Monday, March 4, 2024

My Fave is Problematic: Harry Potter

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Harry Potter has been, and always shall be, my favourite fandom. It was my first, and my screen name on the discussion board that saw my first interaction with fandom was Pottermaniac. I would fight with my friends because they liked Lord of the Rings more than Harry Potter, and that was unacceptable. I tried to get the people who haven’t read the series to be socially ostracised. Yeah, I was a shitty person as a tween.

Anyway, naturally as one gets older – I read the first books of the series when I was eleven – one sees the faults in one’s favourite media, and one sees the problems. And in this case, there are many to choose from.

Now follows a part where a white girl talks about racial issues. Sorry about that. Leaving it out seemed like it would be even more problematic, because one of the most cited problems of Harry Potter is the problem of cishet white West-centric privilege just permeating the series. As for blaming Rowling for it, well, there is a post doing rounds on tumblr that sums up my feelings on this pretty well. She created that world and the basic characters of the story in the nineties. Many things were very different back then, many things were less discussed, people were less aware of them, and it’s not fair to judge Rowling by today’s standards for something she wrote that long ago. We can look at her newer work to see how she’s doing now. Far from perfect, as it turns out – not a week ago, she posted some info about famous magical schools in the world on Pottermore, giving us the whooping one school in each continent except Oceania, which doesn’t have any, while Europe boasts three – but that is a separate issue. She doesn’t, as far as I’m concerned, really deserve censure for what she did back then.

However, there’s a difference between blaming the author and critiquing the books, so I think it’s perfectly fair to say that this is a problem. It’s not, thank Merlin, as if Rowling made Britain completely whitewashed. In fact, when you look at the demographic numbers of the UK, you’ll see that she sort of got that right. The problem, of course, is the role of these characters, in light of the importance of representation of real world groups. While from the Watsonian perspective, someone could argue that if eighty-seven per cent of British people identifies as white, it’s statistically likely that all the protagonists would be white as well, the thing is, Hogwarts doesn’t actually exist.

It’s not life, it’s a story, and narratively, there’s no reason for all of not just the main trio, but the “secondary trio” (Ginny, Neville and Luna), as well as all of the ten or so significant adults, to be white, when having them be people of colour would enhance the experience of reading and made identification easier for non-white readers.

The only PoC characters of note, if memory serves, are Cho Chang, Angelina Johnson, Parvati and Padma Patil, Kingsley Shacklebolt and Dean Thomas. Out of these, Kingsley and Angelina are probably the most interesting. We don’t see much of Kingsley, but he is cool and capable and personally he has always been my favourite Order member. Plus he becomes the Minister at the end. But he is still a very minor character. Angelina is in the story more and she is fantastic, a great Quidditch player and a team Captain, a laid-back, fun girl to be around, good at her captain duties at the same time. I’m sorry she didn’t play more of a part in the story.

With Cho we can sympathise because of her tragic romantic history and because of Marietta, but identify with her? She’s a good Quidditch player, so there is that, but so are Angelina and Ginny and those, I think, are easier to relate to. Cho had a potential to be a relateable character for people suffering from depression, but for me at least, it falls a little flat, because of all the stereotypically girly and ‘boys will never understand girls’ aspects Rowling decided to give her, which, for me, detract from her humanity. Not that I think people who like frilly tearooms and get jealous aren’t human, but in this case it seems more like a strawman to me. Cho’s character, to my mind, is sidelined in favour of the type she is meant to represent.

And the rest of the characters…well. Perhaps I am wrong, but I find it a little difficult to imagine that anyone would particularly want to identify with them. They are not very fleshed out, barely feel real, and don’t have any actual good qualities one could latch onto (well, that’s not fair. We know Dean is artistically talented). Maybe the best thing about them is that, at least in some cases, they’re vague enough that one can project anything one likes onto them.

It’s of course even worse with LGBTQIA characters, since there is no one directly identifying as gay (let alone any of the other letters of the acronym) in the books, and the one character who Rowling straight-out said was gay ended up basically ruining the world by the one relationship of his that we know of. Narratively, not the least problematic choice.

So all this is a problem, yes, and if Rowling wrote another book series now, I’d certainly hope she did better with it.

But then there are all the things that were problematic in the nineties already. For one, the House divisions at Hogwarts, and the way she works with them.

The books give a very clear impression that she herself prefers Gryffindor to all the other houses, which is fine, of course. We all have a preference for one of the other, I guess. But the way she chose to depict that is another thing.

For one, the Gryffindors are overwhelmingly painted as the good guys, and not just by the Gryffindor characters – which would make sense – but by the story itself. In perhaps the most obvious display of this, Dumbledore tells Snape that “I sometimes think we Sort too soon” (DH, The Prince’s Tale) after commenting that Snape was brave, as if the only brave people were in Gryffindor. Gryffindor is also painted as the most ‘light’ house, which is very strange to me, because bravery as such does not necessarily have to be connected to the Light side, it depends on what are you brave in service of. For example, it always seemed to me that Bellatrix Lestrange had many very Gryffindor qualities. There’s nothing particularly cunning or subtle about her, but unquestionably she is very brave. Repulsive, yes, but she has courage. But Rowling’s personal bias makes Gryffindor the good house, with almost all of the prominent characters affiliated with it (the exceptions are Luna, Snape and Tonks – the remaining ten or so are all Gryffindors), and the marked exception to the goodness being Peter Pettigrew – and a very strange exception at that, too, since it’s patently clear Peter’s downfall was his fear, so how he ever got sorted in Gryffindor is a true mystery. There were many other ways a Gryffindor could have fallen that wouldn’t have negated their trademark characteristic, on the contrary, would have made use of it. You could turn into a merciless killer on the battlefield as a Gryffindor, for example – and we get a glimpse of that in Harry’s anger and his torture of Bellatrix, but we never actually see a Gryffindor go fully down that way. Instead, the fates of different characters make it seem like bravery is the only good quality truly worth of having. If you don’t have it, you will fall, or at the very least be useless; if you do, then yes, there are other dangers to overcome, but you’re on the right track.

And of course, Rowling’s treatment of other houses reflects her marked preference for Gryffindor. I’d argue that her second favourite was Hufflepuff, but she seems to regard it with a sort of fond condescension. There are two most prominent Puffs in the story: Cedric and Tonks (in whose case, however, it’s never stated outright in the text). Cedric, of course, is a paragon of perfection – good looks, great Quidditch player, skilled wizard. That is his job in the story. To be the unimitable competition for Harry when it regards Cho, and to make his death that more tragic. He is admirable, but he is also very much a plot device. Or perhaps it is just me, but I have trouble seeing him as a real person.

Tonks is better in this way, and in spite of her clumsiness, she is said to be a badass Auror and we even see her in action a few times. Not much, but we don’t see that much of any Order member fighting, honestly. Plus in her we have what I think is a better depiction of depression – we see her she suffer from it in the Half-Blood Prince, while still soldiering on in her job. So I’m happy with that representation, and my only objection is that her house affiliation was never mentioned in the text – and that she is the only one.

The Puffs we see in Harry’s year…they’re treated with barely hidden scorn, mostly, and serve as a sort of comic relief or simply as background characters. Plus there is Zacharias Smith, who is an unpleasant jerk. Once again, an odd sort of weakness for a Hufflepuff. I imagine a ‘fallen Puff’ as a SJW gone overboard, something we I think all have experience with, perhaps something we’ve all been, on occasion. People who get so enraged by racism and misrepresentation and misogyny and homophobia and similar vices that they resort to bullying the perpetrators, even though they’re often perhaps just unaware and uninformed and really meant no harm. I can see a Puff doing that (a Gryffindor too, for that matter). Or being blindly loyal to their friends and ignoring their faults. Or I can see them simply becoming a workaholic. Smith is a bit of a mystery, but well, Hufflepuff is also, by Helga’s original designation, a place for those every other house rejects. So maybe he ended up there on those grounds.

Oh and there’s Teddy Lupin, of course, but he can hardly be called a real character in the books, and his House affiliation is post-canon as well. In summary, there are very few Puffs depicted, and even fewer of any actual interest or depth, or seen displaying the qualities Hufflepuff is supposed to be known for. Even Tonks seems like more of a Gryffindor.

But to be honest, I’m even more angry about the depiction of Ravenclaw. It’s probably my personal bias (full disclosure: I identify as Slytherclaw), and the Puffs could certainly convincingly argue that at least Ravenclaw gets one proper supporting character. It’s true. Luna Lovegood is a fully fleshed out, wonderful young lady who should be treasured.

However, I have strong issues with her being the only properly depicted Ravenclaw.

She is an embodiment of some of Ravenclaw qualities, like the association with air, free thinking and so on. But I highly doubt she is a typical speciemen of a Claw (after all, her being bullied by her house implies otherwise). She holds a lot of silly and nonsensical beliefs, making her brand of smart a very special one. Just imagine her being given the job of doing the research about Horcruxes instead of Hermione. The idea sounds very absurd, and yet research is the sort of thing the usual Ravenclaw should excel at. Some more mainstream examples are badly needed as a counterweight.

And when we look at the other Ravenclaws, the prospect is very meagre. Probably the second most prominent character from that house is Cho Chang, and during her entire relationship with Harry, we see barely a hint of why she was sorted into that house. And it would have been so easy, too.

Give me Cho that tries to talk to Harry about books on their date, only to find out that he never read a book that wasn’t for school or about Quidditch. Give me Cho that tries to discuss classes, only to discover that Harry doesn’t care or only wants to complain about too much homework. Give me Cho wanting to talk about the electives, only to learn Harry picked the two classes Ron did to be with his friend and thus ended up in Divination.

Don’t give me Cho that just clumsily tries to make Harry jealous, because I just don’t see any traces of her having a particularly ready mind, wit or learning in that. The same goes for Padma, and for every other Ravenclaw present in the story – and what others are there, really? No one of import, and certainly no one showcasing any Ravenclaw qualities except Hermione, who is not in Ravenclaw.

And then, of course, there is the complete disaster of Slytherin.

The entire idea of how this House is treated is absurd, down to the Hogwarts origins story, which purports that Salazar held anti-Muggle-Born views seven hundred years before there was such a thing as properly separate Muggle and wizarding cultures, and that the other three founders were for some reason cool with starting a school with a racist jerk – and also a psychopath who puts a monster in a school with a vague murder-plan that doesn’t even work. Right from its founding, Slytherin is not shown as a house that values ambition and cunning, but as the racist, murder-happy house. There’s nothing particularly cunning or ambitious about antagonizing your three co-workers to the degree that they kick you out of your project and then putting a revenge monster in your old job site out of spite. Plus, the idea seems to be that while to be in Slytherin, you need certain qualities just like with other houses, you also can’t be Muggle-born to get there. There is no way any sane school administrator would find that acceptable. Godric, Helga and Rowena would have told Salazar to go to the devil.

And the depiction doesn’t get any better when we come to Harry’s time. The only supposedly good Slytherin character we get is Severus Snape, and even in his case it’s bought by a Death Eater past, and by bullying children, not to mention his problematic attachment to Lily. I don’t want to dwell on him too much, since he deserves a separate article – he was mentioned briefly in the last Fanwankers episode, and I might write an article about him in the future, unless someone else does it first. Suffice it to say, he’s not exactly a role model.

Then there’s Draco, not evil enough to do murder in cold blood, but a nasty piece of work nevertheless (what does it say about the picture of Slytherin Rowling painted that for someone to be considered as good, it’s enough for him to be not fully comfortable with murder?). Pansy the Bitch and her giggling gang that doesn’t ever deserve personalities of their own. Blaise I-Hate-Blood-Traitors Zabini. Crabbe and Goyle, who have zero Slytherin qualities and yet still ended up in that house, probably because they’re racist and murder-happy enough. All of these people’s parents, who are Death Eaters and it is quietly assumed were Slytherins – I mean, other houses don’t have a prevalence of Death Eater names. The implication is that someone who is cunning and ambitious will, more likely than not, also be happy to join a mass murderer.

One character that salvages the House’s reputation a little is Slughorn, of course. He’s honestly my favourite Slytherin, because I think he is the only one who truly shows the house’s qualities. He’s amazing, but there’s only one of him, and he’s very clearly a grey character. Regulus Black should also probably be mentioned in this context – I could go on for hours about him, he’s seriously the most under-appreciated person in canon – but he’s not actually in the story, and he has to be Death Eater first, too, before he can be good. Once again, backing out when witnessing the full scale of Voldemort’s brutality seems to be the requirement for “good” Slytherins, with the exception of Slughorn.

And there’s the treatment of Slytherins by other houses and by the teachers, too. These cases are pretty notorious in fandom, but just to refresh your memory: Dumbledore letting them think they were going to win the House Cup till the last minute at the end of Philosopher’s Stone, only to snatch it away from them. Everyone always cheering for Gryffindor because they want Slytherin to lose. McGonnagal simply ordering every Slytherin to leave in Deathly Hallows, not giving them a chance to fight, because everyone knows those jerks would just join the mass murderer. I could go on. Slytherin, in short, is universally hated, and assumed to be a House full of future Death Eaters, and the story cheerfully confirms this opinion, apparently without finding anything wrong about it.

But there is. So much.

When you look at the Hogwarts crest, it is symbols of the Houses united by the large H. It should be about that, it should be about unity in diversity. We each have our own talents and qualities, and the combination of them is what makes the school great. It’s what the Sorting Hat talks about, but it’s not just those evil Death Eaters hampering it, it’s the author, the story itself.

And look, dividing people into groups based on some similarity does have its pros and its cons. It makes forming bonds easier, but you lose the chance to be inspired by difference. You can make the best of a given talent, of the similarity in question, but you are in serious risk of also getting the worst of the flip side of the same thing. So any sane school that worked with this sort of division would try to gain the most of the benefits while minimizing the drawbacks, especially if they’ve had a thousand years to work out the kinks.

There’s a post floating around tumblr about each House being taught in a different way. That’s one option, and we see no hints of that. You could also have different disciplinary approaches. You’d need activities specifically designed to have the houses meet and mingle, to have some of that inspiration and to counterbalance division. You’d have House heads especially watching out for the weaknesses of each of the Houses and trying to prevent their students falling into that trap.

Instead we get animosity and bigotry and division that none of the teachers does anything about, which ends up sending the message that diversity is bad, that diversity is a problem, because look at the conflict it breeds. With some groups, you can just ignore them because thy are merely lesser, not bad, but with some, well, you have to eliminate them, because they are downright evil, right? Certain contemporary parallels come to mind.

I’ll tell you what I’d have liked to see. Different Houses contributing differently to the war, according to their strengths. I get that Harry was a Gryffindor, so his closest friends were always likely to be ones as well, but what about the rest? What about the Order members? I want to see the Claws doing some important war-related research, I want to see the Puffs take care of safe houses and healing and other background work that is not so shiny or heroic as what the Gryffindors do but just as necessary. Snape was spying, so I guess that’s one thing for the Slytherins to do and it was included, but I also want to see them in the political arena, fighting the Ministry or Lucius Malfoy there. I want to see Order members arguing about the methods because some prefer the Slytherin ones, some the Gryffindor ones and so on, but working it out, and finding strength in their differing views. I don’t want to basically have to have everyone turn into a Gryffindor to be useful for the war effort, the only difference of opinion being how much to tell Harry.

So yes, the message of diversity got a little bundled here, to “one type of human is better than most others, and one type is worse.” Something I think we can agree is not exactly desirable.

It is also still not the last diversity-related problem to be encountered.

Rowling makes racism one of her themes, against the Muggle-Born and Muggles and non-human beings. But the thing is, not even the supposedly good characters are free from it. And Rowling sometimes addresses this, and sometimes she doesn’t.

Let’s look at Muggles, for example. While anyone badmouthing the Muggle-Born is clearly shown as a bad person, the ever-present condescending attitude to Muggles is never really challenged. Right at the beginning, we have Hagrid’s condescending comments and Mrs. Weasley’s throwaway remark that King’s Cross is full of Muggles, which rather set the tone.

So then we get Arthur oh-so-cutely not being able to remember what are the different Muggle inventions called. The man’s profession has to do with Muggles, and it’s also supposed to be his chief hobby. Try to image that you were an expert in a field, were getting paid for working in it, and couldn’t even remember the essential terms. Or the way the Minister for Magic arranges a meeting with the PM, which is very far from being respectful and equal. They slip him Kingsley as a bodyguard without telling him first, too. What is being done to the camp owner in Goblet of Fire is way beyond mere disrespect and is absolutely monstrous. I’m not talking about what the Death Eaters do to him, mind you, but about the constant wipes of his memory. I could go on. This casual disregard of the weaker and defenceless (against magic) is realistic in many ways, of course, but to never have it called out by anyone? That makes it problematic.

And there are other cases apart from Muggles. With ghosts, we have everyone just ignoring Sir Nicolas’ wish to be called Sir Nicolas, and instead going with Nearly-Headless Nick, a nickname he clearly finds irritating, and we have Myrtle’s death being treated with what can hardly be called gravitas. Goblins frankly have overtones of a racist caricature, and Bill, who spent his entire adult life working for them and owes his career success to them, has doubts about there being a possibility of goblin-human friendship and, while warning Harry, just casually mentions that apparently the goblin idea of what ownership and sale means has been always ignored by witches and wizards. Centaurs are only shown to be in the right when they abandon their own principles or neutrality and non-interference and join the fight against Voldemort, or do the right thing according to the wizarding moral standards. House-Elves, of course, get the roughest end of the deal, but at least mistreatment of them is always called out, as far as I recall. But there are certainly traces of condescension, and Dobby’s noble self-sacrifice is a very troubling narrative (imagine a person of colour there instead of him to see it more clearly). The Merepeople playing the ‘angry natives’ in Triwizard Tournament is far from ideal as well, even though it was staged. The whole notion that there are intelligent creatures ‘incapable of overcoming their own violent nature’ (Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them) is very problematic. I could go on. Part of this criticism is probably unfair to levy on Rowling, since as with the issues mentioned at the beginning of this article, many of these troubling narratives were not so well recognized and talked about twenty years ago, but some of them should have been transparent even then, and at any rate, like I said before, even if we give the author a break, the problem with the story remains.

So once again, let me tell you what I’d have liked to see. Arthur who is an actual expert and helps the Grangers feel comfortable in Diagon Alley, making useful Muggle-wizarding parallels for them to help them understand the things Hermione, as a twelve year old, didn’t know about. Arthur outraged at what the Ministry does tot he camp owner and filing a complaint, even after everything that happened at Triwizard Tournament, because some things are simply wrong. Bill who tells Harry that he can’t do this thing, that he can’t just use Griphook to what he needs to be done while completely ignoring the goblin’s requests, not because it’s dangerous for Harry but because it’s wrong, and because Griphook is his friend. And Griphook actually acting like Bill’s friend, even if he was unpleasant to everyone else. Harry being shocked when seeing Myrtle, realizing that it’s a student who died at Hogwarts, how tragic is that? And how tragic is it and she is constantly unhappy even after her death? Dobby getting to live and starting a school for House-Elves. And so on.

I understand how all these things might seem like much less of a problem than the lack of representation for people of colour or LGBTQIA. Ghosts and Muggles and Slytherins are not real groups we need to be worried about, after all. But the thing is, that’s one of the strongest things speculative fiction can do. It can explore some issues in our society via allegory, thus allowing us to see them more clearly. It’s not even particularly hidden in case of Muggles and Death Eaters, the second world war parallels are there very clearly. Recently when Drumpf’s spokesperson asked where are all the “pure-breeds”, JKR retweeted it with a commentary saying “Death Eaters walk among us.” So the way the designated heroes of a story act towards oppressed groups and minorities and simply those who are different does actually serve as a model for how we should act towards them, even if they are different particular groups. When the heroes act racist and condescending and are never called out for it, it’s a problem, and it makes the story problematic.

Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Films


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