Media Non-Fiction Politics

On Harry Potter and Loving Problematic Media


Content warning for transphobia

A few years ago, ‘your fave is problematic’ became a social media catchphrase, especially on Tumblr. It caught on partly because of the eponymous blog but also because it was a succinct expression of the adult responsibility to be an ethical consumer of media. But, how exactly do you navigate that? It’s a heck of a grey area and the best response depends on the circumstances.

Take the Harry Potter series. There were always elements within the series that you could object to, such as the race of untrustworthy hook-nosed banker goblins. But, the issue has become more pressing recently. The main reason for this is the casting of the abusive (beyond any reasonable doubt) Johnny Depp as the villain Grindelwald in the new Fantastic Beasts spin-off movies. Another is her apparent endorsement of TERF ideas like this (apologies for poor resolution):

jk rowling terf

Yikes! It is worth noting that Rowling’s representatives have claimed that this tweet was liked by accident. This seems much more likely to be a lie but that can hardly be divined, something-something Professor Trelawney ha ha.

Personally, I found this to be unfortunate but essentially bearable. I loved Harry Potter as a child but had since moved on. Though I have been friends with many Potterheads during my teenage and adult years, I’ve always felt on the outside of that fandom even when I tried to engage in earnest. So, it would be relatively easy for me to take a step back.

I’ve observed that this is a sensitive subject amongst several people I know on several occasions. Some folks have reacted with overt disdain for Rowling, which I think is the most immediately understandable reaction to her expressing transphobic views even if it’s not a reaction you share. I’ve also seen avowed fans attempt to separate Harry Potter from Rowling herself in a way that recalls the Death of the Author. This is a line of thought that rings most true when the person has decided not to give money to the new Fantastic Beasts movies. Of course, trans women who are frustrated with Rowling might also despair at the seemingly invincible reputation and legacy of a writer who views them as men in skirts. That’s a valid reaction and far be it for me to say otherwise.

Last year, I was lucky enough to volunteer at the Harry Potter convention LeakyCon in Dublin. It was a really good experience for me, especially because I got to meet and talk to Neil Cicierega, one of my main creative role models – you probably know him at least as the guy who does Potter Puppet Pals. During a Q&A for a panel he was on, I asked if they had any thoughts on fans who hold Harry Potter so close to their hearts that they can’t or won’t engage with it critically. Neil said that he didn’t think there’s “anything wrong with having that kind of relationship with a thing. Where it becomes a problem is when it gets attached to people, like, you think J. K. Rowling can do no wrong. But, I don’t think there’s anything bad about having something like that.”

Another answer came from Eliyannah Yisrael, director of the web-series Hermione Granger and the Quarter-Life Crisis: “I think you have to just let them have that.”

Harry Potter seems to be a psychological crutch for many of its fans. That Harry Potter is central to the pop-cultural consciousness is obvious but its fandom engages with it in a noticeably different way than, say, the Star Wars fandom (which seems to have gone horribly awry). The fans will make impassioned and valuable cases that the series has a keen sense of justice which informed their engagement with politics and the world as they grew up. I find this to be illuminating. While it can be debated how insightful the series was overall, Harry Potter was more direct and specific a story about the rise of a fascist movement than pretty much any other mainstream kid-friendly media at the time (except for Revenge of the Sith, which was bad).

I’m not sure if anyone is qualified to draw a confident conclusion about this. But, I’d put forward that the reason many Harry Potter fans have an emotional, sometimes uncritical relationship with the text is that it gave them a beginner’s road-map to real-world political struggles.

People on the internet often make fun of this; there are two major Facebook groups called ‘People who think Harry Potter is a personality trait spotting,’ one of which has around 17,000 members and the other of which has around 10,000. The impulse to make fun of this is understandable in the same way that everything else about ‘cringe culture’ is understandable. I don’t want to diverge outside of the article’s scope so I’ll just say that cringe culture is bad because it mainly makes fun of people for liking things. This is silly at best but usually takes the form of bullying children as young as 11.

A common criticism raised by these types is that Harry Potter is too simple a story to justify all the political metaphors people draw from it. Yes, if Harry Potter is your main source of understanding of how politics works, you should definitely read a few articles or check out ContraPoints or something. But, when faced with the rise of reactionary movements like Trump and Brexit, those of a liberal or leftist disposition are faced with the question: “What should I do to fight this?” And, in attempting to answer that question, it makes sense that they will come back to a story from their childhood that seriously engaged with those ideas. Not out of nowhere did the fandom, in its early years, set up the Harry Potter Alliance, a charity and activist group which operates to this day.

However painful and unfortunate it might be, the proper and adult thing to do is to not give money to a Fantastic Beasts movie (or any movie with Johnny Depp in it) even if you really want to. The good news is that the original Harry Potter books are much more salvageable if you want to salvage them. The fandom at large has done an admirable job of separating the art from the artist. It can be hoped and expected that they will continue to practice the virtues of the story as we all face off together against the real-world revival of fascism.

Hey, thanks for reading! You can find more of my writing on Virtual Citizens. You can also support me on Patreon for access to exclusive political pieces similar to this one. My YouTube has some video versions of articles. I also have a Twitter.

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