Dumbledore’s sexuality and the authority of the serial author

21Oct07

As you might have heard, Dumbledore is gay. Or at least so says J.K. Rowling.

I’m less interested in how this impacts our understanding of the world of Harry Potter, the relationships between Albus & other characters, or even the cultural controversies surrounding the series that this announcement has already inflamed. What interests me more is what does it mean for an author to proclaim such information about a character in an already completed fictional world? Presuming that the books are ambiguous at best about the issue of Dumbledore’s sexuality – my interpretation had been that Hogwarts faculty were like monks, forsaking romance and concerns of the flesh for the magical arts – how do we make sense of this authorial pronouncement?

The press & blogs I’ve read seem to be treating it as a statement of fact – it’s Rowling’s fictional world, and thus her statements are canonical. And back when the story was ongoing, I would probably agree with that position. Certainly when trying to understand complex serialized fiction like Lost, I assume that producer comments clarifying a facet of the emerging storyworld can be treated as if it is canonical story information. This is the policy on Lostpedia as well, which offers a good vision of how a number of diehard fans regard authorial commentary.

But something changes once a series is complete. Rowling has written thousands of pages about Hogwarts, and has made it clear that she’s done with the series. She had ample opportunity to make Dumbledore’s sexuality explicit (well, probably not too explict) in the books, but chose not to. Likewise, had she made this announcement between books 5 & 6, she would have helped forge our reading experiences, guiding us to be alert to the cues within Dumbledore’s past with Grindelwald and other moments, and framing textual moments as more explicit than they actually may be. So does she retain her power to control her fictional world after the books have been closed?

As a counterpoint, think about the politics surrounding fan fiction and series like Star Trek. A dedicated community of fans are invested in thinking of Kirk and Spock as gay lovers, writing “slash fiction” exploring their romance. Producers guarding the series assert the heterosexuality of their characters, but the fans claim their interpretive rights to open up ambiguities and subtext freely. I side with the fans here – the producers control the official text as produced for TV and related paratexts, but the meanings are up for grabs once released into the culture.

So for me, Rowling’s outing of Albus is more comparable to Star Trek‘s after-the-fact assertions of Kirk’s heterosexuality than the Lost producers assuring us that Nikki and Paulo are really dead. She is offering a distinctive interpretation of her fictional world – and one that I certainly find engaging and satisfying – but it is not canonical, as it did not appear in the books. Fan creators should be free to write Dumbledore/McGonnigal fiction as much as Dumbledore/Snape stories – both are valid interpretations of subtexts running through the books that explore themes that make the world of Hogwarts richer. Perhaps the het Dumbledore writers will view their work as subverting Rowling’s vision, and the slashers will find themselves in the odd situation of coloring within the author’s lines. But I don’t think Rowling’s statements trump the book’s ambiguities.

Any other meta-thoughts about how authorial announcements impact serialized worlds, whether ongoing or complete?

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28 Responses to “Dumbledore’s sexuality and the authority of the serial author”

  1. 1 storyofnadia

    If Dumbledore was gay, I would’ve preferred to know that while I read the Potter books. I, too, interpreted his life’s accomplishment to be selflessly wrapped around the concept that the magical arts should be kept pure, but always alert to conquering evil. It matters not whether he was gay or straight, but it would’ve more honest to allow the reader to know that upfront in order to further enhance the enjoyment of the books.

  2. It’s really interesting how this announcement has split my flist, both on a narrative and a political level. There are some who adore more information as better, the more canon and back story the better, whereas to me this actually detracts from fan writers’ abilities. After all, she announced this with the very clear imperative of his not having a sex life, so that rather than having the openness and ambiguity of *not* knowing, we are now in the awkward position of going against this (admittedly expanded) canon if we write Dumbledore romantically involved.

    I always think of canon as this fine balance between too little and too much information, and having everything explained and determined, all but forecloses creative extrapolation, doesn’t it?

    Politically, some folks were clearly just excited about JKR announcing *any* character as gay. Otoh, let’s look at how and where and who: it’s an announcement in this weird semi-canon space, where she gets to feel good about herself without any real risk of having actually written a canonically gay character in the books! Moreover, she makes Dumbledore gay: she’s presenting him as virtually nonsexual and also dead by the end of the series. Queer characters, of course, have a history of getting killed off, but she moreover makes his gayness intimately tied in with a nonexistent satisfied love life as well. Especially when read against the relentless heteronormativity of the last book and the epilogue, where any potentially queer characters (Snape) are killed off, the ones that could be queer (Remus and Tonks) get mated and then killed off, and everyone not only pairs up but also procreates. So, against that vision of a heteronormative future to make this announcement of an unhappily romantic (unrequited? unconsummated?) gay love of a now dead character, her political gesture is not only nonqueer-friendly but actually outright offensive as far as I’m concerned.

    And that isn’t really what you were interested in :) Authorial intent and how and where and why it might influence our conception of canon is really interesting. I’ve actually written on that particular aspect of Rowling’s engagement with the fans before, and I kind of read her as engaged in a struggle of (author)ity. She more than once has tried to INTERPRET her own writing and declared these interpretations canon. What fascinates me is how many readers are willing to let her get away with it…

  3. Jason: thanks for the post — the news about Rowling’s “disclosure” caught my eye too as a fascinatingly ex post facto authorial move. And Kristina, your comments capture perfectly my feelings of ambivalence and dismay toward Rowling’s announcement. I agree that, ultimately, it’s a rather cowardly, bet-hedging way to open the Potter corpus to a politically progressive reading.

    On a structural level, it’s interesting to note that Rowling is commenting on and characterizing an *absence* in her text, a profound lacuna. It’s not just that Dumbledore’s queerness is there between the lines if you know to read for it (though with one stroke, JKR has assured that future readers will do so, and probably quite convincingly!). No, his being gay is so completely offstage that it’s tantamount to not existing at all, and hence, within the terms of the text, is completely irrelevant. It’s as though she said, “By the way, during the final battle with Voldemort, Harry was wearing socks that didn’t match” or “I didn’t mention it at the time, but one of the Hogwarts restrooms has a faucet that leaked continuously throughout the events of the seven books.” Of course, the omission is far more troubling than that, because it involves the (in)visibility of a marginalized identity: it’s more as though she chose to reveal that a certain character had black skin, though she never through to mention it before. While the move seems on the surface to validate color-blindness, or queer-blindness, with its blithe carelessness, the ultimate message is a form of “stay hidden”; “sweep it under the rug”; and of course, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

    We’ve got two more movies coming out, so of course it will be interesting to see how the screenwriters, directors, production designers, etc. — not to mention Michael Gambon — choose to incorporate the news about Dumbledore into the ongoing mega-experiment in cinematic visualization. My strong sense is that it will change things *not at all*: the filmmakers will become, if anything, scrupulously, rabidly conscientious about adapting the written material “as is.”

    But I disagree, Jason, with your contention that Rowling’s statement is not canonical. Come on, she’s the only voice on earth with the power to make and unmake the Potter reality! She could tell us that the whole story happened in the head of an autistic child, a la St. Elsewhere, and we’d have to believe it, whether we liked it or not — unless of course it could be demonstrated that JKR was herself suffering from some mental impairment, a case of one law (medical) canceling out another (literary).

    For better or worse, she’s the Author — and if that concept might be unraveling in the current mediascape, all the more reason that people will cling to it, a lifejacket keeping us afloat amid a stormy sea of intepretation.

  4. Bob, I couldn’t disagree with you more on the canon issue. Of course, the creation of canon, what constitutes it, and how readers are collaboratively co-creating the canon-space are extremely important issues for fanfiction readers and writers. And the approaches range from the very narrow (i.e., only what is said explicitly in the text itself) to the broader (including tie-in texts, DVD commentaries etc.) Moreover, most media texts are much more complicated to navigate, simply because we do not have one author but rather a set of writers, producers, directors, actors, etc. [And I often feel that the recent embracing of the auteur might be media theory's desire for the unambiguousness that literary studies tends to have : )] And none of this even approaches the question of what should be considered canon when you get into texts like comics or real people fiction, with its overabundance of source material that often is self contradictory.

    So, yes, there are readers/fans who include Rowling’s offhanded statements; there are readers/fans who regard the films as canon; and yet, even though I recently made a heartfelt defense of authorial intent, I nevertheless feel quite uncomfortable to allow an author to add and alter and interpret the text after it is out in the open and published and shared. Frankly, it reminds me of writers who tell you that your reading is wrong because it doesn’t agree with theirs. Rather than embracing the ambiguities of literature or admitting to failing to have made their point, they try to invoke their author(ity) to narrow down meanings of their own texts to only those that they find congruent with theirs. Rowling’s comments on Draco and her endorsement of Harry/Ginny before Book 6 are examples of her mistaken belief to remain sole interpretor of her own writing. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Fanfiction writers are aggressive readers, and some veer so far from the text that it might as well not be considered FANfiction any more–yet large parts of the community are also extremely close readers, using textual support and interpreting the text they’re given. To suddenly come and make the author’s random comments canon belittles both the TEXT itself and the interpretive readerly power.

  5. Kristina, I worry that you misread my point — or my tone. I *absolutely* agree with you that canon is a contested, negotiated category — and gloriously so! And I would be among the first to stipulate the universal enfranchisement of all readers/writers to accept, reject, rework texts as they see fit. I far prefer a world in which the author is revealed as the social and legal construct “it” is. I’d add that, in media studies particularly, I’m keenly aware of the armies of creators whose hands help the text along to its genesis, and of the irony that authors/auteurs/owners still claim a privilege into which that collective labor is (deceptively) subsumed.

    I meant my closing comments not to valorize or reify Rowling’s “authority,” but to suggest that, in terms of public perception, she is a special case: at this moment in history, she gets to make claims like Dumbledore-is-gay and have it spread across the globe like it’s actual news — like something has actually changed! She is one among many, yet her interpretation automatically goes to the top of the stack. I don’t think it should be this way; in fact, I lament it. But, as I stated, I think the very dispersion of textual authority you so eloquently defend is what causes some segments of the population — those, I would suggest, who don’t count themselves as fans, even if they demonstrate fannish levels of commitment to the Potter series — to slavishly follow JKR’s every pronouncement.

    Hope that clears up the question of my *own* authorial intent …

  6. Oh…oops :)

    Well, the nice thing about blog comments (unlike published text) is that we *can* walk behind our words and explain/qualify/retract even if necessary.

    And yes, there’s definite irony in the fact that it’s on top CNN news, but then one of the reasons most of us feel so strongly about the intentional fallacy is that so many people do believe that she has special knowledge and access even after the fact…

  7. 7 mebertolini

    Jason,
    I thought that one of the most interesting things about Rowling’s disclosure was her after comment: “Oh, my god . . . the fan fiction.” With that comment, she tacitly encourages fans to run with the characters and to expand the HP universe. But what is that universe? Is it what appears on the page? What exists in Rowling’s head? What exists in the heads of millions of HP fans? The HP imaginative universe is open and infinite, but the HP text is finite, closed.

    I completely agree with you that Rowling’s statements do not trump the book’s ambiguities. It’s fun to hear what more Rowling has to say about her characters, and as a fan, I’ll always want to listen, but I’ll continue to interpret the text by the information on the page.

    Mary Ellen

  8. Wow – glad to host a little rassling here, even if Bob & Kristina worked it out without fisticuffs.

    I’m curious what you all might have thought if JKR had outed Albus before book 7, but the text of DH hadn’t changed at all. For me, I think it would have been more canonical, because I would undoubtedly experience the Dumbledore flashbacks & mythology looking for clues of queerness. So the text would have seemed less ambiguous because of extratextual knowledge. Make sense?

    Thanks to all for the comments!

  9. 9 Mike Roberts

    WEll, it’s an interesting thing, isn’t it?
    Rowling’s finished the HP series, effectively sealing it off at both ends, so to speak.
    And I think what she needs to have done was walk away from it and let the Fans take over the narrative. (It’d be naive to assume that she isn’t aware of the various directions that FanFic is taking the Potter Universe, areas both scatalogical aand philo-ethical)
    However, I think that this last (or is it merely to be the latest?) attempt to assert authorial intent upon a body of work that is already being morphed and probed and modified beyond her vision of it, strikes me as slightly foolish and, pardon the analogy, not much more than a cheap magician’s trick….
    I grant that there are vague allusions towards Dumbledore’s sexuality withing the text, but these are, in my opinion, so open to variant interpretations that they aren’t really proof but, rather textual “play-dough” ready to be turned into whatever interpretive shape the reader sees fit to create.
    To say, after all is said, done and published, “Oh by the way…” is too little too late.

  10. Count me with those who feel she’s a big coward. Philip Pullman can rage blasphemy in his kids books, yet an author with more power couldn’t even put a single line in her books saying this earlier (goodness knows that she needed a good editor for many of her books, so it’s not as though her writing is as tight as a haiku, with narry a space for the revelation!).

    As for canon, Bob’s sort of got his finger on the annoying nature of this: that she shouldn’t at all have this power to do this, but she does. If I said Dumbledore was gay, I’d hardly command the same response.

    But it’s a wholly fascinating example of someone effectively poaching their own text, right? Maybe after all her raging about people who dared to spoil the novels, she got a sense of the reader’s power and now wants to become the ultimate superbeing — the author who is her own subversive reader (Harry and Voldemort). God help us all ;-)

  11. Exactly, Jon — even if Rowling’s outing of Dumbledore is, on the whole, rejected outright by fans, the controversy itself will be immortalized on Potter wikia, a permanent issue to be challenged/revised/tiptoed around by anyone putting Dumbledore to use in their own fanwork. Even the choice *not* to engage with Dumbledore’s alleged outing will be making a political choice. And you hit the nail on the head: among Potter’s countless intepreters, no one else’s interpretation would cause the stir that JKR’s has.

    Maybe the point here is that her move comes across not as a rewriting of the established text, but a pre-writing of the ancillary, fan-produced texts — a way of closing down, or at least directing, the para-authorship to follow.

    On another note (and one that might be pertinent to your interests, Jon), how does the Dumbledore controversy compare to the one that erupted over George Lucas’s various revisions to the original Star Wars trilogy? Do I enter dirty-joke territory if I suggest that “Dumbledore shot first”?

  12. Bob, I really like the concept of the pre-writing of the ancillary, fan-produced texts, because I think what Jason mostly is trying to differentiate above (with the Lost example) is whether there is a difference between texts-in-progress and supposedly finished ones. [FWIW, I don't think there is, because while this supposed revelation may not affect Jason's reading of Book 7, I still haven't bothered, so to me--and any future new reader--it would clearly affect my reading in the same way watching new Lost canon does.]

    Jonathan, I don’t think writers as readers are a bad thing. In fact, I wish more writers were aware that in the end that’s all they are–another reader of their own text. Especially when distanced by time, writers may bring new things to their own texts and that, paired with their memory of being inside the writing process, can be immensely interesting. Within the fan community, fan writers often create so-called DVD commentaries (for a neat example, which actually adds writer and beta comments, thus highlighting the collaborative process, see here), in which they discuss the writing process and often offer their reading of their own story. But most of them also make it very clear that this does not suddenly offer a “definitive” reading. So, for me, the problem isn’t JKR becoming a reader of her text but trying to remain the reader. It’s about authors and authority (which is why I, personally, tend to prefer the term writer : )

  13. This completely changes my understanding of the last episode of The Sopranos.

  14. 14 rbhardy3rd

    In book 7, Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwald is problematic not because Dumbledore is gay, but because the relationship results in questionable behavior on Dumbledore’s part. Notoriously, this is what happens with Willow on BtVS, when Tara’s death makes her lose her moral compass and go over the edge into big baddom. I find troubling the apparent correlation between gay relationships and moral malfunctioning. Dumbledore’s love for Grindelwald is responsible for his most questionable acts, while Snape’s love for Lily is responsible for his most noble acts.

  15. FYI, check out this cartoon. I rarely ever even feel like commenting random places online, but the offensive “get a life” male [!] stereotype of fan writers as well as the idiotic pro-authorial intent approach really hit too many buttons simultaneously… [mostly, I just want to send a few people back to college to take a damn literature course!]

  16. Kristina, i think we agree — it’s not that she wants to be a reader that concerns me, since of course she is. It’s that she wants the power of being a reader and of being a writer without realizing that both roles require giving up power too. It’s like a little kid whose hands are full but wants whatever you’re holding too — to be a reader is to give something, and to be a writer is to give something too. She seems to want endless hands

  17. Many comments to reply to…

    Bob/Jonathan/Kristina – I read here statement a little less strategically than you all seem to. I don’t think she was intending to shape fanfic/interpretations by positing Dumbledore’s sexuality. Based on what little I’ve read of Rowling in interviews, it seems like she knows much much more about the world of Hogwarts than she put in the books, having mapped out an entire universe, with history, future events, unstated character traits, and so on. For her, these are all part of the storyworld, whether they made it into the books or not. So when she’s asked a question, she references this extensive catalog of imagination rather than just the released texts. The effect of this is that for her canon is much bigger, and it’s understandable that hearing/reading something that violates her understanding of the storyworld might make her bristle. But for us naive readers who only have her thousands of pages of text to guide us, her “truth claims” feel overly prescriptive.

    I agree with Jonathan’s disappointment that she didn’t bother including this little tidbit in one of the books – it probably wasn’t in fear of more right-wing backlash or worries that it would hurt sales (hah!). Perhaps she underestimated the tolerance of her audience to feel compassion & respect for Gay Albus? Or maybe she wanted to avoid explicitly blaming his love for Grindelwald for his inaction, along the lines that Rob suggests a la Willow? Or she was just chicken…

    Cole – you thinking that maybe Tony was really gay? Care to elaborate?

    Thanks all for the comments!

  18. And here I thought I could get through the comments without having TDH (or OotP or HBP, for that matter) spoiled. Oh well.

    Count me among the annoyed, for so many reasons. There are the narrative considerations of setting up, after-the-fact, the cliched “doomed” gay character. There’s the fact that she’s never really quite understood how popular culture works (something even Lucas seems to have grokked), thinking apparently that we all share her understanding of Harry’s world. And there’s the fact that she went and stated it in that context, attempting (in her mind) to sound “brave” and “progressive” but really coming off as cowardly and paranoid.

    It’s all the more fodder for exploring practices of contemporary authorship, though, so it keeps my interest stoked. There’s something about a traditional “Author” (capital-A writer of literature [said with as much pomposity as you can manage] in our barbaric [and again] world of the movies, and the television, and the XBox, and the internets, yadda yadda) making these claims so publicly that betrays media culture’s continued appetite for individuated, celebrity-based, definitive authorship. Fan culture is much too noisy and “chaotic” to sit serenely opposite Oprah, Matt Lauer, Terry Gross, or Michiko Kakutani, after all.

  19. Just a joke–to point out that Rowling did what Chase and most sensible, self- and text-respecting authors decline to do–explicate text that really, really, really ought to stand on its own. More authors should be like Faulkner, and outrageously lie when asked what their books mean (I’m thinking of anecdote I heard as an Am Lit student at Midd wherein Faulkner claimed Sound & Fury was four failed attempts at telling one straightforward story thrown together as a book in desperation).

    In that spirit, I think it would be wonderful if Chase now announced that Tony was in fact gay.

    To be somewhat fair to Rowling’s writing choices, if not her subsequent admissions, it’s not as if she’s very comfortable (or interested in) directly addressing romance of any kind in any of the Potter books. Be it Harry/Cho, Harry/Ginny or Ron/Hermione, her heart’s just not in it, and when it appears it’s perfunctory, theoretical and at arm’s length. So it’s altogether unsurprising that she would skirt *way* around Dumbledore’s sexuality in the text itself.

    I feel bad that I never picked up on any queer subtext re: Albus. I must have been distracted by all those thousands of pages of boarding school boys waggling their wands and ramming their broomsticks at each other.

  20. It also strikes me that maybe JK isn’t quite as done with the texts as she said she was. While I advocate the Cone of Silence for authors about their own works, I can only imagine how difficult it must be to walk away from discussing or explaining a creative endeavor that has defined your life, made you rich and important, reshaped popular culture and allowed you to build/dictate such a complete world. One can interpret her revelation not only as evidence that she has access to a much more detailed framework than readers, but as a sign that she’s still attached to actively writing these characters, at least in the sense of shaping them and controlling them–even if it’s no longer on the page. Will we get more of this? 2008: “Well, you see, Hagrid was an alcoholic.” 2009: “Of course, Filch and his cat were lovers.”

  21. Well, Joss Whedon certainly knows how to navigate the troubled waters of being a reader and a writer at the same time:

    “What may or may not have happened is entirely up to the viewer, that’s what makes it art. Having said that, I know EXACTLY what happened and it’s funny that I’m never going to tell anyone. But did no one see the obvious smoldering passion between the Blue Hand guys [in the series Firefly--ed.]? MAN, did you guys miss the boat.

    “In my world, heroes bugger each other senseless. Not all of them, but more than you’d think, and probably not who you’re thinking.”

    But it takes a level of sophistication, and . . .

  22. I just want to point to an excellent Salon article on the topic by Rebecca Traister – check it out!

    And Cole – perhaps JKR can start a newsletter called the Daily Prophet, issuing Rita Skeeter-like scoops on the secret lives of her characters? I’m sure she’d have a few readers…

  23. 23 Michael Roberts

    Having re-read the text that supposedly ‘proves’ Dumbledore’s sexuality, may I be so very bold as to say that Rowling has apparently either mis-interpreted her own text or was somewhat sloppy in transferring what was in her head onto the page. From what I’ve read, the text points not towards a sexual or romantic love, but rather a schoolboy infactuation with the kid in school who finally “gets you”, a soulmate of sorts. I think that it was a striving for acceptance and coolness in Grindalwald’s eyes, rather than an actual attempt at making G. love him back, that caused Dumbledore’s lapses.


  1. 1 Graphic Engine » Blog Archive » Dumbledore: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
  2. 2 links for 2007-10-23 : Tama Leaver dot Net
  3. 3 Observations on film art and FILM ART : Rowling’s revelations: who wants to know?
  4. 4 Geek Studies » Blog Archive » Linking With a Vengeance
  5. 5 Sexualized Saturdays: Dumbledore | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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