Tuesday, October 23, 2007

On the secret life of wizard headmasters

"It's fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A... Everybody!"

Okay, so following the publication of her final novel in the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling has come out with it and announced that Professor Dumbledore was, in fact, gay.

Some readers may have suspected it. I remember reading through the whole Grindelwald subplot in the seventh book and detecting an undertone -- or not even that, just having the unbidden thought -- of teh ghey, but I figured that if Rowling wasn't going to come out and say anything specific, it must not be a major plot point, and I let it go. So when she came out and actually articulated that Dumbledore was gay, I thought, "Hey, that's kind of cool." Kind of cool because my hunch was correct, and kind of cool because the best way to show the normalcy and basic human-ness of gay people is to present it without comment, to avoid the common stereotype and deliver a character who, like so many actual gay people, is a person first and most of all and a gay person incidentally. And kind of cool because, as a writer, I know how much extensive backstory most writers establish for their characters that never makes it to print, and I love this little tidbit that J.K. Rowling has had in her head the entire time.

Over at Pandagon, Amanda feels differently. She poses the question, "If he is, why didn’t you say so in the first place?" She sees Rowling as kind of weak and wishy-washy for presenting a Potterverse full of straight people who married their high school sweethearts and unmarried adults who have no social life. In her mind, Rowling's reluctance to offer any diversity in terms of lifestyle and sexual orientation is the result of timidity, and that if she wanted Dumbledore to read gay, she should have come right out and written him gay.

I have a couple of arguments with that idea. One is that, as mentioned by several commenters on that post, the books are written from a severly limited third-person perspective; we're basically viewing the world through the eyes of a 13-year-old over the shoulder of Harry Potter. And in the world of your average 13-year-old, the headmaster's sex life tends to be a nonissue. I know that, as a student, I had teachers whose first names I didn't really know, much less their domestic arrangements. If my unmarried seventh-grade social studies teacher was dating on the weekends, I not only didn't know but didn't even think to wonder. I had my own stuff going on, my own social life to attend to. And the books seem to reflect that; the Weasleys are presented as married because that's germane to Ron's life, the Dursleys are married because that's germane to Harry's life, Snape was still pining for Lily because it was a significant plot motivator, and everything else was saving the world from Voldemort and maybe getting a kiss from Cho Chang. If Professor McGonagall was meeting some wizard (or witch, for that matter) in Hogsmeade for butter beer of a Friday evening, I'm fairly sure Harry had other, more pressing, concerns.

I also think that, because the books are so entertaining and interesting to many adults, it's easy to forget that they're actually written for children. Rowling's original intent was to age Harry along with her readers, so that they would be able to follow him through his development and immerse themselves in his experience. While preserving kids from automatic heteronormativity is a nice idea and a worthy goal, it's also a real tightrope walk to present an 11-year-old with an openly gay headmaster and avoid any kind of ideological pandering. If it's not really vital to the character of Dumbledore that he's gay (or doesn't really become so until the seventh book), why adopt the burden of explaining the concept to a fifth-grader and injecting a serious shot of reality into what is, otherwise, a seriously fantastic book? As Harry ages and his readers age, the characters can become more developed and more complex and the plotlines can become more involved and more controversial.

And J.K. Rowling does introduce some element of real-world controversy. Hermione -- the Muggle-born witch with a heartier grasp of Muggle-world social issues -- embraces the cause of the house-elves, fighting for their liberty and equal treatment while many natives to the wizarding world have no concept of them as anything but servants, and both sides of the controversy are examined and revealed as well-meaning, if occasionally mistaken. The idea of "mudbloods," implying supremacy of pureblooded wizards over their Muggle-bred counterparts, certainly has real-world implications. Tonks and Lupin's interspecial relationship raises the question of what people will think and how to hold their heads high in the face of societal judgment, and Tonks's pregnancy raises feminist issues of women-at-home vs. women-in-the-workplace (or even, one could argue, women in combat). And the entire Harry Potter universe is shot through with strong, accomplished women in all levels of education, government, public service, military-equivalent service, and, yes, homemaking.

But to me, the greatest value is, as I mentioned above, that Rowling didn't have to write Dumbledore gay. He didn't bring boyfriends back to Hogwarts. He didn't dress in flamboyant robes. He wasn't effete or swishy (any more than any wizard would be when "swishing and flicking" a wand for purposes of levitation). He wasn't extra-sensitive, he wasn't extra-horny, he didn't have unusually close relationships with any of the female professors at Hogwarts. He was a headmaster, a powerful wizard, a champion of good, a mentor, and a human being -- well, a wizard, anyway -- and that's all J.K. Rowling really had to write about any character.

To delve into Dumbledore's sexuality in an arena, like his job at Hogwarts or his role with the Order of the Phoenix, where sexuality doesn't usually come into play would mean relying on traditional "gay" signifiers to get the point across, and that means turning him into a stereotype. Just as most people, gay or straight, are complex and multifaceted individuals outside of their sexual orientation, Dumbledore was a great many things and a well-developed character, to which his sexual orientation was incidental. Would it have been a great nod to diversity and progressiveness if J.K. Rowling had managed to shoehorn all of that in at once? Sure, if she'd managed to make it seamless and unobtrusive and not distracted from the storyline. If that had been impossible -- or just too much of a challenge to be worth her while -- I'm satisfied with the way she addressed it, I still love the books, and this revelation only makes them richer and more interesting to me.

Besides, Laura Mallory has got to be flipping out right now.

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