Joyce Carol Oates Is Becoming the Unlikely Anti-J.K. Rowling
Thanks to Twitter—and the full-throated support of British and American mainstream media outlets—J.K. Rowling has made her position on trans people abundantly clear. However, there’s another older white cis woman author coming to the defense of trans people: Joyce Carol Oates.
For those of you who didn’t spend your 20s lurking around used bookstores and interning at literary magazines, Oates is the author of classic novels like We Were the Mulvaneys, about a rape survivor who’s ostracized by her seemingly perfect family, and Foxfire, about a girl gang that seeks vengeance against the patriarchy. She’s a five-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a winner of the World Fantasy Award. She’s the kind of prolific writer whose books you can stock up on in said used bookstores, and then devour. Not all of her books are good, but overall, they’re leagues beyond J. K. Rowling’s work.
And lately, she’s been writing banger after banger on Twitter in favor of trans rights. Here’s a sampling of her recent fare:
However, Oates hasn’t always been at the vanguard of human rights. A few years ago, she garnered attention for some tweets that, frankly, Rowling’s ilk would have loved. There was her racist tweet about Chinese food, which she claimed she thought was literally true, and the one in which she speculated that Islam causes rape.
It’s hard to know what to do with this information. Be honest about it, and you give ammunition to transphobes looking to discredit allies. Shy away from it, and you’re spitting in the face of the people Oates hurt with her tweets.
However, Oates’s 2021 tweets about pronouns demonstrate that she can learn from her mistakes. In October 2021, Oates claimed that “they” would never become an accepted pronoun. After many people on Twitter called her out, though, she seemed to think more deeply about the subject, and eventually came out in support of trans people and issued an apology. The incident may have even helped lead to the vocal support she’s giving now.
It’s tempting to think of Oates and Rowling as being in some kind of literary kaiju fight, with the good titan duking it out against the bad one—especially on Twitter, where it looks like everyone is responding to everyone else, and you actually have no idea who is actually talking to whom.
But it’s also a healthy reminder that people are complex and imperfect. Oates seems to see Twitter as a scratchpad where she can play with thoughts she’s still working through, instead of a platform for posting her official statements on the issues of the day. (Honestly, I wish Twitter was more like the former; what we’ve got now isn’t nearly as creative or fun, but just as offensive and hurtful.) Many writers, myself included, have committed some pretty ignorant thoughts to writing, and I hope that she’s taken the time to rethink her more problematic ideas.
When it comes to Oates’ most recent tweets, though, here’s hoping that Rowling apologists will rethink a few things when they see a prominent cis writer advocating unreservedly for trans rights.
(featured image: David Livingston, Getty Images)
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