Dumbledore: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

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I was all set to write about J. K. Rowling’s announcement that Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts, was gay, but Jason Mittell over at JustTV beat me to it. Rather than reiterating his excellent post, I’ll just point you to it with this link.

Here’s a segment of the comment I left on Jason’s blog, highlighting what I see as a particularly odd aspect of the whole event:

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 thought 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 thoughts on “Dumbledore: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

  1. The more I think about this, the more I think that it’s a sign of her being a very bad writer. After hundreds and hundreds of pages, if a writer actually needs to declare something that s/he couldn’t make clear in all those pages, that’s an admission of failure, isn’t it?

    On Jason’s blog, you draw the interesting parallel to Greedo shooting first in the reedit of Star Wars, but at least there, Lucas actually filmed/CGI’d it, rather than saying, “Greedo shot first — I just didn’t show you that.”

    Somewhat bemusedly, I see the prospects for creative writing teachers and editors all over the world to be in a lot of trouble by the precedent this sets: “No, Ms. Adams, the character really is wracked with guilt over the death of his child” “But that’s nowhere in the story, Jill” “No, but it happened.” In this scenario, Jill would get a low grade, and I think that’s what I’m giving Rowling 😉

  2. I would say that she’s being a bad writER without necessarily engaging in bad writING (after all, the hubbub revolves around what she didn’t write). The books are fine as they are, but it’s just bad professional form to throw readers this kind of curve ball, especially in such a way that it’s basically inarguable: you either must accept what she says or reject it outright. (In the flipped polarities of this new game, will the slash fanfic be forced to portray Dumbledore as hetero?)

    True enough about Lucas. A similar logic probably applies to edited material like those in DVD extras and director’s cuts: it rarely forces us into binary rulings on canonicity. A difference of the cinematic artifact/signifier over that of print?

    Finally, your point about creative writing teachers rings true — goodness knows I’ve had enough students protest that what they really *meant* to say in a paper was such and such, to which I can only reply, then why didn’t you say it?

  3. My other favorite is, “it wasn’t my fault [or better yet, “it was’t intentional”] that I only wrote 4 pages instead of the required 6, and I don’t want you to think I wasn’t paying attention to instructions.”

    As for Dumbledore as hetero fic, check out David Lavery’s Teleparody, an edited collection of reviews of mythical books on popular culture. Will Brooker has a hilarious one of straight Brit lads “poaching” the 70s Batman so as to make it straight.

  4. Eee, not that I generally try to correct my professors on things that fall under their expertise, but HP fandom is something I’ve been doing at an intense level since I was 11, so…

    No, slash writes won’t write about Dumbledore as straight — the point of slash isn’t to go against the perceived orientation, it’s more to go against heteronormativity and to explore aspect of a character that wouldn’t be in play in a heterosexual relationship. Jo’s “outing” of Dumbledore actually gave the character a serious fanfiction life; before this, very few people wrote romantic fic involving Dumbledore and those who did did so facetiously. I have to disagree with your interpretation of Dumbledore’s orientation as “so completely offstage that it’s tantamount to not existing at all”, since I and a number of other people closed book 7 and immediately started arguing for Dumbledore/Grindelwald; there were about three LJ communities within a week, far before Jo’s announcement. Finally, I don’t understand why people insist on questioning the canonicity of this particular statement and not of anything else Jo has ever said about the books that she’s never written in them. These things are all over her website! No one says that just because she never mentioned in canon that Hagrid was in Hufflepuff, they have a perfect right to put him in Slytherin. It’s not that they don’t have a right to do this — playing with canon is the entire point of fic and ergo necessarily involves disregarding parts of canon — it’s that their right does not spring from the fact that that particular piece of canon is external to the books.

    Finally, something that people forget a lot in discussions about this is that Jo *didn’t* need to say Dumbledore was gay. She didn’t put it in the books because she felt it was irrelevant to the plot, which was about Harry! Jo creates extremely fully-realized characters, but puts only a fraction of what she knows about them in the books, because the books themselves weren’t supposed to be a Tolkien-esque exhaustive creation of another world — we have to wait for the encyclopedia for that. She only ever “outed” him because someone asked her at a talk, point blank, if Dumbledore had ever fallen in love, and she never lies to us, or at least not intentionally. Why do we assume that someone’s orientation should be evident by looking at their actions in a completely non-sexual context?

    (Also, have a good Thanksgiving!)

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