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J. K. Rowling and the Damage of Dumbledoring

"Dumbledore-ing" or, simply, "Dumbledoring," is the practice by which an author claims social capital by alleging diversity post-publication
"Dumbledore-ing" or, simply, "Dumbledoring," is the practice by which an author claims social capital by alleging diversity post-publication / DBLTAP

During an interview event at New York City’s famous Carnegie Hall in 2007, now-notorious author J. K. Rowling dropped a bombshell. In front of an audience of nearly 2,000 adoring fans of her school-age fantasy series, "Harry Potter," Rowling announced that one of the most beloved characters in the books had actually been gay the entire time.

A fan asked if beloved Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore had ever found love. “My truthful answer to you,” she replied, “I always thought of Dumbledore as gay.”

She continued, “In fact, recently I was in a script read-through for the sixth film, and they had Dumbledore saying a line to Harry early in the script saying, 'I knew a girl once'…I had to write a little note in the margin and slide it along to the scriptwriter, “Dumbledore’s gay!”

Thus, the term “Dumbledoring” was born.

"Dumbledore-ing" or, simply, "Dumbledoring," is the practice by which an author claims social capital by alleging diversity and inclusion post-publication of their work.

This isn’t to discount what was seen as a major win by LGBTQ+ activists at the time. The far-reaching nature of the Harry Potter franchise cannot be overstated, and some members of the queer community found having a little piece they could point to as theirs was invaluable to normalizing discussion around sexual orientation. Unfortunately, this has all but completely backfired when fans realized the inconvenient truth:

Nowhere in the original seven novels is Dumbledore's sexuality foreshadowed or remotely mentioned.

Hollow Representation and You

So, why is this a problem? I mean, we have our guy, right? We have the gay dude in the magic school! That's representation, isn't it?

The answer is a bit more complicated than you'd think.

There is no actual representation of an identity without the depth of experience playing into that character’s backstory and experiences with the world around them. Sexuality and gender identity become as frivolous a detail as their eye color, or their mother's maiden name, having no bearing on their journey. In instances like this, the character might as well be heterosexual, as it truly makes no difference. The impact is lost.

"Seeing heterosexual characters and storylines play out with richness and cultural nuance in their personalities, relationships, and social circles, only to see LGBTQ+ characters essentially copy-pasted with none of the nuance stings," said Jillian, a 27-year-old bisexual woman. "[It] shows that developers pay little attention or care in building stories where we are welcomed." Ultimately, hollow representation reveals a creator's carelessness when attempting to expand a cast. And that can lead to further harm.

Not all representation is created, scripted, or received equally. There are still a plethora of stereotypes into which writers place marginalized identities. These, of course, include the overtly feminine "fashionista" gay man, the "sassy" black (or safely ethnically ambiguous) woman, and more.

Although they may seem innocuous, these tropes serve to dehumanize the individuals and reduce their identity into an often easily digested box, robbing them of all gravity and depth. They present a shadow of what it truly means to live the life that comes with that identity. Additionally, it sets up a body of stigmas around real, living, breathing people that informs no small part of their interactions with others outside of that identity and, sometimes, with themselves.

For example, one might assume that all gay men have a magical, deeply accurate fashion sense. Others may see a black woman’s attempts to stand up for herself as inherently “aggressive.”

Some stereotypes have lasting effects on the individuals who suffer them, as one friend told me. She had experienced the impact of damaging bisexual stereotypes first hand. 

“I learned that when you’re 13 and say you like girls all the boys will find out your phone number and get a new love for the taste of the word ‘threesome’,” she wrote in a recent interview, “And the girls won’t talk to you until they’re 14 and need help ‘practicing.’”

This is part of what happens when a character is "Dumbledored." When a creator doesn't meaningfully engage with the identity they're trying to portray, they open themselves up to regurgitating stereotypes. Retroactive queerbaiting of this caliber dilutes a lived experience for the comfort of a stereotype rather than an accurate picture.

The sad part about this is that it's so blatant. To pretend a character was "gay all along" without doing the work to make that a tangible part of who they are comes off as a hollow marketing attempt, a cynical play to seem inclusive. We know it's not a real gesture of goodwill. Those responsible really only want to influence that lush green bottom line.

The last Harry Potter book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” came out in July 2007. Rowling’s reveal of Dumbledore’s sexuality didn’t take place until October that same year, but that didn't stop it from raising her profile, and ultimately leading to the cultural ubiquity the series enjoys today.

Obviously, Rowling isn't the only offender. Several corporations have attempted the same thing — including major video game publisher Blizzard Entertainment. Though touted as a beacon of diversity, Blizzard's strategic shooter, Overwatch (2016), has fallen into the trap of Dumbledoring on more than one occasion.

Blizzard introduced Jack "Soldier: 76" Morrison as "straight by default" when Overwatch was first released. It was only three years later that a writer revealed Soldier: 76 was gay, referring to an old flame, Vincent, in the short story "Bastet." It's worth noting that neither the word "boyfriend" nor "husband" is used in the text. That ambiguity left space for some fans to reject Soldier: 76 as gay, forcing the story's author, Michael Chu, to publish a tweet explicitly stating both characters were gay men.

In that same vein, it isn't uncommon for representation to be siloed exclusively into auxiliary media such as comics and sideline narratives. Tracer suffered the same fate, her sexuality revealed in the comic "Reflections" — though, she didn't need to wait remotely as long.

This quarantining of queer identity outside of the main game completely removes any opportunity for real-time in-game representation — often at the behest of marketing overseas — and encourages LGBTQ+ fans to spend more time, resources, and, typically, money to see themselves in their favorite properties.

If the intention was to always have a character represent a marginalized group, why not just come out and say so on day one? Why is it only okay to confirm headcanons after enough fans get behind it — or, as is often the case, suggest it?

What is Good Representation?

To the folks who started this thinking "Wow, these people are never satisfied with anything,": this section is for you! Specifically!

There are — dare I say — great examples of LGBTQ+ representation scattered throughout the video game sphere. Most members of the LGBTQ+ community who enjoy gaming have one good memory or another of an experience that truly struck a chord with them — though these are few and far between. 

Z, 22, explained that the best representation, to her, was “both clear and emotive, but not in your face, because that usually makes it feel stiff and informal…It just feels real, and that’s really nice.” Finding specific instances where it’s both organically highlighted and indivisible from the character proves to still be difficult in 2022.

“There just aren’t a lot of important [queer] characters in media,” said Z, 22, who focused in on the additions to the Witcher franchise as a recent example, “I’m trying to come up with more instances I really enjoyed and I’m BLANKING.”

“It’s not [representation] really if people don’t know,” said Sara, 33, who remarked that it didn’t even need to be an explicit event, “I love that in a lot of video games now you’ll find lgbt characters all over. Just in the world. Theres no GASP YOURE WHAT just casual mention of a same sex partner.”

She cited BioWare’s medieval fantasy RPG franchise, Dragon Age, as the place where she found the most representation. Specifically, she mentioned Dorian, a gay man, Sera, a lesbian, and Josephine and Iron Bull, a bisexual woman and man, respectively, from Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014).

Another example comes from Mass Effect 3 (2012) where two romance interests, Samantha Traynor and Steve Cortez, were exclusively available for female and male Commander Shepards, respectively. What elevates them is not only the organic way they’re introduced, but also the interactions that reinforce their orientations. Traynor actively turns down male Shepard with an explanation of “liking EDI’s voice.” However, while both available genders are able to comfort Cortez through the grief of losing his husband, female Shepards can't pursue him as a romantic partner.

What makes this so notable is that it removed the "player-sexual" label and gave these two characters their own concrete, immutable identities that the protagonist is forced to respect. The narrative experience and player's agency is irrevocably impacted.

Notable and closer to this decade is The Elder Scrolls Online, which won the inaugural GLAAD Media Outstanding Video Game award in 2019 for its portrayal of an openly transgender character in the previous year’s expansion, Summerset. Players are tasked with reuniting two twin sisters who were driven apart due to familial pressure to perform. It's not until the end of the questline, when the long-lost sister reveals herself, that players learn she is actually a trans woman. The other responds by embracing her fully, calling her “little sister” for the first time.

I admit this quest made me sob openly onto my keyboard. I’m not sure how the darn thing still functions with all the waterworks a simple story was able to produce. I have fond memories of absolutely losing it upon hearing the voice lines — reading along, thinking I might have misheard one of them but secretly praying I didn’t — and then taking pictures to Snapchat every single person I knew about it. I can name on one hand the number of video game reveals that have affected me this strongly. 

As many Elder Scrolls fans know, this is far from the first instance of LGBTQ+ representation and/or liberation in the franchise. Even better: all of these examples take place in the main game — not DLCs, novelizations, side comics, or short stories. 

Looking Forward

It should be noted that this problem doesn’t begin and end with the LGBTQ+ community. Other marginalized groups have had to deal with similar experiences. The good news is that while this is definitely still a problem, things are improving a great deal for future players.

“I think of the younger generation getting this [representation] and it gives me the warm fuzzies. I can really see how things have and are changing and it makes me hopeful for where media will go,” Sara wrote.

Our stories aren't minute details to be added and subtracted so certain CEOs can continue to calculate the growing size of their holiday bonuses. Personally, I just don't think it's too much to ask to have LGBTQ+ representation that commits from the get-go — not after companies know it's safe and/or profitable.