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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.

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Comments

1. C. L. Hanson - 23 October 2007

Excellent insight!!

I feel the same way about how graphic violence is used as entertainment. Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy has the same problem (as I discussed here): he’s fine writing about graphic violence in a book for teens, but when it comes to the slightest reference to sexuality it’s all wink-wink-nudge-nudge, even when sexuality is an important component of the story. A contrasting example (one whose author has experience living through war, like Tolkien), is Persepolis as I discussed here. And you’re right it’s crazy that a story that involves sexuality in the context of a relationship requires warnings that wouldn’t be expected in graphic violence-as-entertainment.

Regarding Todd’s position on Dumbledore: I almost would be okay with this character if there had been some positive queer examples, especially among the young characters. Since the wizard culture seems to parallel the muggle culture to a large degree, it’s not unreasonable for a gay man of Dumbledore’s generation to be a closeted bachelor — such people exist (or did exist), and should be allowed to have their stories told openly. I felt like his particular relationship with Grindelwald was fairly realistic for a closeted young person. However, Rowling had plenty of characters, and if you’re going to include a character like that, it would be interesting to present a contrasting gay character from a younger generation.

2. Sideon - 23 October 2007

When I first heard that Dumbledore was gay, I had two reactions: the first was “cool, a gay wizard joins the ranks of gay actors playing powerful wizards (Ian McClellan),” and the second was “so?”

The series Rowling created was a child coming of age, and as others have noted, I appreciated that she didn’t get caught up in teenage sexuality. I read the series out of love of the characters, for the twists and turns, and the graying of black and white absolutes.

Dumbledore, next to Snape, was my favorite character, but I don’t fault Rowling for not outing him within the text. His sexuality neither adds or detracts from his credibility or believability. He’s the world’s most powerful and brilliant wizard, greater than Grindelwald and Voldemont, but he’s not all-powerful. He was an incredible leader and he gave Potter many character-building opportunities, but he wasn’t a parent. I didn’t read Dumbledore as a “sad, old, lonely man” but as a mentor and friend who reached out to Potter, who provided moral support, who did everything in his power to defeat Voldemort even after his own death. It was Dumbledore who gave Potter the ultimate choice when he “died” in the forest at Voldemort’s hands, and that choice was to live or pass to the other side.

While a gay/straight wizardling alliance at Hogwarts would have been fun to read about, I think Rowling wrote the series exceptionally well to draw in as many readers as she did. Rowling’s admission about Dumbledore is an opportunity to reread his life and interactions and know that he was so much more than his sexuality, that in the end he remains a beloved character. If Rowling had attempted to twine sexuality into the story-line, we’d be waiting many more years before she finished her series, at the risk of her pulling a Robert Jordan and dying before she was done. For the books being what they were – high fantasy – I’m glad Rowling did exactly what and how she did it.

3. Todd - 23 October 2007

Sideon,

I just disagree. Dumbledore as written isn’t gay at all. While I believe that she conceived of him as gay, maybe even from the beginning, she wrote a character who wasn’t gay in any way. Nearly every other character has their sexuality completely integrated into their development, from crushes and flirting, to snogging and marrying and reproducing.

Would you argue that Lupin’s relatioship with Tonks should have been left out? Afterall, he is so much more than his sexuality, right? His sexuality has nothing to do with him being a beloved character, so why is it there? Because he is a fully developed, humanized character. While people are more than their sexuality, their sexuality is always intricately part of who they are. Only gay people are asked to cover or rather praised for “rising above” their sexuality and being relevant despite their sexuality.

4. Sideon - 24 October 2007

Todd, I concede – you have valid points. You’ve given enough food for thought that I’m willing to rethink my views, especially with these words:

“Because he is a fully developed, humanized character. While people are more than their sexuality, their sexuality is always intricately part of who they are. Only gay people are asked to cover or rather praised for “rising above” their sexuality and being relevant despite their sexuality.”

5. Todd - 24 October 2007

Sideon,

I totally didn’t mean that to come across as something you have to “concede” to. I’m just passionate about it, probably because at work, the straight people talk about their spouses, dating, children constantly; but if I mention a date or a former relationship, it’s a Lead Balloon Moment.

Sorry if I came on too strong.

t

6. Sideon - 26 October 2007

No apology necessary, Todd. You gave me lots to think about outside the little bubble of my life.

Be well.

7. Rated R “just for violence” | Main Street Plaza - 30 October 2007

[…] day, but violence? I hope it won’t be. I think Christiann expressed the problem well (in a discussion of sex vs. violence in Rowling’s work): It’s problematic for me because it is something that I think is over-present in popular […]

8. Dave - 22 November 2007

Todd,

It amazes me that you’re concerned about violence in print when as a teenager you were arrogant and bully. Do you remember East Layton? I consider you a hypocrite. Most of the time I support Gays and Lesbians in their fight to be treated equal, because as an Atheist I get the same discrimination. But in your case I don’t think you deserve the respect these people give you.

9. Todd - 22 November 2007

Hey Dave,

I don’t know what East Layton is. If you’re referring to Layton, Utah, I lived in Oregon as a teenager. You have me mixed up with someone else.

Of course, if someone was a bully to you in high school (or whenever) that’s a hard experience for anyone. As someone who was bullied constantly all the way through K-12, you have my sympathy. But at the end of the day, that’s something that happened to you in the past; and whoever the bully was you’re thinking about, they were a kid at the time, too. Who knows what was going on at the time to make the bullies and more importantly, who knows what kind of adult they turned out to be?

My suggestion: Move on. Why are you still worrying about a teenage bully? Don’t give them that power.

10. Main Street Plaza » Rated R “just for violence” - 20 October 2010

[…] day, but violence? I hope it won’t be. I think Christiann expressed the problem well (in a discussion of sex vs. violence in Rowling’s work): It’s problematic for me because it is something that I think is over-present in popular […]


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