For those of you who haven’t finished the Harry Potter books but plan to, be warned that you’ll find spoilers in what follows.
Yesterday The Philosopher’s Magazine posted a nice essay by Tamar Szabó Gendler about authorial authority, in which Gendler exhumes the debate on J.K. Rowling’s declaration in 2007 that she had always thought of Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series, as gay:
Responses [to Rowling's revelation] fell into three categories. Some readers were delighted by the news. Others were dismayed. But the most interesting type of response was the third. These readers responded to the declaration by challenging Rowling’s authorial authority. “Unless she decides to write Book Eight, Ms. Rowling has missed her chance to impart any new information about any of the Harry Potter characters. If the series is truly at an end, then the author no longer possesses the authority to create new thoughts, feelings, and realities for those characters,” wrote one reader.
The essay reviews several theories of “truth in fiction,” turning over the ways that Rowling’s ex post claim about Dumbledore’s sexuality might or might not be considered to be true in the world of Harry Potter. But what interests me more than those theories is the way that Rowling’s declaration was received.
Personally, I was originally a little miffed at the news. At the time, I believed this wasn’t because I cared one way or another about Dumbledore’s sexuality, but because the declaration seemed so ad hoc. Rowling always struck me as someone who liked to drop provocative hints and revelations in her interviews, and this seemed to me yet another instance of the same phenomenon. I felt like she said it for the shock value, and because of that I wasn’t much inclined to include it as a truth in the world of Harry Potter.
But a passage from Gendler’s essay made me rethink why I held my stance:
[F]or most Potter fans, Rowling is the patented owner and creator of the Potter universe. When she told the audience at Carnegie Hall that Neville went on to marry Hannah Abbott, or that Petunia “almost wished Harry luck when she said goodbye to him” at the beginning of Deathly Hallows, no one wrote in to say that that those things didn’t happen.
Which is true! Those revelations didn’t create nearly the stir that “Dumbledore is gay” did, but Rowling’s mentioning them seems equally ad hoc. You might say that they have less of an impact on our interpretation of the plot than Dumbledore’s sexuality, but I don’t buy that. The key feature of, say, Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwald is its intensity; whether or not it was sexual isn’t essential to how we see the plot. If anything, Petunia’s nearly realized well wishing seems more significant to how we understand her character.
So why did I (and others) react more strongly to the Dumbledore comment in particular? My first thought is to think of the IAT, a psychological test that demonstrates that we often have unconscious prejudicial tendencies that may even conflict with our consciously held beliefs. So while I wouldn’t profess to have any prejudiced beliefs about alternative sexualities, my response to the “Dumbledore is gay” remark shows that homosexuality still has an emotional valence for me that other things just don’t.
But I think there’s another, equally good explanation. When we look at Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwald, we find it to be intimate and intense. Based strictly on textual evidence, I don’t think it would be a stretch to call it passionate, or even sexual. But to invoke the word “gay,” as Rowling does, is to call to mind certain assumptions and associations that may not be appropriate to apply to Dumbledore. “Gay” is a social label that implies (fairly or not) all sorts of related personality traits and social practices, and it often implies a certain self-identification as well. So while we can read Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwald through a sexual lens, it doesn’t follow that Dumbledore possessed these other personality traits or self-identified as a gay man. Perhaps the main reason that Rowling’s revelation bugged me was that it simplified and thereby obscured the more nuanced dynamics behind Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwald.
(Image from Wikipedia used under the fair use rationale provided on its Wikipedia image page.)