Sunday, June 16, 2024

My Fave Is Problematic: Harry Potter, Part 2, Women, Wealth, and ‘Abroad’

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In the last installment of this, I concentrated purely on diversity. How varied are the characters of Harry Potter, and how are those different from the ‘norm’ (unfortunately, there is one in the series) treated? But there are plenty of other topics to talk about, so first let me cover one that is closely related to representation and that has been the most discussed topic concerning Harry Potter lately.

The treatment of ‘abroad’ in the books.

Once more, I will only be talking about the books here, so I’m leaving any film-related decisions out of it, and Pottermore as well. Especially Pottermore. It might merit an article of its own one day, but for now, I will only do the books.

There are small things like the mention of Spain on the news, used to expose Uncle Vernon’s English chauvinism but at the same time keeping to a pretty stereotypical picture: Spain is the place for going on holiday, where people go on strikes. But these are minor background details, and at least on their own don’t mean much. As far as more significant mentions go, in the first books, it’s Romania for one. Romania is the distant place where Charlie Weasley cares for dragons. Given that Ron clearly stated there are dragons in Britain as well, it begs the question of why he works in Romania? Is it because the Romanian dragon reserve is the best and internationally acclaimed and sought after? I firmly believe so, but you wouldn’t know it from the books. Instead, it gives the vague impression that Romania is a ‘wild, distant land’ where something like a dragon reserve can be without anyone noticing. Well, here’s news for you: Romania has higher population density than both Scotland and Ireland. But, all right. It’s never actually stated that the dragon reserve is in Romania because it’s a wild foreign land, so maybe I’m just being paranoid.

Let’s move on, to…the forests of Albania, where Lord Voldemort is hiding.

OK, are you fuckin’ kidding me?

What do you know, Albania actually has an even higher population density than Romania! And, OK, yeah, there are some forests there, and I suppose you could make an argument that Tom Riddle could hide out in the national parks of northern Albania.

Or, you know, anywhere else.

Like in Britain, or France, or – if his point was to get far away from Britain to avoid being discovered – maybe in Greenland or Amazonia or in the Sahara or in Australia? I don’t think the heat would have bothered him in his state, and these are actual places with low population density where it might have been good to hide and it would have made sense besides the “ok whatever this place sounds exotic and dangerous let’s have him hide there.” It’s not that there is something wrong with using Albania exactly; it’s how its so clearly treated without any regards for its particularities. It’s not like it’s an actual country, it’s just an appropriately distant place for Voldemort to be.

It gets even better when we get to the part of where the Grey Lady tells us that she ran to the ‘forests of Albania’ to hide from her mother.

“A forest in Albania. A lonely place I thought was far beyond my mother’s reach.”

Hogwarts is a thousand years old and this was shortly after its founding, so sometime around year 1000. You know what Albania was in year 1000? Part of the bloody Byzantine Empire, also known as the most powerful state in Europe at that time. Compared to the backwaters of the British Isles, it was the centre of the world. There was also a war going on at this time, between the Byzantians and the Bulgarians, so perhaps not the best place to hide out.

Once again, I’m not saying there was no place where Helena Ravenclaw could have hidden in that area. Just that Albania’s clearly treated more like a general idea than an actual country with its actual history.

On the other hand, there’s Egypt. Now there I certainly cannot complain that it wouldn’t be treated as a particular country with its own history. Well…maybe I can. It’s definitely particular enough, and has history, but an actual country, or more like a place where the English men can go to steal their treasure and have adventures? I really, really want to believe that Gringotts are an international organization uniting goblin bankers from all over the world (why does it have an English name, then?), and so it’s not actually a case of British colonial rule continuing to steal Egyptian national heritage. But…even if so, unless we’re actually claiming that all the Egyptian treasures were made by goblins, it’s still stealing, just less colonial. Or did the Egyptian Ministry just give the Gringotts leave to plunder their heritage? Why would they? And can a Ministry of Magic even do that? Don’t the Muggles have a say?

Anyway, I’m getting off track here. The point is, Egyptian heritage is being treated as if it’s free for the taking. And that ties into how Egypt is not really treated as an actual, modern country existing today, but more like this place where these old monuments are conveniently located. Or maybe inconveniently, because it’s so far from Britain, you know? Never once are actual living Egyptians referred to. Not only does Ron just talk about tombs, but even Hermione only ever mentions that ancient Egyptian wizards were amazing. Oh, I guess Elphias Doge talks about Egyptian alchemists like they’re a current thing (along with chimaeras in Greece – was it common at that time for werewolves to randomly attack world-touring young wizards in Britain, I wonder? If not, then why the difference with chimaeras in Greece?), so that’s something to be thankful for. It’s a pity Egypt remains a place for a white man to have adventures, though. That, and the idea that the Orient has nothing new and current to offer and all its value lies in the past, is Orientalism in a nutshell.

Coming to Book 4, there are actually foreigners out heroes directly see, or even interact with. The Quidditch World Cup contains mostly neutral mentions, which I suppose is to be grateful for. The English usually treat them like crap, and I think it’s only partly meant to show their own ignorance, though it certainly works that way with Fudge just expecting the Bulgarian Minister would not speak English, and the Minister making use of the fact to have some fun with him.

Now the presence of Bulgaria at the Cup itself would makes me very happy as such. It’s nice to realize that non-Western countries can be good at something else than hiding dangerous creatures too, and getting to the final of the World Cup certainly counts as good…but then Bulgaria loses, scoring one goal to Ireland’s seventeen, and I get depressed again. Of course the Bulgarian players are all rubbish and just get that one good member of the team. Of course.

Getting to Hogwarts, there are the two schools. Beauxbatons are just a walking stereotype of the French, so there isn’t much to say about it (except: why?), but Durmstrang…oh, Durmstrang.

So, the name sounds German, and it’s a play on Sturm und Drang, so there’s that connection at well. But the headmaster’s name couldn’t have been more Russian if JKR named him Volodya. And there are some other students with Russian-sounding names, but Viktor is from Bulgaria. Look, I know Durmstrang takes students from many countries – it’s clear from Draco’s statement that his father wanted to send him there (kudos to Lucius for not being an English chauvinist, I guess?) – but this just…was all over the place. Especially taking into account that Viktor describes the school as having these huge grounds, so the assumption is somewhere where there are large uninhabited areas…and that’s really cold and far north…sounds like Russia or Scandinavia to me, but why the German name then?

What language do they speak at that school? Do all the foreign children have to speak it fluently at eleven to be able to study there? And I know some of these questions were at least party answered by JKR later, but once again, I’m working with the books now. She just basically took everything east of France and lumped it together into one big chunk. Also, note the sinister nature of this eastern school. God forbid Dark Arts were taught in Britain, right? Even though it was Britain what gave the world Voldemort. All those shifty schools in the East…run by a cowardly Death Eater with a literal goatee as a headmaster, because of course. The Durmstrang students also have some aspects of an ‘eastern barbarian’ stereotype, like picking up the golden plates and examining them. Seriously?

In Order of the Phoenix, the most prominent display of this is probably Hagrid’s journey to the giants. The giants are ‘in the mountains.’ The mountains are never specified, but they do go there through Poland and Belarus, where Hagrid gets into trouble with trolls and vampires, because of course he does. Now, JKR, have you actually looked at a map? The only serious mountains in that direction – mountains big enough for giants to hide – are the Ural mountains. The Urals are really flippin far. But of course this never factored in the description of this journey…the giants are going to be in some wild land, so naturally that needs mountains and it needs to be in the East, so I’m just going to mention some countries to make it seem they’re headed in that direction…oh, give me a break.

Rowling mostly kept away from depicting ‘abroad’ in her later books, and honestly, looking at her score, it’s probably for the best.

Now let’s look at wealth.

In some ways, Harry Potter plays with the “evil rich people, good poor people” narrative, especially as regards the Weasleys, the quintessential poor of the story. So let’s take a closer look at them first.

One thing should be made clear: the Weasleys have every privilege except for money. The family is one of the sacred twenty-eight, effectively wizarding aristocracy, and while this particular bit of info isn’t in the books, we do know they are purebloods and one of the old families, though they are considered blood traitors. They also have the contacts: Mr. Weasley got tickets for the Quidditch tournament for him and his entire family thought his connections…to the Minister’s box. There’s literary the two Ministers, two heads of Ministry departments who are organizing this, the Malfoys and the Weasleys in that box, meaning the Weasleys take up half of that best box at this international event that takes place every four years and probably won’t be held in Britain again for decades.

And this is supposed to be the underpriviledged family.

It seems to me that if Mr. Weasley just stretched out his fingers, he could get a much better job than the one he has, through one of his many contacts. He doesn’t, because he loves what he does, and that’s fine (well, there are some issues regarding the fact that he has responsibility for his children, but it’s not like they’re starving, so this probably depends on your personal ethics whether you think he should prioritize the comfort of his children over his work satisfaction or not) – but hardly relateable to all the people who would love to get a better paid job, but they can’t.

The Weasleys also live in their own house, where most of the children have their own rooms. I’m not going to play the “not poor enough” game, since nothing good ever came of that and they certainly have real issues, like not being able to afford a new wand for their children, which can hamper their magical ability… But my problem with this is, it creates the impression that this is what all poverty looks like. It’s narratives like this that allow Jamie Oliver to advice poor people to pay £20 for food for a weekend, while remaining completely oblivious to the fact that there are people, yes, in the UK or the US or in other Western countries, that can’t afford that, that can’t afford even half of that. These narratives are why rich people think poverty is no big deal and people should just work harder. These narratives…oh, why even bother. It’s all been said before.

And there’s no glimpse of anyone being bellow the Weasley level of poverty, the kind that would lead to you going hungry from time to time…except, you know, young Tom Riddle, and perhaps Severus Snape. I’ll let you chew on that.

And then there’s Harry, and his wealth. It’s a little strange for me, to be honest. I completely understand why Rowling wanted to have him inherit some money, because her narrative focused on different things and she didn’t want to have him struggle financially while in the wizarding world. But why make him so rich – and from an almost aristocratic family, too – when it was never actually explored as a topic? The way Harry’s wealth is presented, it seems it’s only for his enjoyment, without any kind of responsibility attached to it. I know he’s too young for most of the story to think of this and then he’s busy with other things, but really. One or two mentions would have done. Dumbledore asks Harry for Grimmauld Place only because they were already using it, but it would have been a good moment for Harry to offer some of his other resources, or to even think about these matters. Or his visit to St. Mungo’s, or knowledge about Tom Riddle at the orphanage, could have prompted thought about giving to charity, considering that he has such surplus. It never even passes his mind – except for offering it to the Weasleys specifically, which he immediately reflects they’d refuse. Oh, and of course he gives his Triwizard Tournament winnings to the Weasley Twins, but that’s really a very specific kind of money, money Harry quite correctly feels he has no right to. It’s a little strange, given that JKR herself if very involved in charitable work, and it bothers me.

And of course, there are the evil rich people, too. Except for the Potters, every family we actually know to be rich is associated with the Death Eaters. Now, even if you are socialist enough to believe that someone who has ‘old money’ always had to earn them on the back of underprivileged groups, it still doesn’t mean you paint these people as actual Nazis! In fact, taking into account that Voldemort was looking for soldiers to fight in his revolution, it makes very little sense. It’s not normally the people with all the power and privilege who are the ones to physically overthrow the regime. They tend to do a different kind of evil. Power coups organized from relative safety? Yes, by all means. Wars where they play with other people’s lives? Absolutely. But here we have actual rich as sin aristocrats putting themselves in the front lines, and that just doesn’t really fly. It doesn’t make sense in-verse, and from the outside point of view it’s an irritating stereotype taken to an extreme.

So, in summary, very rich people who actually enjoy/make use of their money are bad, very poor people don’t exist, but if you are somewhere in the middle, you’re probably fine. Wait, unless you’re a boring middle-class person, because then you’re like the Dursleys and ewww, nobody wants that.

Or, taking it by class, upper class sucks, wizarding middle class is either fine or being manipulated by the Ministry, and wizarding working class doesn’t exist – except for Stan Shunpike. And let me take this moment to emphasize how very, very grateful to JKR I am for that character. Stan Shunpike is JKR’s Jeyne Poole. He’s unimportant and poor and silly and no one should care about him and yet Harry cares and makes it his sticking point with the Ministry and he refuses to accept that he should be thrown into Azkaban for the ‘greater good.’ Stan Shunpike, as an idea, gives me life. He is everything. But he is hardly an active agent in the story, is he? JKR has her Jeyne, but the closest we get to her Davos are Snape and Voldemort, which…

You know what, let’s move on, because next up is gender, and gender actually does relatively well…in certain ways.

I’ve talked about the lack of representation for LGBTQIA characters in my last article on this, so I’ll not return to it. Here, I just want to deal with the depiction of women in the books, and in the wizarding society.

Bringing back my Doylist/Watsonian lens from the Tolkien article, let’s start with the story arcs of girls and women in these stories, and see how feminist they are.

It actually does pretty well. I mean, yes, it’s a little stereotypical that of course the studious one with the good marks in the group will be the girl, but she’s never kept back from the fights on this account, she is by far the most capable of the trio – possibly of all the characters in the books, when you think about it – and she’s all around great. Ginny irritates me by simply accepting Harry leaving her for her own good, but apart from that? She takes no crap from anyone, is great at what she does, helps lead a bloody resistance group at school…for a character who started sort of damsel-in-distress-ey, she ended up great (and kudos to JKR for at least hinting at her trauma from that CoS ordeal in OotP).

Luna Lovegood approaches the manic pixie dream girl trope a little, but she has those moments of unexpected practicality and insight that transport her from a stereotype to an actual interesting character. There are the Gryffindor Chasers, tertiary but great characters. Minerva McGonnagal is amazing, Molly is the Mother™, but still takes down the second worst villain in the books, Bellatrix and Umbridge destroy the idea of putting women on a pedestal, and so on and so on. The two most powerful wizards and the Ministers and the hero are still male, of course, but still. Not bad.

In fact, there are only a few things that make me uncomfortable.

One would be the dynamic of Hermione with Lavender and Parvati. It has a bit too much of an ‘not like other girls’ ring to it, and the two girls seem to have been made mostly as foil to Hermione, to contrast with her. I’d much rather it wasn’t like that. I’d also have been happier without that scene where Ginny is mean to Hermione on account of Harry being unable to play Quidditch because he almost killed Draco. I want more female friendships! (Oh and I’m also irritated that Fleur ended up being last in the Triwizard Tournament, because of course, she is just a girl, how else could she fare?)

The other is the glorification of motherhood.

It starts, of course, with Lily and her sacrifice, but it doesn’t end there. It’s hardly accidental that Bellatrix doesn’t have children, and Molly takes her down precisely because of motherly love, and Narcissa betrays Voldemort because of motherly love, and, just, mothers are the greatest. At least we have Walburga, I suppose, who was a mother and a thoroughly shitty person, but apart from that…It needs to be said that JKR doesn’t use this to devalue other kinds of love. Snape risks his life for romantic love (of sorts; look, this deserves an entire article on its own and I’m not going to get into it here) and Harry sacrifices himself because of his love for his friends. I just wish she’d take it down a notch with the mothers, I suppose, but maybe that’s just me.

But anyway, the real reason why I’m sad about gender in Harry Potter is the in-verse, Watsonian view, that one that asks: is the setting, the society Rowling depicts, sexist?

It had the potential to be very subversive to patriarchy. There are hints that imply the wizarding world is less sexist than the Muggle one: two out of four Hogwarts founders were female (even though of course it’s the less important houses, because the important rivalry can only ever be between two men); it makes good sense, because magical power is not gender-dependent, and it would be much more relevant than physical strength in this culture. There would be some sexism, because the wizarding society has been closely connected to the Muggle one until the end of the 17th century, but there would be less of it. There’s good space for this in wizarding fashion, too, which has the potential to be largely gender-neutral and not objectifying at all – robes seem to be long, loose, and with sleeves, and that’s it, and that’s what they seemed to wear at least until the late books, where Rowling seems to have forgotten bits of her own worldbuilding and so suddenly there are dresses instead of robes.

I tend to get angry at fanfiction authors when they write their Harry Potter characters going to a ball in sexy Muggle dress because keep your sexist goggles away from my wizarding world*, but the problem is, it’s hardly their fault. Even leaving aside the films, which have never truly respected the idea of a separate wizarding fashion and almost completely ignored it since nr. 3, the books are full of sexist instances.

This, I expect, is partly because JKR’s focus was somewhere different, and so she did not try and think through the implications of a society that was not so inherently sexist, but I think it a great pity that she didn’t. Give me a world where it isn’t expected it’ll be the boys to ask girls out, where the men aren’t automatically the head of a family and it’s not automatically their name women get, where Mrs. Weasley isn’t the one staying at home with her children, no questions asked, where Dumbledore doesn’t mansplain to freakin’ Madame Maxime how to deal with giants, where the majority of Death Eaters aren’t men (and one of the two women is only there because she’s in love with the boss), where…well. You get my drift, I’m sure.

If you’re writing a different society, either use it to explore the topic of sexism in an interesting way, or make it truly different. Don’t give the impression that the gender roles are inescapable, wherever.

Oh and don’t write classist Orientalist narratives, obviously.

* Not that there’s anything wrong with dressing sexily. Just that if you have a world where you canonically have pretty gender-neutral clothing and suddenly you put the women into revealing clothes, it’s telling.

All images courtesy of Warner Bros.

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