Ke Huy Quan and my intellectual quibbles with boycotting JK Rowling

Apologies for typos. My anemia is back, and thus my dyslexia and focus are troubling me worse than ever.

First of all, we should get the following out the way:

1) I wish JK Rowling would either:

a) Get her head out of her ass or

b) Shut the hell up.

She’s awful. Trans people deserve to be loved and cherished and supported just like everybody else. Rowling is not only just wrong, she’s being deliberately obtuse. Anybody can be wrong about something the first time they encounter something they don’t understand—that’s the nature of privilege. But she’s been told and told and pleaded with again and again. Doubling down on her transphobia after everything that has happened is mean and dumb beyond comprehension.

That said, I’ve always been “eh” about corporate boycotts for multiple reasons. 1) I don’t know that they work and 2) I don’t know that they sanction the people they are supposed to because of #1; and 3) I suspect that the real gains in joining the boycott are performative (ZOMG A DIRTY WORD AMONGST liberals BUT….it’s a way of signaling values and in this case, it’s a signal that you are willing to go without something and avoid somebody who is awful to people you seek to support. I think that signaling can matter quite a bit even if 1) and 2) don’t quite work out.

Which of these things is true, or all of them maybe, hinges on the question of what do I mean by “Does it work?” What are boycotts accomplishing? Well, Chick-Fil-A is still here. No, they don’t get to have my money to put into their shitty foundation, but for each ally who doesn’t do go there, it seems likely there is a bigot who rushes up to buy extra chicken sandwiches because they love the values expressed by that same foundation. I worry sometimes that boycotts have a Streisand effect, in other words. Does anybody know of research that might help me know whether the “I’m not shopping there” effect outweighs the “hey, I’ll shop there, these people hate all the same people I hate” effect?

SO JK Rowling. Don’t buy the new whatever game they just put out (ok). That makes sense to me (and it’s pretty obvious I wouldn’t buy it anyway) because the entirety of computer games is largely lost on me besides Plants vs. Zombies and Angry Birds) because that came out long after her transphobia became public and grew in obnoxiousness. Those game designers chose to associate with her and work with her long after it was obvious that she was nasty.

But her movies: maybe I’m not remembering this right, but Rowling’s transphobia became common knowledge largely after the movies came out. And movies—it should be clear from the Oscars—are not a one-woman show. If you watch the credits on those movies, hundreds and hundreds of people, very likely people innocent of her evil, worked on that movie.

I’d be pretty upset if nobody read my articles because it turns out one of my deans was secretly doing something shady or mean that only later came later. TRUST ME: I know what it’s like to be fighting like hell to do my job properly, to try to create good and safe spaces at a university, only to have the more powerful decision-makers around me cover us all in shame. It’s a terrible feeling, and I empathize.

Anyway, none of that was Ke Huy Quan’s fault. He was a child. It just doesn’t sit right with me to condemn a franchise, though, if in so doing we erase him. That’s part of his story, even if it is associated with a nasty racist movie that probably does deserve to be sent into oblivion.

Which brings me to Ke Huy Quan. What a pleasure it is to see him as a grown-up actor, doing well, because Temple of Doom is a terrible, racist movie. From its gross-out scenes making crap out of other people’s food, the death cults to…oy to the vey, it’s racist. And it’s objectively a bad movie. Kate Capshaw’s fish-out-of-water character is sexist garbage, and honestly even Short Round is nasty to her—and it’s supposed to be…funny? I don’t know. (Raiders is racist, too, but that’s discussion is a little off track; I don’t remember the other two very well, except that I remember being shocked at how great Karen Allen looked.)

Right now, I tend to observe boycotts because of my sense regarding #3. The people who matter in this discussion are the trans folks, and if they think it’s the right thing to do then I’m willing to do it. I do worry about the Streisand effect thing, but that’s an empirical question. I have to believe somebody in a B-school has done research on this somewhere.