Today is the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’s publication. Like many millions of others around the world, I love this book series. It is delightful. As are so many pieces of spin-off media, like the “Hogwarts Seminary” blog or the podcast “Witch, Please”, that draw continued fan engagement with the characters of the Harry Potter world. As my social media feeds ballooned with #HarryPotter20 celebrations today I came across an early interview with Joanne Rowling, the series’ author, in which she shares about her writing process and what the experience of seeing her first book in the book store was like.
Part of the interview discusses why the books are published under J.K. Rowling instead of Joanne Rowling. Here is a transcript of that answer:
Joanne: That was the publisher’s choice, rather than mine. I think they thought that J.K. Rowling was a more memorable name, but I think also because they thought it was a book that boys would enjoy. They might have wanted to hoodwink a few boys into thinking a man had written it.
Interviewer: Ah, I see.
Joanne: But I know that girls have really enjoyed it, from letters I have received.
I have known this bit of trivia for a long time, but every time I hear it again it strikes me as significant. The assumption that boys (and young ones at that) would choose to avoid a book because a woman wrote it is sad, whether it was an accurate one or not. How quickly do young boys (and girls) internalize the idea that women are less worthwhile? Or that what women create is just for women and girls? Judging by the target demographic of the first Harry Potter book, the publishers believed that this process was complete by age ten. And, to add some conjecture, I suspect that if her name had been coded as “ethnic” she would have been prompted to whitewash her nom de plume as well.
As I work through my doctorate, spend time in conference presentations, and follow various academic blogs and social media accounts, I wonder if boys ever grow out of this. We have stats, stats, and more stats — about the lack of women’s scholarship being cited, lack of women’s voices being included on syllabi, and female professors being rated as less effective, even when they’ve met the same deadlines and communication response times as male professors — that demonstrate that we’re conditioned to want to hear and learn from men more than we want to hear and learn from women.
I struggle with how to evaluate Ms. Rowling’s decision to capitulate to her publishers’ wishes. As a then-undiscovered writer with little to no money, the power imbalance between her and her publishers was likely quite significant. She might not have been in a position to push back. Perhaps the memory of the multitude of rejection letters from previous publishers and the fact that she was a single mother living on social assistance meant she was willing to make any accommodations to our patriarchal culture needed to get her book (which no one knew at the time would become the phenomenon that it did) into as many tiny hands as possible. She accommodated and she benefited (richly).
Here is the rub: when an individual woman makes the decision to accommodate, she secures the benefits for herself (and others in her care) but her choices further the normalization of the conditions that make such accommodation necessary or beneficial. If Ms. Rowling had refused her publisher’s idea to de-feminize her name, would she have helped chip away at the publication industry’s assumption?
This question of when to accommodate the preference of the gender-imbalanced world for the profit and/or safety it provides, and when to resist it to push forward to build the world the way it should be – one where ten year old boys wouldn’t balk away from reading a book written by a woman, where a woman does not need to hide her gender in order to be successful – is a complicated one.
Whether it’s Ms. Rowling hiding her female-coded name, a server wearing a top that gets more tips, or nuns and abbesses submitting to the authority of a male abbot, there are many ways that women, past and present, navigate the stormy seas of male-dominated culture to their benefit – whether that benefit is financial stability, physical safety, or ease of social interaction. It is sometimes easy to judge other women for their capitulations to the patriarchy’s preferences, for not taking a stand and pushing back. If we hadn’t had women who fought back, (and queer people, and indigenous people, and people of colour, and immigrants, and, and, and…) the societal patterns and structures that reinforce straight, white, able-bodied, and male as the most valuable, “default” embodiment of human would never change. But is it fair of any of us to expect every woman in every circumstance to make herself a martyr?
Rather than expecting everyone to fight every battle, and judging harshly those who don’t pick up the mantles we wish they would, we need to recognize the complexities involved in navigating the system. I don’t think everyone can afford to sit at the sidelines and continue to accommodate forever. We also can not afford to let the structures that impede women’s and non-dominant person’s flourishing persist. Sometimes we make choices to resist our broken world, and sometimes we make choices to survive in it. Both of these sets of choices have value and merit. Rather than condemn other’s choices to accommodate, we can mourn the fact that such accommodations are necessary and set our hands to work at changing the culture that makes them so.
What has this to do with theology (or, transliterated: What has Hogsmeade to do with Jerusalem)? Lots. As demonstrated in Jane’s recent post, theology as a discipline is not a place where women can assume they will thrive. It is another place where it helps to be able to hide behind initials. Ideally it wouldn’t be. As teachers of theology, we need to be cognizant of the probability that our male students and colleagues have not internalized that fact that what women have to say applies to them, could challenge them, or could make meaning for them. And we need to help them internalize it. We can do this by making sure that women’s voices (and other non-dominant voices, too) are included on each and every syllabus. We can make sure that we are citing women in our articles and conference papers. Let’s encourage men to read women’s work without them having to be “hoodwinked” into it. Perhaps, if we work together, we can push back against the “J.K. Factor” by ensuring a woman who publishes under her own name does not miss out on being taken seriously.
 Every critique I include about gender power imbalances in this post also needs to be considered intersectionally. Ms. Rowling, like myself, can chose disguise herself easily with the use of initials. This expedient route to being taken seriously is not so readily available to others whose names are racialized.