Not Just Johnny Depp: A History of J.K. Rowling’s Problematic Statements

I wish I could be excited about the upcoming Harry Potter franchise movie, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. But I simply can’t. Like many, I am deeply disappointed by the decision to keep Johnny Depp, who’s been accused of domestic abuse, in the franchise which itself centers around themes of abuse. As Alanna Bennett eloquently writes in “Johnny Depp’s Continued Presence Is Slowly Poisoning “Fantastic Beasts,” “It’s glaringly evident that everyone from Potter fans to those responsible for creating Fantastic Beasts are intensely aware that Depp’s presence is potentially disastrous. And yet he remains in the role.”

Warner Bros. released the trailer for the Fantastic Beasts sequel today — and while it features a return to Hogwarts! Jessica Williams! Zoë Kravitz! Jude Law as young Dumbledore! — I could not get over the presence of Johnny Depp.

I grew up loving Harry Potter. I remember my dad reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to me, and eagerly reading the next books and waiting for midnight releases. I wanted to be Hermoine, to attend Hogwarts, and to live in a world that was magical. (I still do, low-key.) I admit I even read Harry Potter fan-fiction (I liked knowing it ended up happily ever after for all of them).

And so it’s especially disappointing to see not only this latest controversy with Fantastic Beasts — but that the author herself, J.K. Rowling, has publicly been so deeply problematic.

The following is a summary of all the ways in which Rowling has let fans like me down. Please note: This article isn’t going to address the problems within the Harry Potter series (books 1 – 7, I’m pretending Cursed Child never happened), but how the author has handled certain issues afterwards.

Retroactively “Progressive”

The main issue begins with Twitter: J.K. Rowling simply couldn’t let her series be. She kept expanding the universe. Take, for example, Anthony Goldstein. In December 2014, after a fan asked her if there were any Jews at Hogwarts, J.K. tweeted that Anthony Goldstein was a Jewish wizard.

But of course, there’s no mention of his Jewishness in the books. As Emma Oulton at Bustle points out, “These characters were never central to the Harry Potter story, and their culture was never acknowledged at Hogwarts. If Hogwarts celebrates Christmas, why not Hanukkah?” Basically: If there was a Jewish character at Hogwarts, why wasn’t his Jewishness addressed in the books?

The same thing happened with Dumbledore and his sexuality. Rowling announced Dumbledore was gay after the series wrapped up. Why didn’t she write him as gay in the books? Why isn’t the series making him explicitly gay?

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald director David Yates said that the film will not make it clear that Dumbledore is gay, but continued to say, “I think all the fans are aware of that. He had a very intense relationship with Grindelwald when they were young men. They fell in love with each other’s ideas, and ideology and each other.”

As HuffPost points out, “What does it mean that Dumbledore is allowed to be gay in our collective imagination but not in the books or on the big screen? …It means the Harry Potter franchise joins a long line of films in which queerness is relegated to the realm of the implicit.”

And last, she’s supported a fan theory that Hermoine is black. While Rowling tweeted, “Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione,” there was never any mention that she wasn’t white. And as science fiction author Kameron Hurley writes in her essay “Why Writing Colorblind is Writing White (a rant)”, “The problem with writing in “race-neutral” (what is that? Gray? Beige?) terms is you get the same problem you run into when you write in gender-neutral terms. As people raised in a racist, sexist, society, we’re going to norm a lot of stories, a lot of people, as white…”

Rowling subsequently called people “racist” who assumed Hermoine was white. But c’mon, J.K., you wrote her as white. In the third book, the text reads “Hermione’s white face was sticking out from behind a tree.” Also, J.K. described her black characters as black (see: Dean Thomas, Kingsley Shacklebot, and Blaise Zabini). (Another great read on this subject, and there are many, is “Characters Are Not A Coloring Book Or, Why the Black Hermione is a Poor Apology for the Ingrained Racism of Harry Potter” by Mimi Mondal.)

Essentially, J.K. Rowling is trying to make her series more progressive retroactively. But it doesn’t work like that! There was no representation in the books!! As Kayleigh Anne argues in the Independent, “Rowling has talked up the number of LGBTQ and Jewish characters in the series. The problem is we never see those elements of characterization in the books themselves. The faith, race and sexuality of her characters has been shoe-horned in retroactively, and it can’t help but ring hollow.”

Cultural Appropriation in “Magic in North America”

In 2016, J. K. Rowling released “A History of Magic in North America” on Pottermore, a site for her to continue to grow the world of Harry Potter.

While so many fans were curious about magic in North America, the way Rowling approached it was truly terrible. It included imagery of a Native man in a breech cloth who becomes an Eagle, girls being burned alive, and stories about skinwalkers.

Dr. Adrienne Keene, a Native American studies scholar, wrote a blog post “Magic in North America Part 1: Ugh.” that lays out most of the problems with the story:

We fight so hard every single day as Native peoples to be seen as contemporary, real, full, and complete human beings and to push away from the stereotypes that restrict us in stock categories of mystical-connected-to-nature-shamans or violent-savage-warriors. Colonization erases our humanity, tells us that we are less than, that our beliefs and religions are “uncivilized”, that our existence is incongruent with modernity. This is not ancient history, this is not “the past.” The ongoing oppression of Native peoples is reinscribed everyday through texts and images like this trailer. How in the world could a young person watch this and not make a logical leap that Native peoples belong in the same fictional world as Harry Potter?

Many called J.K. Rowling out for her problematic story of American magic. She did not respond.

Paula Young Lee writes in Salon, “Whether consciously or not, she’s legitimized whiteness as a cultural institution and a power structure, replicating the patterns of historical colonialism by establishing wizarding schools in far-away places — North America, Brazil, Japan, somewhere in ‘Africa,’ — as posts on the outskirts of the Empire.”

(Also read this whole conversation between BuzzFeed Writers: “Here’s What We Think J.K. Rowling Got Right — And Wrong — About Race in America”, including the great quote from Krutika Mallikarjuna, “Does it feel good to be like, racism doesn’t exist in my fantasy world? Sure. Does it make the real people of color whose identities and culture you are using to build and sell your fantasy world feel good? No.”)

By expanding her universe, she’s making it harder and harder to be her fan.

Johnny Depp

And we turn, lastly, to the latest controversy that has shaken the Harry Potter fandom: Johnny Depp. Amber Heard, Johnny Depp’s ex-wife, accused him of verbal and physical abuse, and submitted a photo of her bruised face as part of her restraining order against him. As a Harry Potter fan told BuzzFeed News, “If Ridley Scott can reshoot an entire movie in two weeks, you can recast Johnny Depp.”

Instead, J.K. Rowling and the team behind Fantastic Beasts has doubled-down on Johnny Depp. She released a statement in early December saying, “Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny.”

As one fan tweeted —

Why hasn’t Depp faced the consequences of the #MeToo movement? Was it because his abuse came out in 2016? As TexasMonthly writes, “Amber Heard alleged that Johnny Depp abused her a year before #MeToo. Has the timing allowed him to evade consequences?”

Even HARRY POTTER HIMSELF, Daniel Radcliffe, points out the decision to keep Johnny Depp in the franchise as shady. He told Entertainment Weekly, “I suppose the thing I was struck by was, we did have a guy who was reprimanded for weed on the [original Potter] film, essentially, so obviously what Johnny has been accused of is much greater than that.” What Radcliffe refers to is Jamie Waylett — who played Vincent Crabbe — who was dropped from the 7th and 8th films after he was arrested for growing 10 marijuana plants.

Moving Forward…

As fans of Harry Potter, can we still (in good conscience) watch the new movies? Can we be excited for this expansion of the Harry Potter world even though J.K. Rowling has been hella problematic over the years?

I honestly don’t know the answer. All I know is J.K. Rowling, you’ve let us down.

Read More