JK Rowling has a track record when it comes to speaking out. She has used her substantial voice loudly, publicly and liberally to defend women, amplify minority voices, highlight deserving causes and rail against right-wing beliefs.
That’s why her silence over the casting of Johnny Depp in her Fantastic Beasts franchise had become increasingly deafening, especially as fans have urged her to say something.
The world’s most famous author had been uncharacteristically quiet as debates raged over whether Depp was right for a family-friendly movie franchise (or indeed any film) after the accusations made by his ex-wife Amber Heard of “excessive emotional, verbal and physical abuse” during their marriage.
After seeing photographic evidence of Heard’s bruised face, witness her be granted a temporary restraining order and – despite those who accused her of lying and money-grabbing – pledge to donate her divorce settlement to charity, it is difficult to view Depp away from the shadow of domestic abuse.
Rowling had also continued to keep schtum last week, as Fantastic Beasts director David Yates released a catastrophic statement supporting Depp and praising him as “full of decency and kindness”.
Now, under considerable pressure to comment, she has finally spoken and, when the statement did come, it wasn’t what many of her fans expected or hoped for.
In it, Rowling acknowledges that there were “legitimate questions and concerns” over Depp and expressed her frustration that she had not been able to voice her opinion earlier, presumably due to legal and financial reasons. But she ultimately defends both Depp and the decision not to recast him.
“The agreements that have been put in place to protect the privacy of two people, both of whom have expressed a desire to get on with their lives, must be respected,” she wrote. “Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.”
The backlash on social media was swift from fans who feel let down. With Depp only featuring in the final moments of the first Fantastic Beasts movie, many reasonably concluded that recasting would not have been too much trouble for the studio. After all, Ridley Scott managed to snip around Kevin Spacey in his almost-completed All The Money In The World, pop in Christopher Plummer and only delay the release by three days.
We hold women like JK Rowling to an almost impossibly high standard, but it is one that she has frequently met
Heard herself also appeared to respond by reposting the joint statement from when she and Depp finalised their divorce settlement: "Our relationship was intensely passionate and at times volatile, but always bound by love. Neither party has made false accusations for financial gain. There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm. Amber wishes the best for Johnny in the future. Amber will be donating financial proceeds from the divorce to a charity."
Incidentally, this time, Heard included an additional caption: “For the record, this was our FULL joint statement.To pick&choose certain lines & quote them out of context, is not right.Women, stay strong. [sic]”
Ultimately, it feels like Rowling has betrayed the values she had seemed to stand by. The phenomenal reach and impact of Harry Potter has created a generation of young people who have grown up with their own lives and the lives of the young wizards inextricably intertwined. Those people have learnt formative lessons about empathy, equality, loss and forgiveness from Rowling’s books. Children who have been lonely, bullied, abused and downtrodden have found solace in Harry’s journey to acceptance and happiness.
It is a narrative of good versus evil, and many readers look to Rowling’s words for guidance on what is right and what is wrong. Her own story has become as iconic as the one she wrote. She is one of the world’s wealthiest and most famous women. She has donated millions to charity. She is seen as a triumph over adversity and poverty.
After the Weinstein scandal was exposed, Rowling tweeted: “If the only thing preventing a man committing sexual assault is the presence of witnesses, he's too dangerous to be at liberty.” She has called Trump supporters “Death Eaters” and defended women like Madonna, Serena Williams and Mhairi Black against Twitter trolls.
Yet here, Rowling vaguely says “conscience isn't governable by committee” – and in alluding to how the “privacy” of Depp and Heard should be respected, the statement veers into the dangerous territory of confining partner violence to the domestic sphere. It implies that what goes on behind closed doors should stay that way, despite that very notion contributing to the silencing of women’s voices.
For Rowling to defend Depp feels incongruous and positions her with voices that disbelieve women – voices that she would normally oppose. It bears hallmarks of Lena Dunham being vocal about women’s rights to be heard while simultaneously refusing to believe the accuser of one of her writers.
We hold women like JK Rowling to an almost impossibly high standard, but it is one that she has frequently met. This time, though, it’s hard not to feel let down, especially as a woman. What an opportunity there was for one of the world’s most powerful voices to side with the victims of powerful men, rather than fall in line.
The quote many have used in response to Rowling’s statement is one of her own: “Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.” It’s unlikely that writing this statement was the easy thing for Rowling, nor probably were the discussions that have undoubtedly been taking place behind the scenes for many months. But, however carefully worded, it certainly isn’t the right thing either.