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General Harry Potter, Cthulhu, and D&D: The Art and the Artist

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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
A topic that has been regularly arising recently has concerned the continuing use of certain material; whether that material is itself offensive in some way, or whether that material comes from an artist (an author) who has views that are offensive. Notably, a recurrent conversation is usually had regarding H.P. Lovecraft, the Cthulhu mythos, and the presence of same in D&D (Great Old Ones, Appendix N, etc.) as well as wider popular culture.

I think that is a useful conversation to have! But I also think it would be helpful and illuminating to look at it in the context of a more recent controversy that has not been discussed as frequently here (although it has gotten a great deal of coverage elsewhere); specifically, J.K. Rowling and the Potterverse. Given that Rowling is still alive and the Potterverse has a huge mindshare for younger fantasy fans, it seems that this would be an appropriate lens to look at some issues that continue to pop up.

Please note that I am not prescribing any particular opinions, and simply posting some thoughts that I continue to wrestle with. Please do not use this post as a launching point to write about anti-inclusive content. Enworld's Faq is here: Terms and rules There is a section titled, "Keep it inclusive". Thank you!

I'm going to go through the following sections in my post; as usual, I will name the sections according to whatever bizarre reference happens to be going through my head at the time.

A. A brief background about the J.K. Rowling Controversy, and the ubiquity of the Potterverse
B. An overview of the offensive and/or problematic nature of most artists
C. A discussion of the general issues of separating art and artists (text and author)
D. Thoughts on why individual and collection action matters, and why it doesn't
E. Concluding opinions on the relevance to D&D


A. Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes; that way, when you criticize them, you are a mile away and you have their shoes.

From approximately 2000 on, the Potterverse was fantasy. Yes, yes, Tolkien, the Lord of the Rings movies, and all that. But I hope that I don't need to go into a long digression about how the Harry Potter books were the lingua franca for a new generation. There were the books, which were devoured by kids and adults alike. The blockbuster movies. An entire theme park in Orlando. Video games. The Potterverse, for many people, came to define substantial parts of what we think of as fantasy. It has wizards and wands and monsters, oh my! And it all came from J.K. Rowling. A writer who was seen by many, and championed by many, as a hero.

...and then came 2020. Well, there had been some glimmers before it, but 2020 was when the controversy happened. I am not going to cover it in detail (you can google JK Rowling Controversy if you'd like), but Rowling has been embroiled in an endless series of issues regarding her continued statements regarding gender and trans issues, which culminated in the publication of a book (Trouble Blood) that has a plotline that involves a .... a killer who dresses like women in order to murder them.

So given this background, the controversy seems clear. If you are trans, or a trans ally, the harm being done by Rowling is inarguable. You can't say that it isn't present in any of her works given that she just wrote a whole book premised on the idea. You can't say that she isn't "worse" than the average for the time, given the number of people (including most of the stars of her film and other authors like Stephen King) who have spoken out against her. You can't say that she isn't causing harm, given that her writings on the issue have been used by politicians to defeat bills that would support trans equality. So a lot of people are struggling with this, especially fans of the Potterverse. And we see this in all sorts of discussions; the recent release of a RPG Video Game (Hogwarts Legacy) is accompanied by a FAQ that states that JK Rowling was not involved with the game, and goes on to discuss Warner Bros.' position on inclusivity - of course, there are still those who want nothing to do with it if it involves the Potterverse, or those who would buy it if no royalties go to Rowling, and still others who believe you shouldn't ascribe to the artists who created the game the views of Rowling.

....it gets complicated. Because Rowling is flawed, as are most people. As are most artists.


B. If you look carefully at my lips, you'll realize that I'm actually saying something else. I'm not actually telling you about the several ways I'm gradually murdering Joan.

People .... people suck. That is a general truism. Even the best of them. Mother Teresa? Might want to research that. Your friend Jake? Cheated on his first wife. And so on. No one is perfect- it's just that the more famous the person, the more likely we are to have documented instances of them being .... imperfect. To go to H.P. Lovecraft, for example, the reason we know he was an odious racist was because, unlike the millions upon millions of odious racists at the time, he wrote about his beliefs! And why did he do that, and why are those writings saved? Because he's a writer.

Picasso? Terrible to women. Wagner? Racist. Hemingway? Chauvinist and racist. Burroughs (W.S.)? Degenerate junkie that killed his wife. I could keep going on, but the idea should be clear. I remember talking to a friend once, who said that they could never listen to David Bowie again because they had read a biography of him and he had slept with underage girls in the 70s. I remember thinking to myself- if you're going to rule out music produced by rock musicians in the 60s and 70s who engaged in intercourse with underage groupies, you're not going to be listening to the classic rock station anymore. It's like the person who remarks that they are shocked to discover casual misogyny in a 1980s teen film- were you never paying attention? If you rule out antisemitism and racism and misogyny (not to mention homophobia or transphobia or dislike of other religions), there are almost certainly no artists left from the past. The only question is whether it has been documented, and (perhaps) how severe it might be.

And all of this is before we even get into the issue of even should be disqualifying offensive behavior on the part of the artist? For example, H.P. Lovecraft was a racist, and wrote about it. But it does not appear that he ever acted in a criminal manner, or that his writing were used as propaganda to hurt people, or that he participated in lynching or other racist acts of his time. How would that compare to a Burroughs (shot wife) or Roman Polanski (rape) or a Michael Jackson (ahem) or a Picasso (repeatedly abused women) or even an Anne Perry (best-selling writer who has killed someone when she was a teenager).

...actions, words, views ... current and past, they all make up a melange of indistinct issues.


C. The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.

"The author is dead," is a rallying cry that is known to any college student who has taken a critical theory course. Personally, I am a strong believer in it- when it comes to criticism. And yet ... it is difficult to separate the text from the author, the art from the artist. The entire concept of the director as auteur (born in Cahier du Cinema) that championed directors like Hitchcock and the French New Wave speaks to that- there is something necessary and individual about specific artists. No one would confuse a Wes Anderson film with a Stanley Kubrick one, for instance. Dostoyevsky is not Tolstoy, and Hemingway is certainly not Henry Miller. If someone tells me that they are watching Primal, I will assume that they like Tartakovsky.

...and yet, to ascribe everything in a text to the author is the way of madness. In some cases, that is because the work is collaborative- music is not just the artist, but also the producers, for example, and movies have cinematographers, and sound designers, and editors, and costume designers, and numerous others who put their own individual touches into the film in addition to the director. But even when it is the work of an individual- a painting, or a book, it can still be madness to read the sins of the author into the work. Picasso was a terrible misogynist, which is sometimes reflected in his paintings, yet Guernica (to use one example) is free of that.

But the issue of often goes deeper than that. Good art often provokes, offends, or at a minimum shocks the people of their time. We celebrate Lenny Bruce not for his tragically short life, or even funny humor, but because he demanded that his art be heard despite official censorship. Burroughs (W.S.) had his book, Naked Lunch, banned in much of the United States for its explicit content, including homosexuality, yet it is often considered one of the best works of the 20th century. While it seems quaint today, Rites of Spring caused outrage and protests (if not the riot that some state) when it was first performed. I note this only because it is easy to be outraged and demand the removal of things you don't agree with because they offend the orthodoxy (whatever that might be) of the time, but it is never clear what that propriety might be.

Finally, the text/author issue can always run into the "Air Supply problem". Let me explain- once, a long time ago, I knew a group of people. And every now and then, we would listen to Air Supply ("I'm all out love" etc.) because we thought it was hilarious. We enjoyed Air Supply ... but in an ironic fashion. We would talk about how, "Air Supply is the greatest band ever," and "They should re-name the Grammies, the Airies" and so on. One of our friends, Jason, would always listen to Air Supply with us. Over a course of several months, we began to realize something with growing horror. Jason loved Air Supply. He wasn't enjoying Air Supply ironically ... quelle horreur ... we was just loving them! He was making his love for Air Supply, out of nothing at all! Air Supply was the one that he loved ...

Ugh, anyway, the Air Supply problem is a generalize version of Poe's Law. Sarcasm, parody, irony, black humor, and so on ... many times, a text will mean the opposite of what it appears to mean on the surface. For that matter, sometimes art will traffic in problematic tropes in order to dispel them; is American History X a racist, or anti-racist film? Is Fight Club fascist or a send-up of hypermasculinity? Does Tropic Thunder traffic in blackface and ableist tropes for jokes, or mock the way Hollywood and actors exploit these tropes (or both)? Is Spinal Tap misogynistic (Big Bottoms) or against it? And what do you do with Blazing Saddles? I don't have the answers to those questions, but they are worth asking.

And the reason that those questions are worth asking is because you end up with a fundamental divide, at times. There are those for whom the only measure that matters is the offense caused. For others, the proper measure is the intent to cause offense. The author's intent ... the text itself ... these are often intertwined within these conversations.


D. There’s an old Chinese proverb: "Lies are like tigers, they are bad." I guess it’s more poetic in Mandarin.

A while back, I used to give to a particular charity. A friend asked me about it, saying, "Why do you give to that charity, Snarf? There are so many other more important things to give to!" And while I understood what they were saying, it didn't matter. This charity was important to me. And if I didn't do something, who would?

There was a great show called The Good Place that recently ended its run; if you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it. It is rare to get so much philosophy in your sitcom. Anyway, one issue that they broached (without too many spoilers) is the interconnectedness of morality. Essentially, if we are on the hook, by our connections, for every possible bad thing ... then because the world is so inter-connected, we can't exist in the world without immorality. Too high-level? Okay, think of all the electronics you have purchased. Your iPhone or Android device. Your computer. Monitor. TV. Now, imagine being responsible for all the labor practices of not just the company that made it, but also all the subcontractors, and their subcontractors .... and so on. But wait, there's more! The shipping companies that brought it to you. The mining that got the rare elements for certain parts. The plastic bits that end up in the ocean (they don't get recycled). The oil companies that get the oil to make the plastic bits ... it gets overwhelming quickly.

And it applies, in much the same way, when discussing some of the issues for the art and the artists. Do you want to show how much you disagree with Rowling's pubic stance by not purchasing Hogwarts Legacy? Well, what about the developers? If the company that is actually making the game inclusive, should they be punished because the original (removed) author has views you don't agree with? Should you boycott Batman because it contains both references to HP Lovecraft (Arkham) and has a storied connection to Frank Miller (who has issues of his own)?

That's where we get into the issue of individual and collective action. In this world, we want positive change to happen. And given the capitalist underpinnings, the best way to do that, many times, is to vote with our wallets. To not buy things we disapprove of, and to purchase things we approve of; moreover, to tell companies what we are doing. "I am not buying your products because they demean (this group)." The issue is, we are all hypocrites to greater or lesser degrees. We will campaign for the environment while driving an SUV (or flying in a plane). We will bemoan the use of plastic bags in a store while remaining blissfully unaware of the uselessness of so-called recycling of plastic. We will talk about this director or that singer being objectionable, solely because we aren't aware of what other artists have done.

.... and that's okay. In the end, we can only do what we believe to be right and correct. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and trying to be better in some things doesn't require being the best at everything. It does, at times, require patience for the way that other people view the issues.

There are Harry Potter fans that still like the Potterverse while not appreciating Rowling, while there are those that cannot separate the two. Neither is incorrect.


E. Yeah, well, that's just, like, your opinion man.

D&D was created from a specific place and time- 70s America. Because of that, early D&D necessarily contains artifacts that are of its time; whether its the "cheesecake" art that made the game less welcoming to women, or the causal exoticism of the other (such as descriptions of cannibals and savages in certain areas), or even the gender-based maxed scores. Today, D&D (and 5e) incorporates a much wider range of influences while retaining a link to the past of the game. We continue to struggle with what aspects of D&D are necessary to maintain that continuity (to make it "D&D") and what aspects are necessary to throw into the dustbin of history.

Most recently, I observed this play out in two debates here which I would contrast. The first is on "race" in D&D, and the second is on the continuing use of Cthulhu tropes. I think that it is worth examining both of them, because they are diametrically different and arguably call for different approaches.

For race (ancestry, folk, lineage), we have the issue that while it was not intended to be offensive at the beginning, it is increasingly seen as anachronistic. I would say that, IMO, D&D has traditionally been very inclusive in terms of making humanity a monolithic single race. That said, even the term "race" can easily rankle today, and combining it with static bonuses and the like (all of a "race" is the same) can reinforce stereotypes, however unwittingly. I can understand a desire to move away from that term and game usage.

On the other hand, I would disagree with those who would argue for removing any possible reference to the Cthulhu mythos, root and branch, from D&D as I have seen argued here. Not only because it would cause interminable squabbles as to what it is (what aberrations and other aspects of cosmic horror are we to remove?), but also because there are times when you can remove the creation from the creator; are we to edit Apocalypse Now because it contains a snippet of Die Walkure and Wagner could be a nasty piece of work?

In short, I think that these conversations are hard, but necessary, and there isn't a categorical imperative on most of these issues. We should be striving to be better, but cognizant of the complexity.
 
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jasper

Rotten DM
A. Skip.

B. Who to say what is offensive today or tomorrow? And how dare you tell me what I find offensive. You are not the boss of me.

C. Author and Works separation are two different things. But if you loudly denounce the author you better darn sure better not be using their works to make money. If you don’t care one way or the other, have fun ripping off the dead author. If you ripping off the live artist; pay them their share.

D. I agree with you. You support who you want with your yuan, I will support who I want with my dollar. But if you get on your high horse harping on what I spending money on. Well, I buying a seltzer water bottle and aiming to get the water up your nose.

E. The Fantasy Race equals x real race. I just think some college kids want to yank our chain and change race to the current cool college word of the day. OK I think fantasy race equal x real race is just BS. Same Barracks BEER BS new BSER. Some BS are going out of the way to be offended. But some of the arguments supporting both sides were very well written.

The cheese and beef cake art have just been updated to the new acceptable market standards.
 

It is fine to like problematic things, it is fine to like art made by terrible people and it is fine to take influence from such art. But what I personally am not comfortable doing is financially supporting people who use their fame and fortune to spread hatred. And that makes Rowling a completely different matter to me than Lovecraft. Lovecraft is long dead and pretty much everyone agrees that his views on race were terrible, Rowling is very much alive and using her considerable influence to promote bigotry. So I will not spend one cent that has even a remotest chance of supporting that. Perhaps in hundred years Potter books are cherished fantasy classics and Rowling's odious views are just an unpleasant footnote with no real power. But today they cannot be overlooked.
 
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Do you know? My opinion is some things today are "normal" in the fiction in the future will be seen through different eyes, and those generations will say that fiction is not politically correct in the same way today "Tintin in the Congo", Disney's "A dinosaur is missing", the crows of the cartoon "Dumbo", "Gone with the wind", or the famous sitcom "Friends" isn't enough politically correct now when it was very liberal in its time. And now sorry but I have to go to Camelot to kick-ass some red-paladins who were telling spoilers of the handmaid's tale.

Take care with the fallacy of the false middle point. Any times because anybody doesn't agree you this doesn't mean him to be a zealot or a bad person, but his point of view is different. Today people is tagged too fast or easily.

Do you want to use the RPGs and the speculative fiction to promote positive values? Then defend the respect of the human dignity and allow characters to find solutions by means of social skills.

* I don't like nor the racism neither those annoying kenders.
 


billd91

Hobbit on Quest
The issue of the author can be additionally complex when they're generally on the right side but have a smaller set of views that are problematic (JK Rowling, for example). Is all of her philanthropy for nothing because she has a transphobic views? I'm not saying it should get her credit so we all overlook her transphobia, but exactly how spotless do people have to be?
 


It's an incredibly complicated and personal issue, deciding when a creator's flaws outweigh their creations. I generally wouldn't judge a person for where they draw their lines in the sand, but I would judge a person for refusing to acknowledge those flaws, or naturally, even embracing them as correct.

I mean, I listen to black metal bands (murder/arson), have read a ton of Burroughs - William S. and Edgar Rice (murder/white savior tropes), Tolkien (racism, colonialism), R.E. Howard (racist, sexist, even if he did change in the course of his short life). There are a ton more, I'm sure. The past is littered with terrible people.

I do think that the conversation changes when the person is still alive and able to financially benefit from their works. Unlike the dead, they have the option to become better people and aren't. Rowling has only doubled down, has not even tried to understand the hurt her words are causing.
 

Sir Brennen

Adventurer
E. The Fantasy Race equals x real race. I just think some college kids want to yank our chain and change race to the current cool college word of the day. OK I think fantasy race equal x real race is just BS. Same Barracks BEER BS new BSER. Some BS are going out of the way to be offended. But some of the arguments supporting both sides were very well written.

I highly recommend reading parts 1 & 2 of the blog posts below. Just might change your perspective.

 

TheSword

Legend
Supporter
There is a difference between having an unpalatable opinion that you share with friends / tweet (the public) and writing a book which will make you millions by exploiting an unpalatable opinion.

That said, I don’t think cross dressing in order to kill someone or being a trans murderer is automatically unpalatable as you seem to be suggesting. Silence of the Lambs is an amazing film, not lessened by the fact that we would now consider the lesser of its serial killers trans.

Beasts in Velvet is an excellent fantasy book about a trans murderer.

There is nothing offensive about these ideas. In fact, it’s pretty-out-of-left field to suggest trans people can’t be murderers or serial killers

Il not awareof any transphobic content in the Harry Potter universe.
 
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Separating art from the artist is a conversation that is being had more and more these days (such as around the song, "Baby's It's Cold Outside"). As the OP said, we are all hypocrites to some extent. Sometimes I think it comes down to "picking your battles", so to speak. For dead artists and the "classics" we now understand (or at least, I hope) they're problematic views/actions, etc. We can learn from them.

For living artists, such as Rowling, for some it is a matter of, "Is the artist earning royalties if I buy X?" Not going to lie, I was of the HP generation. I aged with the characters, and, as a dyslexic, I can say that those books changed my life. I still love HP, but I'm not going to lie, learning she was an outspoken TERF was a blow to me. HP has meant a lot to youth in the LGBTQ+ community, as well, and it can be devastating to learn the creator of those works doesn't actually have your back.

It does not mean you have to stop liking Harry Potter (or whatever the work is), but I do think we need to be aware. This does not mean digging into the social, religious, or political views of every author (for example) we read. Many authors use their works to express their viewpoints to some extent, whether it's overt or more subtle. However, when an author uses their works to project their dislike for a certain group, whether that's religious, gender, etc, then it can become problematic. I believe that representation in literature is important. This does not mean every single book has to have it, but there is a difference between simply not writing about characters who are on the spectrum, and writing about them but having them be the villains or the character who is somehow "wrong".
 


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