Harry Potter & the Death of Queerness?
Now that the dust has cleared from the press storm over the release of
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows it may be possible to ascertain the
current situation, if not the damage, that has been visited upon the literate
world by the near apocalyptic manifestations of the publication of the
seventh volume of the Potter saga.
Critically, this is an easy call. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,
J.K. Rowling manages to bring together all the threads she has been carefully
weaving for the past decade. Pro-Potter critics (and readers) seem to think
that this is an amazing feat, rather than just the hard work that a novelist
puts into wrapping up her story. Anton Chekhov noted that if you introduce
a gun in Act One, you have to kill someone with it in Act Five. Well, Rowling
is nothing if not a dutiful writer and the 7,476 threads and ideas she
introduced in the first six books are accounted for in her final volume.
That is, with one exception.
When the Potter books began in 1998 there was a wonderful, magical aura
about them. Following in a long tradition of writers of children’s books
Rowling seemed to be interested in subverting most aspects of reality as
we know it: portraits of long dead people spoke, massive staircases moved,
owls were speedy messengers, and people who lived in the dreary real world
were called muggles, a wonderful iconic putdown of those people who were
not magical, who were humdrum. Muggle became the new Babbitt, an easily
understandable definition of passive, stupid, social and psychological
conformity. In this way the Potter books had a very “queer” tone and cast.
I wrote about this in 2003 when the fourth book was released—and, indeed,
at that point the queerness of the series seemed undeniable.
Well, this continues through much of the next volumes as well, but by the
time Rowling comes to the end of the series—her final summing up of the
Potterverse as it were—she has drastically changed her tune. In Harry Potter
and the Deathly Hallows the Potterverse becomes increasingly normalized.
It’s true that Rowling has no problem introducing death as a logical outcome
of the fight between good and evil—she begins dispatching characters in
the seventh book, but she has also become far more, well, muggle, in her
world- view. At the end of the book, in a short epilogue, we see that after
the death of Voldemorte the world has returned to normal. In the world
according to JKR this means that Ron and Hermione, Harry and Ginny, and
Draco and his unnamed wife (apparently, like Voldemorte, her name can’t
be mentioned either) are on Platform 9 3/4 sending their cute, cuddly magical
broods off to Hogwarts. After seven long novels, the final vision Rowling
leaves us with is that these great queer magical people evolve into nothing
more than Quidditch moms and slightly vacant suburban dads.
I normally would not feel that this was such a deep betrayal of my sensibility—I
am a casual reader of the books and not very invested in them—but because
of how and where I read the last book. On July 21, I was in London at Sectus
2007, a Harry Potter conference for both academics and people who wrote
fan fiction—a vast body of Internet literature that revels in alternative
Potter narratives, often featuring same-sex or sexually kinky relationships
between the Rowling’s characters. Meeting and speaking to many of these
writers you have an incredible sense of how “queer” the Harry Potter books
can be and how much of this queerness is essential to the books. It also
pointed out how profoundly Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows bankrupts
its predecessors and violates our basic trust in children’s books. If there
is a theme that runs through canonical children’s literature it is subversiveness—always
questioning and undermining the world as we know it. From the most iconic
nursery rhymes that convey to children the implausible as quite plausible—the
dish, for instance, running off with a spoon, to the staunch anti-realism
of Lewis Carroll, Peter Pan, and Tolkien.
It’s unclear what produced the poverty of imagination that ends the Potter
books. Did Rowling cave into market pressures and decide to go Hollywood?
After all, this is all made up and she could have had anything happen,
including Harry running off with Ron, new spells that changed or confounded
gender norms or anything. True, there has always been a normative strain
that ran through Rowling’s magic world—the Weasley’s cozy British kitchen
was always more Mrs. Beeton than Morgan La Fay—but it was delicately balanced
by the power and the sensibility of queerness and magic.
My dismay at the ending was also exacerbated by another event in London
that occurred the same week I was there. It turns out—accidently or magically—that
the week of the Harry Potter release was also the beginning of the 60th
anniversary of the Wolfenden Report which, in 1957, started the process
of invalidating all of Britain’s anti-homosexual laws (which had been in
place for nine centuries). The Wolfenden Report, authored by John Wolfenden,
a former head of British boys schools and later the head of the British
museum, stated that laws that punish consenting adults for same-sex activity
were unnecessary, an assault on personal freedom, and functioned as a prompt
for blackmailers. It took the United States until 2003, when the Supreme
Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that sodomy laws were unconstitutional
for the United States to do the same.
Rather than consigning this important legal reform to the dustbin of history,
the BBC planned a whole month of programming to celebrate it. There was
a special two-hour TV drama titled “Clapham Junction” that explored, in
sexually explicit and violent terms, the lives of gay men in Britain today.
Based on the horrendous queer-bashing death of Jody Dobrowski on Clapham
Common in 2005, the show was a meticulous examination of how anti-gay violence
occurs because of secrecy, cowardice, and the inability of liberals to
act. It was powerful and moving and certainly nothing that you would ever
see on American television. Later that week the BBC showed a film based
on the arrest and trial of Peter Wildeblood, a journalist/novelist, whose
case led to the formation of the Wolfenden Committee.
Watching “Clapham Junction” was a jolt after reading Harry Potter and the
Deathly Hallows because it reminded me of how far we have come—at least
in the UK—in dealing with the history of sexuality that still imprisons
us. In this light Rowling’s ending felt like even more of a betrayal as
its retreat to a 1950s heterosexual sensibility is so out of place, so
startlingly conservative as to be a cultural and political embarrassment.
The queer Harry Potter lives on in the minds and keyboards of the legions
of fan-fiction writers who imagine alternative universes that are unimaginable
to the unenlightened. Would that the same could be said of the end-stage
imagination of Rowling and the Harry Potter series.
Michael Bronski is an activist and author. His most recent book is Pulp
Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps (St. Martin’s Press).