Tea Time with Dovid: Was Dumbledore Really Gay?
The question before us now concerns a man, a movie and magic. In the production of “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” the director David Yates initially decided not to portray Dumbledore as gay. There has been some considerable backlash. Yates conceded eventually and allowed for a scene which hints at his homosexuality. But I wonder: was Dumbledore really gay?
To answer this question, which is obviously an important thing to do, we must address two distinct and overlapping issues. The first is philosophical and therefore boring. The second concerns literary criticism, and is, therefore, also boring. I leave it to my readership to assess whether descent into boredom is a worthwhile sacrifice. I believe it is. I hope to show you why.
First, the philosophical issue. Are fictional characters really anything at all? The answer, of course, is no. Consider this illustration:
“The High Priestess of Yeshiva University has two hands.”
There is no High Priestess of Yeshiva University. She is a fictional character. She cannot, therefore, have two hands. For a thing to have two hands, or to have any property at all, the thing must exist.
But wait. If someone told you “Dumbledore is a wizard,” you would say that is correct. If another person told you “Dumbledore is a horse,” you would say that is incorrect. But why? Both of these propositions are equally false. Dumbledore does not exist, so he is neither a wizard nor a horse. The answer is that the first statement “Dumbledore is a wizard” likely denotes to the following proposition:
“JK Rowling describes a character Dumbledore as a wizard.”
This is true, and, if this is what we mean by “Dumbledore is a wizard,” then that is also true.
Similarly, “Dumbledore is a horse” presumably denotes the following proposition: “JK Rowling describes a character called Dumbledore as a horse” which is false. Now, for the main question: was Dumbledore really gay?
As I illustrated above, Dumbledore was not in fact gay. Nor was he in fact straight. He was not in fact anything. Our question here concerns a literary issue. Did JK Rowling describe Dumbledore as gay? In an interview a few years ago, Rowling described Dumbledore as gay when asked by a fan if he was ever going to find love. But, let’s ask another two questions. Does the text of the Harry Potter series indicate that Dumbledore was gay? And, how much weight does Rowling’s view have on our reading of it?
The text itself is ambiguous. Which is to say, we can understand all seven books perfectly well whether we assume Dumbledore was gay or we assume he wasn’t. This would not be the case if JK Rowling, in that interview, made some other claim. Suppose she said Dumbledore was not, in fact, a wizard, but a horse. We would dismiss this as a poor interpretation of the books because there are parts of the books that militate against Dumbledore’s horsehood. Even if JK Rowling genuinely and earnestly believed she had described him as a horse, even if she intended to do so, we would say she was wrong. The principle is this: the validity of any interpretive claim about a text depends on textual evidence.
His sexuality is more ambiguous than his horsehood. The text of Harry Potter reads well according to either interpretation. There are no passages which become incoherent if we assume Dumbledore is gay; similarly there are no passages which become incoherent if we assume he was not. Are there passages which are better explained if we assume he was straight? I don’t believe so. On the other hand, I don’t believe there are any passages which are better explained if we assume he was gay. Consider, for example, Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwald, the subject of our current controversy. There is nothing left unexplained if we assume that Dumbledore was straight. Similarly there is nothing left unexplained if we assume that Dumbledore was gay.
All of this is to say that either interpretation is equally compelling if we consider the text alone. But are there other considerations? There is another subtle philosophical problem here concerning something called “intentionality,” but I think this has been enough philosophy for one article. Let’s turn instead to the more obvious consideration: JK Rowling intended Dumbledore as gay, but, as I posited above, the text is inconclusive. So what now?
To answer this question, I would like to reference a concept (not my own) called “a more fruitful interpretation.” A more fruitful interpretation is one that either (i) introduces a new dimension to the analysis than an alternative interpretation or/and (ii) impacts our understanding of other salient issues. To illustrate what I mean, consider the following interpretation of Dumbledore: He had six toes on his right foot. This is not a more fruitful interpretation, because nothing turns on the question of how many toes Dumbledore had on his right foot. Suggesting an interpretation of this matter does not add a new dimension to our analysis: it is inconsequential, uninteresting and irrelevant. It is therefore not an interpretation we ought to consider.
However, if we think of Dumbledore as gay, we raise many new interesting considerations. Is there a connection between Dumbledore’s creativity as a wizard and his sexuality? What was Dumbledore’s relationship with Tom Riddle like before they became enemies? How many of Dumbledore’s coworkers knew? Because interpreting Dumbledore’s character as gay is a more fruitful interpretation, we enjoy a more interesting reading if we accept Rowling’s view.
You may be wondering what the point of all this is. As I began writing this article, I was wondering the very same thing. My hope was that, by the time I had finished, I would have some answer. Alas. Earwax.
Photo Caption: The Man in Question
Photo Credit: bustle.com