Friday, October 26

Outing The Media: J.K. Rowling

As hard as it is to imagine, one of the hottest topics on the Internet is the sexuality of a fictitious character. For days now, new media and mainstream media have all weighed in with opinions on the “Outing of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore,” the headmaster of Hogwarts from the Harry Potter series.

It doesn’t really matter. And yet, it seems to matter.

The outing came seven days ago at New York City's Carnegie Hall. A young fan made the mistake of asking whether the headmaster had ever been in love.

"Dumbledore is gay, actually," said J.K. Rowling before revealing Dumbledore loved a fellow wizard, Gellert Grindelwand.

So, the correct answer might have easily been “yes, …” making a better distinction, perhaps, between love and orientation. But Rowling did not, and now the topic she chose is overshadowing any other merit of her books, good, bad, or indifferent. And that’s a shame. She hasn’t been able to go anywhere without it being asked about again, and again, and again. Her choice, I suppose.

Brands are fragile things, even for fictitious characters. Not that there is anything wrong with Dumbledore being gay, but Rowling has only succeeded in confusing an identity that fans have established. It could have been any other shocker; she could have said he was a Republican or Democrat. It doesn’t really fit because orientation isn’t what the stories are about.

From a communication standpoint, the dramatic brand shift for Dumbledore isn’t so much about him being gay as it is about a shift in his established brand. If you do not believe me that dramatic shifts mean something, ask Sen. Larry Craig.

Or maybe, as a complete contrast, we can look at Ellen DeGeneres. Nobody cares about her orientation anymore; they do seem to care about her joviality, which came apart over the Mutts & Moms controversy. In Canada, the brand bamboozling revolved around St├ęphane Dion.

My point is that reactions in the media and around the Web have less to do with what was announced and more to do with the degree of separation from what seemed to have been established. We might all keep that in perspective.

For example, Mark Harris, writing about Potter for Entertainment Weekly (linked above), made a poignant remark. He pointed readers to a story by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation that shows only 1.1 percent of characters on scripted network series are gay, which he says is an underrepresentation of their presence in the population. Maybe so or maybe not.

There are many shows where orientation doesn’t even enter the equation. Do we really need to know the orientation of every character? Big Bird, maybe?

This time around, I think Bill O’Reilly might have called it right. Rowling seems to be a provocateur. After years of claiming she has difficultly with the press, is "thin-skinned," and dislikes the fickle nature of reporting, none of that seems to be an issue any longer. It’s invited.

In many ways, Rowling’s revelation is a bigger brand shift than the one imposed on Dumbledore. With a single sentence, she demonstrated the sometimes triviality of reporting today; and proven she isn’t all that thin-skinned after all.

It makes you wonder. Who was really outed after Carnegie Hall?



Sweet Tea on 10/26/07, 11:46 AM said...

Excellent article!! I love Harry Potter.
This reminds me of the very old Anita Bryant/orange juice scandal. Of course, I'm not surprised at the buzz.
Buzz aside, what difference does it make? None to me.
Thanks Rich.

Rich on 10/26/07, 12:25 PM said...

Me too Jane. What raises my eyebrow is that everyone wants to make Dumbledore into the poster wizard for causes on both sides of the isle. All kids really want is entertainment.


Anonymous said...

I think this is Rowling's way of tricking everyone into reading the books again, looking for hints and subtext.

Brilliant insights, Rich. I'm jealous.

Anonymous said...

I love your article, Rich. I am always amazed how the trivial can overshadow everything else. Your article provide insight on why this happens. We all have expectation and it becomes news when that expectation is challanged. In the end nothing changes. They are still great stories.

Rich on 10/26/07, 4:38 PM said...


Hmmm ... maybe I need to buy a new highlighter.


Thanks so much. Nice and tidy brands. That's what it seems the media, and often the public, wants.



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