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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Is Dumbledore gay simply because Rowling says he is?

J.K. Rowling recently announced that Albus Dumbledore, the head of the  Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft, is gay. Apparently she believes that Dumbledore's qualities are under her control. I disagree. True, she is the author of the books in which Dumbledore is a character. But at this point it is not fully under her control what qualities Dumbledore has. She could say (or even publish a book in which) Dumbledore was actually a robot controlled by the CIA. But it would remain false that Dumbledore is  a robot controlled by the CIA.

Dumbledore can be gay only if this is narratively compatible with what Rowling has said about Dumbledore in the past. [In my original post I claimed that there was no narrative compatibility here, but I've been convinced otherwise. Why the mistake? Was it heterocentrism? Maybe. Was it that I haven't read book 7? Definitely. But am I the only one who finds Rowling's apparent view - that she can simply announce who's gay or who marries whom - problematic?]

Posted by Michael S. Green on October 20, 2007 at 09:27 AM | Permalink


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Sam, I don't think it's fair to accuse Michael of being homophobic. In fact, I think it's just plain wrong. He's making a point about whether J.K. Rowling, as the author of a text and the creator of a fictional character, can announce that a character has some quality that is not described in the text. His point about homosexuality was that there is nothing in the text that suggests Dumbledore is gay. And I tend to agree with him that nothing in the text suggests that Dumbledore is gay. Yet I don't think there is anything in any of the books that suggests he is straight either. The more important point, I think, is that we tend to presume that all people are heterosexual until proven otherwise.

Posted by: Zak Kramer | Oct 20, 2007 5:50:12 PM

I think we can distinguish four levels of narrative consistency between what was said before concerning a character (call it p) and a proposed addition (call it q). The weakest would be that p and q are consistent in the broadly logical sense--there is some possible world where both p and q are true. On that reading, it would probably be consistent to say that Dumbledore's a robot, or a simulation in the Matrix, or a figment of someone's imagination. (Of course, in our actual world, he's a figment of someone's imagination!) The next strongest sort of consistency would be to say that there's a p-&-q world that is at least as close to the actual world as any p-&-not-q world--given p and what would counterfactually be true in that world on the Lewis semantics for counterfactual conditionals, q is at least an open question. Level 3 would be if, given p, q is counterfactually true--that is, that there is a p-&-q world that is closer than any p-&-not-q world. Level 4 would be if there isn't any possible world with p but not q--if what was said before entailed the new addition.

Evaluating levels 2 and 3 would require an assessment of how strange or normal q is, which fits with taking Rowling's comment as relatively pro-gay.

Posted by: Chris | Oct 20, 2007 3:29:35 PM

I agree with the post. As a writer myself, Rowling should understand that she needs to lay a groundwork of clues before revealing some kind of twist. And, revealing that twist after the book has been written seems odd. Why wouldn't she have revealed it in the story?
Also, in reference to Dumbledore's relationship with Grindewald being obiviously gay, I didn't see that. Can't two men be good friends, who share the same ideological vision and not be gay?
IMHO, Rowling missed all the millions of people speculating about her books on the internet (like we're doing right now) so so she had to give the bloggers something new to buzz about.

Posted by: Ren | Oct 20, 2007 3:29:29 PM

Robophobia aside, I guess I don't get the point of the post at all. I infer that your objection is not that she said these things in an interview as opposed to a book - you say that you'd object to the robot-CIA thing even if it was in a book. So do you go through a series like HP - or even a single book, any book - picking and choosing which parts you accept as being "truly" a part of the story in your own view? I don't get that. I can understand not liking a book because you hate some twist that seems far-fetched to you. I can even imagine saying "I'm just going to pretend, whenever I think about that book, that the twist wasn't part of it - that way I can enjoy my memories of the other parts of the book." But it sounds like you believe that you're saying something stronger than that, and - then getting back to phobias - it seems like a reader would have to have some oddly strong personal motivation to say that an author was "wrong" about some fact about a character.

Posted by: Sam Heldman | Oct 20, 2007 3:11:16 PM

lest my previous comments be taken as insufficiently specific as to the target, I had the original post in mind, not those of any who responded.

Posted by: ataflat | Oct 20, 2007 1:34:08 PM

surely the more refined point is that Dumbledore can only be said affirmatively *not* to be gay under the condition that his gayness would be narratively *in*compatible with the public understanding of the characteristics assigned to him at the various moments between 1997 and the present when the books appeared, taking into account any emergent gay characteristics that developed during those years, in connection, e.g., with the revealed anal erotic fixations of various fundamentalist ministers and Republican politicians during that time. after all, as we know, fiction must be interpreted according to the same conventions as constitutional law.

but one would be remiss if one failed to add that after considering the vast and still-proliferating body of scholarship in philosophy and literary theory about the truth conditions associated with descriptions and evaluations made in fiction (e.g., Vaihinger, K. Thomas, Searle, and their many commentators and critics, for starters) and after reading the ramblings of law professors who obviously haven't even the beginning of a nodding acquaintance with any of that work (not even so much as to say "how d'you do" if any of that work should arrive in the email one fine morning), one must conclude that the law professors are doing again what they do so well: speaking on that about which they know nothing.

Posted by: ataflat | Oct 20, 2007 1:20:09 PM

Sam, my homophobia is nothing compared to my robophobia. Seriously, my post was motivated by a commitment to the objectivity of fictional characters, nothing more.

Posted by: Michael Steven Green | Oct 20, 2007 1:08:23 PM

Odd post. Do you also get worked up about JKR's statement (in the article you linked) that Neville marries Hannah Abbott? Is there just something about a gay Dumbledore that makes you uncomfortable?

Posted by: Sam Heldman | Oct 20, 2007 12:49:12 PM

OK! You're right. It *is* narratively compatible that he's gay. But my general point about the objectivity of fictional characters stands. Rowling does not have complete control over Dumbledore's qualities. I don't care what she says - he's not a robot controlled by the CIA.

Posted by: Michael Steven Green | Oct 20, 2007 12:46:38 PM

I think Zak's question is the operative one in this discussion. Why would we assume Dumbledore was straight absent narrative compatibility indicating his homosexuality?

Posted by: Liz Glazer | Oct 20, 2007 12:11:47 PM

I suppose the degree of reader's responsibility for meaning advanced here would be a terrific foundation for the rights of writers of slash
fiction--who basically imagine all the characters in the book to be gay. I think there's an article called "the right to mary sue" on that: Sunder and chander, Everyone’s a Superhero: A Cultural Theory of Mary Sue Fan Fiction as Fair Use, 95 CAL. L. REV. 597 (2007).

Posted by: Turnabout | Oct 20, 2007 11:58:58 AM

I don't recall any of the books saying that Dumbledore was straight.

Posted by: Zak Kramer | Oct 20, 2007 11:48:17 AM

Honestly, I thought his relationship Grindewald was pretty blatant (although I wouldn't have expected her to explicitly confirm that's what she had in mind).

But this:

Dumbledore can be gay only if this is narratively compatible with what Rowling has said about Dumbledore in the past. Now one might say that the gayness of a male character is always narratively compatible when a book is set in an English boarding school. But I would expect a bit more than that here. And I don't see it.

While I understand not seeing that Dumbledore is gay in the books, this implies that you think Dumbledore being gay is explicitly incompatible with the books. Considering there is not a word in them that states or implies he has romantic feelings towards a woman, what then makes you think it's incompatible?

Posted by: KatieM | Oct 20, 2007 11:19:57 AM

You don't see it?! Have you READ Book 7?

Posted by: n smith | Oct 20, 2007 10:53:41 AM

"Dumbledore can be gay only if this is narratively compatible with what Rowling has said about Dumbledore in the past."

What would that consist of?

Posted by: Liz Glazer | Oct 20, 2007 9:54:09 AM

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