Author JK Rowling

Despite Pleas From Fans, OwlCrate Decides to Include Harry Potter Merch Once Again

Choosing fictional characters over human life, again.
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After alarming hints of transphobic activity on Twitter and in her adult mystery series, author JK Rowling made it very clear in June 2020 that she believes trans people and their supporters are anti-woman and harmful to society. Rowling is not only incorrect and injurious, but she continues to actively do harm by promoting her transphobic ideology. In response, several stars of movies based on her books have publicly spoken out and distanced themselves from her transphobia, and businesses and sites that were linked with Harry Potter content—like MuggleNet and The Leaky Cauldron—condemned her anti-trans views

The breaking point for many was after Rowling penned a 3,600-word transphobic manifesto (riddled with factual inaccuracy) to drive home the point of how much she continues to willfully misunderstand trans issues, trans rights, and trans people, and feels oppressed in standing up for her “convictions.” This left many fans, especially trans and gender-nonconforming folk and their allies, in a crisis: how to grapple with the fact that a creator whose work defined many of our lives was now perpetuating and doubling down on hateful rhetoric. A creator that we now know is a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminism), or by the name they prefer, a “gender-critical person.”

At the same time, individuals and fan communities wrestled with what to do with Harry Potter and its author—to make a stand with or against trans life. Larger retailers (like Barnes & Noble) expanded Rowling’s empire, while smaller companies took various routes, with many taking a stance against Rowling and committing to limit coverage related to her works, especially where such attention might bring her further profit or clout.

In addition to the monetary issues with supporting JK Rowling since she still receives royalties (and has new books being published as well as ongoing movie projects like Fantastic Beasts), there is the issue of social capital. Rowling is incredibly wealthy, vocal, and influential. In the flurry of anti-trans legislation trying to be adopted across the U.S. the last few years, at least one Republican cited Rowling when voting against the Equality Act in 2020.

At first, the book-themed, monthly subscription service OwlCrate decided that ceasing support for Rowling was the right option. They expressed sadness that JK Rowling’s actions and acknowledged her words were doing irreparable harm. OwlCrate had been “intertwined with the Harry Potter fandom in everything we do” from its inception, so this was a significant step.

In their June 8th, 2020 Instagram post—shortly after Rowling published her transphobic magnum opus—they stated:

“OwlCrate will no longer include licensed Harry Potter merchandise in our boxes. We do want to give you the heads up that the July OwlCrate box will contain the next mug in our series with Cara Kozik. After that, we have no plans for HP items for the rest of the year.”

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by OwlCrate (@owlcrate)

While they did stick to a Harry Potter-less year, OwlCrate apparently couldn’t make it beyond 14 months.

On August 10th, in an announcement via Instagram and email, director and founder Korrina Ede said that OwlCrate will continue to sell Harry Potter merchandise by continuing their Kozik mug collection. Among other excuses, Ede wrote:

I’ve spent the past year thinking about my own relationship with these books and this fandom, and have ultimately decided that it’s too much a part of me to let it go.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by OwlCrate (@owlcrate)

In making this decision, OwlCrate is keeping like-minded customers, but losing a lot of support in the book community. Many readers, authors, and BookTubers are canceling their boxes and partnerships in response to this decision.

@BooksLibrariesAlsoCats wrote this under OwlCrate’s post:

No one is saying that you have to immediately stop loving HP or get your tattoos removed; if you want to privately continue to love it then go ahead. But using your platform & business to promote it is a whole different thing that sends a very clear message about who is and isn’t welcome in your online space & your clientele.

On August 11th, on the first official mug post, OwlCrate continued to wave away criticism.

We want to make it clear that we love and support the transgender community, and we fully support transgender rights. We know that for some of you reading this, you have made the difficult decision to remove HP from your life due to the author’s personal views. We also know that there are many fans of this series who can’t let go of the positive impact the books/fandom have had on their lives, and feel the community has grown into something separate from the author. We support and respect everyone’s personal decision in how they approach this fandom.

Once again, this statement did not sit well with many who saw it—including many who considered the Harry Potter series formative in their lives.

The email response to those unsubscribing and expressing frustration over OwlCrate’s decision appears to show a desperate attempt to control the narrative. OwlCrate tries to frame the conversation as supporting “small independent artists.” As if these artists don’t paint anything but Harry Potter stuff? OwlCrate could have continued to work with these independent producers in a different capacity or on another project.

screenshot of owlcrate email to someone unsubscribing. (Image: Anonymous Source)

(Image: Anonymous Source)

The email reply from OwlCrate also falsely assumes that JK Rowling has no financial benefit because they are non-licensed items made by fans. While she may not receive a direct penny from OwlCrate, Rowling still reaps from the social capital. The same clout will continue to sell other licensed items and keep bigger businesses investing. And when a service that caters to readers like OwlCrate makes a gesture like this regarding Rowling, that sends a message.

Though this mug collection is separate from the monthly boxes, they also hinted that there may be more Harry Potter items in boxes by mid-2022 and beyond. They are not taking this off the table. They have made that clear on social media.

It only gets worse

In their response, OwlCrate stated that 20% of all mugs sales would go to a selection of charities. The three that customers could choose are The Trevor Project, The World Literacy Foundation, and 826National. Last summer, they did a similar thing by announcing that they were making donations to The Trevor Project from June through August 2020.

While in 2020, this was okay because this was a quick correction, and they were doing the right thing, in 2021, this won’t fly.

Of the three options, only one has to do with the LGBTQ+ community. The Trevor Project does incredibly vital and important work as a nonprofit dedicated to “suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning youth.” But The Trevor Project should not also have to serve as a catch-all for any time people do wrong by the wider community. OwlCrate is contributing to the harm of the trans community specifically, so the bare minimum would be trans-specific organizations that subscribers could vote to donate to. It wouldn’t be absolving them from harm, but it would be better than just reusing the most well-known organization.

While OwlCrate said that part of the cost will go to a charity of the user’s choice, that doesn’t explain the price pump between the mugs. Previous editions of the same mugs were $14.99, and now that they are donating to charity, they are $16.99?

On Instagram, @BlondMom_Librarian said this change was recent writing:

I can’t be the only one to noticed that the prices also increased from $14.99 to $16.99 since they were originally posted a few weeks ago in the shop. I no longer want to finish my collection but can’t help but think that price increase is to offset the amount going to charity.[…]Besides no listing to a huge part of the community going forward with these, it also doesn’t seem so charitable to up the prices just to make a profit after donations are subtracted.

That 20% donation could have been an afterthought thrown on, too, and/or, like the decision to continue to sell Harry Potter merchandise, is to save the bottom line.

What’s even worse is the book for August’s “Dark Academia” theme is A Lesson in Vengeance, by trans author Victoria Lee. OwlCrate may be using Lee as a way of subduing some of the criticism, like the donations mentioned.

Cover of book "Lesson in Vengeance" by Victoria Lee. (Image: Delacorte Press)

(Image: Delacorte Press)

It could have been unintentional because they have shown little care in handling this so far. However, that doesn’t change that Lee’s book now has this controversy a part of its legacy. On its debut week, no less.

Rowling’s TERFdom alone is reason enough to move away from Harry Potter, but it is not as though the books themselves are free from harm. We’ve come to see how many elements of the source material have not aged well—from the mishandling of characters of color and troubling metaphors to Rowling’s fat-shaming and retconning of the canon. And of course there is Rowling’s now-infamous announcement that Dumbledore was gay—once the books were complete. This is all before getting into the movie elements like the recasting of Lavender Brown to be white once she became essential to the plot.

While I am more strict in my refusal to separate the art from the author, this challenged me. In typical Harry Potter nerd fashion, the books and the universe around them were a core part of my identity. It is clearly OwlCrate and August 2021 partner Riddle’s Tea Shoppe— a piece of theirs, too, if the names didn’t make it clear.

Through the turbulence of growing up, going to school, and every significant change in my life, I was always a Harry Potter fan. That is past tense, however, because I love trans people more than I love any made-up places or people from JK Rowling.

I, and many others, wish that the staff at OwlCrate would feel the same.

(via Twitter, featured image Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images.)

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Author
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Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.