Last year we hosted a discussion night on the topic of ‘Harry Potter and feminism.’ It was our first discussion event so we didn’t really know what to expect; it ended up lasting for over four hours, and it’s still up there in my top 5 favourite events that we’e ever run.
The discussion inevitably opened up to not just the representation of women in the series but of other minority groups, especially the LGBTQ+ community. People were defending JK Rowling for not including any queer characters in the series, for a few reasons – they’re children’s books, she was writing in the 1990s, the books wouldn’t have been allowed to be published in certain countries if they had gay characters, and so on. All totally relevant points, and very likely the reasons why she didn’t include any queer characters in the books. But something was annoying me about it, and it took me until the very end of the discussion to figure out why.
Yeah, JK Rowling is a white, straight (presumably) woman, so issues of LGBTQ+ and racial representation didn’t affect her personally while she was writing the books. (She did represent the working class and issues of poverty in the story, as well as depression – because these things personally affected her life at the time.) Yeah, it was the 1990s, when diversity in the media wasn’t as humongous a topic as it is these days. Yeah, the books probably wouldn’t have been published in China if they had gay characters.
It’s all true… but my overwhelming feeling about these things is, so what?
Studies have shown that minority kids who don’t see themselves represented in the media suffer as a result, and that those who do have representation are much better off. I’m sick right now as I write this, and I wrote four academic essays this week, so fuck it, I’m just going to be blunt; when it comes down to it, more media representation for minorities means that less kids kill themselves.
We all know that no one is born prejudiced and that it’s instilled in us by our environments – since childhood. That’s why children’s media is actually the perfect place to have minorities represented. We’ve all seen the Vines of kids who are like “So sometimes boys can love boys, and girls can love girls? Oh, that’s cool, can I have ice cream for dinner?” I don’t understand it at all when people say that queer characters would be ‘inappropriate’ for children’s literature. Why do people act like anything queer is inherently sexual, anyway? Ron and Lavender can snog the faces off each other, but Seamus taking Dean as his date to the Yule Ball would have been too much? (Seamus Finnigan is my gay Irish son and you’ll have to pry that headcanon out of my cold, dead, queer hands.)
Ultimately, for me, media representation for minorities is the top priority. It’s one of the most powerful and beautiful features of literature: giving a voice to the voiceless. It’s literally life-saving. Of course things were different 19 years ago, and it’s not surprising that there are no explicitly queer characters in the books. (Before you say it – yeah, maybe it would have been inappropriate for Dumbledore to discuss his sexuality with Harry, but you can’t tell me that Rita Skeeter wouldn’t have been all over that shit after her interview with Bagshot.) Coming from a 2016 perspective, though, representation is just so much more important than all of those other factors.
This was basically what I realised at that discussion. ‘Minority representation in Harry Potter would have been amazing, what a shame.’ But what I’ve realised since then is – it’s not over. The Fantastic Beasts movies are coming out later this year and Rowling is writing the screenplays. The Cursed Child play is debuting just before that, and Rowling has been heavily involved in production. And it’s 2016.
No pressure, JK Rowling, but this is your chance. No more metaphors or subtext. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all great writing and fun to unpack, but it’s not enough anymore. We need explicit representation and we need it now.
From what I’ve seen so far, I’m optimistic. Not just because Rowling plays ‘minority Hogwarts student bingo’ on Twitter every now and again (bless her, she means well, and her Twitter account is amazing). There was a queer character in The Casual Vacancy (which I desperately need to re-read); Rowling has strongly voiced her support of POC Hermione for Cursed Child; and from the Fantastic Beasts trailer, it looks like the leader of the magical government in the US is a woman of colour. I do think that becoming more active on Twitter and engaging directly with the fanbase has had a big impact on Rowling’s approach. The Fantastic Beasts trailer says, “In 2016, writer JK Rowling invites you to return to the wizarding world.” I personally never left, but now that Rowling is back again, I can’t wait to see what the expanded wizarding world is going to look like.