There are a few good reasons to avoid calling the order a Muslim ban: For one thing, the ban has affected both Christians and Muslims; for another thing, as Vox’s Dara Lind has pointed out, “calling it a ‘Muslim ban’ risks confusing someone who can come to the US, or who could leave and return safely, to believe she can’t.”

So when Morgan said, “Calm down, Bill. There is no Muslim ban,” he was not, technically speaking, incorrect. But he was making a flat argument that ignores the fact that the executive order was, according to Rudy Giuliani, deliberately designed to be a Muslim ban. And he was making it in the most condescending manner possible.

Maher’s guests were having none of it. “Oh, fuck off,” said Australian comedian Jim Jefferies. “There’s a fucking Muslim ban. They said there was a Muslim ban, there’s a Muslim ban.” He later added, “You just like that you won The Apprentice and you have a famous friend, mate,” referring to the turn on The Celebrity Apprentice that kick-started both Morgan’s career in the US and his friendship with Trump.

Rowling, like many viewers, was delighted by Jefferies’s response, and said as much on Twitter.

Morgan lashed back with his signature show of superiority, and the feud was well and truly on.

Rowling was not interested in backing down.

Morgan insisted that he was only telling the truth by saying there was no Muslim ban…

…and Rowling countered by asking if he was suggesting that refugees are terrorists.

Morgan took a moment to note that Rowling supported two losing campaigns (Hillary Clinton’s presidential run and the campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union), essentially taking a play from Trump’s book and calling her a loser, but with more words. (Morgan himself was pro-Trump and pro-Brexit.)

So Rowling called him a liar and a toady.

At which point Morgan pulled out what he seems to consider his most devastating insult and told Rowling that she was only a “minor” celebrity.

Their dispute continued, but it’s Morgan’s allegation that Rowling is only a “minor” celebrity that’s really telling.

Piers Morgan performs power by telling people they’re not real celebrities

Piers Morgan needs Twitter, and he needs to be able to use it to publicly troll his critics. That’s because his entire brand is his personality. He came up in tabloid journalism, augmented his newfound notoriety with judicious appearances on reality TV, and now regularly picks fights on Twitter with people more famous than him. His fame is based on the idea that he has an opinion on everything and is always willing to phrase it offensively.

It is based on that idea to such an extent, in fact, that Morgan’s Wikipedia page has an entire section devoted to his many celebrity feuds, underscoring the fact that he became famous by having opinions about famous people. He started his career as a tabloid editor on the celebrity beat, and first rose to notoriety when he was accused of hacking celebrities’ cellphones to report on their private voicemails.

Since then, Morgan has evolved into a celebrity who comments on celebrity (including Rowling’s, as she pointed out on Twitter). And he is at his most consequential, and arguably powerful, when he’s wielding judgment on who really counts as a celebrity.

Take, for instance, his time as a guest judge on The Celebrity Apprentice. For the most part, it was forgettable television, but it had one deeply compelling element in Morgan’s feud with current Trump aide Omarosa Manigault, which reached its climax when Morgan told Omarosa she wasn’t really famous.

“D’you know, my argument against you has always been, you’re not a celebrity,” he said, as the camera pushed in on Omarosa’s shocked and wounded face.

“And you are?” she said. (It was a fair point on both sides: The celebs of Celebrity Apprentice were always at dubious levels of fame, and in all honesty, neither Morgan nor Omarosa was what most people would characterize as a celebrity at that point.)

Morgan barreled past the objection without blinking. “And you don’t have star power,” he continued.

Trump chuckled from the head of the table. “I’m just realizing,” he said, “I don’t want him as my enemy.”

For just a moment, Morgan was so powerful that the man who would become president of the United States was sitting there admiring him. And he got there by telling someone she wasn’t famous.

Twitter allows Morgan to reenact that kind of power play over and over again. On his Twitter feed and in his columns, he is the arbiter of what a real celebrity looks like and how a real celebrity behaves. (Apolitically, apparently.) It’s a move that gives him the appearance of power, and that power is what gives him his fame and makes him, in turn, a celebrity.

Rowling, on the other hand, does not need Twitter. Her audience knows her name regardless of whether she dashes off a couple of tweets a week about tea and politics. Her brand isn’t “J.K. Rowling has thoughts on politics”; it’s Harry Potter, and everything else is incidental.

That’s not to say that Harry Potter and the Anti-Fascist Parable doesn’t have political undercurrents — but it’s not the primary draw to her work. Rowling’s readers overwhelmingly come to her for the story she told first and foremost; everything else is secondary.

That means the Rowling/Morgan feud is only existentially important for one of its participants. For Morgan, getting into a public brawl with J.K. Rowling is literally his job. It’s what brings him attention and fame and enables his work. It is his celebrity persona in action.

But for Rowling, Twitter is a sideline to her real work. It’s not where she builds her audience; it’s where she takes advantage of the audience she built through Harry Potter to evangelize about her political causes.

That’s why Morgan was still tweeting about Rowling a week after their feud began, while Rowling hasn’t mentioned Morgan since Valentine’s Day. For Morgan, this kind of public celebrity brawl is a vital part of how he stays famous and in the public eye. But for Rowling, it’s a minor distraction from her actual work. Her fame doesn’t depend on the attention of other, more famous people — and that means that no matter what Morgan says on Twitter or Tucker Carlson Tonight, Rowling will always be in a position of power over him.

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