Why Is Anyone Still Listening to J.K. Rowling?
There’s an exhausted air to J.K. Rowling’s delivery throughout The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling. When asked to respond to her detractors, the author often speaks almost in a sigh, and at times, she’ll let out a condescending chuckle—a nod to the three years she’s spent griping about pronouns on Twitter and tweeting out anti-trans
There’s an exhausted air to J.K. Rowling’s delivery throughout The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling. When asked to respond to her detractors, the author often speaks almost in a sigh, and at times, she’ll let out a condescending chuckle—a nod to the three years she’s spent griping about pronouns on Twitter and tweeting out anti-trans meme images while steadfastly insisting that she’s not a transphobe. For seven episodes, however, the author has rattled off every anti-trans talking point one can imagine—each “question” and every “concern.”
During the podcast’s penultimate episode last week, Witch Trials host Megan Phelps-Roper—a reformed former spokeswoman for the Westboro Baptist Church—teased that this Tuesday’s finale episode would ask Rowling a big question: What if you’re wrong? Sure enough, the question did arise, but Rowling’s response (to this question and many others) felt more like rhetoric than genuine soul searching. It’s par for the course in a podcast that seems more interested in bolstering its chief subject and laundering her foul talking points than it is in promoting any kind of informed debate.
“If I’m wrong, honestly, hallelujah,” Rowling says at one point during the finale. “If I’m wrong, great! People aren’t being harmed.” When gently pressed with the idea that her speech can be genuinely harmful, Rowling called the notion “hyperbolic.”
In the end, this podcast was never designed to challenge Rowling. Instead it seems designed to provide the illusion of a discussion—prompts that are just flimsy enough to allow a professional writer to spin them into a narrative, from an interviewer whose passion for “discussion” seems to outpace her ability (or, perhaps more accurately, desire) to meaningfully engage with the questionable “points” being made.
Consider, for instance, an exchange during this week’s episode, in which Phelps-Roper presents Rowling with the idea of “indirect bigotry,” as described by YouTuber Natalie Wynn last week. (Wynn disavowed the podcast before it aired and called her participation a “serious lapse in judgment.”) In a viral YouTube video critiquing Rowling, Wynn characterized indirect bigotry as “concern or debate about a host of proxy issues… Frequently the claim is that a once-needed liberation movement has now gone too far.”
When asked if she could understand the concept as Wynn described it, Rowling replied, “I see this constantly, and the most frequent example of that is, ‘They’re pretending to be concerned about children.’ … Now, if you’re saying indirect bigotry is asking questions where you believe significant harm is done—if you’re saying indirect bigotry is standing up for women’s rights—then, you know what, guilty as charged.”
Of course, no one was saying any of those things; Rowling merely took Wynn’s specific remarks out of context to answer a completely different question.
Perhaps that’s why Phelps-Roper returned with a follow-up. When pressed to say whether she understood that some might ask such “questions” in bad faith, Rowling replied that “Pretty much everyone in the world, bar literal psychopaths and terrible predators, are concerned about harm to children. …The trouble is, one may use concern about children to justify other actions.” She cited QAnon as an example of concern run amok and predatory sex offender Jimmy Savile as an example of a predator who evaded accountability due to his status before saying, “I’m not sure it’s as simple as saying ‘People are using it.’”
The discussion continued from there, once again handing Rowling the last word by default after she’d chosen her own terms of engagement.
This rhetorical squishiness has plagued The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling since its first episode. If its premise is, as the title suggests, that Rowling is on trial, then that means whoever disagrees with her position must be the one who’s supposedly burning her at the stake. Although the podcast has featured a small handful of trans guests, only two have received significant air time to disagree with Rowling—and their segments were largely relegated to the pod’s penultimate episode. Try as Witch Trials might to project objectivity, its rhetorical terrain is never as even as its creators seem to hope listeners will believe.
Rowling, who sat for extensive interviews, has plenty of space to clarify all of the (predictable and, in some cases, debunked) reasons for her perspective over seven episodes. Meanwhile, a few less prominently featured guests have been given the impossible task of speaking for anyone who might disagree with the author—even though, as the podcast grants, trans people and their allies are not a monolith. At times, Rowling argues against messages and posts from random, unspecified Twitter users whom listeners are supposed to believe represent her opposition writ large—often while lamenting in that tired voice that whatever they’ve expressed is in such “bad faith.” (Unlike being an immensely successful author and using a seven-hour podcast to stage arguments with random people’s tweets.)
And all the while, Phelps-Roper has bombarded listeners with a slew of ancillary information that only becomes relevant if one buys into the title’s premise that Rowling is the one tethered to a post and that trans “activists” have crowded around with torches.
A person who has been lucky enough not to listen to this podcast might argue that the “witch trials” invocation is figurative, but the podcast has directly referenced Salem’s witch panic multiple times—including during its finale, in which author and essayist Stacy Schiff discusses her research into the trials and the ominous idea that during such moral panics, one can “become the thing that you most fear.” If the podcast had a different title, one could argue that this statement was meant to apply to both sides of the gender “debate.” As the podcast exists, however, it’s difficult to believe that Rowling and trans people’s presumed roles in this historical reference have not already been assigned.
Rowling, of course, continues to insist that the text of her speech is all that counts. During a recent Twitter discussion, she called for “examples” of her behaving like trans people are aggressors—and when one user pointed out the Witch Trials title, she simply replied that during the podcast, “I never once say I’m a victim of a witch hunt by trans people.” Meanwhile, her publicists appear to be working overtime to make sure that the line she draws between trans “activists” and Harry Potter’s Death Eaters are being taken in very precise context.
In the end, however, Witch Trials has spent seven episodes framing trans-inclusive policies as threats to women and children—the exact kind of “indirect bigotry” that Wynn describes and that Rowling will barely acknowledge. For seven episodes, Phelps-Roper has allowed one of the most-read authors in the world to spout off utter nonsense like, “Women are the only group, to my knowledge, that are being asked to embrace members of their oppressor class unquestioningly, with no caveat.”
(As a cis person, I can only guess, but it seems as though trans people are asked every day to embrace their oppressors and the systems they’ve built as well, and with excruciatingly few officially sanctioned safe spaces for solace.) The text might not be hostile, but the subtext is a completely different story.
It’s fascinating that Rowling’s mind seems to immediately spring to a very specific place when Phelps-Roper asks her about inclusive language, like the Associated Press’s recommendation that trans people be described with their appropriate pronouns instead of “identifying as” those pronouns. “That’s precisely the creep that I’m talking about,” Rowling replies. “We are using language to make accurate definition of sex difference unspeakable.” Immediately, her mind went to headlines—like “Woman Convicted of Exposing Penis on Street” and “Woman Convicted of Raping Small Boy.”
“There’s a body of feminists who would say, ‘These are not our crimes,” Rowling eventually tells her host. “These are not women’s crimes.”
Phelps-Roper never asked Rowling about how police should categorize offenders of any kind. She did not ask about whether crimes committed by trans women should be considered “women’s crimes.” She asked only about inclusive language, which could be used to tell a host of stories about a host of trans people experiencing any number of things, newsworthy or otherwise. Once again, Rowling took the question to a very specific place.
“At what point can we stop listening to Rowling’s views on this subject, in which she has no degree or lived experience as a trans person?”
When she first published the screed that confirmed her views to the public, Rowling shared that she was a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault. That personal history has colored and complicated discussion of her broader talking points, particularly as she discusses the supposed (and debunked) threat of cis men using trans-inclusive policies to access private spaces like bathrooms. Rowling’s lived experience deserves respect, but the narrative she’s woven out of them still demands scrutiny. Regardless of their origin, the arguments Rowling has made in the past few years are conservative in nature; they’re intended to maintain the status quo—and, by so doing, to preserve one group’s power at the expense of another. Some of her concerns, including those centered around bathroom safety, fly in the face of research.
The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling is too wedded to its subject’s perspective to meaningfully explore the dissonance between what Rowling says and what the words she’s using actually mean. Episode after episode, Rowling has been allowed to use words like “authoritarian” to describe her opposition, but Phelps-Roper never challenges her to name the institution that gives trans people and their allies the power to enforce their supposed agenda.
Instead, Phelps-Roper indulges Rowling as she argues that the left—once transgressive and dedicated to challenging authority, “making the dark joke and breaking societal norms”—has now become “incredibly puritanical and rigid.” This comparison only works if one believes that to protect trans rights is somehow a conservative priority, even as governmental bodies on both sides of the Atlantic attack trans rights. But in this podcast, Rowling can state such things as fact.
The biggest hazard of Witch Trials, however, has little to do with what Rowling says and more to do with how it positions her in the “debate” about gender and trans people. By treating Rowling as a leader of this discussion, rather than a loud and relatively predictable voice within it, Witch Trials grants her unearned authority. At what point can we stop listening to Rowling’s views on this subject, in which she has no degree or lived experience as a trans person? Having listened to the entire podcast, it seems her attitude could be encapsulated by a single quote.
When asked what she would say to trans listeners who just want to know why she’s made this, of all things, her passion project, Rowling broke out her tired, placating voice once more. “I would say to them, ‘You as a human being—the self that you are—I have the utmost respect for you,” she said. “I want you protected; I want you safe; I will treat you with respect always. And I would say I’m worried. I’m worried that you, yourself, may have got caught up in something that may ultimately harm you.”
“… Now, if you identify as trans—if that is an answer for you—then I’m with you, 1srcsrc percent,” Rowling added. “But we are seeing mounting evidence that this is not the answer for everyone, and that we may be living through a cultural moment that we would look back on not with pride, but with puzzlement that we let it happen.”
With “allies” like these…