Burying J.K. Rowling

No question has dominated pop cultural writing over the last decade as much as this: what do you do when one of your faves is problematic? The situation is obviously a lot more nuanced than that, but that’s the essence of the dilemma, the question that people struggle with. How should you feel, and what should you do, when – not if – the creator of a work of art you love does something evil? How should you feel about them? How should you feel about their work? Should you go see their next film or buy their next book?  

Last year, J.K. Rowling publicly confirmed, after years of speculation by fans of her work, that she hates transgender people. Rowling would obviously disagree with this characterisation, but I’m not interested in trying the case against her, I’m just describing my view. She’s often described by critics as a TERF, or trans-exclusionary radical feminist, but I don’t actually think that label is accurate. I remember when the term “TERF” was first popularised, and the entire point of it was to describe a specific kind of transphobic bigot, a radical feminist who denied that trans women are women, not just anyone who uses any kind of feminist rhetoric to justify their hatred. While some figures involved in recent anti-trans political activity in the UK fit that description, the vast majority wouldn’t be caught within a country mile of the actual political tradition of radical feminism. Those that are feminists at all are almost exclusively liberal feminists borrowing the arguments, but not the principles, of genuine TERFs, just as certain elements of the far-right use the contemporary rhetoric of antiracism to advance a white nationalist agenda

J.K. Rowling is one of those liberal feminists. She’s not a TERF, just a garden-variety bigot trying to coat her hatred in a thin gloss of moral righteousness. I appreciate this might seem like a pedantic point, but I think it’s important to be fair, accurate and precise about people’s political positions, especially those of your political opponents. You can tell Rowling and other anti-trans feminists of her ilk aren’t proper TERFs because they can’t even make their shite arguments as well. They’re just regurgitating dunks they saw on Twitter or Mumsnet, passed on through some massive game of transphobic telephone, without ever understanding the underlying philosophy that motivates them. All their arguments are purely instrumental, just a way to advance the cause, itself motivated by more-or-less unmediated hatred and disgust toward trans people (especially trans women), rather than any even internally coherent set of values or ideas. Not that proper TERFs are less motivated by hatred, exactly, but at least it’s an ethos. These liberal knock-offs (I’m shocked “astroTERF” isn’t a thing yet) say shit like “you can’t just go around changing the definition of womanhood”, because that’s what all the other transphobes – or “gender-critical feminists” – say. But underneath it, even if they were speaking in good faith, it’s doubtful they could elaborate beyond a few more online talking points on how they define womanhood or how trans people’s existence undermines it.  

This is not, despite the title, a takedown of J.K. Rowling’s personal bigotry towards trans people or her political activism to curtail efforts to expand their civil rights, access to healthcare and general ability to live safely in a world so hostile to their lives, not least because the definitive takedown already exists. She’s just a useful tool for thinking about the relationship between the art and the artist. Partly because she is, for better or worse, one of the most famous, influential and successful artists of the last fifty years. Partly because her common habit of publicly asserting things about the universe of Harry Potter that aren’t present in the books – e.g. that a Jewish wizard named Anthony Goldstein attended Hogwarts during the events of series or that wizards used to shit on the floor and magic it away until the eighteenth century – has already provoked lots of discussion on whether fans have to accept, believe or give a shit about what Rowling says is true of the world she created. But mostly because she’s been one of a few constant cultural figures my entire life, someone whose works were formative touchstones of my childhood that I returned to regularly up until a few years ago. I even wrote a (not very good) dissertation on them in my final year of college. Every shift in my attitude towards this question of the art and the artist – a topic I’ve been struggling with for years – has been informed at least in part by my changing relationship to both her work and her public persona. I learned how to bury authors from watching her dig her own grave. 

Part 1 – Joanne 

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I Was Cured, All Right

“The book is always better” is one of those pieces of conventional wisdom that people tend to parrot back and forth to each other without really believing. It’s obviously untrue in a dozen different ways: even if we leave aside all the ways that books and films being just fundamentally different artforms makes direct comparison reductive at best, I don’t think anyone would argue that The Godfather or Jaws are better books than films, because the books are enjoyable pulpy novels and the films are masterpieces. Besides, good and great films are adapted from books that nobody cares about, or has even heard of, all the time. It’s hardly worth taking “the book is always better” seriously as an idea because the weight of counterexample is so strong.

But people still say it, as a way to fill a silence if nothing else. You mention some new film adaptation of a literary classic or a recent bestseller, and they say, “well, I think the book is always better,” as you nod along sagely, even though neither of you actually think that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a pale imitation of the novel. “The book is always better” is just the visible trace of something larger, in how we think about adaptation and how different mediums relate to one another.

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Have You Considered Shooting Franklin Roosevelt?

BOOTH: You know, you really ought to do something about that stomach. ​

ZANGARA: I do everything about this stomach!

BOOTH: Oh, yes?

ZANGARA: I give up wine, no good. I give up smokes, no good. I quit my work, no good. I move Miami, no good. I take appendix out, no good. Nothing no good. Nothing, nothing, nothing!

BOOTH: Have you considered shooting Franklin Roosevelt?

ZANGARA: You think that help?

BOOTH: It couldn’t hurt.

In the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, lots of people wrote lots of thinkpieces about lots of different art that could putatively “explain” This Age of Trump, This Age of Brexit, whether through its content (e.g. Idiocracy) or the cultural discourse surrounding it (e.g. the truly wild amount of controversy and debate about the Ghostbusters remake). I understand the impulse, even if I find it misguided and sad. People want a piece of media to unlock everything because it creates the illusion that you can understand and control things that are either inexplicable or which require you to re-evaluate yourself and your life in a way that’s uncomfortable or even painful. It’s not really that different from why people become conspiracy theorists, though art is usually a less dangerous lens through which to seek clarity. The main musical afflicted with this unfair burden was Hamilton, which was held up as either a celebration of bipartisan procedural democracy or a rebuke to rising xenophobia, depending on what was convenient. But some other musicals got the same treatment, including Evita and Assassins. (Not The Fix though, because no one gives a shit about The Fix.)

Assassins¹ is a very strange musical, even for Stephen Sondheim, one of the form’s most idiosyncratic writers. (He wrote the music and lyrics; John Weidman wrote the book.) It concerns some of the various men and women (mostly men) who assassinated or attempted to assassinate Presidents of the United States, with a particular focus on those who succeeded: John Wilkes Booth, Charles J. Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz and Lee Harvey Oswald. You could say it has a non-linear plot, since it presents the assassinations out of order, but that understates the oddness of its narrative structure.

Between assassinations, all the characters hang out in a kind of purgatory that exists before, after and alongside their lives. John Wilkes Booth, who died in 1865, gives Giuseppe Zangara the idea to shoot FDR in 1933. John Hinckley, Jr. and Sara Jane Moore sing a duet about their plans to kill Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford respectively. Like Into the Woods, another Sondheim musical, it has an omniscient narrator who comes into conflict with the characters and is eventually destroyed by them. It’s very weird, very dark and very, very funny. It’s one of my favourite musicals of all time.

I don’t think Assassins can explain the current political moment. I don’t think any work of art can, because art just isn’t very good at providing answers like that. But art is excellent at asking questions or reframing how we think. Not much leaves me thinking quite like Assassins does.

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