A Few More Words on Harry’s Politics

Right, that’s Harry Potter. I got some interesting comments here and here responding to my argument that there’s a socially conservative undercurrent to J.K. Rowling‘s series. First, as I tried to make clear in the piece, my critique of the books’ gender ideology lies not in their depiction of individual female characters, who, yes, are quite diverse, but in the depiction of the structure of wizarding society. At one point in Deathly Hallows, consumed by guilt over his central role in the war that has consumed his world, Harry expresses regret that he’s prevented the Weasley brothers from working — no mention of whether their wives, too, have careers waylaid by the resistance movement. The assumption I’ve made, and that I think is well backed up by the entireity of the epic, is that witches are often stay-at-home moms. That’s why I linked to Rowling’s explanation on her website that magical children are home-schooled before the age of 11. One parent must be doing that work, right? I think that through characters like Hermione and Tonks, Rowling flirts with upending traditional gender roles, but that the larger society she’s created actually conforms to them.

As to my analysis of Rowling’s racial ideology, which I knew would be controversial, goblins do indeed interbreed with humans. Professor Flitwick, for example, is part goblin. Neither Harry nor Griphook comes off very well in the tale of the sword. Harry plans to trick the goblin, and the goblin lives up to the streotypes of himself as greedy and backstabbing. I think it’s fair to say that the books show individual characters, such as Dobby, rising above the stereotypes they were born into, but that they also follow the fantasy script of obsessive categorization. The "Sorting Hat" is a prime example of this. Who isn’t fascinated by the idea of a hat that, when placed on the head of an 11-year old, can instantly predict whether the child will turn out good or evil, courageous or cowardly, intellectual or simple? Toward the end of Deathly Hallows, we learn that Professor Dumbledore had doubts about the hat’s ability to correctly predict a person’s character. Yet the entire wizarding universe is predicated on this hat’s sifting ability. Children who read the books understand this, and are attracted to this element of the series. At Rowling’s website, they ask her which houses various adult characters belonged to as children at Hogwarts. There’s a strong element of predestination present in the series, whether because of family history or membership in a certain species.

Commenter jfaberuiuc makes a good point that when Harry rejects unifying the deathly hallows, he in many ways rejects his own pure-blood heritage. And Matt Zeitlin says it is Harry’s ability to love, not to fight, that ultimately saves the day time and time again in the series, which seriously undermines the warrior misogyny of traditional fantasy. These are ways in which Rowling updates the fantasy genre, and I appreciate that. But in reading the last book and considering its appeal, I believe that one reason Harry Potter is so popular is because his world sates one of our more conservative cultural needs: the desire to sort groups of people out from one another.

3 thoughts on “A Few More Words on Harry’s Politics

  1. Dan Miller

    I enjoyed the last book, but I can see your point; I’d only point out that we get to see almost none of the social impacts of Voldemort’s reign after his defeat. It’s like if you saw WWII but weren’t shown post-colonialism.

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  2. Tim Sackton

    While I’m sure there are a lot of interesting things that can be said about the “Sorting Hat” and the role of obsessive classification in fantasy literature, I have to take issue with your interpretation. First, I think Rowling makes it abundantly clear that sorting hat, and indeed the house one is in, does not predict “whether the child will turn out good or evil, courageous or cowardly, intellectual or simple.” Hermione is certainly the most intellectual character in the series, but she is not a Ravenclaw. However, Luna Lovegood is a Ravenclaw, hardly someone who could be considered an intellectual powerhouse. Neville, although he certainly finds his courage by the end of the series, is hardly the image of Gryffindor when he is sorted. I think Rowling actually goes out of her way to show that sorting is not destiny, and that your house does not determine who you are. Dumbledore’s comment towards the end of Deathly Hallows is on exactly this point, as what he actually says is something to the effect of “I think we sort people into houses too soon.” Plus, almost no adult ever seems to mention his or her house; in fact, what house you were in seems to have almost no relevance whatsoever once you graduate from Hogwarts.

    In fact, destiny is not even destiny, as the whole point of the prophecy about Harry is that it only mattered once Voldemort acted upon it. Harry is not predetermined by fate to be Voldemort’s enemy, he was chosen by Voldemort, and it was that act of Voldemort’s, not fate, that set Harry along his path.

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  3. Anderson

    Do we liberals not have any need or desire to sort groups of people out from one another? Really?

    I think it’s an issue of the sorting criteria, not the sorting itself, which is hard to distinguish from “thought,” “action,” etc.

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