"How could you think we'd care about what that—woman—wrote about you?": Harry Potter fans' reaction to J. K. Rowling's transphobic tweets

Casey Friedmann Kelley

University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida, United States

[0.1] Abstract—I surveyed current and former Harry Potter fans about their reactions to recent tweets by author J. K. Rowling. Results show that fans have strong opinions of Rowling's tweets and Rowling herself, but mixed feelings about the Harry Potter franchise.

[0.2] Keywords—Harry Potter; J. K. Rowling; TERF; Transgender

Kelley, Casey Friedmann. 2023. "'How Could You Think We'd Care About What That—Woman—Wrote About You?': Harry Potter Fans' Reaction to J. K. Rowling's Transphobic Tweets." In "Trans Fandom," edited by Jennifer Duggan and Angie Fazekas, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 39.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, a boy triumphs over the evils of prejudice to save the day, bravely standing up to those who see themselves as better simply because of their ancestry. The books teach that love is the most powerful force in the world, stronger than even Wizarding World magic, and that, as Headmaster Albus Dumbledore says in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, "it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be!" (Rowling 2000, 595) (note 1). Despite writing these life lessons in the series, however, Rowling has acted quite differently. Since 2019, Rowling has repeatedly made discriminatory comments about transgender people. As one respondent to my survey commented, Rowling "wrote 7 books about the importance of equality and then openly supported discrimination" (Respondent #918), leaving fans of the series uncertain as to whether they should continue to embrace Rowling's fictional world or leave it behind. I conducted a survey to understand how those who grew up loving Harry Potter and idolizing Rowling made sense of these comments. Overall, I found that while there is much consensus about the inappropriateness of her comments and a strong desire not to continue to fund her, fans were conflicted with regard to embracing or rejecting the series itself.

2. Background

[2.1] In 2018, Maya Forstater, a tax expert working for a think tank, Center for Global Development, did not have her employment contract renewed because she had been "vocally opposing trans rights reforms online, stating that 'men cannot be women', and responding in workplace Slack messages to colleagues challenging her negative comments about the physical appearance of a gender-fluid non-binary person" (Parsons 2021). Forstater took the issue to the Central London Employment Tribunal, who initially upheld the firing, stating her beliefs were not protected under the 2010 Equality Act (Drake 2019). That day, on December 19, 2019, Rowling tweeted out in support of Forstater: "Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who'll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill" (

[2.2] This was the first of many public comments Rowling has made rejecting the idea that transgender individuals' gender identity should be respected. Just six months later, Rowling expressed dismay about the wording that development news site used in their article titled "Opinion: Creating a more equal post Covid-19 world for people who menstruate." She linked the article and tweeted on June 6, 2020: "'People who menstruate.' I'm sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?" (, followed only a few days later by a 3,600-word essay on her website further defining her beliefs (2020). Rowling has continued to make disparaging comments on Twitter regarding transgender identity, which have prompted collective outrage. It left me wondering how those who grew up loving Harry Potter and idolizing Rowling were making sense of the situation. How is the average Harry Potter fan reacting to Rowling's tweets?

3. Methods

[3.1] In January 2022, in order to understand the fan community's thoughts, I conducted a survey of current or former Harry Potter fans who were eighteen or older. After briefly explaining the issue, I asked respondents whether they had knowledge of Rowling's tweets prior to the explanation provided in the survey, whether the tweets changed the way they feel about Rowling or the Harry Potter series, and whether they still engage with Harry Potter media. All questions were on a Likert scale, such as asking where Rowling's tweets fell on a spectrum from extremely appropriate to extremely inappropriate. For each question, I allowed respondents space to explain "Why or why not?" to tell me more about their feelings on the subject.

[3.2] The survey was blogged on Tumblr on January 14, 2022, and in just over twenty-four hours the one thousand responses the University of Central Florida's Institutional Review Board had approved were gathered, and the survey was closed. The survey was limited in several ways. First, it was posted only on Tumblr, which both limits it to individuals with internet access in general and also misses fans who do not use Tumblr. Additionally, other potential respondents were missed because the survey was available only in English as well as only to adults aged eighteen and older. Respondents' answers were entered into a spreadsheet with their corresponding line numbers used to differentiate them as there was no personally identifiable information recorded. With the results in hand, I was able to look at the responses as a whole, as well as at a narrower view of a random sample of one hundred responses retrieved using data analysis software Orange (Demšar et al. 2013). The sample was used to find common themes and elements in the respondents' comments before searching the entire survey using keywords to find others speaking on the same issues.

4. Findings

[4.1] The most pervasive theme in the replies was that Rowling and the Harry Potter series had not only been important to respondents as children but had also influenced the way they grew up. Some described how "The books were a huge part of my childhood" (Respondent #243) and also helped them get through tough times. Following the death of his parents, Harry Potter grows up with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, who regularly abuse and torment him, even going so far as to force him to sleep in the cupboard under the stairs (Rowling 1998). Relating their own experiences to Harry's upbringing, respondents explained that "HP got me through an abusive childhood" (Respondent #211) and "It was an escape from some pretty awful experiences in my childhood. It was a big part of my formative years" (Respondent #868).

[4.2] More than 90 percent of respondents said they had knowledge of Rowling's comments prior to taking the survey, meaning the vast majority had the benefit of some time to think about the situation and their reaction. 83 percent of respondents noted that her tweets were extremely inappropriate, with one respondent explaining that "She has a huge following and should not use it to promote hate and transphobia" (Respondent #220). This result shows a decisive feeling within the community of disagreement with Rowling. In addition, fans have a great deal of scorn for both Rowling's belief system and her posts in support of it. "Going after one of the most vulnerable people on the planet? Throwing her support and money behind a right wing hate group? Absolutely disgusting" (Respondent #190).

[4.3] In addition to disliking Rowling's beliefs, several mentioned the immaturity of her tweets. One such response compared Rowling to antagonist Draco Malfoy, portrayed in the series as acting full of himself and tearing down everyone around him in order to compensate for his own insecurity. As this fan said, Rowling's behavior is "the kind of smugly-making-fun-of-people thing I associate with JUNIOR HIGH. Also with Draco Malfoy. It's deliberately mean—that's my problem with it—and it's inconsistent with other values she's expressed" (Respondent #265). Rowling's depiction of Draco's constant insults and childish taunting is meant to inspire dislike, painting him as one of the villains (Rowling 1998), so for fans to make this comparison shows their strong dislike of her views and how she addresses them.

[4.4] One fan spoke in depth about how Rowling's comments were not just inappropriate but incorrect, saying she

[4.5] ignores trans men, many of whom have a vagina and/or menstruate without identifying as a woman. Furthermore, not all women menstruate, like young girls, some intersex women, over- or under-weight women, some pregnant women, trans women, and post-menopausal women. By reducing women to a capability to menstruate and give birth, she treats cis women the same way conservative Christian men do: as breeders, not people. (Respondent #395)

[4.6] Fans do not just disagree with Rowling but see her words as factually incorrect, easily coming up with numerous examples of people she casually disregarded in equating women with menstruation.

[4.7] While 14 percent of respondents said that Rowling's comments were only somewhat inappropriate or neither inappropriate nor appropriate, the prevailing theme among these respondents was that although her comments are hypocritical and distasteful, "she's allowed to express opinions on her own social media even if they're harmful ones. things can be bad and wrong without being 'inappropriate'" (Respondent #174). This shows that fans actually disapprove of her words even though they recognize her right to free speech.

[4.8] Rowling's words have caused a significant lowering in respondents' opinions of her, with more than 80 percent saying that her comments have made their opinion of her much worse, though the degree of dislike varies. The mildest respondents explain that they "can't with a good mind support a person that's so against everything I stand for, and seems to be against trans people's human rights" (Respondent #1081). Fans see Rowling's statement to "Live your best life in peace and security" as hypocritical in that she is willing to take away another person's peace and security. Some go even further, painting Rowling as not just a disappointment to them but saying that "She is, without a doubt, an evil human being" (Respondent #973), expressing a fierce disapproval of those who would support taking away basic human rights.

[4.9] While fans stand united in the belief that Rowling's speech was, at the very least, disappointing, and that she should be judged harshly because of it, there is a much less decisive answer about the subject of the Harry Potter series. Less than a quarter of respondents said their opinion of the series is much worse since learning of her prejudice, while nearly half said somewhat worse and more than a quarter indicated that their feelings were about the same. This shows a lot of uncertainty in the fandom about how to react to a work when its author ceases to be admirable (figure 1).

Approximately 83 percent of respondents feel extremely negative about Rowling's comments; approximately 83 percent feel extremely negative about Rowling herself; and approximately 24 percent feel extremely negative about Harry Potter, approximately 47 percent feel somewhat negative, and approximately 29 percent feel neither negative nor positive.

Figure 1. Chart summarizing survey results showing fan attitudes toward Rowling's comments, the author herself, and the work.

[4.10] However, some fans report reassessing the books with a more critical eye and recognizing other issues of prejudice within the material. Fans disliked "the fact that Rita Skeeter's character includes several transphobic tropes (changing her appearance to spy on kids, described as having fake nails/appearance), not to mention JKR's antisemetism [sic] being apparent in the large nosed goblins running the wizard bank and her racism being apparent in the house elves being happy in slavery" (Respondent #882). In addition to these issues, respondents mentioned the fatphobia of the negative description of Harry Potter's relatives the Dursleys, characters' approval of bullying, racial stereotyping of Asian character Cho Chang, and even the suggestion that antagonist Dolores Umbridge was raped when she was carried away by centaurs in the fifth book and that this was an acceptable punishment for her behavior. These are all very serious issues, and Rowling's tweets caused fans to reassess the series only to become even more disillusioned with it, saying she "made me realize that HP was never as inclusive as it claimed to be" (Respondent #416).

[4.11] Of those whose relationship to the series had not changed, several mentioned "the death of the author." Roland Barthes coined the concept, explaining that the author is not the source of the meaning of a text (1978). This is often understood in fandom to mean that in publishing a work, the author has released it to the public and it is no longer theirs alone; now readers can change and define it beyond their control.

[4.12] However, fans disagree about whether "the death of the author" could let them still enjoy the series while excising Rowling from it. Proponents of this approach explained that they "wholly believe in the 'death of the author' when it comes to literary studies and so on, and I still own the books and original movies" (Respondent #966). Others explained that it was inapplicable to this situation, that they "miss it dearly. Every single day. Every time I see something I like in a shop. Every time I want to reread the books. But there is no 'death of the author' here. There are only trans women's lives at stake" (Respondent #973).

[4.13] The group of respondents who said their interest in the series had only somewhat waned felt conflicted over the material. "It's not something I can entirely separate, but I still cherish the joy that the series gave me, and the fact that it got me into fandom more generally" (Respondent #168), one person indicated, examining the good alongside the bad. Fans' uncertainty about the Harry Potter series is evident, as they now do not know how to react to it, and "have complex feelings about the series now where previously it had just been warm nostalgia" (Respondent #298). Rowling's words have soured many fans who struggle to decode how they should feel and respond to such hatred and hypocrisy regarding something they once adored.

[4.14] A common thread in the replies was that fans refused to further fund Rowling. "I no longer purchase HP merch, watch HP movies, or take any actions that could potentially benefit JKR financially" (Respondent #646), one respondent wrote. Some decisively want to cut ties with Rowling by acting against her the only place they can: her pocketbook. One such fan clearly stated their reason behind not supporting Rowling financially, saying, "I don't want to publicly support HP or give money to any official HP things because JKR uses money and influence she's gained from HP's popularity to promote transphobic bullshit" (Respondent #943).

[4.15] Some fans who still enjoy Harry Potter and Rowling's other content have turned to piracy. That is, while the survey asked generally about how they engaged with Harry Potter, some fans distinguished paying for content from not paying. By illegally downloading the books and movies, they can enjoy the series and still "choose not to support her in any way. Meaning i would pirate the books or movies if i wanted them, and i mostly engage in fandom content" (Respondent #985). This compromise between their enjoyment of Harry Potter and their disapproval of Rowling clearly displays the dissonance between their approval of the author's messaging versus the story's.

[4.16] Rowling's tweets were so upsetting for many Harry Potter fans that they do not just refrain from further financing her but also have gotten rid of possessions they already had. "I used to enjoy the stories enough to do fanart and fan fiction. I had a sense of nostalgic pleasure in the books and merch. now I am filled with disgust and anger whenever I see the merch, so much so I threw out what remained of my own. it's so offensive to treat other human beings in such a way" (Respondent #827), one fan explained, showing how connected Rowling is to her work and the difficulty in trying to separate the two. Additionally, some fans got rid of their Harry Potter merchandise as a show of solidarity with those who are transgender. "It's just…weirdly tainted now, particularly as she's made comments about people supporting HP means they agree with her. I'm steadily getting rid of all my merch because I don't want to convey to any trans person that I'm against them and also because honestly the things just make me kind of sad now" (Respondent #291).

[4.17] Several respondents also discussed how Rowling's comments affected their relationship to other Harry Potter–based content like fan fiction, fan vids, and more. Some "do still engage with fan content and even write fanfiction on my own time" (Respondent #354), while others have abandoned the practice entirely, saying, "I no longer have the merchandise or the drive to revisit the material, let alone participate in fandom or write fics for HP any more" (Respondent #857). On the other hand, some fans consciously use fan fiction to rebel against Rowling and her views, saying, "man I write fanfic. i'mma get my grubby lil queer trans hands all over her canon and she can't stop me." (Respondent #182). Now that Rowling has released her work, fans have taken it and made it their own, not bound by Rowling's words or what she continues to add to the canon over a decade beyond the completion of the original series. In this way, they have made themselves cocreators of the Harry Potter series, expanding the Wizarding World with each new work of fan fiction they pen.

[4.18] One reply in particular was interesting in addressing how a fan dealt with Harry Potter in the workplace, saying, "I work as a librarian and had to buy a new set of the books which i felt really weird about, as I would personally not spend any money on the series anymore" (Respondent #1121). This shows that Rowling's tweets are affecting not only fans' free-time enjoyment of the series but also at times their jobs, forcing them to act in ways that are contraindicative of their personal beliefs. Ironically, being forced to act against one's own beliefs was exactly the reason Forstater took her employer to court, spurring Rowling's original tweet. Her words caused her fans to feel the exact same distress that she spoke out against.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] While fans are unified in their dislike and disapproval of Rowling and her comments, there is much more uncertainty about their responses engaging with Harry Potter media. Harry Potter fans are not sure where to stand on the series anymore, with Rowling's comments leaving a sheen of discomfort on their engagement with the material. While I expected to find a mostly cohesive answer among respondents, the only agreement was that they are generally troubled and confused. "I can't enjoy it like I used to. It's been tainted" (Respondent #631). Fans cannot help but see that Rowling's actions do not line up with the morals of the books. "One of the central themes of Harry Potter is that if you are 'muggleborn', therefore not 'pureblood', that doesn't make you less of a 'witch/wizard'. So, I find it very hypocritical that Rowling is saying stuff like this about transpeople. She sounds just like the villains that she condemned in her HP novels" (Respondent #399). When Rowling cannot live up to the standards she set forth, the actions of the characters in the book no longer feel as genuine and imitable. "She is not a good person and while I'll always have fond memories of the series, it does make current enjoyment of it more complicated" (Respondent #415).

[5.2] It might be worth attempting to return to the survey after a period of time and asking for updates or simply placing the survey back out for new respondents to see whether time is what fans need to come to a more solid response. Additionally, this survey brought in so much information that I could not possibly parse it all into a single paper. In particular, future analysis could use the survey's demographic responses to seek patterns in how answers differ by nationality, age, gender, and/or sexuality.

6. Acknowledgements

[6.1] Thank you to Dr. Casey Fiesler for her assistance in reblogging the survey to her followers. A heartfelt and sincere thank you to Dr. Mel Stanfill for their constant guidance and support. Without them, this paper would not have been possible.

7. Note

1. The quotation is drawn from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling.

8. References

Barthes, Roland. 1978. "The Death of the Author." In Image-Music-Text, translated by Stephen Heath, 142–48. New York: Hill and Wang.

Demšar, Janez, Tomaž Curk, Aleš Erjavec, Črt Gorup, Tomaž Hočevar, Mitar Milutinovič, Martin Možina, et al. 2013. "Orange: Data Mining Toolbox in Python." Journal of Machine Learning Research 14:2349−53.

Drake, Matt. 2019. "Researcher Who Lost Job for Tweeting 'Man Cannot Change into Women' Loses Employment Tribunal." Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, December 19, 2019.

Parsons, Vic. 2021. "Maya Forstater's 'Gender Critical' Views Are 'Hate Speech' and 'a Threat to Trans People', Tribunal Told." PinkNews, April 28, 2021.

Rowling, J. K. 1998. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic.

Rowling, J. K. 2000. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic.

Rowling, J. K. 2020. "J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking Out on Sex and Gender Issues." J.K. Rowling, June 10, 2020.