Hogwarts Legacy proves Harry Potter doesn’t need J.K. Rowling to succeed


Hogwarts Legacy, a new video game set in the Harry Potter universe, is out, and by all accounts it’s a big success! Sales have been fantastic and review are very solid. Warner Bros. Games is surely happy.

The release of the game was also met with backlash, as has been true of pretty much everything involving Harry Potter for a while now. That’s because, over the course of a few years, it became clear that original Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling not only held bigoted views of transgender men, women and non-binary people, but was willing to spread them among her large audience and to fight against the advancement of rights for trans people. The backlash got to the point where Rowling did not appear in an HBO Max reunion special focused on the Harry Potter movies, nor was she involved in Hogwarts Legacy, which the developer took pains to point out.

Not wanting to give money or attention to Rowling, who has shown a willingness to use her platform to try and roll back trans rights, some trans people and their allies encouraged fans not to buy Hogwarts Legacy, Clearly, those attempts did not make an impact on sales.

And I think that was bound to happen. As alarming as it’s been over the past few years to watch the most famous author on Earth commit herself to further stigmatizing an already marginalized community, most people buying this game likely aren’t thinking about that. They’re playing the game because they have fond memories of Harry Potter, because they’re buying it for their kids, or just because they think it looks neat.

Many may not even be aware that there’s a controversy at all. Much of the back-and-forth about Rowling’s transphobia has happened on places like Twitter, which may seem like it represents what everyone around the world is talking, but it doesn’t. Barely a fifth of U.S. adults say they use Twitter at all, and only a small fraction of those users produce the great majority of tweets. It’s comforting to remember that Twitter is not, in fact, the real world.

Are there some ding-dongs out there buying extra copies of Hogwarts Legacy just for the endorphin rush of “owning the libs” (or, more likely, people who say that’s what they’re doing)? Sure, but most people are buying the game just because they want to play it. They’re not thinking about J.K. Rowling, which suggests a possible new future for the franchise…

J.K. Rowling and the Chamber of Bigotry

Whenever this topic comes up, there’s a contingent of people doubtful about J.K. Rowling’s transphobic bonafides. I think the evidence pretty much speaks for itself, but let’s do a brief primer on what Rowling has done and why it could be harmful.

Fans started raising their eyebrows at Rowling a few years back, when she started liking transphobic tweets referring to trans women as “men in dresses” and the like. Things continued in that mode for a while, with Rowling stepping up her rhetoric by tweeting things like, “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives.”

This is a common strategy that Rowling uses: she positions herself as arguing against a group of people who claim that “sex isn’t real,” and then listing all of the bad things that might hypothetically follow if that viewpoint were widely adopted. The issue is that almost no one, including trans people, argue that “sex isn’t real.” Sex is not gender. But Rowling can’t engage with the actual arguments trans people make, because if she did she wouldn’t be able to argue that they pose a threat to “the lived reality of women globally.” She wouldn’t be able to fear monger, which is what she’s doing, just…politely.

Rowling’s walk on the transphobic side of life reached its zenith in 2020 when she published a lengthy essay where she misgendered trans people, implied that they’re dangerous or confused, and generally peddled in alarmist stereotypes disproven with a glance at the research or just by talking to trans people about their experiences.

For instance, she argues that if trans women are allowed into female public restrooms, it would “open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside,” implying that will put cis women in danger. This is a common transphobic talking point that has long been put to bed by the research, which shows that inclusive bathroom policies pose no increased risk of harm. She says she’s worried about people harming their bodies during transition and later deciding to detransition, ignoring that detransition is very rare and often inspired by discrimination when it does happen.

I think one reason some people have trouble wrapping their heads around Rowling’s bigotry is because she usually uses very mild language and doesn’t come off as confrontational. I think people expect a “bigot” to be frothing at the mouth and are thrown by someone using their inside voice. But Rowling’s goals are plainly the prevention of transgender equality, as she proved when she came out against a bill that would have made it less difficult for Scottish citizens to legally change their gender. Polite or rude, nice or mean, bigotry is bigotry.

Sirona Ryan and the Public Relations Nightmare of Azkaban

So I understand why trans people and allies wouldn’t want Rowling to get more of a platform, but I don’t think a boycott of Hogwarts Legacy was ever going to do that. To start, Rowling has the kind of money that you can’t really lose, nearly a billion dollars by some counts. She will be an incredibly wealthy woman to the end of her days, which gives her a huge platform. No amount of tweeting will change that. As for the game itself, corporations want money. The Harry Potter brand can get them money, so they will produce Harry Potter content. There’s probably already a sequel to Hogwarts Legacy in the planning stages.

That said, the backlash did have an effect. Like I said, Rowling wasn’t involved at all. We can be certain that’s true because Hogwarts Legacy features a trans character: Sirona Ryan, the proprietress of the Three Broomsticks bar in the village of Hogsmeade.

Some argue that Sirona’s inclusion is nothing more than a shallow attempt to save face, and I certainly would agree that she’s only in the game so Warner Bros. Games can try and stave off bad PR. But this might be a case of losing the battle and winning the war. Remember: most people who play this game aren’t thinking about the controversy. They’re not thinking about J.K. Rowling’s past or some secret transphobic naming conspiracy.  All they’re going to do is interact with a trans character in a positive way, and hopefully come away from the game feeling that the Wizarding World is more inclusive and that trans people living their lives isn’t a big deal, at Hogwarts or elsewhere. I think that’s overall a good thing, and it’s certainly something that Rowling would never have approved of.

Warner Bros. Discovery and the Goblet of Content

J.K. Rowling is the author of Harry Potter. Even years after the original books were finished, she continued to be part of the universe, writing new stories, tweeting out new bits of lore and even making new movies. There are plenty of Harry Potter fans horrified by Rowling’s fight against rights for trans people, and some have tried to keep their love for Rowling’s stories alive while leaving her behind. But that’s difficult to do when she has stayed so involved with her creation after the fact, more than most authors.

And that’s still going on. Rowling will soon feature on a new podcast series called The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, a title that references both the wizarding world and the narrative that casts Rowling as a victim. But in other ways, Rowling has been backing off the Wizarding World. I already mentioned how she didn’t feature in an HBO Max reunion show about the Harry Potter movies; it’s hard to read that as anything other than Warner Bros. not wanting to court controversy by including her.

Then there are the Fantastic Beasts movies. She wrote all three, but the marketing deemphasized her involvement the further along the series went. And again, she had nothing to do with Hogwarts Legacy, which is looking like the most successful thing to bear the Harry Potter brand in a while.

If it were up to me, Harry Potter would be retired, and not just because it’s associated with the world’s most famous transphobe. The series has had a good run, but I’m usually in favor of retiring series when they’ve reached the natural ends of their lives. I enjoyed the books and movies as much as anybody, but I think Harry Potter has run its course.

I feel the same way about something like Star Wars; I would’ve been happy if that series ended with the original trilogy, or the prequels at most. We didn’t need this latest Lord of the Rings show on Amazon; it’s okay to let things end and find something new.

But I also live in the real world. I know that corporations like money, that Harry Potter makes money, and that Warner Bros. Discovery will make more Harry Potter stuff because it makes them money. But there may be a way for everybody to win here. Because while Harry Potter is as popular as ever, J.K. Rowling’s stock might be dropping. If Hogwarts Legacy, a game she didn’t have any input on, can be a big hit, does WBD need her to continue the series?

I expect we’ll see another new Harry Potter movie or show at some point, and definitely another game. It’s possible that WBD, not wanting the controversy that working with Rowling could bring them, would give responsibility for crafting this next project to someone new. By far the most hysterical idea would be to make a new HP movie or show with a trans man, woman or non-binary person in the lead, or at least as part of the main cast. This is petty of me, but c’mon, how hilarious would it be to see transphobe stans losing their heads and review bombing it to oblivion?

I can picture some objections from the other side. For instance, wouldn’t another Potter movie give Rowling yet more money and power? And to that I say: yes it would, but that ship has sailed; J.K. Rowling is among the richest people in the world and will remain so whether or not we ever get another piece of Harry Potter content. WBD will make more Harry Potter stuff because it is in their financial interest to do so. The inclusion of Sirona Ryan in Hogwarts Legacy proves that they’re willing to listen to people who object to J.K. Rowling’s transphobia. That’s incentive to keep objecting; how much closer might they listen the next time around?

Harry Potter fans and the vanishingly small degree of control

I say all this knowing that new Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav is interested in making “something with J.K. [Rowling] on Harry Potter going forward”; he said as much on an earnings call last year. And I do think that Rowling could write another Harry Potter movie if she wanted to.

Then again, she has a couple of strikes against her, and I’m not just talking about the bad PR from all the transphobia. This bears repeating: all corporations care about is money. That is literally it. J.K. Rowling did write a trio of Harry Potter movies for Warner Bros.: the Fantastic Beasts series…and they didn’t do great. It wouldn’t be correct to call the Fantastic Beasts films outright bombs, at least not financially, although the most recent movie came perilously close, to the point where Warner Bros. canceled an additional two films they were originally planning.

And that is J.K. Rowling’s most recent prominent onscreen output: a trilogy of movies that made less money as they went along and had to be cut off before they took the studio into the red. I think WBD cares way more about that than her politics. I think she retains enough clout to get another shot at making a big budget Harry Potter movie…but probably not more than one. She wouldn’t just need another shot; she’d need a hit.

And maybe she could get one…or maybe not. Maybe Zaslav and co will look at the success of something like Hogwarts Legacy, decide they can continue the Harry Potter franchise without dragging along Rowling’s baggage, and hand the keys over to someone new. And Rowling can remain rich and comfortable for the rest of her days.

I don’t think the fans have any choice in whether we get more Harry Potter content, but I think they might have influence over what kind. They should use it, not for Rowling’s sake, but for the sake of people who are going to see whatever new Wizarding World adventure WBD puts out anyway. What will that adventure be like, what will it say, and who will it include?

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