A few months ago, I made one of my normal screaming-into-the-void posts somewhere on social media about how, in light of a certain author of a certain Wizarding World’s TERFy statements, I was personally okay with being done with those products as a source of comfort (except for a vested interest in close reading them academically or as a cultural critic). It provoked some strong responses, both from people currently affected by the recent intolerance, and those who had reasons for why the author’s statements did not bother them. I was reminded again how art and cultural, and study and response to them, are not neutral, and how much individual positionality matters in media consumption and criticism.
As a child I rarely fell into liking things because they were popular. If not for my fiancé’s family’s insistence at the first Christmas I spent with them, I probably would have gone my whole life having never watched a single Star Wars film. Loving the Harry Potter books happened gradually. I was given the second as a birthday gift when I was in elementary school, and by the time the films were coming out, was swept up in both the cultural moment and what became a family tradition of enjoying these stories together. But the idea that Hogwarts was my “home” too, or somehow open to people like me? That never quite rang true. You see, when you’re young and you’re used to not seeing yourself represented in books or on screens, when you’re aware of the stereotypes deployed for not only your own kind of otherness, but other kinds as well, you become quietly aware of the absences. You swallow them – what else are you going to do? But that bitter taste never quite fades, nor does the subtle sadness of other peoples’ failure to see that absence. In my case, as with many, you put it aside, justify it, and try to celebrate the bigger, broader messages of hope and inclusion with the rest. But its a conscious choice. And at a certain point, we have to stop making that choice to hurt ourselves through exclusion, to accept the bad justifications for how we are written out of existence. Making that choice often means looking back at beloved things and saying, yes, I loved this. But yes, it is also wrong or harmful in many ways. I am convinced, in my paltry thirty years on the planet, that this is the only way that we can learn to build better art, culture, literature, or anything else.
The moral binaries that undergird Western European and North American (WENA) societies mean that it is hard to accept the paradigms where both sides of the paradigm can be equally true. After all, a moral binary implies that something must be either good or bad, and once that judgement is determined, then one might go forward with further analysis. But accepting multiple paradigms can lead to different conclusions, and can lead to industry growth rather than so-called culture wars seeded in most cases in this day and age by the far right (or in this specific case, TERFs in the UK who claim to be upholding feminism). Yes, the Wizarding World has been a phenomenon on many counts and people all over the world have found acceptance in this fantasy space when they needed it most. Yes, it simultaneously has always had massive problems with anti-Semetic tropes (the goblins), tokenism and stereotype in how it has handled diverse representation, erasure of LGBTQ representation, embedded misogyny, really twisted depictions of facism on both sides of its moral line, and as it has expanded its internal world to North America, has engaged in serious and damaging fictionalization and misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples. And yet, criticisms have largely been written off until the present moment, when the author herself through her statements on trans rights and identity has made it impossibly to ignore these embedded biases, and maybe reconsider the arguments that any of these things were simply accidental or oversights. Art and literature cannot be separated from the maker in this case; but there is a lesson to be had in problematizing childhood favorites from this situation.
Often when a work is problematized one of the most bandied about retorts is that it is “of its time” – from the racism of Dr. Seuss to the whitewashing of early Disney, to considerations of Shakespeare’s works and why medieval studies are so consumed by whiteness, to all of the nonsense in Tolkien’s worlds. We cut authors and creators a lot of slack by asserting that in comparison we live in a far more progressive era, and those who came before simply didn’t know better (whether due to the time they lived in or their relative geography i.e. the continued use of and defense of Blackface in Europe). I personally have a very hard time believing that platitude on two counts. First, we have enough historical counter-perspectives to accepted and manipulated hegemonic histories that asserting anything general about any period of history in terms of attitude towards anything like race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. is just lazy and bad praxis. Second, such statements give us in modernity far too much credit: we don’t actually live like we know better today.
The amount of resistance to the idea of needing to revisit things that hold nostalgia for ourselves personally and better come to terms with the fact that just because we ourselves might love them doesn’t mean that they did not also cause harm to others, does not bode well for the creation of a more enlightened, progressive society being built in the current moment. Especially when it comes to works of children’s literature, media, or family-oriented traditions that center on a conception of or focus on childhood, we need to learn to hold both criticism and nostalgia simultaneously.
One of the challenges of this, of course, is that criticism of something that feels formative to us, can also feel like a criticism of ourselves. Especially in academia, we become so good at separating the self from what we choose to analyze and how, that we can lose sight of how much our selves actually impact our work and how we approach different media phenomena. But academics or not, we need to learn to grapple with this challenge, in order to have a better response to someone else saying , ‘hey, this thing you like? it hurts me.’ Fundamentally, “this hurts me” (even if it is not put in those exact words) is a very different statement from “this offends me” or “I don’t like this,” and yet, more often than not, our reactions to criticisms of a beloved, nostalgic thing are much more in line with the latter two statements. We need to be better at stepping outside ourselves and listening, in general, to other peoples’ pain. It is hard but it is necessary.
For example, can we imagine for a moment if, when a Black woman was cast as Hermione in the Cursed Child stage play, in the face of the backlash Rowling’s ret-conning that the character was always meant to be able to be imagined as Black was not accepted as some kind of magnanimous answer. Because the truth is that Hermione had been depicted in sanctioned illustrations for many years prior, and not as a Black child. Such retconning simply allowed Rowling to sidestep the scandal, allowed fans to justify the whitewashing of the Wizarding World (if all your diversity involves token stereotypes including the Irish boy with a penchant for making things go boom, you have created a world that demands problematizing), and lost us an opportunity to push the gatekeepers of the publishing world to do better – and in doing so cause less future harm. The same issue comes to mind regarding the retconning of Dumbledore as gay; every time those of us not directly affected by an instance of stereotype or misrepresentation excuse it, we contribute to causing harm to the people who do feel directly harmed by such representation and the accompanying excuses.
Children’s and young adult literature and media sometimes feels like it contains the highest stakes regarding this issue, both because it is current and evolving, and because nostalgic feelings run high. Attachment to fictional worlds is strong precisely because when we find one that fits, it can feel that much more real than our own spaces. But it is precisely because this current moment is ripe for evolution, growth, and change, that learning to sit with the discomfort of recognizing that we can both like something, and that that thing might be problematic, becomes that much more important. Understanding that we need to reconsider what we put on pedestals as a society, that we need to interrogate things that become landmarks in the mediascape despite – or in fact because of – popularity will lead to a better mediascape, one that is sorely overdue. If we start to look carefully at the last thirty or fifty odd years of media, there is probably much that needs to be put under a different lens, and handled critically. A lot of old favorites will probably have moments that make us wince or cringe today. And that is okay – so long as we are willing to see those moments and learn how to do better from them, and not brush them aside as we continue to enjoy these things, but rather, continue to confront them.