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Can more Harry Potter ever be okay?

Is the magic of Hogwarts Legacy — or any new Harry Potter storyline — ever worth enabling JKR’s transphobia?

Harry and Ron gaze hopelessly into a crystal ball.
Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint as Harry Potter and Ron Weasley in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Warner Bros.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The release of the controversial Hogwarts Legacy game has revived a never-quite-dormant firestorm of opinions over J.K. Rowling and the fate of the universe she created. Rowling, once seen as a vanguard of progressive idealism, has spent most of the past half-decade forging a new reputation as the world’s most famous transphobe. Rowling’s name is now synonymous with “TERF” — trans-exclusionary radical feminism, or the belief that trans women aren’t women and that biological sex is the only factor that determines someone’s gender. Amid ongoing protests from trans activists and broken-hearted fans, Rowling has continually redoubled her rhetoric.

That means any discussion of what new Harry Potter content is or can be has to come with an acknowledgment of Rowling’s transphobia and the problems it creates. New stories of the Wizarding World will inevitably be a complicated joy for many, and purely painful for many trans people whose lives have been made worse because of Rowling’s influential views. At the very least, new stories, as Legacy is currently demonstrating, leave many people feeling deeply conflicted about whether they can support or enjoy any new Harry Potter content in the wake of Rowling’s problematic statements.

Hogwarts Legacy isn’t the only new Harry Potter production; in 2021, news surfaced of a rumored TV show from Warner Bros. and HBO. That show is currently still only a rumor; it may not ever get made.

But the release of Legacy and the possibility of still more Harry Potter media to come mean we have to ask whether new official Harry Potter content can ever be okay. And to answer that question, we have to understand exactly how and why Rowling’s transphobia has tainted the beloved Harry Potter universe, and what possibilities — if any — exist for the Harry Potter franchise to heal some of the hurt its creator has caused.

Rowling’s transphobia is not a one-off or casual thing. It’s vehement and powerful.

J.K. Rowling’s anti-trans sentiments have steadily grown more blatant over the years. Elements of her writing as well as her social media activity have long suggested a growing alliance with anti-trans groups, and some Harry Potter fans have been voicing concerns about Rowling’s stated beliefs since at least the spring of 2018. But it wasn’t until December 2019, when Rowling tweeted in support of a British TERF, that the public caught on more generally.

In June 2020, after that initial moment of attention, Rowling indisputably affirmed her anti-trans beliefs — first in a tweet mocking trans-inclusive language, and then in a lengthy manifesto of nearly 4,000 words. In it, she supports the scientifically flawed and emotionally abusive narrative that “gender dysphoric teens will grow out of their dysphoria,” and suggests that transgender men assigned female at birth who experience dysphoria as teens probably just need to read more feminist literature to get their heads on straight.

Perhaps most distressingly, Rowling’s manifesto perpetuates the dangerous TERF narrative that trans women may be sexual predators in disguise. Rowling argues that the movement to accept trans women as women is “offering cover to predators” who are at any moment about to perpetuate “male violence and sexual assault.” That’s the kind of hysteria-based rhetoric that’s been used to deny trans people everything from safe bathrooms to workplace equality; hearing it come from a children’s author is pretty horrific.

Rowling’s views received international media attention and backlash, but she wasn’t shamed into silence. Instead, she seemed to get even more outspoken. In August 2020, Rowling returned a human rights award after the president of the presenting association repudiated her transphobic views, claiming that she’d received “thousands of private emails of support” from people “within the trans community” and repeating her assertion that gender identity therapy is dangerous. (It’s not, but the body of research seeking to treat gender dysphoria through non-affirmational methods arguably is.) In September 2020, she promoted a shop selling transphobic merchandise that bears slogans like “transwomen are men” and “fuck your pronouns.”

I think many people still haven’t confronted the depth and the vitriol of Rowling’s transphobia. If they had, we wouldn’t be having a conversation about whether a Harry Potter TV show or Hogwarts Legacy should exist. I believe that most people — even if they don’t understand the ins and outs of trans identity and gender identity — instinctively know that mocking trans people for their anatomy and disregarding people’s pronouns is cruel. But it’s been difficult for many people who are aware of Rowling’s statements to grasp that this (former) hero to generations of hopeful children is now openly prejudiced toward trans and nonbinary people.

I get how painful it is to accept that. It feels like bereavement; in some ways, it is.

For me, a nonbinary Harry Potter fan who spent more than two decades loving Harry Potter, recounting all of this is deeply hurtful, even traumatic. Every new reminder that J.K. Rowling harbors such hateful views toward trans men and women — one of the most vulnerable and endangered marginalized communities — hits me like a slap. It’s a painful betrayal from a creator I loved and trusted; for me, the past year has been, to some extent, a grieving process, about letting go and moving on.

On some level, I can’t help but feel a wistful curiosity about the new game because I still love the Harry Potter characters and universe. Before the events of 2020, I would have been thrilled by the idea of a Harry Potter TV show or an immersive Hogwarts RPG that could explore more of the complexities and layers of the Wizarding World.

So it’s devastating to also feel that the only appropriate response to the idea of these works is outright rejection of their entire concepts.

Will it ever be okay to make new Harry Potter stories? Probably not.

For me and many fans like me, any new Harry Potter content can only be a source of deep distress. People who choose to buy the new video game inevitably send a message that they care more about the Harry Potter universe than they do about the real-world fans Rowling has hurt — and especially the real-world harm that comes from bankrolling her transphobia. The endless debates around Hogwarts Legacy remind us over and over that the fictional magic of Harry Potter matters more, to more people, than all of the real trans fans and allies who have been displaced from participating in that magic by Rowling’s actions, choices, and behavior. Honestly, when the rumors broke of the TV show two years ago, even seeing tentatively positive reactions to the rumored series left me feeling deeply sad and uneasy. Now, regarding Hogwarts Legacy, I have chosen to opt completely out of the discussion over the game. The stakes are too painful; one must simply put aside one’s humanity to even begin to talk about the game purely as “art,” even though far too many people are eager to do just that.

And still — still! — it’s so tempting to ask: If we must have more Harry Potter, are there ways to make these works feel like a reclamation for the fans who have been most alienated from the original franchise over the years? Could more Harry Potter ever be okay?

Initially, I thought so.

I thought about how any new Harry Potter story would inject new energy into the fandom, generating new conversations and creative interest. And those fans would have the ability to respond in their own ways. After all, they’ve already been critiquing and reshaping Harry Potter into a better version of itself for decades, through fanfiction and other fan commentary.

But more than that, I thought about how new content could allow the franchise to openly reject Rowling’s intolerance with a Harry Potter story that embraces inclusivity, diversity, and a transformational vision of the world she created. The creators of Hogwarts Legacy have actively tried to do that to a degree — they’ve even introduced the franchise’s first explicitly transgender character, and players are able to play as any gender they want. And as my colleague Rebecca Jennings noted in her review, Warner Bros. has tried to make the series as diverse as possible, though sources have implied that the moves were “performative bullshit.”

Such “bullshit” hints at the problem with any kind of sanctioned Potterverse story, even one that’s ostensibly trying to be radical: Unless Warner Bros. were to strike an unprecedented deal, none of those transformative elements would be part of a Harry Potter series unless Rowling wanted them to be there. Rowling has always exerted authorial control over her universe and the messages it sends — across the books, across all the Warner Bros. movies (though the movies were written by Steve Kloves, she vetted all of his scripts), and even the Cursed Child stage play, which Rowling collaborated on. And while the creators of Hogwarts Legacy were at pains to stress that Rowling had no part whatsoever in the making of the new game, the game must still respond to her restrictive, limited worldbuilding. Meanwhile, any new series or story would inevitably have to gain her approval — and how likely will a Rowling who is increasingly hardened to the pleas of trans people ever be to approve a story that validates, let alone centers, us?

Anything that we respond to and love about a new Harry Potter series will still be something that ultimately came from J.K. Rowling — from the den mother who betrayed us. And given that she’s increasingly embraced mean, reactionary politics in her post-Harry Potter writing, I’m dubious that any new Harry Potter series that gains her approval will contain the open-hearted, optimistic kindness that drew so many people to the original stories.

New Harry Potter can only be a source of ultimate harm unless Rowling lets go of her creative control and cedes her universe to other minds — something I sense she’s very unlikely to ever do, given how much she’s continued to contribute further world-building to the universe over the years, and how unrepentant she has been about how much she’s hurt fans.

And even if Rowling somehow could be persuaded to give up creative control, or even if fans could accept a new series on its own merits, the bottom line is that for many people, any new Harry Potter work would be an unacceptable one because Rowling would still be profiting from it.

We’ll never be able to deplatform J.K. Rowling. Does that mean we accept the status quo?

As the debate around these new works has raged, many fans have voiced variants of the same idea — their worry that Rowling would profit from any new Harry Potter series. So she would in essence be profiting from her continued vocal transphobia.

To be clear, Rowling — a billionaire and the second-highest-paid author on the planet — will continue to make money regardless. In 2022, Warner Bros. released the third movie in the abysmal and baffling Fantastic Beasts series (there will be five films altogether), and while it was the least successful of any film in the franchise to date, it still eked out a good $400 million at the box office. Rowling profits from perpetually popular Harry Potter attractions and exhibits at theme parks around the world. And, of course, the original Harry Potter books continue to sell — in fact, in Britain, in the 2020 sales quarters after Rowling posted her transphobic manifesto, sales of the Harry Potter books actually increased.

Given that no amount of social protest is going to dent Rowling’s bank account, perhaps it’s understandable, then, to consider a pragmatic response to Hogwarts Legacy or any new Harry Potter series. Perhaps the only way to approach the possibility of more Harry Potter is to accept that nothing we do will change the status quo — that J.K. Rowling will always be one of the wealthiest people on earth, no matter how much we wish otherwise, and no matter how much we are aware that she’s actively using her power and influence to promote transphobic messaging. To accept that the consumerist machine that is the Harry Potter franchise is simply bigger than all of our feelings, and bigger than the harm Rowling’s views have brought and will continue to bring to real trans people. In other words, as the meme goes, “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.”

Perhaps, with those realities established, we can proceed to have a critical conversation about what the future of the Harry Potter franchise can and should be.

But reaching that position requires us to accept a lot of things that feel like loss, like defeat. Accepting new Harry Potter means accepting that trans people will be overlooked, will have their concerns and their sorrow pushed aside — by Rowling, by Hollywood, by anyone who continues to work with Rowling and promote or publish her works, and by the society that has yet to repudiate her into obsolescence. When we use words like “marginalized” to describe trans communities and other vulnerable communities, this is exactly the kind of thing we mean. This is marginalization in action.

It’s possible that Rowling has been so confident about her transphobic opinions, despite all the pushback she’s received, because she is the author of Harry Potter. That is, it’s possible she feels like her voice as the author of Harry Potter simply outweighs everything else — even objective science, even trans people saying, “You’re hurting us, please stop.” And while the initial wave of backlash against Rowling was significant — most of the media coverage and popular debate around Rowling framed her views as abhorrent — the tide has continually turned in her favor, as most of the British media and increasingly mainstream US outlets like the New York Times publish intensely gaslighting treatises which insist that Rowling’s transphobia isn’t transphobic at all. Such pieces frame her as the misunderstood, abused victim of a virulent smear campaign — as though she were the one who suffers meaningful real-world consequences, rather than the millions of trans people whose lives are actively endangered by the kind of transphobic scaremongering she practices.

This, then, is the ultimate cost of more Harry Potter. If Hogwarts Legacy succeeds and if Warner Bros. makes a new Harry Potter series — if anyone makes a new Harry Potter anything — it will clearly broadcast the message that Rowling’s views aren’t abhorrent. That you can demonize trans people as mentally ill sexual predators and continue to have a voice, a career, and tremendous social influence.

It’s arguable even now that the legacy of Harry Potter is larger than any single thing Rowling can do to diminish it. But it’s certainly not large enough to outweigh or override the negative impacts of Rowling’s viewpoints. If Harry Potter himself could become flesh and blood, it seems clear that he’d argue that more Harry Potter stories should never take precedence over real trans lives.

But Harry Potter is fiction. And as new Harry Potter works come out and the increasingly obfuscating debate around Rowling intensifies, their mere existence conveys that the books’ core tenets of promoting tolerance, love, equality, and resistance are ultimately just a fantasy.

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