The Case Against ‘Dumbledoring’: It’s Time For Real LGBTIQ Representation
For everyone sick of Dumbledore's invisible sexuality.
From Dumbledore in Harry Potter to Holtzmann in Ghost Busters, there’s a weird and troubling new trend in which characters who are canonically confirmed as gay, are having their sexuality erased on screen.
For a comedy about spooky ghosts, Ghostbusters punched above its weight in terms of getting people all riled up about stuff that isn’t jokes and/or spooky ghosts. From manbabies having their youth destroyed by the vagina-heavy film to the recent news that Kate McKinnon’s breakout character Dr Jillian Holtzmann is definitely a lesbian, people are having strong reactions to the film.
The latter news may have even convinced every queer lady in the world that there is in fact a Goddess.
I thought I already had my Kate McKinnon sexual awakening but damn
— Jaya Saxena (@jayasax) July 18, 2016
Pretty sure I would have avoided a lot of teenage confusion if I'd have seen Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters. Just saying.
— Rose Johnstone (@RoFloJohnstone) July 24, 2016
Yet, as exciting as it was for director Paul Feig to confirm this, the way this happened was fairly troubling. It’s part of a common practice I’m going to call ‘Dumbledoring’.
Damnit, JK Rowling
‘Dumbledoring’ is named after Dumbledore from the incredibly popular Harry Potter franchise of books and films. In both, Dumbledore is an old and mighty wizard whose sexuality is never explicitly referenced, although if we’re stretching, there are a lot of wizards who are obsessed with his special wand.
Towards the end of the series, in 2007, J.K. Rowling confirmed that Dumbledore was in fact a gay man, and that fans could read back through the series and pick up clues of a tragic relationship he had in his youth with a wizard named Grindelwald. At the time it was seen as a positive move for LGBTIQ representation by progressives, considering how iconic both the character and the Harry Potter series were. It also caused a brief storm of controversy, as homophobes reacted negatively to the idea of a homosexual wizard (only traditional nuclear families in MY make-believe world of wonder and magic, thank you).
Rowling justified the move as she felt Dumbledore’s sexuality was simply not necessary to confirm in the plot; she is on record telling fans: “I would have told you earlier if I knew it would make you so happy”. But no matter how well-intentioned the post-script clarification was, it did bring about a troubling juxtaposition: would she have been so leery of confirming his sexuality if he hadn’t been gay? It seems that because heterosexuality is seen as ‘normal’ as the base level, neutral sexuality setting, if Dumbledore had been in love with a female Grindelwald, there wouldn’t have been an issue confirming it once and for all, instead of beating around the bush, and leaving it merely hinted at (if that).
Updated: since originally writing this article, it looks like J.K. Rowling has failed to put her money where her mouth is, after the director of the new Fantastic Beasts sequel (a prequel to the Harry Potter movies) has announced that Dumbledore will not be “explicitly” gay in that film either. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald focuses on the relationship between young Dumbledore and young Grindelwald (played by Jude Law and Johnny Depp respectively), but will still not overtly represent their relationship as gay in any way. It shows that it’s very easy to give a nod towards queer communities and then completely fail to come through with any concrete action.
I guess Dumbledore's homosexuality is one of the Fantastic Beasts, cause you need a fucking manual to find it
— Paul (@ATargaryenKing) January 31, 2018
jkr: dumbledore is gay lol
fans: okay but u didn't put it in the source material
jkr: i know lol
*ten years later*
fans: okay you've got a chance to put it in canon now
jkr: hehe lol i know
fans: so are you gonna
jkr: no lol
— lucy (@_avasharpe) January 31, 2018
It’s not just that this is occurring on-screen in fictional representation, in fact, this practice comes direct from a long and harmful history of this happening in the real world.
Erasure And Real Representation
So much of the popular narrative for an LGBTIQ person is about exposure — about coming out. Considering queerness has historically gone through various stages of being taboo, of being something secret and shameful, the notion of being ‘out and proud’ is more than just a feel good positive statement — it’s a confirmation and belief in your sexuality and your rights.
Because of this, there is something offensively halfhearted about this half-outing of a character; a kind of wink to the homos that says ‘this character is one of yours’ without actually putting the work in to create meaningful representation. It hearkens back to the idea of the ‘confirmed bachelor’: the person that everyone knows is gay, whose sexuality nobody in polite society will actually acknowledge. It’s throwing the gays a bone, simply because they can.
JK Rowling: *spends 20 years writing Dumbledore*
JK Rowling: *on the last book* oh guess what he's gay
Internet: oMg incredible
— jude (@VIDEOF4G) July 25, 2016
Of course, it’s no real surprise why Dumbledoring keeps happening. There’s historically been huge pressure from the big film companies that fund Hollywood cinema and network television to keep things as relatable as possible for a mainstream (read: straight) audience. With public attitudes more recently slowly changing to embrace diversity, many creators have tried to retroactively diversify their work.
Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of beloved TV show Gilmore Girls recently confirmed that her plan was always for Melissa McCarthy’s Sookie St James to be a gay woman, but that it just wasn’t something you’d see on a family-friendly network like The WB in 2000. However, only two years later, she felt that representation had grown, but the moment had passed and Sookie was already in a heterosexual relationship. “It was really right at the cusp of when things were starting to turn,” she said. “You know, today everyone would be gay. Lorelai would be gay!”
Considering all the problems that Gilmore Girls has with representation of any sort (being overwhelmingly whitewashed and straight) it will be interesting to see what the new Netflix reboot will change. Part of the problem with Dumbledoring is that it inches towards representation without actually taking any risk.
This is still as important as ever. A recent report by GLAAD indicated that representation of LGBTI people in Hollywood films has actually been decreasing in quality. In their 2016 Studio Responsibility Index, they identified that only 17.5 percent of 126 major movies released in 2015 contained characters who identified as LGBTIQ. Things are better in television — where representation seems to be growing, and shows featuring diverse stories from LGBTIQ characters like Orange is the New Black and Transparent are proving popular with both audiences and critics. However, considering the bar for increased representation has been very low, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
Now Is The Time For Change
While Gilmore Girls can be seen as a product of its time, it’s interesting to see this still playing out in more recent films. Last week, Ghostbusters director Paul Feig confirmed that the reason Kate McKinnon’s character — the eccentric and kickass Dr Jillian Holtzmann — wasn’t specifically identified as being gay, despite definitely being meant to be a lesbian — was because of pressure from Sony Studios. In the interview, he said: “I hate to be coy about it. But when you’re dealing with the studios and that kind of thing…”
That might not seem like a huge deal — Dr Holtzmann still gets to throw some flirty lines around, especially after meeting Kristen Wiig’s character, Dr Erin Gilbert, and is destined to be a queer icon regardless. But, when you think of why Sony is being so conservative, it becomes more blatantly offensive. There are a few common catch-cry that you hear from homophobes who are angry about being labelled homophobes: ‘I don’t mind gay people, just don’t rub it in my face’, ‘do what you like in your own home, but don’t force it into my films/ books/advertisements/sandwiches’. And that’s exactly what this feels like. It’s once again, this notion of forcing homosexuality into the shadows, of making it taboo again.
You might think that this is because Ghostbusters is a children’s film (I mean, is it?) and that therefore it’s an unsuitable battlefield for sexuality representation. Yet, think about the entire, on-running and incredibly thirsty dynamic between Wiig’s Dr Gilbert and Chris Hemsworth’s beefcake secretary Kevin. The joke is that she is desperate to have sex with him, because he is very sexually attractive. Apparently because it is heterosexual attraction, children are fine with it, and will not be tarnished.
Or there is the case of the incredibly high grossing superhero film, Deadpool, one of the only ‘R’ rated films in the genre. Though it’s been acknowledged by both director Tim Miller and actor Ryan Reynolds that the wise-cracking superhero is pansexual, that’s not actually ever textually supported in the film. This is a film, let’s not forget, that features a bunch of gratuitous, heterosexual sex and incredibly gory and graphic violence, including a scene where Deadpool saws off his own hand, and another that follows bullets through exploded skulls. All this is more acceptable than the slightest on-screen representation of any homosexuality.
Ultimately, the problem with the practice of Dumbledoring is that it’s a sop, a half measure. Obviously homophobes, nutty religious groups and arch-conservatives don’t think it’s a problem, and find even the Dumbledore measure upsetting. But for progressives to keep carrying it out and feel like they aren’t part of the problem is an issue. Frankly, the more characters that are Dumbledored, the more insulting the entire practice becomes.
While I do sympathise with creators who have trouble getting their shows and films up in the first place, it’s unlikely that anyone else has the ability to pressure networks and studios into taking the ‘risk’ and ostracising a bunch of bigots. Blockbusters, like Ghostbusters or Deadpool, are guaranteed to rake in millions and can probably afford to take that risk.
In 2016, it shouldn’t be that difficult for them to lead the way by showing a confirmed case of homosexual romance, rather than playing it safe by relying on family-friendly content like torture, gun-violence and procreative sex.
Patrick Lenton is a Staff Writer at Junkee. He tweets @patricklenton.