Episode 1: Plotted in Darkness
Let’s face it. Everyone wanted to listen to this podcast because we wanted to either confirm or deny J.K. Rowling’s transphobia. Most of us probably weren’t here to learn about the witch hunts of old, or Rowling’s story of writing Harry Potter, or about Harry Potter as a 2000s repeat of the Satanic Panic for Christians. And at first glance, these things don’t have to do with Rowling’s transphobia. But in fact, they were a tactic for setting up a very intentional narrative about Rowling as a victim: from men, from religious extremists, from inquisitors.
A tale of two backlashes
From the right
From the Twitter Spaces interview quotes above through the first half of the series, Megan teaches us to get comfortable slipping seamlessly between Rowling’s two backlashes—from Christians of the 2000s and from trans people and allies today—as equivalent situations. In this narrative, Rowling has managed to piss off two sides which hate each other. Therefore, they are both wrong and Rowling sits smugly in the self-righteous middle.
J.K. Rowling is one of the most successful authors in the history of publishing and for the past 25 years, she’s also been one of the most beloved. […] But in the summer of 2020, Rowling published a string of tweets about one of the most polarizing subjects in society right now, sex and gender. She waded into a conflict about transgender rights and the way she believed some activists were eroding hard won rights for women. There was an explosive reaction to Rowling’s tweets, which led many, including lifelong fans of her work, to condemn her and to call for her books to be banned, boycotted and in some cases burned.Megan Phelps-Roper, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 1: Plotted in Darkness
Notice how vague it all is. That’s the method of the entire podcast. If you don’t explicitly name anti-trans violence, you don’t have to condemn it. That’s why the tweets were about “sex and gender,” why she “waded into a conflict,” only to cause what feels like an acutely disproportionate “explosive reaction.”
From the left
After explaining that she grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church (and “spent the decade since investigating belief and how it compels us to act and identify and how it colors and shapes the world we inhabit” by doing what, I’m not sure), Megan pivots into the other “backlash”:
And reading Rowling’s tweets and then her transformation in the eyes of many who had loved her, it surprised me because growing up, it was my community that thought J.K. Rowling was evil and it was other Christian fundamentalists who had amassed in force to condemn Rowling and to call her work dangerous. […] Rowling, even though she’s inspired profound adoration throughout her career with fans all over the planet, she’s also been the subject of intense, widespread and vocal backlashes from people whose politics could not be more at odds. And for the past year, I’ve been trying to figure out why. What is it about this woman and her work that has captured the ire of very different groups of people across time?Megan Phelps-Roper, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, Episode 1: Plotted in Darkness
As much as Megan can’t comprehend this mystery, I simply can’t comprehend why it’s a mystery. Why do Christians not like stories about wizards and witchcraft? There are Bible verses condemning wizards and witchcraft. Why do trans people not like it when you’re transphobic? They… want to live and be left alone. But if Megan really wanted to answer the questions because she literally just wanted the answers, the entire series would be 6 minutes long.
Megan, and/or her editors at The Free Press, used one of Rowling’s very first lines as a hook for the announcement article: “You could not have misunderstood me more profoundly.” I personally believe that they intentionally frame this quote as being about Rowling’s trans views—no, you’ve got it all wrong! I didn’t say what I said!—when it is actually about her legacy. She goes on, “I do not walk around my house thinking about my legacy. What a pompous way to live your life. Walking around thinking, what will my legacy be? Whatever! I’ll be dead! I care about now. I care about the living.” This flippancy is how Megan and Rowling’s conversation in Rowling’s “snug,” “cozy,” “homey” castle begins.
The rest of episode 1 catches you off guard because it exclusively discusses Rowling’s abusive marriage at the time she had the idea and wrote the manuscript for Harry Potter before being catapulted to fame. As everyone who criticizes Rowling says, I can’t imagine the pain she must have gone through at the hands of her ex-husband, and it is a relief that she made it out safe and had a support system to rely on. Hers is not a situation I would not wish upon anyone. That said, Megan and her co-creators still strategically placed this story at the beginning of their Rowling deep dive so we always have the image of her as the damsel, the innocent victim at the mercy of a violent man.