Fan Agency and the Cancelling of the Author

Since J.K. Rowling has made the news again for hateful comments (which I won’t link to or reproduce here in any form) against trans and non-binary people, I’ve been thinking a lot about fan agency. The Harry Potter universe has grown far beyond Rowling’s original books into one of the most valuable transmedia franchises in the world. It has been commodified and translated into any number of products, services, languages, and forms and is inarguably a major media touchstone of the 20th and 21st centuries. When I cover books and publishing in my Intro to Mass Media course, we always discuss the HP series and the impact it made in both those industries.

image: author photo of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

How is a beloved popular culture element affected when its creator engages in ill-informed bigotry?

There have been a wide variety of public responses, from fans and high profile celebrities alike, including from Harry himself as Daniel Radcliffe released a public statement on the Trevor Project website. The Trevor Project is a well-known organization that works toward hard reduction and suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth, and Radcliffe has been a supporter for many years; his statement condemns Rowling’s stance and reaffirms trans identity. Many fans talked about feeling betrayed by Rowling and expressed their desire to end their fandoms in various ways, as Aja Romano writes. As I watched countless queer people go through what was essentially a process of grieving, I wondered if there is some way to find comfort in the fact the author— despite her devastating remarks— cannot strip the fans of the meaning-making they have done in regards to their texts and communities. Certainly the HP books are themselves not perfect; they have long been criticized for questionable treatment of people of color and xenophobic undertones. However, it seems that the text here is better than the author or at least that the impact and emergent practices and community generated by fans are better than the author’s behavior. See: The Harry Potter Alliance, a non-profit activist organization founded by Harry Potter fans that harnesses the power of popular culture for social change.

In a Barthesian sense, there is something to be said here about the death of the author, or as I’m often waiting for someone to update, the “cancelling” of the author. In the relationship between fan/text/creator, the products have often survived beyond their authors social and cultural missteps. This is partially a function of the long tail of the media marketplace to be sure, but it’s also about the relationship that does not include the creator, between fan and text (and, often, fan and fandom). Nicole Maines, trans activist and actor, explains why she will still consider herself a fan and highlights the many LGBTQ youth who found messages of hope and appreciation for diversity in the books. From a media studies and media industry standpoint, it will be interesting to see the consumer/corporate tensions that follow. From a human standpoint, I hope all the fans and especially young queer fans— however they decide to move forward— do so knowing that they are valuable, more than just as consumers but as valid human beings. As one fan said in this NYT piece:

“J.K. Rowling gave us Harry Potter; she gave us this world,” said Renae McBrian, a young adult author who volunteers for the fan site MuggleNet. “But we created the fandom, and we created the magic and community in that fandom. That is ours to keep.”

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