“Is Rowling transphobic?” should not be a question that keeps most of us awake at night—the response will not, in all likelihood, impact our immediate lives in any big way—but the reason it is asked and debated endlessly in op-eds, on TV shows, podcasts and Twitter threads is because it cuts to the heart of some of our own deepest beliefs and doubts about our political selves. It is polarising because Rowling is not a rabid right-winger hell-bent on demonising the other—it is neither easy nor fair to dismiss her without honest engagement with her arguments.
A new podcast, The Witch Trials Of JK Rowling, hosted by lapsed Christian conservative Megan Phelps-Roper, takes another stab at this through interviews with her supporters and detractors and long conversations with Rowling herself. Along the way, it also traces the history of polemical internet culture—you don’t expect to hear a lengthy discourse on Tumblr during a podcast about an author but midway through the third episode, which dropped last week, three cultural commentators talk at length about polarising debates on identity that trace their roots to a relatively small but influential demographic on Tumblr.
Several reviews of the podcast, which certainly has its limitations (the pro-Rowling framing itself may indicate that it has made up its mind about its central question), see this as an attempt to muddy the waters, to further a “both-sides” argument when it comes to discussing whether or not Rowling has been vilified unnecessarily.
You can listen to the episode yourself to make up your mind but it is difficult to see how anyone can find this digression extraneous—how do we go about trying to disentangle one of the most complex culture wars of our time, which has had an outsized impact on the way we perceive online influence, without knowing its history?
You may disagree with Rowling and the podcast makers on any number of issues but you can’t deny that it is turning out to be an important cultural artefact documenting, in a factual and clearheaded manner, the evolution of contemporary internet culture in real time and the impact it has on real lives.
“If there’s one thing that I stand against, it’s authoritarianism. And it cuts across political persuasions,” Rowling says in the podcast, referring to the theme of authoritarianism recurring in her work, especially in the Harry Potter universe. It’s not far-fetched to say that Rowling shaped the political beliefs of an entire generation and it’s important to ask now, with an open mind, “Is she wrong about this?” The Witch Trials Of JK Rowling is pretty much unavoidable if you are even minutely interested in figuring out the nuances of your own beliefs and liberal identity.
Also, you get to hear her defence in her own voice—not her writing voice but her actual speaking voice, reflecting by turn confidence, pain and a certain tiredness—and start picking out threads that weren’t clear earlier. Is there a touch of paranoia in her objection to letting trans women use public spaces for women and does it stem from her experiences with an abusive partner? Is she being honest, or disingenuous, when she says she doesn’t care about her “legacy”? Did her early experiences of lurking anonymously on Harry Potter forums shape her views about internet groupings?
By the third episode, the podcast has barely begun to touch upon the topic of trans identities and how Rowling got interested in the issue but one does hope that in subsequent ones, she will live up to her own advice—“we should mistrust ourselves most when we are certain”— and extend our understanding by asking unsettling questions of herself and others rather than delivering moral certitude. One does, still, expect that from her.