While the core series officially ended in 2007, Harry Potter has continued to find new life in big-screen adaptations and spin-offs, including the Fantastic Beasts movie series which is slated for three more sequels in the coming years. The second movie, Crimes of Grindelwald, is planned to debut in November 2018 and focuses on the relationship between the characters Albus Dumbledore and Grindelwald.
If you’re even vaguely aware of the lore of the Harry Potter universe beyond what is physically in the books, you know that JK Rowling made waves when she revealed at a 2007 Carnegie Hall convention that she wrote Dumbledore as a gay man. While many queer fans rejoiced at the revelation, others were skeptical given the flippant nature of the comment: as if it were an afterthought. As to why his sexuality was never mentioned in the novels, Rowling would explain over the years that she did not feel as if it held relevance to Harry’s journey, instead deciding that she “wanted to focus on character development.”
The controversy found new life in Fantastic Beasts when it was revealed that the second movie would not be addressing Dumbledore’s sexuality, despite past claims by JK Rowling that Grindelwald and Dumbledore shared a romantic relationship in her lore and the movie focusing exclusively on their relationship. The director says that the decision stems from the fact that “fans are already aware of that”. Said fans, however, are not satisfied by this explanation. They are now accusing JK Rowling of queerbaiting.
“Queerbaiting” is when a piece of media alludes to a queer relationship within its story without explicitly stating whether or not the relationship is queer. This way, LGBTQ+ audiences can create buzz about the series without ostracizing a heteronormative audience. Considering JK Rowling’s fuming response to her upset fans on Twitter, it is clear she does not understand the impact that not making Dumbledore openly gay has had on the audience. She isn’t the only one: queerbaiting is a persistent problem in multiple popular television shows such as Riverdale, Sherlock, and Supernatural. And this is a massive problem.
The issue with queerbaiting is that it plays on the loyalties of LGBTQ+ fans. It makes them think that if they wait around a franchise just a bit longer, it will give them the representation they lack in other forms of media. It is an ongoing problem in a society that moderately accepts queer people, but not to enough of an extent that their stories can be represented in the media and turned into a profit. It devalues queer topics as being too “upsetting” for a “normal” audience to endure, reminiscent of the queer movement’s history of being unmentionable.
But most of all, it treats LGBTQ+ viewership as a negotiable commodity. In Rowling’s case, she acts as if she wants all the praise of including a queer character in her cast with none of the controversy, which her supposed response to Dumbledore’s initial “coming out” at that 2007 conference makes clear—“If I’d known it would make you so happy, I would have announced it years ago!”
Rowling deserves to give more to her fans, who aren’t all white, straight, and cis like her characters are. While it is difficult and possibly unfair to hold the original book franchise to a modern day standard of diversity—after all, the first novel was published in 1997, which is ancient by modern social justice standards—Rowling has tried to take the easy route out of giving color (pun intended) to her universe.
Of course there is risk to adding an openly LGBTQ+ character to the film. But it would have had a positive impact on gay people who never get to see characters like themselves on the screen, and tying allyship to such a recognizable and beloved franchise could have been an incredible act of solidarity that would reach audiences far and beyond the LGBTQ+ community. It is easy to play it safe and to add on to a series that has been finished for nearly eleven years. But if Rowling wants to be seen as the LGBTQ+ ally she tries to posit herself as, she needs to walk the walk as well, and commit to her “allyship” more publicly.