How Transphobic Is J.K. Rowling’s New Novel, ‘Troubled Blood?’ Very.

How Transphobic Is J.K. Rowling’s New Novel, ‘Troubled Blood?’ Very.

In 2013, J.K. Rowling explained how she chose her now-controversial pseudonym, “Robert Galbraith.” The first name, she said, was a nod to her political hero, Robert Kennedy. And the last name? “When I was a child, I really wanted to be called Ella Galbraith, I’ve no idea why.”

It’s a charming anecdote—but unfortunately, Rowling shares her pseudonym with real-life psychiatrist Robert Galbraith Heath, who in the 20th century pioneered what we now call conversion therapy using techniques including electroshock and “brainwashing” drugs.

Rowling’s anecdote, issued before her alternate name choice had stirred much mainstream controversy, casts this tie as sheer, if improbable, coincidence. But the author’s recent transphobic comments have eroded many fans’ willingness to extend the benefit of the doubt—and Rowling’s new book, which revolves around a cross-dressing serial killer, has only made things worse.

Troubled Blood, the latest in Rowling-slash-Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike detective series, is a 944-page tome in which the killer, Dennis Creed, is described as a cisgender man who occasionally dresses as a woman—sometimes, to get closer to his victims. His propensity for donning dresses and jewelry is framed as both fetishization and the result of trauma, playing into two of the most common and pernicious notions about people who break from traditional gender “norms.”

As critics of the novel have already noted, the trope of cross-dressing killers has a long and sordid history in pop culture. (Think: Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, et al.) The notion is prominent enough that the Netflix documentary Disclosure, which explores media depictions of trans people, devotes an entire segment to it. Laverne Cox, one of the primary speakers in the doc, has condemned Rowling’s remarks, as has Cynthia Nixon, who has a trans son. Beyond the offensive implication that transgressing gender mores somehow correlates with violence, these depictions also serve as a back door into denigrating trans people.

Rowling portrays villain Dennis Creed’s habit of wearing dresses as a guise that masks the violent monster underneath. His effeminate tendencies cause some people he encounters to believe he is gay—which can feel further reminiscent of the homophobic arguments of the 1970s and ’80s, which cast gay people as predators similarly to how anti-trans movements now frame trans people. Rowling’s protagonist Cormoran Strike says at one point that Creed’s victims “had been hoodwinked by a careful performance of femininity.”

But most harmful are the passages that mock Creed using the language of transphobes. There’s a fixation, at times, on Creed’s ability to “pass”—including an entire retrospective on a doctor’s office debating whether an unregistered patient was a “lady” or a man in a dress. The book frames Creed’s interest in women’s clothing as the result of abuse he suffered as a child, and casts him as a voyeur who uses the cloak of womanhood for his own twisted purposes—again, pernicious anti-trans tropes.

“It excited me… to watch a woman who didn’t know she was being observed,” the character writes in one first-person passage. “I’d do it to my sisters, but I’d creep up to lit windows as well… I was aroused not only by the obviously sensual aspects, but by the sense of power. I felt I stole something of their essence from them, taking that which they thought private and hidden.”

I was aroused not only by the obviously sensual aspects, but by the sense of power. I felt I stole something of their essence from them, taking that which they thought private and hidden.

The character is further said to enjoy stealing women’s underwear, wearing them “in secret,” and masturbating in them.

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