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Dumbledore Is Gay (Part Two), or Why Rowling Was Wrong to Keep Dumbledore in the Closet 21 October 2007

Posted by Todd in Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification.
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[I'm having a passionate argument with my cyber-friend Hellmut over on an ex-mormon forum (Further Light and Knowledge) about Rowling's outing of Dumbledore. And because I've received a couple emails about yesterday's post, I thought I'd cross-post an edited piece I posted over there, followed by a brief explanation of why I care if Dumbledore was gay or not]:

In 2007, we should be way past the stage of begging and feeding off the table scraps. I have 250-ish years of modern democratic history to prove to you that no one gets anything by being happy to get what they get. African Americans call this Uncle Tom-ing or being a House Negro (think: Collin Powell). Gay men call it being an “Auntie Tom” or the Gay Clown. In the current ENDA debate, Barney Frank calls it “good strategy.” But most of us call it a cop out and Mr. Frank, for whom I normally have a great deal of respect, is dead wrong.

In American history, being grateful for the scraps massuh throws you has never worked as a strategy for gaining a full and equal place at the table.

Rowling may have had the best intentions, but her execution ultimately undermines any attempt that she thought she was making for tolerance, because she gave us a closeted, lonely, dis-integrated character. If she had really wanted to argue for tolerance at the level of sexuality, Dumbledore’s sexuality would have been woven into his character and fully integrated JUST AS IT WAS FOR ALL THE STRAIGHT CHARACTERS. As it happens, she wrote a closeted, pathetic, tragic homosexual character, and then outed him after the fact. She can keep those table scraps.

In my original post I said that Dumbledore could talk about love and relationships to Harry and Hermione, if appropriate. That was NOT intended to say that there should have been some didactic scene where Dumbledore explains the theme of tolerance to the kiddies. I was thinking specifically of several scenes in the series where Dumbledore talks about love and friendship and relationship to the kids already. How much fuller and more powerful would these moments have been had they been in the context of him having his sexuality fully integrated into his character? What else might he have said about Snape’s history or the friendship between James, Remus, and Sirius; or between Lilly and James; or between himself and Grindelwald? Rowlings choice was not only political (and financial?) cowardice, it was a BAD ARTISTIC CHOICE.

Now, to the simple question requiring a complex answer, why does it matter whether or not Dumbledore is gay? Or why do I care about some character in a series of children’s books?

This is a question my students often pose when we study pop culture or even so called “high” art. Why does it matter? Quite simply, the beliefs and practices of a given society are produced and reproduced in their art, even in their pop culture (perhaps especially in their pop culture). Although art/pop-culture can’t tell you statistically how many people believe or do X, Y, or Z, it can give you a window qualitatively into how the meaning-systems of a particular culture are functioning and circulating at a given moment. So for an obvious example, we read Uncle Tom’s Cabin to understand not black life, but strands of thinking within the abolitionist movement just before the Civil War. These meaning-systems undergird, support, and reproduce the social structures (that is, the institutions, interactions, and relations of power) within a society. Where this is most striking is where the beliefs and practices that resonate with the mass audience are also those which serve to create unjustified or even harmful stratification.

To put it another way, the cultural meanings reproduced in Rowling’s novels are inextricably connected to the systems of power in the real world, whether they support those systems or critique and undermine them. It’s one of the many reasons why her books resonate and are so immensely popular. So when discussing arguably the most popular books of the late 20th/early 21st century, it is easy to see how important it is to understand and critique the meaning-systems Rowling puts together.

My criticism (and I’m not alone here) of Rowling is that her choice to keep Dumbledore closeted ultimately plays into a kind of ‘half-way’ culture where gay men (and obliquely, gay women) are concerned: They can be seen but not heard. They can exist, but not as fully integrated human beings (compare: the Weasley parents, whose sexuality is fully integrated into their characters as a matter of course, without question or excuse). I would have been easier on Rowling had she not explicitly stated in her interview that she thought of Dumbledore as part of her larger narrative aim at examining Tolerance. My argument is that the way she portrayed Dumbledore in the books has precisely the opposite effect. If Dumbledore’s characterization is what it means to Tolerate gay men, I want none of it.

Comments

1. vin - 21 October 2007

Wow, that was great, I never would’ve thought about it that way if I hadn’t come across your site. I like seeing more than one side of an argument before making up my mind, thanks.

2. C - 22 October 2007

Well said, Todd, and I completely, wholeheartedly agree.

Speaking of Tonks, I always thought that SHE would be the lesbian character! But, alas. No.

3. C - 22 October 2007

Whoops. You didn’t speak of Tonks – you spoke of Lilly. Well, NOT speaking of Tonks – I thought she would be the lesbian character.

4. the gideonse bible » Blog Archive » Obligatory “Dumbledore is gay” post - 23 October 2007

[...] Todd’s Hammer: Rowling may have had the best intentions, but her execution ultimately undermines any attempt that she thought she was making for tolerance, because she gave us a closeted, lonely, dis-integrated character. If she had really wanted to argue for tolerance at the level of sexuality, Dumbledore’s sexuality would have been woven into his character and fully integrated JUST AS IT WAS FOR ALL THE STRAIGHT CHARACTERS. As it happens, she wrote a closeted, pathetic, tragic homosexual character, and then outed him after the fact. She can keep those table scraps. [...]

5. SlackerP - 10 November 2007

Very well said. Although I admire Rowling’s talent and story, her presentation of Dumbledore’s homosexuality felt liked she was pandering to her liberal readership. It seemed she was hesitant to commit her notions to text for fear of coming off as preachy. Of course, we could say it is the mark of an excellent writer to be able to “preach” without appearing so.

6. Nema - 10 March 2008

I remember reading this article when you first posted it, and found that it expressed eloquently my instinctive unhappiness with the way in which Dumbledore’s “outing” was achieved and received.

As a follow up, it may interest you to know that in an interview published this month (March ’08) Rowling has further expressed her position that Dumbledore was celibate for most (if not all) of his life.

The interview can be found over at The Leaky Cauldron.
(http://www.the-leaky-cauldron.org/2008/3/8/new-j-k-rowling-interview-confirms-working-on-scottish-book-reflects-on-dumbledore-homophobia-fundamentalism-future-writing-projects-and-more)

In it, JKR also explains that his love for Grindlewald caused Dumbledore to lose his moral compass.

7. Teresa Doyle - 21 April 2008

As a rights activist and as a lesbian, I agree with you. However, as a fantasy novelist, I find fault with this fault-finding. The sexual preferences of such adult characters are NEVER explicitly stated. Mad-Eye Moody, Sirius Black, Minerva McGonagall, Kingsley Shacklebolt – none of the authoritative adults are ever labeled. The implications were there. I had assumed Dumbledore was gay before she announced it – what more can we expect? Especially considering his relative celibacy, it just didn’t make much sense for him to talk about having been in love with Grindewald, and saying, “I am a homosexual,” was not exactly in character. He was a private person – he had only once, very obliquely, mentioned his family in the books. I just don’t find explicit coming-out to be helpful in this circumstance.

8. Todd - 21 April 2008

I don’t think I argued in either of my posts that Dumbledore should have announced his homosexuality, simply that Rowling wasn’t as progressive as her self-congratulatory remarks seem to convey.

My point was simply that what would have been revolutionary would have been to simply have his sexuality integrated into his story, as it was for all the presumably heterosexual characters (e.g., Harry). If he was in love with the guy who made the wand (sorry, I’m bad at remembering tertiary characters’ names), then why not just say so? The books are written in 3rd person omniscient, after all. It just seemed like so much dissembling in the book and so much publicity stunt for the author, all of which does relatively little for gay people.

And I completely disagree with your comment about adult characters’ sexuality. They are constantly explicitly displayed in their relationships, comments, thoughts, and actions. Tonks doesn’t have to announce that she prefers dick for us to know that she’s straight, at least the way she’s built in the the novels. It’s your average, run of the mill heterosexual privilege.

Finding fault with criticism of literature is certainly your prerogative, but if you believe that literature is or should be relevant and engaged in the culture that produces and consumes it, then you have to be open to people talking back to the text. In this case, Rowling happens to be very visible publicly, so that includes speaking directly to her (or at least her public persona). What could be more human than arguing about the meaning, quality, or import of a story?

9. Obligatory “Dumbledore is gay” post | Ted Gideonse - 22 December 2011

[...] Todd’s Hammer: Rowling may have had the best intentions, but her execution ultimately undermines any attempt that she thought she was making for tolerance, because she gave us a closeted, lonely, dis-integrated character. If she had really wanted to argue for tolerance at the level of sexuality, Dumbledore’s sexuality would have been woven into his character and fully integrated JUST AS IT WAS FOR ALL THE STRAIGHT CHARACTERS. As it happens, she wrote a closeted, pathetic, tragic homosexual character, and then outed him after the fact. She can keep those table scraps. [...]


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