Sunday, June 21, 2020

“Who'll Have You, Freak?!”: J.K. Rowling and the Curse of Transphobia

“Who’ll have you” is a hateful putdown the author has used twice in the mouth of one of her most beloved characters and once in her own voice, the last cruelly directed at transgendered persons in the abstract.

by Don Simpson

Last December (2019), just before Christmas, I became aware of a Tweet posted by J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, and the brouhaha surrounding it, that has now become famous:

“Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?”
     Rowling was speaking up on behalf of someone named Maya Forstater, who had been working as a tax specialist for the Center for Global Development. This nonprofit think tank, with among other things its own internally-developed policy commitment to gender diversity, had decided not to renew Forstater’s contract after she had made several transphobic Tweets that several coworkers complained amounted to workplace harassment (as if a think tank with its own policy developers wants its tax preparers publicly espousing their own freelance policies). Forstater considered this a wrongful termination and appealed to the London Employment Tribunal, claiming she had been fired for maintaining a philosophical belief that transgendered people are not really altering the sex they were born with. The judge ruled against Forstater, and Rowling was decrying this verdict, and now much of the public was questioning whether Rowling herself was bigoted against transgendered individuals.
     Aside from Rowling’s Tweet, a number of criticisms were being recycled pertaining to her work, including a transgendered character in her Cormoran Strike crime novels who is threatened with going to jail where the person would face violence merely for being transgendered, various remarks concerning the Harry Potter series including retcons about Albus Dumbledore being gay (but declining to address this in the Fantastic Beasts prequel movie series), and other more trivial criticisms.
     At the time, I didn’t have particularly strong opinions about transgender issues other than as an educator dealing with policies of diversity and fair treatment of all my students, regardless of race, creed, or color, or sexual orientation or identification.
     But I was a big Harry Potter fan, and even I recognized Rowling’s Tweet as ugly, mocking, and cruel.
     I’ve written elsewhere about my tenure as a part-time clerk selling books at Borders Books and Music in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, intermittently from the summer of 2000 to the end of 2005. On the day I was hired, I had no idea what Harry Potter was; a week later, The Goblet of Fire was released, and although I never worked a midnight release party for that or the next two books that came out while I was there, nor ever read so much as a sentence of it, I did learn to pronounce the name Hermione correctly, and did pick up much of the Harry Potter lore viscerally, by osmosis.
     The fact was, I was engaged in other pursuits. I was reading non-fiction, including philosophy, literary criticism, history, and so forth, and in 2003 would decide to go back to college, which I did, obtaining my PhD in 2013. So I had little time and no desire to fall into Harry Potter-mania. Also, while it is natural to be suspicious of anything as popular as that phenomenon was, it was also clear that enormous numbers of intelligent people were hooked on Harry Potter. These included nearly all my coworkers and just about every regular customer of Borders, and hordes of adults and kids besides—Harry Potter’s readership was all ages and included the very well educated.

A particularly enraging aspect of this whole affair is Hachette, publisher of Rowling's forthcoming The Ichabog, royalties from which the author plans to donate to one of her many charities, has forbidden its staff working on preparing the manuscript for publication to protest the author's transphobia. Effectively, staff have been told that if they refuse their assignment, they will be not be reassigned other work, but fired, making them prisoners of conscience, or hostages. Irony of ironies that working on a J.K. Rowling project could now become, in 2020, a nightmare for someone at the beginning of their publishing industry careers (most staff are in their 20s and 30s, according to reports). Their reasoning is highly arbitrary and selective, since nothing about the content of Woody Allen's memoirs, which they declined to publish, was offensive either; it is the extrinsic controversy surrounding both books that staff found offensive.

     It was a running joke at the Info Desk: “Do you know when the next Harry Potter is coming out?” Then one of us booksellers would pick up the phone and say, “I’m not sure; let me call London.” With hardcovers, paperbacks, boxed sets, VHS, DVD, Blu-ray and candies, wands and other paraphernalia, I estimate conservatively I must have handled some 20,000 pieces of Potter merchandise, easily, in five years.
     But it wasn’t until the summer of 2015, after I had completed my PhD, that I sat down and read the Harry Potters. I went to Half-Price books and picked up the first one for four bucks; It was pretty good, so I picked up the DVD and the next book, and so on. I was hooked, and in eight weeks I had read each of the book and watched all of the movies.
     There are any number of remarks to make about Rowling as a brilliant plotter and architect of a series that could only have been even more greatly pressurized by its own success and the added burden of a Hollywood franchise built on it. Suffice it to say that I have the highest regard for Rowling as a writer and creative mind, as someone who must have been unbelievably tough-minded to have maintained her concentration under those circumstances. I personally don’t know any creative person, myself especially, who wouldn’t have blown the opportunity several times over.
     Which is why I can only laugh when comic book fans say Rowling is merely a “children’s book writer” who got “lucky”—really, what incredible, ignorant bullshit. They obviously never sold thousands of copies of Harry Potter to well-educated, well-read adults as I did for five years, and believe that blind luck can be sustained for seventeen years. Idiocy.
     But it was clear to me in December 2019 that something was terribly wrong. Even totally ignorant of most transgender issues as I was, it was clear to me that Rowling’s remark on Twitter was ugly, bullying, and unkind. Let’s look at it again:
“Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?”
     Now, I’m still not sure whether sex is real or gender is immutable, but I do know that something very cruel is being said here. And I think it has to do with the phrase “who’ll have you.” Let’s do a little close reading and unpacking.
     Rowling is clearly addressing some hypothetical person, presumably a transgendered individual, or the transgendered community in the abstract. Her words, on their face, are encouraging: “Dress however you please.” In other words, your attire may not be to my liking (Jo seems to be saying), but suit yourself. “Call yourself whatever you like.” Presumably her hypothetical addressee wants to be thought of as a woman, and accordingly addressed as “she”;  clearly, neither Jo herself nor any right-thinking person would see things that way, and will continue to speak the truth. “Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you.” Here’s where we get down to it, and I’ll get to that sentence momentarily. “Live your best life in peace and security.” Well, you can’t argue with that. Jo personally has no intention of beating this person with a stick; a backhanded well-wish if there ever was one. Please go on with your existence; it will certainly have nothing to do with my reality.
     Now, let’s unpack the key phrase: “Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you.” One can imagine a first draft of that line: “Sleep with anyone you like.” But, heaven forbid, someone should take that literally as a license to molest anyone of their choosing—so the disclaimer must be added that the person must be an adult, and a consenting one; a bit redundant, since only an adult may give give their consent to sleeping with you. But Jo clearly does not wish to be misunderstood, given the type of person she is speaking to.
     For me, it all really comes down to the phrase “who’ll have you.” And, after all, who would have one such as the likes of you?*
     This is something you would say to someone who is loathsome, unattractive, unworthy, and unappealing in every way, or someone you just broke up with. Go ahead, sleap with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life, you Thing Undeserving of Love.
     It’s certainly not “I hope you find the love of your life, and live happily ever after” (presumably the sentiment of the forthcoming fairytale, The Ichabod).

***

J.K. Rowling had already used the pejorative qualifying phrase “who’ll have you” in her fiction writing, in fact twice within five pages of The Goblet of Fire. In both cases, it is a scornful Hermione Granger who uses it on Ron Weasly, in a mocking, bullying way.
     Let me set the scene for you. The kids are trying to get dates for some ball, and Ron and Harry so far have been striking out with girls they’ve been asking. They are discussing this in front of Hermione. Ron speaks first:
     “We should get a move on you know [Ron says to Harry]…ask someone. He’s right. We don’t want to end up with a pair of trolls.”
     Hermione let out a sputter of indignation.
     “A pair of…what, excuse me?”
     “Well—you know,” said Ron, shrugging. “I’d rather go alone than with—with Eloise Midgen, say.”
     “Her acne’s loads better lately—and she’s really nice.” [Hermione says this in defense and praise of Eloise.]
     “Her nose’s off-center,” said Ron.
     “Oh I see,” Hermione said, bristling. “So basically you’re going to take the best-looking girl who’ll have you, even if she’s completely horrible?”
     “Er—yeah that sounds about right.” said Ron.
     “I’m going to bed,” Hermione snapped, and she swept off toward the girls’ staircase without another word.” (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, pp. 394-395).
     Later, when Ron has still struck out, Hermione taunts him:
     “All the good-looking ones taken, Ron?” said Hermione loftily. “Eloise Midgen starting to look quite pretty now, is she? Well, I’m sure you’ll find someone somewhere who’ll have you.” (Goblet, p. 400).
      The gist in both cases is that while Ron judges potential dates in terms of superficial beauty, he himself is loathsome—indeed, it is his very shallowness and judgmentalism that makes him loathsome. Anyone “who’ll have” him must, accordingly, have low standards in humanity. Ron, in that moment, is not worthy of love, in Hermione’s eyes. (And of course, Ron is a complete dolt for overlooking Hermione as a potential partner.)
     Clearly, when Rowling is speaking to her hypothetical trans person and wishing them to live their best life, she’s using same voice, effectively cursing them, à la Hermione, consigning them to whomever “will have” them, presumably someone with no standards who will overlook the travesty of their identity and the monstrosity of their humanity.
     Flash forward to spring of 2020, and Rowling has rolled off a series of Tweets. Here is one:
“The idea that women like me, who’ve been empathetic to trans people for decades, feeling kinship because they’re vulnerable in the same way as women—i.e., to male violence—‘hate’ trans people because they think sex is real and has lived consequences—is a nonsense.”
     Really? “Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you,” you loathsome, undesirable, completely-unworthy-of-love creature, is empathy? Remind me not to call you when I’m feeling down, Jo.
     While I was Googling, I found a couple other pejorative use of “who’ll have you,” which I’d like to throw in:
     “Shaggy is the name of the one who’ll have you, you’re hideous to humankind; that monster lives on Tholley; a very wise giant, but the worst of lava-dwelling ogres, he’s a fitting mate for you.” –the Poetic Edda, translation Caroline Larrington, 2014.
     “You’ll marry,” my mother says, “the first boy who’ll have you.” (Karen Salyer McElmurray, Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey, 2011, p. 122.)
     Indeed, it’s impossible to find a literary or other use of the phrase “who’ll have you” that isn’t a put-down, a slight, an emphatically cruel curse.
  “Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you.”
***
Much has been made of Rowling’s subsequent 3,600-word essay, in which among other things she claims she is not a transphobe (all while adumbrating her unfounded, irrational fears—the literal meaning of the word phobia—that the transgender movement is all about men masquerading as women to gain access to little girl’s bathrooms and changing rooms, which as one Facebook friend put it, “in the history of never has there been a report of a trans raping anyone in a bathroom.”) Further, she asserts she’s being persecuted for speaking the sommon-sense truth.

     Even more persversely, she feels that she’s still on the side of diversity and inclusion.  She states,
“I believe the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve outlined. Trans people need and deserve protection. Like women, they’re most likely to be killed by sexual partners. Trans women who work in the sex industry, particularly trans women of colour, are at particular risk. Like every other domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor I know, I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men.”
     And yet, empathy and solidarity notwithstanding, Jo wonders who’ll have them. Who in the world could love them?
     Again, in view of my years at Borders, it was difficult for me to read the “Who’ll have you” Tweet last December 2019 without thinking that J.K. Rowling was viciously attacking many of her earliest and most ardent fans and supporters. Not that many—or that any that I recall encountering at the bookstore at the time—were visibly transgendered. But it was clear that the earliest adopters of Harry Potter—like most of my coworkers who had been working at Borders for years before me and had early on championed this kids’ book to customers of all ages until it had become an unstoppable sales juggernaut of its own volition—were attracted to the non-bullying ethos of the series.
     Harry Potter, after all, is a young person who is told there’s nothing special about him—indeed, that whatever it is that is special about him only makes him a freak—when in fact he’s the singularly most special person in the world. No doubt, a great many readers who felt themselves similarly treated by the Muggle world for whatever reason found refuge in J.K. Rowling’s books for the next seventeen years and beyond.
“Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security.”
     It is a catastrophic shame that these are the most memorable lines of dialogue Rowling has written in well over a decade. Worse still, one can only imagine them as coming from one her more evil characters (a Dolores Umbrage, and Aunt Petunia Dursley, or even an angry and momentarily petulant Hermione Granger), and not from the beloved author of the Harry Potter series herself, speaking to a large, distant, and abstract public that may or may not include readers she any longer cares about.

Next: Joanne, Jo, J.K. or Robert: Somebody Help Me Out Here...

Note: I have not made links to all the resources available on Rowling’s transphobia, Maya Forstater, the judge’s ruling, and much more, all of which can be found easily enough online. Before you comment, please educate yourself on the topic completely, because the author can back up everything he writes.

*Speaking of the likes of you, later in The Goblet of Fire Hermione later gets some hate mail:
 “Harry Potter can do much better than the likes of you…!” (Goblet, p. 541).
There is something about using “you” in a subjunctive clause (or whatever it’s called) that somehow always seems pejorative.

†All page references are to the American Scholastic edition. 

Update [6/22/2020]: “Who’ll have you” is a relative clause; “than the likes of you” is a comparative clause. Watch out when Jo tacks on those clauses at the ends of sentences! — Dr. Grammarian.

Update (6/25/2020]: If you Google the phrase “who’ll have you” and the word quotation, the top three examples returned are all quotes from J.K. Rowling—the two from Goblet of Fire cited above and “Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you,” from her December 2019 Tweet (if you Google just the phrase without quotation, you get the Tweet, without Goblet of Fire).
     “Who’ll have you” is practically a pet phrase, if not a trademark, of the author’s; I’m unable to find any other author using the phrase “who’ll have you” in their ouevre more than once (but would certainly be interesed in you find any).— Dysphrasic Don.
_______
Read my YA prose experiment, The Ms. Megaton Man Maxi-Series! New chapter every Friday!

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