TERFs Failing to Posthumously Claim Pratchett as Their Own

If I were on Twitter (which I am not) and if I were keeping up with what flavor of nonsense TERFs are currently peddling (which I am not) I would probably notice that they are trying to claim late Terry Pratchett as a transphobe.

And if I were making YouTube videos (which I am not) I would make one just like Shaun did (and I did not).

Whenever I think about trans issues and Terry Pratchett, the Monstrous Regiment immediately springs to mind. I did not like that book after the first reading, which was rare for Discworld books – I liked most of them straightaway. But it grew on me with subsequent reading and like most Discworld books I ended up reading it multiple times and I probably will read it some more before I finally die.

We cannot know what a dead person would say about some issue. Even a word from their living friends and relatives might not be entirely reliable, since friends and family could tend to be overly favorable when judging their loved ones who passed on (although when multiple people say the same, it does bear significant weight). Throughout the books, many things about Pratchett become apparent, among them his deep humanism and knowledge of the intricacies and complications of the human condition. There is absolutely no doubt that he would reject any notion of trying to shoehorn people into neat little boxes with simple definitions. All of his books stay and fall on the only “simple” fact about humans – that each is their own person and categories and words are mere imperfect crutches that we use for communication, always imperfectly.

Harry Potter and the Troublesome Ethics

In the last post I covered some of the more obvious problems with the world building. This one will focus on some of the ethical problems. I will focus on issues with sex and gender, not only because that’s generally my beat, but also because Rowling is being hailed as some sort of feminist icon, when her works don’t even show what I would call “house and garden” feminism that you can see in many so called “gender critical feminists”. In fact, the politics of sex and gender in Harry Potter are deeply troubled.

One:

Strong women: When Harry Potter was first published, it was lauded for its inclusion of so many “strong women”. “Strong women” are seen as the opposite of the “Damsel in distress” and sure, we got lots of capable women or girls showing agency: McGonagall, Hermione, Ginny, ehm, did I say “lots”? Yes, those women are shown as capable, more than equal to their male counterparts, yet they are also absolutely exceptional. We don’t get a female Ron, let alone a female Neville, a girl who is just average in about all aspects and who is still an important member of the group.

Two:

Women are either mothers, nuns,  or evil: If we look at the women in the Harry Potter universe, there seem to be just two types. Mothers and evil women. Let’s start with Harry’s own mum. She is portrayed as the best person we could ever meet. She stood up to bullies at school, and she loved her son so much that she sacrificed herself for his sake, as a mother’s proper role demands. I could go on and on about dead mothers in fiction, but that’s probably for another day. Her role was not that of Harry’s dad, who valiantly defends himself and his family, but that of a sacrifice, who dies so her son could live. This is seen as an especially motherly deed. It is a mother’s love that protects Harry, not a parent’s love.

The next woman we get is Molly Weasley, who is the archetypical SAHM. She’s got seven kids and is the perfect homemaker, who keeps everything tidy for her husband and children and makes ends meet with very little money. She is being portrayed as a wholesome character whose only little flaws is that she’s a bit overbearing and overprotective. In other words, she’s an ideal mother. Yet, you got to wonder: what is that woman doing all day? When we first meet the Weasleys she’s got exactly one kid left at home, by book two that number comes down to zero. Most household chores can be done by waving a wand (and still she longs for an enslaved creature to do them for her) and in line with the upper class boarding school setting of the novels, large parts of raising the kids has been passed off onto other people. From the first book on we know that money is more than tight (5 underage kids do cost a lot of money), yet working outside of the home is apparently considered a no go. This is repeated in Ginny, who we learn has a great career as a Quidditch player until she ends her career to raise her family.

The only mother who is somewhere in between is Narcissa Malfoy, but even with her, her motherly instincts are her redeeming feature. Her childfree sisters gets no such chance. She is just pure evil, with a flavour of madness to it (well, she’s been tortured by the “good guys” for over a decade, so madness seems kind of understandable). Aunt Petunia would feature somewhere in between as well, but I’m limiting myself here to the wizarding world.

The nuns are, of course, the teachers. Because teachers (did I mention that the numbers don’t add up again? That’s not enough people to teach in a school the size of Hogwarts. Even with only two classes each year, no teacher can teach ALL classes in a certain subject) need to be pure beings without their own family or lives. While this holds true for all teachers in Hogwarts, there’s no denial of the gendered history of female teachers being expected to be chaste and celibate. Many countries had laws that banned married women from teaching, while married men were, of course, ok.

And then there’s the evil women. They are not necessarily evil as in working for Voldemort, but they are clearly portrayed as bad characters. The two most prominent ones are Rita Skeeter and Dolores Umbridge. There have been speculations about whether Rita Skeeter is supposed to be a trans woman, as she’s described as having “mannish hands”, but I’ll leave that in the realm of speculation. What is true is that Rita Skeeter is an ambitious woman who is also apparently single. The same holds true for Dolores Umbridge: the thing she wants most in life is power over others. There seems to be no other motivation to her actions. She sells her work to the highest bidder and enjoys abusing her power. It’s important to mention that this sadistic person was first allowed to mistreat kids under the “good guys”. There’s another thing both of them have in common: They are coded as extremely feminine. I don’t think any other character’s attire gets mentioned that often. Rita is portrayed as trying to be attractive, probably trying to finally get herself a man, while Umbridge is trying to look cute and sweet. She likes kittens and bows. Clearly that makes her evil. Let me say it clear and loud here: shaming women for being feminine isn’t feminism, but patriarchy in a feminist wrapper.

There’s one more important woman, Merope, but I’ll come to her in a separate point.

Three:

Women are prizes to be won. I must say, the struggles through adolescence were some of the more enjoyable parts of the books. Especially in book 4, where Harry is such a self-centred prick as only adolescents can be, and with adolescence comes the awakening of romantic and sexual interests and that’s completely ok. Only that of course it’s all damn heteronormative, with the girls being passive creatures that need to be pursued by the boys. In book 5 we get the feeling that Hermione fancies Ron, yet she is unable to ask him to the Yule Ball. Harry pursues Ginny, yet he makes the decision to drop her for her own good. But in the end, both boys get their girls for having bravely defeated Voldemort. They can now start the nice domestic life of a heterosexual couple where mum raises kids, because those women are what they deserve. Though the question of domestic bliss leads me to the next point:

Four:

Wizards marrying Muggles is miscegenation. While the “good guys” consider Muggle born wizards and witches to be ok, it is made pretty clear that a relationship between a wizard and a Muggle is bad. There are no working Muggle-wizard couples in the Harry Potter universe. We get Voldemort’s parents (more on this later), we got Snape’s parents. Snape’s family life is described as pretty bad. His mother married a Muggle and the relationship is described as unhealthy and bad. Basically Snape’s nastiness (and no, I don’t care about his redemptive arc, he’s a nasty bully and should never have been allowed to teach kids) is explained by his home story. He is an outsider wherever he goes. The other one is Dean Thomas, whose father was probably a wizard who abandoned him and his mother. Now, how nobody in a community so small ever guessed who his father was is another question, but again we get the idea: You must not fuck a Muggle. And that’s from a book that apparently teaches that “judging people by their bloodlines is bad”. Can you think of any happy Muggle-wizard couple?

Five:

Rape is ok (if done by women). This is probably the worst of all. Rape is treated as no big deal. It is stark to see how a world where using the unforgivable “Imperius” curse to make somebody eat a worm will earn you a life sentence in a torture institution, but drugging somebody and make them have sex with you is such a minor thing that underage kids can buy those drugs in a joke store. The treatment of this reveals why Rowling’s descend into Terfdom shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Like many “gender critical” people she apparently believes that all women (only cis women are women to her, of course) are delicate creatures who need to be protected and who cannot commit rape because they don’t have a penis. The first time we encounter a love potion is when Ron eats some chocolates that were meant for Harry and now is madly in love with some girl. This is funny, haha. We’re meant to laugh at Ron, who is obviously out of his senses (and also at the girl, because isn’t the thought that somebody could be in love with that girl funny, haha). We are not supposed to be abhorred at the fact that somebody just drugged him to the point that he would do things with that girl he’d never consent to if he were sober. There are no consequences for the girl who drugged him and it’s no problem that the Weasley brothers sell their potions to whoever can pay for them (except for Ginny, cause their own sister needs to be chaste). However, if you think this is horrible, look at the most important use of love potions in the books: Voldemort’s story of origin.

I’ve hinted at this several times already, but Merope and Tom Riddle Senior are about the most fucked up story line in the whole books. When we first meet the two, it’s pretty clear with whom our sympathies are supposed to lie. Tom Riddle Senior is an arrogant ass. Some rich bastard’s son who looks down on his poor neighbours, not knowing that they are actually wizards. Merope on the other hand is the poor abused girl who has to care for her violent father and brother (somehow the wizarding world is ok with that as well). When those two get thrown into prison, Merope uses her shot at freedom by drugging and raping Tom Riddle. Of course, it’s never described like that. The way we learn about it in the books is a very sanitised version.

(Dumbledore) “Can you not think of any measure Merope could have taken to make Tom Riddle … fall in love with her…?” “The Imperius Curse?”, Harry suggested. “Or a love potion?” “Very good. Personally I am inclined to think that she used a love potion. I am sure it would have seemed more romantic to her…”

Then we learn that Riddle returned to his parents with talks of having been “hoodwinked” by Merope. The tale in his village was that he had married because he thought she was pregnant.

“But she did have have his baby.” (Harry) “Yes, but not until a year after they were married. Tom Riddle left her while she was still pregnant.” “What went wrong?”, asked Harry. “Why did the love potion stop working?”

Dumbledore speculates that Merope, whom he describes as deeply in love with Riddle, stopped giving him the potion, hoping that he’d stay for her sake and the baby’s, but:

“He left her, never saw her again, and never troubled to discover what became of his son.”

This is perhaps one of the worst passages in the whole books. A man is drugged over months, repeatedly raped, and when he finally escapes he is the bad guy for leaving his pregnant “wife”. There is no sympathy here for Tom Riddle. There is no horror conveyed. The use of the love potion gets described as “romantic”. Harry thinks that Riddle no longer being drugged is a sign that something went wrong, and Dumbledore immediately offers an explanation that paints Merope in a good light.

The next time we hear about Merope is that she sold her family heirloom after Riddle left her, or as Dumbledore calls it “when her husband abandoned her”. Now we come to Merope’s one and only crime: dying. While Dumbledore still tries to be sympathetic, finding reasons and excuses while Merope gave up, Harry is indignant.

(Dumbledore) “Of course, it is also possible that her unrequited love and the attendant despair sapped her of her powers. Merope refused to raise her wand even to save her own life.” “She wouldn’t even stay alive for her son?” Dumbledore raised his eyebrows. “Could you possibly be feeling sorry for Lord Voldemort?” “No”, said Harry quickly, “but she had a choice, didn’t she…”

Now I’d like to raise the question why we shouldn’t feel sorry for baby Tom Riddle, conceived through rape, born to a rapist mother who did not want him if she couldn’t have his father, and who was absolutely abandoned by his own community, although they absolutely knew about him, since “his name has been down for our school (Hogwarts) since birth”. But again, we’re meant to sympathise with Merope. The wizarding community only gives a fuck about Tom Riddle once he’s old enough to attend Hogwarts. Dumbledore doesn’t give a fuck before that. And Riddle is described as a bad person even from the time he was a wee baby. Again, see the point about miscegenation. We are meant to believe that Tom Riddle was bad because of his blood (and not, maybe, because he was dumped in a non magical orphanage without any loving person around), yet somehow even this isn’t meant to raise some sympathy. It is hard not to see the gendered aspect here: Merope is always the victim, always somewhat less responsible for her own actions than others, while the man she raped and the boy she birthed are to be judged. We are meant to believe that an abandoned and mistreated 11 years old boy is just inherently bad, while a mistreated 18 years old woman is just “in love” or “heartbroken”.

There are many other ethical problems in Harry Potter’s world. You can find more examples in Charly’s comment on the last post, or Andreas’ post on interspecies relationships. I’ll leave it at this for now.

Harry Potter and the Horrors of World Building

Let’s have some posts about things we can just lightheartedly hate on.

When Andreas talked about the problems of interspecies relations in Pokémon, he also touched on the Harry Potter universe. I have talked about the world building problems in Harry Potter before though mostly in comments, so this is a nice opportunity to put those thoughts into a stand alone piece.

I’ll start by saying that most fictional worlds, whether low fantasy settings (such as Harry Potter, which plays in our world where magical beings are hidden) or high fantasy settings (say Lord of the Rings or Discworld, where the world is definitely not Earth) have some major issues with their world building. This is kind of natural and stems from several problems:

Number one: people want to tell stories, not histories. Unless you’re a freak like Tolkien, who invented a language first and then built a world to serve that language, authors often don’t start out building a logical and consistent world. Instead they build a world around their stories. As the stories grow, the world grows, things are added to serve the story, earlier features are in conflict with later points. This is often closely linked to –

Number two: the longer a series, the more troublesome the worldbuilding gets. Especially when the author didn’t expect a series to run that long, and the series doesn’t have a fixed end point, but more of an episodic character. I think the Discworld novels are a really good example of that. When you read the first ones, there are many things that just disappear in the later ones. In Equal Rites a powerful female wizard is established, yet we never hear of her again.

Number three: authors make use of their bad knowledge of our own world. This is often the case in medievalist fantasy: People have some really shoddy ideas of the middle ages, they fill the gaps with “knowledge” from other fantasy or from our own world, thus creating impossible trade relationships, unsustainable farming, etc. I always cringe when the poor part of town is characterised by “food and old barrels rotting in the street”. No medieval person would have let a barrel gone to rot. There was iron in that thing. And they would have used all the food. If it was truly inedible they’d have fed it to some animal to eat the animal.

Number four: authors don’t know how to wrap up loose endings. Sure, life doesn’t work backwards, so when something happens, it doesn’t have a specific and in mind. Life also doesn’t have a last page by which all major stories should come to an end. Life just goes on. Books don’t. If a story had several story lines going on, and only one of them comes to a satisfying end, readers and viewers are disappointed. Sometimes when authors notice those loose ends, they just put something in the world that makes them end.

These issues are often less pronounced in works where the whole series has been thought out before the first book was published. Notable examples are N.K. Jeminsin’s Broken Earth trilogy, or Seanan Macguire’s October Daye series. They are very different series, with one being a trilogy that works from start to end on one story, and the other one being a many novel series where different stand alone stories are connected with a longer story.

So, how do these issues apply to Harry Potter? The problems in the Harry Potter universe are two-fold: One is a very shoddy world building from the pure standpoint of “does it work”? the other one is a moral issue: “Are the things depicted as moral and heroic actually moral?”. I’ll add that I come from a perspective of having loved Harry Potter, been immersed in the fandom, and then having first sobered and then soured on the novels, long before their author revealed herself as a racist Queen Terf.

Let’s start with the first part: Why the Harry Potter universe doesn’t work.

Harry Potter play in Britain, where a parallel magic world exists that is kept secret from the non-magical people, although it keeps interacting with it. The major issue here is size. Let’s start with the central location for the novels: Hogwarts. Hogwarts is the one and only boarding school in Britain and Ireland where almost all wizards and witches send their kids to, plus the kids from non-magical families who show magical abilities. This means we have all children of the magical population in one school. This should give us an idea about the size of the magical population. If you look at Harry Potter’s year, this comes down to around 40 kids, give or take a few. We know most of Harry’s housemates by name (Harry, Ron, Neville, Hermione, Dean, Seamus, Padme, Parvati, Lavender,…), and a few from the other houses. Always two houses a year share one class, which means that two houses have about 20 kids together, so it’s 40 in a year. If we suppose that each year is about 1% of the total population (wizards live in general longer, but some still die young, and it’s a ballpark figure anyway) that leaves you with a total wizarding population of about 4000 people.

That’s not much. That in and on itself isn’t the problem. the problem is the rest of the world, because it’s a world with really huge specialisation in work. The ministry alone has several highly specialised branches with their own training and prerequisites. How many Aurors are there? The Mystery department? Then there’s several competing companies that just specialise in brooms much like there are car brands. It’s made clear that they are luxury items that are often handed down within families. Unlike cars they aren’t even useful  for your everyday life, since public transport works in less prominent ways, for example via the chimneys (another major part in the wizarding world we only learn about in book 4 or so, presumably because the author needed a plot device). Even if broommakers were just family businesses, there’s not enough demand to actually sustain them, especially with a new model being developed and going on the market every year or so. Not to mention that there are apparently several companies that produce sweets and clothing, let alone magical artifacts. Even if they source all their material from the muggle world, where does stuff come from?

And where do people come from? In a community of a few thousand people, everybody will be related to everybody else. Yet strangely, people don’t seem to have relatives. There’s Narcissa Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange and that’s about it. The Weasleys have a hell lot of kids, but no cousins? Come on, my town is much larger than all the wizarding world combined and even I went to school with my cousin. One explanation given is that wizards tend to marry Muggles, but that only gets you a whole other bunch of problems: Where do they meet? The wizards are so oblivious of non-wizarding world, they hardly manage to take public transport, but they manage to engage in meaningful relationships with Muggles*?

Another area where numbers don’t add up is Quidditch. Now, the game as such doesn’t make much sense apart from establishing Harry’s status as super hero, but even if we accept the ridiculous premise, who’s playing the game? We know that all kids are in Hogwarts. Hogwarts has 4 houses, 7  kids play in a house team. That makes 28 junior players at any given time, yet for some reason, outside of Hogwarts there’s a whole league outside of school. And the Captain of the school’s most successful team can only get a job as an extra once he leaves school?

Now, all of these things can be dismissed as “nitpicking”. They don’t distract from the magic world, you can simply ignore them, and indeed, it took me some time to spot them, and I am after all somebody who studied literature and is therefore trained to view such things with a critical eye. What I found far more annoying was the deus ex machina called the Deathly Hallows. Somehow, the Deathly Hallows are a fundamental part of wizarding folklore, yet they never appear within six books. The Horcruxes, they make sense. They felt natural within the world. Throughout the books it was hinted that Voldemort had done things that made him basically immortal, enchanted artifacts make sense within the world, and, well, that’s also knowledge you wouldn’t throw at preteens and young teens.

But the Deathly Hallows? How did they never come up, even as some figure of speech? Just think about how our fairly tales influence our world, how we will casually call somebody “Sleeping Beauty” or “Cinderella”. Hoe my husband will use Harry Potter’s own “Lumos” while turning on the lights, or how we have taken to call somebody naive “my sweet summer child” from GoT. Yet, nothing. Six books and not even Ron ever mentions how Harry’s invisibility cloak is damn special, just like the one in the fairy tale. Indeed, the cloak isn’t treated as extraordinary throughout those books. Ron, who is our wizarding encyclopedia, treats it as another luxury item his friend got, but not as beyond attainable. In the end, the Hallows feel like an easy way to finish up the story without giving it too much thought.

I could go on and on about the problems with the world, not just in HP, but the other works like Magical Beasts (please explain a Jewish wizarding girl in New York to me), but I’ll leave it at this. I’ll write about the ethical problems another day , since the post got long already.

*How those relationships are portrayed is a different matter for the “Ethics” post.

The Art of Book Design: The Last Leaf

Oliver Wendall Holmes. Illustrated by George Wharton Edwards and F. Hopkinson Smith. The Last Leaf. Cambridge, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1895.

This book contains a single poem – Holmes’ The Last Leaf’.  This edition also includes a series of moody sketches that add to the sentimentality and poignancy. It’s a lovely old book. If you’re interested, I’ve included a few illustrations below the fold.

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