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99 Problems but a witch ain’t one (or, Harry Potter is a guilty pleasure)

First, a disclaimer. I’ve read all the Harry Potter novels, I’ve seen six of the movies (and I’m reserving Half-Blood Prince pt1 until I can watch it back-to-back with Half-Blood Prince pt 2). I’m not a (capital F) Fan, but I enjoyed the series; I didn’t cry when Dobby died, but I did go ‘aaaaww’ a bit.

As a subset of the bildungsroman the school story is well placed to both mirror and lead readers own growth into maturity, and Harry Potter does this well if not faultlessly. The series has got a lot going for it. Briefly:

  • The lampooning of clueless middle-class SOMETHING MUST BE DONE-ism when Hermione Middleton Granger (whose parents are both company directors dentists) sets up Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare (SPEW) despite the fact that all but one of the house elves are a) happy with their lot and b) view SPEW as an insult to their race*.
  • Rowling doesn’t keep her protagonists as pre-pubescent, pre-sexual beings througout their time at Hogwarts.
  • People die. From page one of … Philosopher’s Stone to page 607 of …Deathly Hallows people are dying left, right and centre. Because kids are actually pretty able to cope with that.
  • I cannot stress this one enough: it’s better than Twilight by several orders of magnitude.
  • There’s a Dickensian page-turnerly quality which certainly isn’t down to genius prose, but nevertheless works
  • It’s a damn good story

And, most importantly,

  • it’s got kids reading 780-page novels in a culture that demands instant access to everything.

That said, let the traditional lefty Potter-bashing commence!

1. Dumbledore is gay. Apparently.

Scientists are yet to discover the root of the correlation between homosexuality and poor photoshop skills

Kids need queer role models, so it’s awesome that everyone’s favourite beardy Prof (all those 1970s Open University types notwithstanding) is a total flamer. Hogwarts must have implemented DADT, though, because you’d never know. When the LA Times ran a (hopefully) tounge-in-cheek list of seven clues to Dumbledore’s sexuality, three of them were ridiculous, three of them were based on his supposedly ‘feminine’ traits (like understanding the nature of love) and one of them required such gargantuan logical gymnastics as to be beyond absurd. Ultimately, the only real clue to anyone’s homosexuality is their sexual or romantic relationships with people of the same gender. And even then gayness isn’t a guarantee.

There are two distinct problems with Rowlings famous claim; a truth in fiction problem for discussion of which I recommend The Philosophers’ Magazines excellent article on the subject, and a problem (assuming Dumbledore is as queer as a clockwork orange) of erasure, homophobia and queer role models.

There is no hint of Dumbledore’s alternative sexuality in the 4800+ pages of the Harry Potter saga. Not a single one. Dumbledore goes to his grave holding his sexuality a secret. This is not, as Melissa Anelli of the Leaky Cauldron suggests, a ‘wonderful [stride] in tolerance toward homosexuality […] reinforcing the idea that a person’s gayness is not something of which they should be ashamed’.

Rowling states that Dumbledore had, in his boyhood, been in love with dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald. Mention is made of this relationship in …Deathly Hallows, not as lovers, but as best friends. It’s a pivotal moment. There’s no reason for Dumbledore to not mention the true nature of their relationship and doing so would add so much to the Dumbledore/Grindelwald sub-plot. But he does not. Rather than suggesting homosexuality is something of which we should not be ashamed this does the opposite. The implication is that homosexuality is something private, something not to be mentioned. That’s something that kids, especially ones who may be coming to terms with their own queerness, really don’t need. Dumbledore’s (in)apparent homosexuality is emblematic of Harry Potter‘s pseud0-diversity (see Tokenism rules OK, below) and it’s useful to precisely no one.

2. Tokenism rules OK.

The Patil twins as they appear in the Harry Potter films

In a novel in which racism is a major theme, Rowling indulges in the kind of well-meaning tokenism that seriously patronizes the reader. The characters of the muggle world are overwhelmingly white European. Padma and Parvati Patil and Cho Chang are minor characters whose alliterative names add a cartoonish quality to their mere existence** and Angelina (one of only two afro-carribean characters in the series, and so minor that I’ve forgotten her surname) seemingly exists solely to support the stereotype that all black people are excellent at sports, a supposition so universal that a movie was made on it.

People who are wrong often argue that there’s nothing wrong with race-/sex-/classism in fantasy (and science fiction) narratives talking place in alternate realities or other worlds because they are not supposed to be representative of our own society. These people are especially wrong when it comes to other worlds that interact with our own. Harry Potter has just such a world. Harry does not have a Mordor, he’s got a Narnia; the wizarding world lies like an acetate over ours, invisible to those without the necessary tools to see it. Rowling catapults us firmly into the realm of magic realism within the first few hundred worlds of her epic. This is our world, it’s just a bit different.

While in the wizarding world Rowling presents an anti-racist, anti-fascist narrative in which so-called the ‘pure-bloods’ who crave racial purity are the series antagonists, in the muggle worlds BME characters are under-represented. Where they do appear they are under-developed and cartoonish.

3. Female power = female sexuality.

Veela fan art, by Gerre (deviantART)

Allow me to delve briefly into the murky depths of poststructualist feminist theory and The Veela.

The Veela are the femmes fatales of the world of Harry Potter. Borrowing heavily from the sirens of Greek mythology and the Wila of Polish and Slavic mythology, they look like beautiful young women and hold a power over men that renders Harry’s mind ‘completely and blissfully blank’.

In poststructural theory, language is not a term by which existing realities are named but by which they are created, with meanings dependent on context – what it ‘known’ by the reader. With the Veela, Rowling creates a world in which women are by definition dangerous to men, powerful sexual beings set apart from so-called ‘normal’ people.

Female and male characters are forced into a binary where,

Rowling […] uses a discourse of rationality to mark male characters as reasonable and a discourse of irrationality to mark female characters as foolish. […] But the Veela episode turns this familiar discourse upside down. Rowling uses a discourse of irrationality of minds that are “blank”, “dazed” and “vague”) to mark Harry and Ron as made helpless by the sexual call of the Veela and a discourse of rationality to mark Hermione as a female untouched by and outside of sexual confusion.

Harry’s Girls: Harry Potter and the Discourse of Gender

In short, Harry Potter supports heteronormative gender roles in which women are either clever or caring and therefore sexless, or enthralling, otherly and sexually powerful. Fleur Delacour, part Veela through the maternal line, frequently renders Harry and Ron speechless. Her sexual power is inextricably tied to her magic as a her wand contains a hair from the head of her Veela grandmother, and she does not perform well in the Triwizard Tournament.

Hermione, the most prominent female character of the series is generally presented as academic and thoughtful, yet this is constantly undermined her strong association with ultra feminine traits, a giggling and shrill goody-goody whose presence confirms Harry as reasonable and rational.

For the wider issues of sexism in Harry Potter see this article and Jack Zipes** musings on the subject in Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter.

There are other problems with Harry Potter – his propensity for disregarding rules; his well-adjusted mental state that doesn’t quite fit with his childhood in an abusive environment and the innate Conservative values that the series embraces –  but these three are for me the most problematic, the ones that make me feel just a little guilty for supporting the franchise.

Now that I’ve said all that, I refer you to my fist few paragraphs above. I do like Harry Potter, and I’m as interested as the next mildly curious person to find out what Pottermore is all about. But the novels are not without their problems, and that is, for me at least, what makes them a truly guilty pleasure.

*There are issues here, since the house-elves are essentially a slave race, to do with the use of such characters in modern fiction. It’s a huge topic, though, and my 18th & 19th Century history is not strong enough that I feel properly qualified to answer it.

**Further, Cho is a Japanese name, and Chang is of Chinese decent. Only a small amount of research would be required to stop this gaffe from making it to print.

*** Actually, just go read everything Zipes has produced ever, because he is beyond awesome.


3 responses »

  1. honestyisbest

    And if Rowling has ripped off the work of another writer including the captivating style of his writing…. what then?

  2. Warren Randall

    Prof. Zipes’ “Sticks and Stones” covered the Potter saga only through the “Goblet of Fire.” Has he written an article so that the last three books are subject to his critical eye? Thanks


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