Who Owns a Story?

What happens when the creator of a story you love disappoints you? When they do or say something that you find morally inadequate or reprehensible? What happens to your relationship with the story?

Another way to put this question is who owns a story. I don’t mean in terms of copyright, though that is important too. I mean the right to say what a story means, what a story can do in the world, what kind of interpretations a story is open to. And who gets to say what kind of moral and ethical claims a story supports or suggests?

Two writers of stories dear to me have recently disappointed me. First, I have been saddened by J.K. Rowling’s statements on trans rights. Rowling argues for the importance of a biological definition of sex, one that excludes trans women from the category ‘woman,’ and she criticizes the rising use of hormones in transitioning. Her comments have caused widespread pain and outrage among Harry Potter fans, in part because the books are beloved for the way in which they make difference a strength. Being different isn’t bad; it can be the portal into another world.

Second, Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has faced a slew of allegations of professional misconduct from actors and writers. The allegations against Whedon are especially disappointing because publicly  he has styled himself and his work as a feminist. It seems that this has made little difference to his relationships with actual women. His feminism now seems more like a screen for his bad behavior, rather than a personal commitment.

So what should I do? Should I stop reading Harry Potter and watching Buffy and the other Whedon shows? The main reason I love Harry Potter, beside the fact that the characters are constantly eating, is that it depicts an enduring friendship. I have moved many times, and my closest friends live far from me. Being able to participate, through reading, in the friendship of Harry, Ron, and Hermione has been a source of comfort. The Buffy series has been particularly important to me as a help in figuring out what it means to be a woman who lives off of her nerdiness (Willow, not Buffy, being the main example of this in the series). Do I now have to do without Harry and Buffy?

In answering that question, I think the most important thing is not to insist too much on any answer. If you too have loved Harry Potter, but now the books represent for you a disavowal of who you are, no one should try to talk you into loving them again. But if that world remains important to you, no one should shame you for that either. Hannah McGregor, host of the Harry Potter podcast Witch, Please, writes “I think it’s a really interesting stance to say, ‘Actually, no, this is this is my world and I get to hold on to it and I get to fill it with characters and ideas that excite me, and Rowling doesn’t get to take that away from everybody.’”

Perhaps the best answer is to rephrase the question. Maybe it isn’t a question of ownership – no one really owns a story – but of relationships. Perhaps your relationship with a particular writer or creator has soured, and now you need to figure out if that is true of your relationship with their stories too. For some, the answer will be “yes,” for some the answer will be “somewhat,” and for others the answer will be “no.” It is not important that we all arrive at the same conclusion, but that we give each other space to love and interact with stories in different ways. There is no right answer to who owns a story, only many ways of reading and listening, interpreting and analyzing, loving and criticizing.

Mari Jørstad provides support for Facing the Anthropocene, a project under the Ethics and Environmental Policy program area. She is originally from Norway and spent a decade in Canada, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in art & art history and political science and an MA in religion before coming to Duke to work toward a PhD studying the Hebrew Bible.

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