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  • Writer's pictureLawrie

Loving the problematic

In October, 2017, I watched in some denial as J.K. Rowling slowly started to out herself to the internet. It started with liking the odd tweet: a questionable article on Medium; a tweet about “men in dresses.” The latter was quickly followed by one of Rowling’s representatives hurriedly coming along to ensure us all that it was just a mistake, an older person not knowing how Twitter works, a matter of fat fingers causing some embarrassment.


But we knew. I mean, of course we knew. My mom is also an old person who doesn’t know how Twitter works and even she’s figured out what a like button is. But denial was easier. Harry Potter was something ingrained in our souls. Being a Hufflepuff was as much part of my identity as being asexual or trans.


But it didn’t take long before that denial couldn’t be sustained. It was the death of a universe: the slow collapse, the sudden explosion, the black hole.


It’s difficult for people outside of a fandom to appreciate the impact that fandom has on one’s view of an original work. The very nature of fandom builds on existing works and turns them into something more, and often, something better. We build on universes and characters, we find motivations and reasons, we make alterations and shift narratives to suit our own experiences. It’s a transformative experience, not just for the works, but for the people involved. The number of people I know who discovered their sexualities, their genders, their fears, their hearts, their motivations, their communities are countless. The work that the general public sees is not the work that fandom sees, because fandom sees not just what’s there but the potential of what could be.


The thing is, though, long before we all figured out what a terrible human being Rowling was, she was already a terrible human being, and the Harry Potter books were already pretty subpar examples of the exemplary. The experiences and diversity that the fandom injected into those stories never existed anywhere but in fandom’s own mind, but it wasn’t until Rowling’s public outing that many people really started to examine that.


Before Rowling was revealed in all her bigoted glory, the Harry Potter universe was already problematic. How Muggles were handled, the reductive system of the Sorting Hat, consent issues surrounding love potions, the rampant child abuse and animal abuse, the glorification of revenge, the double standards for behaviour between “good” characters and “bad” characters, the treatment of slaves and slavery, the fact that having your soul sucked out is just what happens if you do literally anything wrong, at all, from pickpocketing to mass murder. And the fact that the magical police and the government and leaders that uphold this system are not just held to be “good,” but the fact that none of these things are ever questioned at all. The sole instance being the unfortunate “S.P.E.W.” plotline in which the only person to question the slavery of an entire race of creatures is roundly mocked, even by her friends.


Add onto that the constant backtracking from Rowling herself, continually adding in characters of certain ethnicities, religions, and characteristics after the fact, as if by simply waving her magic wand she could make it all better. The very definition of virtue signalling.


The very fact that Rowling believed that simply inserting skin colour, queerness, or entire belief systems into her characters, as if it was as simple as Tonks changing her hair colour, speaks more to her prejudices and ignorance than anything else. Long before Rowling was transphobic, the Harry Potter universe was mean, culturally whitewashed, classist, and exclusionary. Rowling has always had a small and narrow mind, and from it was born a small and narrow universe.


But it wasn’t until the Voldemortification of its author that people started to decry the entire franchise. And it’s something I understand and sympathise with, but also, it made me ask why I was ever okay with it if these problems were always there. Did I know that there were issues with the original characters and text? Of course. But it was easy to ignore them or skate over them when they didn’t directly affect me. And if you’re part of the same system that created her world, it’s even easier to not see them at all.


I have a confession: I love Regency romance. One of my favourite practitioners of the art is Georgette Heyer, whose voice is one I tend to have echoing in my head when working on my own Regency era fiction. I find her characters (for the most part) engaging, her storylines hilariously absurd, and her writing the perfect blend of farcical and earnest. I don’t know if you’ve ever read her, but I do recommend her. I think she has a wonderful voice. However, my content warnings for her books are long and probably not complete:

  • ableism

  • homophobia

  • xenophobia

  • antisemitism

  • racism

  • classism

  • sexism

  • misogyny

  • domestic violence

  • abuse

  • child abuse

  • forced marriage

  • sexual abuse

  • rape

Most of these are depicted as humorous or simply a matter of fact. It’s just a fact of life that all money lenders are predatory Jews. That it’s not possible for someone with a developmental disability to be capable of love except as an absurdity, and it’s certainly not possible for anyone to love them in return, not even their closest family. That the only time a Black person is mentioned, they appear as a “black page,” with no mention of the fact that these were children purchased from slavers as a fashionable adornment.


While it’s entirely true that many of these things were simply part of the world that Heyer was writing about, the literary scene is rife with examples of Regency romances that manage to avoid many of these issues. Jane Austen herself, an actual Regency writer writing an actual Regency romance, managed to avoid depicting most of these things. And it could be argued that, well, she was writing about a different class of people, and just because Austen didn’t write about them doesn’t mean they didn’t exist in her world. In fact, the want of social commentary is one of her detractors’ main talking points. And it’s true. But no one reads Austen for her perspectives on the destitute, just as no one reads Heyer for a history lesson. But the very fact that in Heyer’s world these things are upheld and unquestioned by characters meant to be sympathetic can be difficult to deal with.


There is always the argument that many of these views were normal at the time she was setting these stories. But other things were normal too, such as the movement to abolish slavery, the growing awareness of the plight of the poor, and the increased advocacy for the rights of animals. Society was cruel, but it was trying to get better. It’s incredible then that the only time Heyer manages to mention these things it’s either something extraordinary or it appears as the butt of a joke.


Having said all this, I still love reading Heyer. Do I have all her Regency romances? Absolutely. Have they been worn to shreds through rereading? Yep! Do I ever recommend them to other people? Oh. Um. Well, sometimes. But it’s usually only with the long list of content warnings included above.


The thing is, we all love problematic things. It’s impossible not to. We’re all inherently problematic and the work we create will reflect that. Are some people, and therefore their work, worse than others? Yes, of course. But the places where that line is drawn, between acceptable and unacceptable, are as many and varied as the number of people on this planet.


Some people will draw that line between an artist who’s dead versus one who’s alive. Some will measure it by harm caused versus good done. Others by audience reach and influence. There are supports and detractors for all of these. After all, Hitler is dead, but I think most people can agree that putting prints up of his paintings and enjoying his treatises isn’t a great look. As for harm, who defines that and the limits of it? And who gets to say what good is? If someone murders 100 people but saves 101, does that one extra life manage to balance anything out? For audience reach, how far exactly does it need to be before it’s an unacceptable amount?


The thing is, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’m happy when people support Rowling’s brutal empire. I would love it if everyone just cut her off and she disappeared somewhere to some remote island in the middle of the Pacific without an internet connection. But just as many people will feel the same way about Heyer, and it’s hard for me to feel morally superior about boycotting Rowling when I’m still actively collecting works from writers like Heyer. And yes, Heyer is dead, but her influence is alive and well, and her books continue to be reprinted and sold today. Is her reach less? Yes. But that brings us back to our own imaginary lines.


I do think things are changing. As I’ve made a conscious decision to be more aware of the things I’m consuming, I’ve found myself noticing problematic things more and more. And more and more I find myself having to make a conscious decision to ignore something and just move on. Does it get in the way of my enjoyment of something? Sometimes. I remember the blissful days when I read Georgette Heyer and didn’t think anything was wrong, when I could walk around with my Hufflepuff scarf like a complete nerd and just enjoy the feeling of participating in fandom.


If ignorance is bliss, then consciousness is an awareness that the things we consume and the things we choose to participate in and endorse have consequences, even if we ourselves are privileged enough that we don’t feel those consequences. But remaining in ignorance of those consequences simply means that they continue to grow.


My own act of loving the problematic includes passing Heyer on with those warnings. Not only does it serve the purpose of informing unwary readers of what to expect, but by flagging them ahead of time, someone who might, on their own, have uncritically picked up her books is already on the lookout for those issues and therefore may see them where before, unarmed, they might have missed them entirely. And by warning her future readers, I’m telling them that these things are worthy of a warning, that they’re Not Good, and that it’s okay to enjoy the witty repartee, the absurd storylines, and the glorious costume, but that there are other things lurking, and they’re just as big a part of the story as anything else. Ignorance doesn’t mean that the snake isn’t there; it just means that we haven’t seen it yet.

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