Decontextualizing Harry Potter

From the beginning of the 2016 American election cycle, a popular way to signal social belonging on Tumblr has been to reblog angry posts about J.K. Rowling like the one above.

J.K. Rowling isn’t perfect. No human being on this earth is perfect, and Rowling is no exception. Rowling’s books are far from perfect, and I have to admit that I personally don’t particularly like or enjoy them. It’s important to critique popular media, and it’s reasonable to hold public figures to basic standards of decency. Still, I’m concerned about posts like this, which promote decontextualization as a performance of progressive political ideology.

It’s difficult to make generalizations, so I want to refer to the post above to demonstrate what I mean.

To begin with, most of these posts about the Harry Potter books are coming from an American perspective that doesn’t attempt to address the cultural context of the original books. For example, while Americans tend to think everything is about race, British people tend to be much more sensitive about class. Class intersects with race, because of course it does, but class is widely perceived to be the basic framework of social hierarchy in the United Kingdom, and it’s coded in complicated ways that may be unfamiliar to many Americans.

What’s going on with the “house elves” in the Harry Potter books is that the author is taking the well-known figure of the brownie from Celtic folklore and using it to make a statement about class, specifically the class of people whose labor has always enabled the “great institutions” of the United Kingdom to function properly. Without bothering to talk to them or to listen to what they have to say, Hermione sees this class of people as “slaves,” which the house elves themselves find extremely insulting.

This plot line is resolved as Hermione gradually learns that it’s offensive and counterproductive to claim to speak for an entire group of people whom she believes, as an outsider to that group, to be marginalized. Meanwhile, actual members of the group take up activist work based on their own experiences and achieve real change; but, in the end, the “group” is a collection of diverse individuals who have different opinions regarding their “oppression,” and many of them subtly or actively challenge the notion that a privileged group should be allowed to ahistorically define their entire existence as “oppressed.”

Ron tells Hermione that she’s crazy for caring and that nothing should change because this is the way things have always been, but his traditionalism and intellectual laziness are shown to be just as misguided as Hermione’s naive activism. Harry (who is still a teenager, after all) admits that he can see both sides but doesn’t care about the discourse. Nevertheless, when someone close to him is clearly a victim of discrimination, Harry will stand up to protect them, even if he doesn’t like that person.

I don’t agree with the position that ideology doesn’t matter as long as you treat other people decently, which I think is simplistic and reductive, but I can understand how it works as a thematic element in a series of books written for ten-year-olds.

Rowling herself doesn’t entirely agree with this position either, and she addresses the very real and practical problems of the “I see people as individuals” mentality directly in her work for adult readers, including the book she wrote immediately after concluding the Harry Potter series, The Casual Vacancy. The people writing and reblogging posts like the one above don’t acknowledge this, however, perhaps because their only encounter with contemporary British fiction is a series of kid’s books about teenage wizards written during a decade in which a lot of the conversations we’re currently having about social justice were still evolving.

I should add that these books only got as popular as they did because of their cinematic adaptations. These movies are gorgeous and artistically well-crafted, but they tend to flatten and even erase the nuances of the novels. The posts on Tumblr that are critical of Rowling don’t hold the directors and producers accountable for failing to emphasize the progressive themes of the books in order to achieve a broader commercial appeal, nor do they challenge the systems of privilege that have limited the contributions of minority voices to the cinema industry. Instead, these posts pin all faults of the franchise, both real and imagined, on an individual female writer who was very poor for most of her life (thus her various explorations of the theme of class) while decontextualizing what she wrote decades ago in fantasy novels meant for young readers.

Again, it’s vitally important to think critically about popular culture, and I strongly believe that public figures should be held to basic standards of decency. I am all for critiquing the Harry Potter series and Rowling’s creative decisions. That being said, the trend of posts on Tumblr that hold one progressive female artist or activist responsible for everything that’s wrong in the world by means of aggressive decontextualizations of what she’s actually doing and saying are frightening, especially since they’re starting to recirculate within left-leaning spaces in advance of another election cycle.

In the end, who does it benefit to say that books about respecting difference and resisting authoritarian violence even when not everyone on your side is perfect are “problematic” and are only read by bad and stupid people? Moreover, given that the Harry Potter series is the primary gateway a lot of younger kids have into enjoying books, who does it benefit to say that reading itself is something that’s only done by bad and stupid people?

Harry Potter Retcons

I know a lot of people are upset about J.K. Rowling retconning Hermione’s race and Dumbledore’s sexuality, but I’m all for it. In fact, let’s have more canon retcons! Here are some suggestions:

– Harry Potter belongs to an ancient wizarding family that came to England from India. His great-grandparents believed in fostering stronger local wizard-muggle relations, which is why they changed their family name from “Patil” to the stereotypically British “Potter.” Parvati Patil, who is obviously way out of Harry’s league, only went to the Yule Ball with him because he’s her distant cousin and her parents told her to be nice to him.

– Cho Chang is a lesbian, and her relationship with Harry helped her come to terms with her sexuality. Her actual name is Chomei Zhang, and “Cho” is just a nickname. She went to grad school in Hong Kong, where she received a doctorate in Physics. She returned to Hogwarts as a professor before eventually becoming the Head of Ravenclaw.

– Draco Malfoy was a big kid, and one of the reasons he wanted to be the Seeker for Slytherin’s Quidditch team so badly is because it was important to him to prove that you don’t have to be slender and muscular to be a good athlete. Although Lucius Malfoy is a racist and a certified asshole, he loves his son and supported his ambitions by buying the entire team equipment that helped them train and enjoy themselves regardless of their body shapes.

– Gellert Grindelwald is Jewish, and he hates Muggles because of the ultranationalist anti-Semitism that was so prevalent in Europe in the early twentieth century. Dumbledore didn’t want to fight him not just because he was once in love with him, but also because he understood all too well that Grindelwald’s anger was justified.

– Nymphadora Tonks is queer and genderfluid. Remus Lupin is gay, and he met Nymphadora during a period when she was presenting as male. The beginning of their relationship was awkward not because Lupin is a werewolf, but because conversations surrounding the validity of bisexuality within the gay community were still evolving in the 1990s and early 2000s.

– Sirius Black’s family disowned him because he had trouble presenting as neurotypical. He was able to survive Azkaban because he already had experience dealing with the symptoms related to the mental and emotional strain caused by dementors. Also, Azkaban got really good wireless reception, and Sirius used the skills he gained while creating the Marauder’s Map to pioneer the magic internet, which is how he became independently wealthy and was able to have a Firebolt delivered to Harry for Christmas.