Gender Fluidity and the Shadow (Part 2)
Bridging the gap between Rowling’s portrayal of butch women and effeminate men creates a quaternity of revelation…
J.K. Rowling caused some controversy with her recent inclusion of a cross-dressing serial killer in her novel Troubled Blood. In her defense, she could claim that novelists have every right to reflect the real world, including rare forms of homicide. She’s even hedged her plot by basing her killer on two real murderers. The fact that she’s at number 1 in the bestseller’s list is enough to remind her that she has a considerable backing of popularity. However, a remarkable uncanny number of cross-dressing murderers turn up in crime fiction (compared to the real world), which does beg an obvious question.
The transgender community fumes at her latest offering, but Troubled Blood is weak in its transphobia compared to her earlier novel, The Silkworm. Here we find a transgender woman, Pippa Midgley, carrying out persistent stalking, posting her excrement through her victim’s home, and attempting to carry out two separate stabbings. Pippa is then pushed to the side as the real killer comes into view; a cisgender woman, Elizabeth Tassel. We are encouraged to get excited that she has ‘mannish hands’ in the same paragraph where she’s described as the murderer.
Forget the unimaginative use of cross-dressing to thrill her readers in Troubled Blood. Elizabeth Tassel is a murderer in direct relation to her having large man-like hands.¹ Never mind what she wears: we’re encouraged to get excited at the idea of a biological woman being a threat just because she happens to have male physical characteristics.
This reminds me of the first time I talked to my mother about her large birthmark. I was a child at the time. My mother’s birthmark was huge and traveled up one entire arm and spread down over one side of her chest. After she explained the medical science of the matter, she then said that women, in particular, were killed in the past — specifically during the witch trials of the 1600s — for having such marks. The ‘mark of the devil’ made them strange and different from other people.
J.K. Rowling is frankly relying on the same superstition to fuel her readers’ disgust of gender fluidity. There’s little doubt that butch women were singled out by the Christian church in the very same manner for persecution. Effeminate men and intersex people likely suffered the same fate.
A quaternity of murder
We can use Rowling’s open (bright) portrayal of her cross-dressing killer to throw light onto Elizabeth Tassel’s hidden (dark) butch qualities. (Pippa Midgley can be left to the side as she’s innocent of any murder).
The shadow typically takes on our gender (for example in dreams), but if shadow and animus/anima should conflate, projection often occurs with the opposite gender (to ourselves) taking the hit. I’d suggest that this is why Rowling’s cross-dresser, Dennis Creed, takes the hit in Rowling’s mythology while Tassel remains hiding in the dark: Rowling’s shadow does not sit well with gender fluidity. Within the myth of Cormoran Strike, Creed is the recent peacock’s tail to Tassel’s previous dark alchemy. So let’s introduce them to each other:
Tassel’s quality of butch is dark and underplayed until it flips at the point of her exposure as a murderer — her large ‘mannish hands curling into claws’. By contrast, Creed’s effeminacy is described openly. Now they are both in prison, we might wonder, do they correspond with each other? After all, in the realms of dreams and the subconscious, characters can take on an autonomous nature.
The cuckoo and the hare
Quaternities turn up throughout Rowling’s mythology. As a short detour, here’s one which bridges Harry Potter to the myth of Cormoran Strike:
Luna appears midway in the Harry Potter myth while Lula turns up in Rowling’s first Cormoran Strike novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling. Twin nicknames even turn up for both characters of a similar nature: Loony and Luly. The animals shown above are totemic guides that turn up with the characters. Animals often turn up in fairy tales as instinctive guides to the unknown: atavistic psychopomps of sorts. The (casual) vacancy which sits between both of Rowling’s myths just had to be bridged. Like the murderous quaternity above, the Luna-Lula quaternity has both light and dark qualities.
A similar theme turns up in Troubled Blood, in which we have two former Playboy Bunnies; Margot Bamborough and Oonagh Kennedy. Bamborough is dark, having been missing for decades, while Kennedy becomes a bright, happy-go-lucky vicar.
It is when we take the bright qualities to cast light on its twin in the dark that we can learn about our hidden fears. With regards to modern, ongoing myths, we can view such quaternities as compass bearings towards wholeness and balance. I think this could be helpful when we’re dealing with a cultural complex such as the rights of transgender people. The alternative is to fall into the collective unconscious along with its bigotry and projection of the shadow.
Modern witch hunts
To any mature person, the fact that Tassel has butch qualities to her physicality would be irrelevant to her being a murderer, but not so with J.K. Rowling. Her conflation of butchness with extreme negativity isn’t just her own Achilles’ heel; it happens to be common to the transphobic community as a whole. Many in the cult have an unacknowledged fear and disgust of effeminate men, which in turn, tends to backfire onto butch women.
Individual butch women, in particular, have become focal points in this cultural complex. One ridiculous case recently saw a butch cisgender woman ‘accused’ of being a transgender woman. Her lesbian partner then came to her ‘defense’ as a witness to her background. She had in fact, been born a woman. When the story of the harassment spread online, naturally any self-respecting feminists who were part of the transgender phobia cult had by this point, cringed off in severe embarrassment.
Rowling meanwhile turns increasingly to victimhood as a defense to her stance on transgender issues. She recently bought a t-shirt from a gender-critical website which states, This Witch Doesn’t Burn.² It seems lost on her that it was her own patriarchal, superstitious Christian movement that led to the original witch burning mania in the first place. In her attempt to reduce the complex topic of trans issues down to a simplistic level, it also escaped her attention that transgender people have been murdered by being burnt to death. The problem is so severe that Amnesty International has turned to the issue to lend both moral and legal support.³
Misogyny leads to the same kind of persecution and death by fire of cisgender women, but the proportion of hatred reserved for the transgender community appears to be higher. J.K. Rowling has written about fantasy ‘witches’ for children, but her perceived personal witch hunt hasn’t led to anyone attempting to burn her to death.
Cormoran Strike — crime fiction or fantasy?
Crime novelists can end up presenting fantasy in their fiction rather than reflecting the real world. The old ‘whodunnits’ in particular were often lacking in authenticity. Most crime fiction acts more as a place for readers to enjoy safe thrills and gawp at dead bodies.
Body count ratios can also go askew. In the real world, female murderers are rare. According to the UK Office of National Statistics, the number of women murderers in the last few years is very low, around 1 in 20. By comparison, Cormoran Strike has a ratio running at 8 in 20.
Cynics will likely crack cheap jokes about equal opportunities. Thoughtful feminists however might ask why Rowling is transferring so much male violence onto women. Why should women carry the weight of so much male-orientated murder on their shoulders? After all, they’re not responsible for the extent of such violence in the real world.
There is a cisgender woman character who turns up fleetingly in Troubled Blood called Theo. She is broad-shouldered and mistaken easily as a man. She is described as ‘dark’ and somewhat mysterious. When I read about her my first thoughts were, does she have trouble using public toilets without being stared at? I wonder who she might be? As a character with an element of gender fluidity, she remains a red herring, lost to the dark and completely undeveloped.
Part one of this article can be found at Curious: Gender Fluidity and the Shadow: J. K. Rowling’s transgender phobia in her novel, The Silkworm.
1 — J.K. Rowling, The Silkworm, p. 441, Sphere, 2014.
2 — For a concise guide at CBR: J.K. Rowling Promotes Anti-Trans Store With ‘This Witch Doesn’t Burn’ T-Shirt
3— Amnesty International on the burning to death of transgender women in Indonesia: Transwoman Burned Alive Must Be Urgently Investigated