I heard yesterday that Harry Potter series author J. K. Rowling announced that Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts School, is gay. A friend of mine sent me a text message giving me the head’s up.
I found the news story at ABC News, and it’s true: Dumbledore is gay. I was disappointed to hear the news, but eventually my disappointment became curiosity. Why should I feel disappointed? What should Dumbledore’s sexual orientation matter? Why did I feel a sense of loss, together with a bit of exasperation with Rowling? Why did I also feel aggravated, even angry, after reading how Rowling characterized her intentions? I knew it wasn’t an issue of personal tolerance, but why did I feel Rowling’s actions and words were somehow wrong, then?
Later in the evening, after pondering these questions, I had some ideas about my feelings. In no particular order, here they are:
First, Rowling is messing with my magic. The Harry Potter novels are fantasy novels that take the reader into wonderful, magical realms. This sort of magic isn’t to be trifled with or sullied through sex, religion, or politics. I’m reading for the magic, dammit, not the sex. I don’t want to hear about Dumbledore being gay, or about Harry and Hermione having sex, even if they are married. I don’t want to know when they lost their virginity. I don’t want to even think about the two of them being all steamy. I don’t want to think about teenage boys and their sexual drivenness, or teenage girls and their overbearing hormones, either. I don’t want to know when Ginny got her first period. I don’t want to know about McGonigal’s hysterectomy, or Snape’s closet porn addiction. I don’t care about their mundane sexual activities, their secretions, their body odors, or their secret compulsions. If I wanted to have more of that stuff in my life, I’d live in the real world and watch reality TV or soap operas or Grey’s Anatomy. We all know this is the stuff the world is made of; and we all hope for something more.
That something more is the magic. It’s the ethereal, mysterious stuff of longing, daydreams, nightmares, fantasy and great books such as The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and, yes, Harry Potter. We never had to hear about Gandalf’s sexual preferences or Aragorn’s sex life, or whether King Peter was gay or straight; why in the name of all that’s magical do we need to know anything sexual about Dumbledore? You’re ruining my magic, Rowling. Stop it.
Second, this belated announcement seems inauthentic. Rowling’s announcement seems to be more a self-defeating trick of the unconscious than the noble act she would like to portray. According to ABC News Rowling “considers her novels as a ‘prolonged argument for tolerance,’ and urged her fans to ‘question authority.’” What authority, I wonder? The authority of some bygone era when we didn’t have gay marriage or entire television shows produced by, for, and with gay men? The authority of a place where laws prosecuting hate crimes don’t exist, and where parents don’t regularly tell their boys to stop saying “you’re gay” as if “gay” is an insult? What place is that, J. K. Rowling? I’m not sure we need J. K. Rowling to champion questioning authority by finally admitting that Dumbledore is gay.
It seems more likely that Rowling has had some inner authority telling her to shut up and be a good girl, and she finally came out with something shocking and devilish that means, to her, a defiance of some inner authority she carries. Perhaps she projected this onto an ‘authority’ she imagines, rather like setting up a straw man argument and then feeling full of oneself after knocking him down. I think so, because there’s a difference between theatrical noble acts and real ones. I don’t think Rowling is being truly noble; perhaps she is, but based on what I’ve read of her quotes, if they’re accurate quotes, something is fishy in Denmark.
A noble act, in my thinking, would have been to openly portray Dumbledore as gay long before now. In a truly noble act, she might have “outed” him in the second novel, especially if her knees were knocking over the idea, and flown in the face of potentially destructive media attention. A truly noble act is one that involves sacrifice of something valuable. Certainly, the millions of dollars she has earned are valuable. It seems that she waited until after the very last book was published before revealing that Dumbledore is gay. Poor Dumbledore, in the closet all that time. Why, she even had him die with his secret. What kind of a god is she, anyway?
Rowling didn’t out him in the first, second, or even fourth novels. She wrote all those novels and let us all think that Dumbledore was straight. We didn’t even consider the possibility that this grand old bachelor might be gay. He was sexless, timeless, and ageless, as his sort of archetypal character ought to be. Throughout the entire seven books, Rowling let us believe that Dumbledore was either celibate and as sexless as a priest, or else straight. In fact, she said in the ABC interview that the issue of Dumbledore’s sexuality didn’t come up until the filming of the sixth Harry Potter movie, and even then it was supposedly only conveyed through her marginal, handwritten note in the script. We’re supposed to believe that the same Hollywood that sensationalizes everything sexual and prides itself on tolerance kept quiet about Dumbledore’s deep, dark secret? Riiiiight. I do believe in magic, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do!
Third, I’m sad about the threat to Dumbledore as a Wise Old Man archetype. In Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, Jung wrote about this archetype, indicating that the whole archetype arises from the animus (the male aspect), and involves both dark and light aspects. Thus, a myth will have a dark lord and a light lord, such as Gandalf and Sauron, or Dumbledore and Voldemort, or Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader. Both characters together are used to represent aspects of the wise old man. The archetypal idea being communicated is that the same character who heals may also wound; that no one, even the wise old man, is entirely good. Jung described the function and appearance of the archetype thus:
The frequency with which the spirit-type appears as an old man is about the same in fairytales as in dreams. The old man always appears when the hero is in a hopeless and desperate situation from which only profound reflection or a lucky idea–in otherwords, a spiritual function or an endopsychic automatism of some kind–can extricate him. But since, for internal and external reasons, the hero cannot accomplish this himself, the knowledge needed to compensate the deficiency comes in the form of a personified thought, i.e., in the shape of this sagacious and helpful old man (Archetypes 218-219).
The wise old man has a spiritual character built on moral qualities; he represents knowledge, reflection, insight, wisdom, cleverness, and intuition. Certainly, Dumbledore can embody all those qualities and be gay. Even the love he had for the Dark Lord’s predecessor, Grindlewald, might be forgiven if, from his error in character judgment, Dumbledore learned wisdom. Rowling didn’t show us Dumbledore’s growth in wisdom, though. Instead, shse injected gayness into the masculine archetype and left the reader to sort things out theoretically.
Rowling created a modern expression of some of the deepest, most long-lived and profound archetypal material we have seen in recent decades, and trivialized it by ruining the magic, tearing down an archetypal symbol, making a fool of herself and her readers, and expecting us to clap happily like children hurrah’ing a lit birthday cake, all in the name of tolerance.
J. K. Rowling, you can take your straw man and light him on fire and do a shaman dance while chanting voodoo incantations and sticking him full of pins if you want, but there is no way you’re going to get me to believe that this is all about tolerance and creating a kinder, gentler world. Someone with your gifts and place in the world ought to be going out there and creating a better Harry Potter series with a gay main character on a quest for wholeness, if tolerance and understanding are your real goals. You might have portrayed his anguish, loneliness, rejection, and bewilderment through seven or eight different novels, and really showed people what it’s like to be gay in this world or the world your character inhabits. You could have written that character to be vibrantly alive, spiritual, and ultimately whole while also admitting he is gay.
Unfortunately, you didn’t do this. Your Wise Old Man wasn’t able to come out until he was dead.