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J.K. Rowling and Violence (guest post) 22 October 2007

Posted by Todd in Ethics, Gay Culture.
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My dear long lost friend Christiann wrote an amazing response to my Dumbledore Is Gay posts, and I have asked her permission to post it as a blog entry on the Hammer. Give her a warm welcome and consider her insights into Rowling’s ethical responsibility regarding violence and sexuality in her series of children’s novels.

Hello, Todd. Your blog reminded me of something else that the Rowling books stirred up in me when I was reading them: the problem I had with Rowling’s willingness to write so graphically (and, in a strange way, almost lightly) about violence, and her unwillingness to write about sex.

So, of course I feel ire over her open omission of gay and lesbian characters – as we have discussed, and as you so thoughtfully articulated on your page. (I am wondering now how much of that was pressure from her publishers. If she was bending to a homophobic culture and not just inadvertently expressing her own homophobia, I find her choices even MORE onerous.)

Anyway, but that issue aside, I was actually FINE with her delicate approach to teenage sexuality. I thought it was appropriate for a young readership. But the books were very violent, especially toward the end. I had to skim over a few sections of book 7 where she described torture. So, I found myself thinking, “why the care with sexual material and the total flagrancy with violent material?”

Especially in the last books, I compared her to Tolkien. Like everyone, I was reminded of the LOTR trilogy all the way through her series, but toward the end what I was comparing was the difference in how Tolkien and Rowling wrote about violence. His books were hugely violent and dark and worrisome… but he handled the material so artfully and with true gravitas. Of course he had experienced war, so he wrote with immense insight, care, and true understanding of suffering. In fact, for me, the way Tolkien wrote about suffering may be the most important and moving aspect of his work. The way Rowling wrote about suffering, on the other hand, left me feeling … kind of offended, actually!

I think Rowling is a wonderful author and I loved the series. Of course she isn’t a great writer like Tolkien; she isn’t a great scholar like Tolkien was. She’s some layperson who started writing books. And what she created was delightful! So… you know, I forgive her. But her books have become cultural phenomena. So, the juxtaposition between featherweight sexuality and heavyweight violence becomes more important to me.

Not only did I feel that her descriptions of violence were somehow off – like a Hollywood car chase in a way – but I also felt that when her characters, especially Harry, struggled to COPE with and process the violence and suffering they were enduring, it came off as a kind of trifle – as if Rowling knows that immense trauma deserves a reaction, but that she doesn’t quite know what that reaction TRULY is.

It’s problematic for me because it is something that I think is over-present in popular media. Characters survive horrific events, stand up, brush themselves off, and go have a cup of coffee. So, violence in popular culture has this Looney Tune feel to it. But the even more troubling trend is the rampant graphic programming about raped and murdered women, while the FCC will descend like a ravenous bird of prey when, say, the breast of a live performer appears on the screen. In our culture now, there is tolerance of violence and even sexual violence (or even ESPECIALLY sexual violence) but complete INTOLERANCE of naturally expressed sexuality. And I think that reflects in Rowling’s books.

What a difference it would have made to me if she had toned down the torture, or written it with maturity, and had included fulfilled, loving gay characters. Tolerance, indeed.

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.

Dumbledore Is Gay 20 October 2007

Posted by Todd in Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Rights, Sexuality.
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Well, duh. J.K. Rowling revealed yesterday that her character Dumbledore, erstwhile Hogwarts headmaster, is gay. [Hat tip to Belaja.] Leaving aside the politically delicate act of outing, Rowling’s revelation puts to rest a couple years of rumors concerning the bearded sage, and surely will bring up all sort of pedophilic panic among those already predisposed against the Satanic wizarding world (i.e., Christian wingnuts). I find that I have a mixed response to this revelation.

On one hand, I still have that problem where I crave representation in the larger culture, and so I immediately started rethinking everything I remember about the character through the books. And I felt a bond to Rowling. Apparently, Dumbledore’s life-love was the evil Grindelwald, because of whom he almost destroyed his remaining family (Book 7). Rowling says that his love for Grindelwald disillusioned Big D, and taught him that love can blind you to what is right. And that it was the great tragedy of Dumbledore’s life.

But Dumbeldore as broken, betrayed aging single lonely gay man? The other side of my response was irritation and disappointment. There are two tropes in Western literature going back at least to the Victorians of homosexual male characters. First, the psychopathic, often homicidal, mentally imbalanced. In the narrative, he is usually the foil against which the normal or good men are measured. Think: Talented Mr. Ripley. Even E.M. Forster’s characters in Maurice border on this trope. Second, and the one followed by Rowling, the single outcast, usually pathetic and pitiable, incapable of love, or only finding impossible love; but usually functioning as a care-taker or guide or at worst the comic relief for the straight people in the narrative.. These men are usually not explicitly homosexual. Think: Henry James’ The American. Rowling has followed this trope, albeit a step up, where Dumbledore has an important career and is the center of the fight against darkness. See, all that unused relational energy can be transfered into a career!

So while I understand Rowling’s argument that her books are a “prolonged argument for tolerance,” and I think she had good intentions, in 2007 we are far beyond the time when a sympathetic gay character should be closeted and sexless (and surely Ian McLellan has proved that older gay men are still vital and sexual). Given where the UK is right now in the integration of gay men and women into British society, this is a step backward. I don’t want to be too harsh, here, but ultimately Dumbledore’s narrative turns into sycophantism: How do you write a gay character in a children’s book without freaking the hell out of their conservative retrograde parents? What would Dumbledore have been like had he had a partner (dead or living), if he’d discussed love with Harry or Hermione at appropriate moments? Would it have undermined his position at the center of Goodness in the book? No. If Rowling’s intention is an argument for tolerance, it is a weak whimper of a statement, at least where gay men are concerned.

To be honest, my bets for a gay character were on Sirius. My feeling was that he had been in love with James (Gary Oldman’s plunging neckline can’t help but throw us back to the go-go gay 1970s). But had Rowling outed Sirius last night, we would have been left in exactly the same conundrum. A lonely, single gay man, loveless and pitiable.

UPDATE: If Sirius were gay, that would mean that the two main adult men who take care of Harry as a young man were gay. The horror! Surely, this explains his pouty broodiness in books 5-7, as well as his bad manners and self-absorption and most especially his propensity to flagrantly (flamboyantly?) disregard the rules! I see it now. What Rowling is actually doing is writing a cautionary tale about young men being mentored by homos.

Right Wing Propaganda and Poor Children 13 October 2007

Posted by Todd in Democracy, Inequality & Stratification, Journalism, News, Political Commentary.
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Hopefully, many of you already know that Pres. Bush vetoed the S-chip program which provides medical care to poor children through state mechanisms. The Democratic response was to deliver a plea to Pres. Bush through a 12 year old boy, Graeme Frost, and his sister, who had been severely injured in a car accident. The right-wing blogosphere got a hold of the story and began a smear campaign against the Frosts and their children, trying to discredit the Democrats. It turns out that none of the Republican claims about the Frosts is true, and yet the MSM continues to report the story as if there is doubt or the Frosts are tainted or the Democrats are bumbling idiots, even though it was the Republicans who got all the facts wrong and engaged in a smear campaign of a disabled 12 year old child.

It is amazing to me the utter lack of anything resembling ethics on the right side of the aisle over the past 20 years. The depth of Republican cynicism about democracy, truth-telling, debate, science, and let’s face it, human life is jaw-dropping. Even more distressing, however, is the utter lack of integrity in the MSM. Is journalism really dead? Can journalists not actually check the facts on the press releases coming out of party headquarters anymore? Has the function of the 4th Estate devolved into a mere delivery system for party and corporate PR?

Paul Krugman has an excellent analysis in his column today (hat tip to Salon.com’s Joan Walsh) of the whole Frost affair. Warning: read on an empty stomach.

American democracy in a state of total decay.