Can We Condemn the Artist and Still Love the Art?
"Rebel Rebel" was a frequent play in my mini-van in high school. I loved "Labyrinth" as a child and I love it still. The day after Obama was elected, I was on a bus in the Tunisian Sahara with seven other American students, and we blasted "Young Americans" on repeat. In short, I love David Bowie and his bold and unapologetically weird persona. But, he also raped a fourteen year-old. Like so many other beloved artists, he did horrible, unforgiveable things. Is it wrong to still blast "All the Young Dudes" and "Starman?" Am I supporting this creep's inexcusable behavior by continuing to love the music he created? Can we still dance to "Thriller" and sing along to "Billie Jean" without thinking of all the disgusting sexual abuse of young boys Michael Jackson committed? Can I love Junot Diaz's books without thinking of the ways he's been inappropriate, predatorial, and discriminatory towards women?
I just learned that J.K. Rowling is transphobic. Apparently, I'm a little late to the party (turns out, she's been liking or posting transphobic tweets since at least 2018). On Thursday, she responded to an article referring to "people who menstruate" with the following: “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” With that, she effectively erased the many, many non-binary/LGBTQ+ folks who menstruate. The article was about menstruation during COVID, meaning, it's applicable to all those folks, and addresses a real issue many people (not just those who identify as women) are experiencing right now. The article says, "An estimated 1.8 billion girls, women, and gender non-binary persons menstruate, and this has not stopped because of the pandemic. They still require menstrual materials, safe access to toilets, soap, water, and private spaces in the face of lockdown living conditions that have eliminated privacy for many populations." This article isn't about identity, it's about public health, and appropriately recognizes those who may be affected. That is, all of them.
This apparently isn't the first tweet Rowling has posted or liked that mocks or erases members of the LGBTQ+ community. She even dared the "I love trans people" but "it isn't hate to speak the truth" tack. Unsurprisingly, people are pissed. The thing is, you don't get to decide what hate is when a community of people tells you that you're insulting, offending, and erasing them. They get to decide, because (and trust me on this) this isn't the first time they've seen that kind of hate. So, you can't just discount non-binary, trans, and queer folks who menstruate but aren't women and then claim to be an ally.
But how does this make us feel about Harry Potter, the best-selling series of all time? I grew up with Harry Potter, as so many in my generation did. I was eleven when the first book came out, the same age as Harry when he finds out he's a wizard, and I've been waiting for my Hogwarts letter ever since. I reread the series last fall after being hired to write up character analysis for the first book, and, of course, had to reread the rest. For me, it held up. I rediscovered the beloved wizarding world and lost myself for a while in Harry's adventures. Recently, we've been rewatching the movies. They actually feel relevant to this moment, when a tyrannical and power-obsessed leader rallies supporters around a message of hate - in their case, erasing and even killing those who aren't "pure blood." Feels familiar.
And then came Rowling's most recent tweet, and my realization that this wasn't the first time she'd been insulting and dismissive of the LGBTQ+ community. And, come to think of it, I don't believe there's a single LGBTQ+ character in the Harry Potter universe (it's also overwhelmingly white, as the movies visually show us). I work at the Children's Literacy Foundation, where Harry Potter is always stocked on our shelves and remains a popular book giveaway series. Can I still love the books and movies, knowing that their author doesn't think trans people count?
The truth is, if we boycotted every film, TV show, song, or book created by an artist that was racist, trans- or homo-phobic, sexist, and even an abuser, our culture wouldn't look like it does today. Maybe that's not a bad thing. Here in Vermont, last year the state library decided to change its children's book award, the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award, to the Vermont Middle Grade Book Award. The move was in response to criticism that Dorothy Canfield Fisher was involved in the Vermont Eugenics Movement in the early part of the twentieth century, which was responsible for the erasure, sterilization, and even murder of Native people, as well as those with disabilities and mental illness. A century later, Vermonters decided that we don't want to laud someone who played a role in that dark corner of our history. Her books weren't banned, but her name no longer represents the diverse literature that we celebrate today. Perhaps we can find alternative artists that don't perpetuate hate, that represent our diverse global culture, so we won't have to choose between our values and art. And, if we can't find them, let's be them and celebrate artists working hard to improve our world.