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The Witch Trials of JK Rowling: A partial tale

Podcast review: Four parts in and the series has had barely any time for transgender voices

You have to wait until half way through the fourth episode before you hear from a transgender woman in the Witch Trials of JK Rowling. And even then, she was not asked to speak to the impact of JK Rowling’s public statements on her own life or even on the experiences of trans people in general.

Perhaps Megan Phelps-Roper was turned down by the myriad trans people she approached to interview. If that was the case, I’d love to have been told who she asked and what their given reasons were. Instead, what we get is something very different entirely with this slickly produced, slippery podcast.

To be fair, The Witch Trials of JK Rowling makes pretty clear what its agenda is, by its very title – Rowling is the persecuted one here, in a pointed nod to the misogynist, gendered persecution of women in 17th century Massachusetts.

Phelps-Roper, who grew up in the famously bigoted Westboro Baptist Church, considers herself particularly well placed to take on the thorny subject of Rowling versus trans people because: “Growing up, it was my community that thought JK Rowling was evil.”

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What The Witch Trials has is access to Rowling. Straight away, we hear her harrowing account of her mother’s premature death, of her life with an abusive husband, of her economic struggles as a single mother. It’s a sympathetic account, unusually candid from such a notoriously private writer. Rowling has experienced serious trauma in her life, and knows what it feels like to live in fear of violence.

From that particular episode one table setting, we move on to her rise to liberal darling, culminating in the delivery of a Harvard commencement address in 2006. She was beloved, largely for her creation of an outsider character who goes from life in a literal closet to a celebrated, powerful, magical wizard with the flick of a wand, so to speak. Marginalised people thought they’d found their champion. The inevitable conservative backlash is the subject of the second episode, with book burnings and allegations of satanism and witchcraft coming from a small minority of largely evangelical zealots. (These, incidentally, are the people Phelps-Roper grew up with.)

For episode three, Phelps-Roper turns her lens on the internet: its early days concurrent with the birth of Harry Potter fandom, in her argument. She steps out of the Rowling drama for a beat to take a look at how the internet seems to coarsen and toxify discourse, and posits that the digital space allowed people to self-identify with greater ease, but also to launch vicious attacks from behind their avatars. We are at an unforgiving moment in our digital discourse, to put it mildly – and it’s not new to question whether, or how, we can talk about any of the things that divide us ideologically.

But if only. If only Phelps-Roper had brought more rigour to her subject. If only she had mustered the same compassion and offered as much airtime for trans people as she does for Rowling. It is, I suppose, possible all this is to come – it’s only four episodes in at time of writing, out of a planned seven – but thus far it feels like a series of strange elisions.

It’s like Phelps-Roper threw the baby out with the bothsidesism here: why is the woman who already has an audience and a platform the only one still talking? The fact that Phelps-Roper has not (at least yet) given fair voice to the argument that Rowling has caused real and serious harm makes this podcast more of a salvo in the culture wars than any judicious examination of the issues at stake. Obliviate.

Fiona McCann

Fiona McCann, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer, journalist and cohost of the We Can’t Print This podcast