JK Rowling: the making of a modern folk devil
The never-ending rage against Rowling speaks to the hysteria of our times.
How on Earth did JK Rowling become the most controversial cultural figure of our times? Had you told someone this 10 years ago they’d have wondered what the hell you were going on about. What could this once beloved children’s author – whose Harry Potter books inculcated a generation of young people with a love for reading, well, Harry Potter books – possibly have done to fall so far in the estimations of the great and good? Pulled a Mel Gibson? Killed some kids? Joined the BNP? That the answer would turn out to be expressing her belief that biological sex is real would have struck someone in 2011 as even more implausible than Rowling suddenly going full fash.
The demented rage against Rowling shows no signs of abating. It was reported last week that she has been left out of an upcoming HBO Max retrospective on the Harry Potter films. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint will all be involved, but the woman whose work catapulted these unknown child actors, turned dreadful adult actors, into global mega stardom will not. She’ll be confined to clips from archive footage. Last week, her name was removed from a house of a London primary school, along with that of Winston Churchill – to be replaced by Mary Seacole and Marcus Rashford respectively. And last Friday things took a more pitchfork and torches kind of turn when a group of trans activists staged a protest outside her home, and posted a picture of themselves online which Rowling says purposefully displayed part of her home address.
Rowling has become a veritable folk devil, whose menacing portrayal by influential sections of society bears almost no resemblance to what she actually says or does. Ask any right-thinking person about Rowling and they’ll tell you she is some fire-breathing transphobe. Ask them for one single example of her saying or doing something transphobic and they’ll stare glassy-eyed into the distance. For all the demonisation of Rowling, her actual public statements on the issue of transgenderism are remarkably few and incredibly reasonable. She once tweeted her objection to the replacement of the word woman with dehumanising, ungainly phrases like ‘people who menstruate’. She has publicly supported Maya Forstater, the gender-critical researcher who was sacked over her beliefs. The most Rowling has ever said on the subject of transgenderism is a thoughtful, measured essay she published in June 2020. In it, she says that trans people should be afforded all the dignity and rights possible, but that she feels biological males should not be admitted to women’s spaces simply because they declare themselves to be women. That’s genuinely it. But such is the stranglehold that extreme gender ideology has over public discussion this is enough to mark her out as some moral leper.
For this she is treated to a constant bombardment of social-media abuse that would put Mark Francois into a coma. In that essay, Rowling said she feels ‘nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men’. As a ‘survivor’ of domestic abuse and sexual assault, she said, she feels a genuine ‘kinship’ with them. For her trouble Rowling is regularly confronted with the most vile abuse, with a cascade of violent sexual insults. (Here are some screenshots for those with a strong stomach.) Yet the woman on the receiving end of this misogyny – not from trans people, we should be clear, but from the unhinged activists who claim to represent them – is apparently undeserving of any solidarity in return, even as lunatics threaten her with pipe bombs and rape. The left and the cultural elite have completely failed to stand by her.
This isn’t the first time Rowling has been portrayed as essentially evil. In 2001, hardline Christians in New Mexico burned Harry Potter books, denouncing them as Satanic. Fast forward two decades and it is so-called trans allies who can be seen burning their own well-thumbed copies on TikTok. But where that old form of religious intolerance elicited mockery from the liberal elite, the newer form at best elicits stony silence. This is a grim sign of how few defenders of liberal values there are today. Rowling may well be uncancellable, but the millions of people who share her perfectly reasonable concerns about the drift of gender politics are not. While she cannot conceivably be deprived of her livelihood, less successful authors have been, merely for expressing their support for her. The demonisation of Rowling is intended to send a signal to everyone else. To tell them to shut up or else.
JK Rowling is perhaps as unlikely a free-speech cause célèbre as she is a modern-day folk devil. But that’s where we are. And it is the abject cowardice of those who like to call themselves liberal that has got us here.
Tom Slater is editor of spiked.
Picture by: Getty.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.