The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling

Publisher:
The Free Press

The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling

3.0/5

Critic Rating

The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling is an audio documentary that examines some of the most contentious conflicts of our time through the life and career of the world’s most successful author. In conversation with host Megan Phelps-Roper, J.K. Rowling speaks with unprecedented candor and depth about the controversies surrounding her—from book bans to debates on gender and sex. The series also examines the forces propelling this moment in history, through interviews with Rowling’s supporters and critics, journalists, historians, clinicians, and more.


Critic Reviews

Score: 4.5

Tamma Moksha • The Hindu Apr 2, 2023

"The host of the podcast brings her share of intrigue to attract listeners. Throughout the podcast, Rowling comes across as a woman with strong opinions and layers of arguments supporting her views but struggles with the host who is keen on making them palatable to appease everyone. For the sixth episode, she invites Natalie Wynn, a transwoman and a YouTuber and Noah, a seventeen-year-old transman, both American, to speak on the issue and their perception of Rowling. Rowling does not feature in the episode and the listeners are yet again given a lesson in kindness."

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Score: 1

Laura Bradley • Daily Beast Mar 29, 2023

"The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling is too wedded to its subject’s perspective to meaningfully explore the dissonance between what Rowling says and what the words she’s using actually mean. Episode after episode, Rowling has been allowed to use words like “authoritarian” to describe her opposition, but Phelps-Roper never challenges her to name the institution that gives trans people and their allies the power to enforce their supposed agenda. By treating Rowling as a leader of this discussion, rather than a loud and relatively predictable voice within it, Witch Trials grants her unearned authority."

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Score: 3.5

Ximena Smith • Stuff NZ Mar 18, 2023

"The series is produced by Andy Mills, formerly of The New York Times’ hit podcast, The Daily, so it is undeniably well-made and highly listenable – and it includes a variety of voices aside from Rowling’s. But while Phelps-Roper has said the series isn’t intended as a defence of Rowling, so far, it seems to have skewed in that direction. You never know – Phelps-Roper may turn up the heat on Rowling in the final two episodes still to come out, and the final minutes of episode five suggest that we will soon hear more from Rowling’s critics. However, unfortunately I suspect many of Rowling’s fans who feel hurt and betrayed by her might not make it that far."

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Score: 2.5

Fiona McCann • Irish Times Mar 18, 2023

"You have to wait until half way through the fourth episode before you hear from a transgender woman in the Witch Trials of JK Rowling. And even then, she was not asked to speak to the impact of JK Rowling’s public statements on her own life or even on the experiences of trans people in general...what we get is something very different entirely with this slickly produced, slippery podcast...it’s only four episodes in at time of writing, out of a planned seven – but thus far it feels like a series of strange elisions. The fact that Phelps-Roper has not (at least yet) given fair voice to the argument that Rowling has caused real and serious harm makes this podcast more of a salvo in the culture wars than any judicious examination of the issues at stake. Obliviate."

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Score: 2

Monica Hesse • Washington Post Mar 6, 2023

"Things are said that sound reasonable. You would only know they were unreasonable — they were, in fact, wrong — if you had the patience to fact-check, or if you had the personal experience of counterevidence. Listening to “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling” is exhausting. It’s exhausting because it requires constant vigilance. I’ll listen, but I’m not optimistic that the podcast will provide anything truly revelatory. I’m not convinced that the podcast’s intent is to reveal. When you title something called “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling,” you have already set up a narrative in which Rowling is the persecuted figure."

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Score: 3.5

Miranda Sawyer • The Guardian Mar 4, 2023

"The Witch Trials of JK Rowling is a strange podcast. Rowling’s careful, crisp mind contrasts with host Megan Phelps-Roper’s mushy Christian desire to be as kind and evenhanded as possible. That’s not to say that the podcast isn’t interesting – it is – just that it’s uneven and reeeally streeetched out. It needs a far tougher editor. This is Jon Ronson-style stuff, though Phelps-Roper is less sharp, journalistically. Really what The Witch Trials highlights is what happens to both artist and fans when a creation balloons into something unmanageable."

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Score: 2

Nicholas Quah • Vulture Feb 27, 2023

"In these early innings, the podcast shows a distinct deference to Rowling. Her voice lingers, the sound design lending her words weight and gravity. She’s neither pushed nor made to reflect on whether she’s been living up to her own worldview. That Rowling’s perspective so utterly dominates the podcast’s opening stages is incredibly frustrating. The show is less a character study of a controversial person and more a defense of someone it claims is misunderstood. Whether this is the product of naïveté or cynicism on the show’s part, it’s hard to say. The podcast says it wants to have a conversation. What it really wants to do is give a sermon."

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Score: 3.5

Fiona Sturges • Financial Times Feb 26, 2023

"If the first episode provides necessary background, the second drifts off course as it gives a meandering account of the moral panics stirred up by the religious right in the 1990s. At the very start, Phelps-Roper notes how, along with journalists, historians, lawyers and clinicians, the series will include the voices of trans teenagers and adults. Given how frequently trans people are left out of conversations about their rights, this feels important and right. But, thus far, the overwhelming impression given by The Witch Trials of JK Rowling is of a series playing for time. …"

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Score: 4.5

Patricia Nicol • The Times UK Feb 26, 2023

"Her finely crafted series is by no means just about its interview with Rowling. Online, there seems to be a presumption that this podcast will be more sympathetic to Rowling’s perspective on gender, but Potter apostates should at least try listening without prejudice. This is shaping up to be riveting."

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Score: 4

Hugh Linehan • Irish Times Feb 24, 2023

"So far, the podcast’s greatest strength is its access to the author herself. She has intriguing things to say about celebrity fandom and what it’s like to have your life threatened; she’s refreshingly contemptuous of the idea that she might be concerned about her “legacy” in the wake of current controversies."

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Score: 3

Rachel Cunliffe • New Statesman Feb 22, 2023

"Phelps-Roper is interested in what happens when people are so sure of their own moral righteousness that they disengage from the conversation completely. “We should mistrust ourselves most when we are certain,” Rowling says at one point, having agreed to a rare in-depth interview that covers everything from her abusive first marriage to reflections on what speaking out has done to her legacy. Maybe – but given how polarised the debate has become and how toxic a figure Rowling is to the trans community, one thing we can be certain about is that a seven-episode podcast is unlikely to change any minds. "

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Score: 2

Rich Juzwiak • Jezebel Feb 22, 2023

"Thus far, Witch Trials only offers a taste of what anyone who’s been following along actually cares about: Rowling’s antagonistic stance toward what she repeatedly referred to in a factually dubious June 2020 essay..The result is self-protecting, exclusionary rhetoric that people way more familiar with trans experiences have rightly called bullshit on. These contradictions are easy to make when you’re babbling to yourself on Twitter and your website, but any interviewer worth their salt will challenge and scrutinize the faulty logic and its implications. Is Megan Phelps-Roper up to the task? Only time will tell. I’ll be listening as her podcast drips on, but at the moment, signs point to no."

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Score: 2

Laura Bradley • Daily Beast Feb 21, 2023

"‘The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling’ Is a Mind-Numbing Exercise in Digression...an exercise in false comparisons and warped power dynamics that, as one might expect given its title, is also full of dog whistles. At no point (so far) does the podcast meaningfully engage with the very real, steadily increasing violence that’s being perpetrated against trans people."

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Score: 3

Emily Bootle • inews Feb 21, 2023

"It’s a hot topic and a catchy title...but The Witch Trials cannot seem to decide what question it is trying to answer...this one is too broad and too meandering to do any of them justice...the 45 minutes of information about evangelist pastors and school libraries in the US feel unmoored. She (Rowling) makes sensible, intelligent comments about the perils of black-and-white thinking; that “a sense of righteousness is not incompatible with doing terrible things”. It’s jarring, then, to refer to her Twitter page, where she scathingly deflects justified and nuanced criticism with the same brusqueness she has clearly developed to deal with vile abuse. Listening to her speak, one wishes she would follow her own advice."

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Score: 3

Anita Singh • Telegraph UK Feb 21, 2023

"There are seven episodes and two have been released today, in which the only direct mention of the transgender backlash is a brief montage of unnamed Rowling detractors...It is good to hear Rowling’s voice in our ears rather than through her tweets, which can often seem to carry a smirk. Phelps-Roper, meanwhile, speaks in that universal US podcaster voice, soothing and bland, as if talking you through your reiki healing treatment in a luxury spa. If the future episodes touching on Rowling’s stance on women and trans rights are as cosy as this, however, then the podcast won’t be a piece of journalism so much as a platform for the author to expand on her previous comments."

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Score: 5

Kirsten Fleming • New York Post Feb 21, 2023

"‘The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling’ is a much-needed dose of sanity. This series tries to untangle this cultural clusterf- -k by rewinding back Rowling’s incredible origin story...we shouldn’t ignore Rowling. There’s power in her message — particularly that villains and heroes don’t exist in the black and white."

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Score: 2

James Marriot • The Times UK Feb 21, 2023

"...manages to submerge a fascinating story in a swamp of digression, retrodden backstory and meandering gush. If The Witch Trials of JK Rowling were a Harry Potter book it would be one of the bloated later instalments like Order of the Phoenix in which you spend 600 pages waiting for Voldemort to turn up and start zapping people. The first is the best, recapping the genesis of the Potter books. Even after decades of fame, there’s something remarkably un-media-trained about her: spiky, on edge, flatly unwilling to please.You get why it is specifically Rowling, not another more cautious, PR-honed children’s author, who got herself into the heart of the angry row over trans rights. Most striking is how intensely she seems to have disliked much of her success. But Rowling is mostly missing in action in the second episode. For some reason Phelps-Roper embarks on an exhaustive (and exhausting) tour of American culture in the 1990s... …"

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Score: 2.5

Mary McNamara • LA Times Feb 21, 2023

"Having listened to the first and second episode, I can tell you that the “misunderstanding” refers not to the things Rowling has written about transgender women, but to her fans’ belief that she is in the least worried about her legacy. Those hoping “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling” will somehow clear up the contradictions in the author’s insistence that she is not transphobic while repeatedly expressing fear of unregulated trans women will be, at least immediately, disappointed."

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