HBO Max chose money over trans rights

OPINION: J.K. Rowling is executive producing a new “Harry Potter” series for the streamer and it feels like a slap in the face

We all knew it was coming, but it still feels like a crushing blow.

After many many rumours, HBO Max (soon to be rebranded simply as Max) announced Wednesday that a new decade-long TV series adaptation of the Harry Potter books has been greenlit, with author J.K. Rowling as an executive producer. The seven-season big-budget series will adapt all seven books with a new cast, essentially serving as a reboot of the popular Daniel Radcliffe-led films of the ’00s and ’10s. 

Frankly—as a trans person who’s watched an endless torrent of hate spewed at my community from Rowling and her acolytes over the past decade—this sucks. Rowling has positioned herself as the defining voice of the anti-trans movement worldwide and continues to actively incite hate toward trans people, particularly trans women. Forget separating the art from the artist—this is as close to clear acceptance from a studio of what Rowling’s been spouting for years as it gets. And it comes in the form of a big fat cheque straight into Rowling’s pocket and another decade of cultural relevance. 

Variety reported that, when asked about Rowling’s involvement during HBO’s press event, HBO Max chairman and content chief officer Casey Bloys danced around the topic.

“That’s a very online conversation, very nuanced and complicated and not something we’re going to get into,” Bloys said. “Our priority is what’s on the screen … obviously, the ‘Harry Potter’ story is incredibly affirmative and positive and about love and self-acceptance. That’s our priority—what’s onscreen.”

Translation: in the “real world”—aka offline—Rowling’s transphobia isn’t big enough of a deal to stop us from making more content out of a book series that was already adapted into eight very profitable and well-received films. 

There are justified critiques to be made about how “affirmative and positive” the original text of Harry Potter is—antisemitic depictions of goblins and the only Asian character being named Cho Chang come to mind—but let’s take Bloys at his word and assume the streamer is genuinely invested in affirmative and positive content.

If that were the case, it sure is interesting that a pile of groundbreaking, and I would argue “affirmative and positive” queer and trans content (Legendary, Los Espookys, Batgirl, Gentleman Jack, Little Ellen, others), was recently cancelled by HBO Max. 

 

Then again, those aren’t the guaranteed shining golden ticket of profit that a new Harry Potter series promises to be. The sequel and reboot glut is a well-accepted fact in the biz by now. Obviously, people like familiar properties and will flock to them with cash in hand. That’s why one Game of Thrones spinoff apparently wasn’t enough, or why we’re getting a Mel Gibson–starring John Wick spinoff literally no one asked for (though get me a Rina Sawayama one and I may give it a pass). 

The fact that the messy and poorly written Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts films churned in box-office dollars (despite the active involvement of two problematic figures in Johnny Depp and Ezra Miller) shows the public will still show up for Potter. And as much as I’d like to argue they won’t, I see enough Deathly Hallows tattoos and Hermione Granger Halloween costumes to know that if it’s made, the general public will watch this new series. And I get it—I was there in line at the midnight premieres of the original films as a teenager. I had a wand and a Hufflepuff scarf and a Potter-themed YouTube channel with friends. 

But Rowling’s descent into believing people like me shouldn’t have rights—and actively encouraging others to believe that too—was too much. I’ve made peace with letting the series go, as have many other queer and trans folks and allies I know. 

Knowing that the books are still out there, and that the Daniel Radcliffe-led series of films continue to honestly hold up pretty well (buoyed also by the core cast essentially all coming out as anti-Rowling and pro-trans), means there’s more than enough content to appease the people who haven’t let it go. That’s besides the pile of fan-created content like fanfiction and fan art separate from Rowling, much of which actually is super queer and trans-inclusive and affirming. But a fan still reading their favourite Drarry fanfiction is different than a studio actively making more content with the queen TERF who started it all. 

Between the justified public backlash against Rowling and the money-making potential of a new Potter series, HBO Max chose the money. And I get that these processes and deals are complicated, but every person who signed off on that decision cannot consider themselves a trans ally, just the same as the execs and decision-makers who let the Dave Chappelle Netflix special happen or invited him to host Saturday Night Live. I appreciate the work that Radcliffe and other original cast members have done not only to distance themselves from Rowling, but also to actively and publicly support queer and trans communities. But the new actors, when they are cast for the series, and everyone else involved, should really stop and consider what they’re doing there—even with what I’m sure will be some heavy-handed queer and trans content added into the reboot. 

Between the justified public backlash against Rowling and the money-making potential of a new Potter series, HBO Max chose the money.

Allyship isn’t just showing up to Pride parades or putting your pronouns in your email signature: it’s stopping people like Rowling when you have the chance to, and just letting them disappear from cultural relevance. Or, at the very least, it’s not dismissing trans peoples’ concerns over someone actively inciting hate against our community as simply being “online.” 

But, the decision-makers here didn’t choose that. They chose the dollar bills, and I guess that’s all we can expect from capitalism. They chose another era of Rowling, to give her status and money and relevance, because it will feed the shareholders. 

Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised or outraged. This is how things have always been—the money comes first. It’s just saddening and frustrating to watch it play out again, and it will be saddening to have to log into social media a few years and watch everyone post excitedly about this new series, while its creator continues to lead the crusade against my community. 

Senior editor Mel Woods is an English-speaking Vancouver-based writer and audio producer and a former associate editor with HuffPost Canada. A proud prairie queer and ranch dressing expert, their work has also appeared in Vice, Slate, the Tyee, the CBC, the Globe and Mail and the Walrus.

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