Harry Potter was an integral part of an entire generation’s childhood, but as children we rarely get the opportunity to look at things with a critical eye. With the return of J.K. Rowling’s magical world to both stage and cinemas this year, ComicsVerse will take a look at the Harry Potter series. We will explore the cultural representation of the books, as well as try identify how the books ignited such a massive and dedicated following. To read the entire ComicsVerse Harry Potter Series, check out this tag!

That’s right, folks. You heard it here first: queerbaiting is a literal chamber of secrets, in which lies a terribly demented, angry snake just waiting to swallow you whole. For what terrible crime are you being swallowed, you ask? Well, reader, for daring to hope that whatever character in whatever medium of art you like might actually be queer.

According to Wikipedia, queerbaiting refers to “a tactic where a queer relationship or character is hinted at to attract/appeal to the queer market and then is denied” in one way or another. It is a way of pretending to represent a minority group without actually doing it. Many times, queerbaiting happens as shows and books are being produced; the audience is forever hoping, based on subtle context clues, that everything will come to fruition. And of course, it won’t. 

Queerbaiting happens often in stories for many reasons. As a writer who happens to be queer, my gut instinct is to say that the biggest reason for this is that writers and creators want the queer audience’s attention without having to commit themselves to the responsibility of truthfully representing a queer character. Another reason is that they might be hesitant to estrange the (admittedly) larger heteronormative audience.

All of these are examples where the existence of queerbaiting depends on the foggy ambiguity surrounding the author’s intent. What happens, then, when the author’s intent is clear? And it’s actually in the favor of the ambiguously identified character? It wouldn’t be queerbaiting then, right? Wrong.

READ: The shortcomings in Marvel’s queer representation!

In 2007, after the HARRY POTTER world was already incredibly famous, JK Rowling announced that Dumbledore was gay at an event in Carnegie Hall during her book tour in the States. After the initial fan reaction in the crowd, she proceeded to say, “If I had known this would have made you this happy, I would have told you years ago.” That’s a cop-out statement if I’ve ever heard one. Even allowing for the change in popular attitudes in the last ten to twelve years, there can be no doubt that JK Rowling always knew how happy it would have made some people. While not exactly like the traditional form of queerbaiting, this delayed outing of Dumbledore still counts. It hints at a promise of representation that, ultimately, the queer community never gets. 

Despite the fact that authorial intention is an inherently flawed concept and should be considered a waste of time as an argumentative angle, representation of any minority group requires one very basic thing: visibility. Intent without visibility is useless. JK Rowling has created a fantastic, magical world with HARRY POTTER, but her announcing retrospectively that Albus Dumbledore is gay does nothing for the queer community. Her books can only do so much, but it’s her posthumous retconning that rubs me the wrong way. If, when writing, she didn’t include any gay characters, then that’s (slightly unrealistic but) fine. But by deciding years later that she can make her books more progressive if she announces that Hermione is not canonically any specific ethnicity and that one of the main characters is a queer man and having no real textual evidence to back any of this up, she rings false.

I can hear the arguments now: why does queerness need to be voiced by a character/narrator explicitly? Surely a character can be something without there needing to be a reason or without it being a big deal. Maybe JK Rowling didn’t have an “agenda;” maybe it wasn’t important to the general arc of the story, and of course, as our narrator, Harry Potter himself wouldn’t have known about any of his professors’ love lives. Some might argue that kids shouldn’t be exposed to that. (Insert eye roll here.)

Here’s the thing with all these arguments: if you have the privilege of having visibility “not matter that much” to you, then you shouldn’t be weighing in on this discussion.

If you can’t understand why readers, and especially kids, need to hear or see a character acknowledge their queerness in order to feel the positive effects of it, then this conversation doesn’t concern you. This is not your conversation.

A pro-gay protester outside the Supreme Court building in 2013

This isn’t the only time that JK Rowling has made comments about the nature of things inside the HARRY POTTER universe outside of the official texts of the books/movies, such as her endorsement of the idea of a black Hermione. Then, of course, there is her not-so-pristine track record with the representation of other groups (*cough* Ilvermorny *cough*) and her refusal to properly acknowledge the critiques against it.

To some extent, however, we have to cut her some slack. HARRY POTTER is a children’s series. It’s a children’s world, and in some ways only invites so much criticism and questions because of its popular status. We might find these same problems in a hundred other less popular series for children and dismiss them because the books aren’t trying to live up to an in-depth and, in some ways, even academic standard. And I would argue that, in the beginning, neither was HARRY POTTER.

As a result of having a rather large adult fanbase who grew up with the series and are now old enough to challenge the physics of the world, HARRY POTTER receives a lot of fair but almost irrelevant critique regarding questions that are never addressed in the text. Frankly, for a series meant for eleven-year-olds, it isn’t necessary. People raise questions all the time: Was there wizard intervention during huge wars, like World War II? Did the wizards make their own contribution toward the Holocaust, and if not, why didn’t they help? Who teaches these young witches and wizards about puberty? Sex education? The list goes on and on, but those of us who ask the questions (and it’s very okay to ask the questions) have to realize what the series started out as, and what the intention of the series was: a magical world full of bravery and courage for eleven-year-old children. Why would a series for young children address the Holocaust? Should JK Rowling have dared the parental backlash she most certainly would have received had she addressed sex education and menstruation? In some ways, these minor inconsistencies, while fun to think about, are unfair avenues of critique.

READ: How THE PATH tackles the issue of bisexuality!

That’s not to say that all critique JK Rowling receives is unfair, especially when she asserts her authorial dominance quite often. Authors tend to have differing opinions on whether their intention matters or not in fan interpretations of the work, and JK Rowling seems to stand on the side of a firm yes. While not as drastic as some, who are offended even by fan fiction of their works, JK Rowling seems to think she has the last word on interpretations and often engages in fan discussion, such as her adamant stance against the theory that Dumbledore made Fawkes a horcrux. There is nothing wrong with that in itself, but when an author is so involved in her fictional world and her fans’ interpretations of it, she opens herself up for necessary and apt criticism.

In an article by THE GUARDIAN that collects a bunch of JK Rowling’s infuriating tweets, she assures us that there are, in fact, Jewish wizards. 

And further down the article, assures us (with a graphic a fan probably made) that yes, there are LGBT+ wizards at Hogwarts and the school is, indeed, a “safe place.” In response to this tweet: “@jk_rowling do you think there are a lot of LGBT students in modern age Hogwarts? I like to imagine they formed an LGBT club,” she responded:

As nice as that is, there is no mention of Jewish wizards and/or LGBT witches or wizards in the actual text of the book. Anthony Goldstein may have been a wizard, but a young Jewish child reading the books without reading Rowling’s intimate correspondence with fans on Twitter would not have recognized himself in the fantasy world. That’s how representations fails. JK Rowling may be a great author, an amazing person, and have a diverse world in her mind, but almost none of that translates into the text itself. She may be diverse, but her books aren’t. Or, not as diverse as she thinks, anyway.

In an article by the LA TIMES, “Seven clues that Potter’s Dumbledore was gay,” (which I hope was satirical) the author cites Dumbledore’s “flaming” pet Phoenix, Fawkes; his name, which anagrams out to “male bods rule, bud!;” his apparent parallel to Leonardo da Vinci, who many thought was gay; and his fashion sense (because his purple cloak indicates an attraction to men, while the purple cloaks of all the other wizards in the world are just evidence of their eccentric style).

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I am all for authors interacting with their fans. And, of course, authors will have tons and tons of information about the world they built that isn’t in the actual text that readers have access to. I can even get on board with some of this authorial knowledge making its way across to the fans outside of the text and influencing how we think about it, but the representation of minority groups is not something you can tweet about or disclose quickly in an interview. Representation of minority groups must happen inside the text, because if it doesn’t, there is no representation. There’s just a comment by the author online or in an interview. If a reader from these minority groups cannot see themselves inside the text, then the entire point of it is moot. Representation is about visibility. It’s about seeing oneself in the text. To have representation, there must be actual clues or, god forbid, an actual word or phrase where a character either says they are queer or is described by the author as being so.

In fact, to combat the lack of real visibility in specifically HARRY POTTER (though this happens with everything you can imagine), fans of the series have written an entire library of fanfiction in order to play around with the story so that they can see themselves in the characters. (Mostly.) Drarry (Draco and Harry) are the most popular gay pairing, but you can find everything under the sun, from Lucius Malfoy and Harry Potter, to Hermione Granger and Tom Riddle, and even crossovers where Harry Potter is paired with Carlisle Cullen. Yes, the one from TWILIGHT. 

Fanfiction is as much a creative endeavour as it is a response to the amount of recognition a group of readers finds in something. While a large portion of fanfiction is written by straight girls and women, there is a portion of the community that can’t be ignored. Queer people who don’t find characters to relate to in a series will make them, reimagine them, represent them themselves. We see this a lot with HARRY POTTER fanfiction. The series has been around so long that for nearly every pairing you can imagine, you’ll have a plethora of fanfic to choose from. In some ways, Rowling didn’t need to retrospectively try so hard to make HARRY POTTER seem so diverse. The fans were already doing it. Her efforts after the fact just come off false and hollow.

CLICK: Want to read more about fanfic in Harry Potter? Check out Rachel’s article!

Misleading representation doesn’t happen with just the queer community. It inevitably happens to every minority group that doesn’t receive sufficient representation in media. Hegemonic groups will never be at a loss to find something or someone that looks like them or reflects their experiences, but minority groups will always have to dig for scraps, it seems. In HARRY POTTER, while I’ve focused mostly on the issue surrounding Albus Dumbledore, there are other instances of this not relating to LGBT+ characters (as mentioned above). It’s unfortunate, but not what irks most fans. It’s Rowling’s continuous insistence that yes, HARRY POTTER is diverse!! that rubs most of us the wrong way.

HARRY POTTER is a children’s series first and foremost, yes, and perhaps most people will say that this kind of explicit representation isn’t important for young readers (I beg to differ, but that’s an argument for another day), and they might say we should be happy that JK Rowling made anyone gay at all, whether there is evidence for it in the text or not, and this may be true. I can’t say what is true or right for every queer reader of HARRY POTTER, but I do know one thing: Dumbledore being gay is not representation; it’s queerbaiting, and while JK Rowling may have had good intentions, which I believe she did, it is still not LGBT+ representation. The lasting legacy of HARRY POTTER will focus on many other positive things that the series brings to its readers, but as long as the legacy lasts, so will the queer readers forever looking for themselves in the text (and not Rowling’s twitter feed) who never find anything.

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