There’s an old billboard to the East of Vancouver, British Columbia. Posted just beside the intersection of Glen Drive and East Hastings Street, its usual job is to display various inoffensive advertisements for passers-by to ponder upon as they go about their business. But on September 12th 2020, its existence became a point of contention for one of the biggest sociopolitical divides of the 21st century – the fight for transgender rights.
Chris Elston and Amy Hamm – self-proclaimed members of the so-called Gender Critical movement – paid for the billboard to display the message ‘I heart J.K. Rowling’ in support of the Harry Potter author’s controversial comments on trans people. The sign barely lasted 24 hours before being taken down following a request from Counsellor Sarah Kirby-Yung who told local news outlets that “the clear intent here is to incite hate against the trans community to incite division.”
To the laymen, this fervour of resentment for a sign may seem odd, but to those who are aware of J.K. Rowling’s past when it comes to discussing trans people, including a Twitter thread comparing trans healthcare to gay conversion therapy, know all too well the bleak, looming shadow that this sign casts across the fight for equality like a waning eclipse.
For this reason, Avalanche Software of WB Games who are currently developing the Harry Potter RPG Hogwarts Legacy, announcing that it would feature the ability to create trans characters has left LGBTQ+ identifying people and allies in sheer bewilderment. The news came from Bloomberg that the game’s character creator would feature separate options for voice and body type regardless of the gender placement the player had chosen.
So why all the backlash? After all, the company itself clarified in an FAQ on their website that J.K. Rowling wasn’t directly involved with the game’s development. Not to mention that to some measure, it was the disgruntled developers who, according to journalist Jason Schreier in a Twitter thread, “had been pushing hard for this [feature], uncomfortable with Rowling’s position and rattled by the effects she has had on a game they’ve put a lot into.”
A chunk of the controversy has to do with the notion of performative inclusivity. While it’s clear that the company is trying to distance itself from the author, her recent actions inescapably loom over Hogwarts Legacy since it’s an adaptation of her own work. It’s a strategy that certain LGBTQ+ activists have dubbed ‘rainbow capitalism’ – brands use representation and good-willed activism to sell products to marginalised groups, while a percentage of the profits go to those who are actively mitigating their rights.
This term isn’t new, nor does it pertain to media conglomerates alone. Take Disney for example; a company that boasts about being forefront creators of progressive, diverse media for anyone and everyone to enjoy. This is a company that also owns Fox News, a notorious 24-hour conservative news and opinion channel that uses homophobic and anti-immigration rhetoric on and off the air.
These shared directorates create this confusing façade of media progressivism. Just as the feminist empowerment scene in Avengers: Endgame will always be polluted by Disney’s willingness to work with a man who said feminists ‘need to be quiet and do what you’re told,’ so too will Hogwarts Legacy’s step to facilitate trans identities be polluted by the woman whose views have ‘caused significant damage to equality in the UK’ according to an annual review by ILGA Europe.
It’s pertinent to mention that performative inclusivity isn’t always malicious, nor is it always intentional. Avalanche Software’s attempt at representation differs from Disney in that it has chosen to include this feature as an act of defiance to the beliefs of who they are working with. That in itself is problematic for a number of reasons, but there’s a distinction between those who choose to do it, versus those who do it out of necessity.
That certainly doesn’t excuse the controversy – an LGBTQ+ activist might say that the truest form of protest would have been to refuse association with an author tainted by anti-trans rhetoric outright – but in an industry where conglomeration has been violently increasing due to the pandemic and brand recognition is more important than ever, you have to play with the cards you’re dealt.
Instead of complacency and avoidance in the midst of the raging war on trans rights, Avalanche instead made the declaration that at the very least, their on-the-ground development teams believe that trans lives are human lives.