‘Rowling’s world of fantasy is one of hierarchy and prejudice’ (Mendelsohn, 2002:117)
Leve argues that there is a ‘specificity of assumptions that underlie conventional understandings of-identity’ (Leve, 2011:516). If Leve is correct, then does Rowling’s globally celebrated Harry Potter series feed into discourses of a neoliberal quest to find one’s true identity? A notion predicated on the conception of the ‘Other’? In this essay we will discuss how despite Rowling’s best intentions to escape this inherent binary which is predicated on the differentiation between ‘self’ and the ‘Other’, the Harry Potter (HP) series very often falls into the trap of perpetuating injustices, despite her commentary on them. In short, Rowling comments but never acts upon the injustices; her content and ideas within the HP series comment and reprimand social inequalities, but her deliverance reiterates structural inequality through tired, stereotypical identity markers.
Within Rowling’s series is an unwavering, yet subtle, message of the importance of finding one’s transcendental, unquestionable truth, which has its roots deeply embedded within Western thought (Derrida, 1976). These ‘truths’, which make up one’s identity, concretises a person’s role and status within society as well as their epistemological frameworks. Harry Potter begins to discover his ‘true’ ‘self’ when he receives his letter from Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Rowling, 1997). Raised in the non-wizarding, ‘muggle’ world, he begins integrating into the wizarding world; indeed, I would argue he happily assimilates into this world, content to forget his muggle experience – in this case, the ‘Other’. Renan claims that the act of forgetting is central to the forming of a nation (1990), which Harry and his peers must experience, as their transition from young children to fully-fledged magical persons is enacted. Coming-of-age magical persons must forget their muggle origins to gain a new cultural identity, as de Castro succinctly puts it: ‘the parties involved find themselves united by that which divides them, linked by that which separates them’ (de Castro, 2004:19). What this implies is a hierarchical power relation, in which the muggle world is perceived as ignorant and inferior. We see this inferiority expressed throughout the series, on a quotidian, structural level and on a physically violent level as Voldermort’s followers begin to regain power later on in the series. Rowling’s stance against a racist ‘pureblood’ wizarding ideology is ostensibly at odds with how she crafts the differentiation between the muggle world and the wizarding world. Rée’s (1992) critique of liberal thought claims that the ambiguous term ‘identity’ has the propensity to erase any differences between the individual and the ‘group’ – or ‘collectivities in which they participate’ (1992:9). This creates a naturalisation of identity which, in the case of the muggle:wizarding dichotomy, requires that one remove their muggle hat before they are able to don their wizarding one, excuse the pun. The muggle world – through this binary division that Rowling constructs – is only permitted to enter the wizarding world as entertainment – Arthur Weasley is obsessed with collecting muggle artefacts (as seen in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Rowling, 1998), which echoes anthropological beginnings as cultural artefacts were removed from the populations that crafted them as white EuroAmerican scientists deemed them too ‘primitive’ and inferior to safeguard their own culture (Hsu, 1964). Other incidents include the Death Eaters torturing muggles for light entertainment, as seen at the Quidditch World Cup in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Rowling, 2002).
Harry’s identity in the magical realm, then, is fixed, absolute, and superior. And why not? Harry suffered from severe child abuse and neglect at the hands of his adopted guardians, silenced for being ‘different’, ‘weird’, ‘strange’. His Hogwarts letter comes as a welcome explanation to his individual search for an identity:
“Not a wizard, eh? Never made things happen when you was scared or
Harry looked into the fire. Now he came to think about it…’ (Rowling, 1997:44)
No longer the weirdo, the ‘Other’, Harry finds a common cultural identity with an entire community, all of whom share his magical abilities. Leve defines identity as ‘a reflexive construct or experimental modality through which one knows oneself and claims recognition’ (Leve, 2011:513). Accordingly, Harry identifies as a wizard, acknowledging parts of his self now he has the criteria (i.e. knowledge of the existence of the wizarding world) to do so. But when allowing an individual peace, we must also recognize that because the individual merges with the collective (Rée, 1992), Harry’s peace with his identity also rests on a prerequisite of discrimination and prejudice. There are clear structural inequalities between the superior, wizarding world and the ‘Other’, inferior muggle world in Rowling’s work, particularly when we see how her superior wizarding world is largely homogenous: in the form of a white, heteronormative, and cis-gendered male body. Parallels are easily drawn between Rowling’s literary creation and European colonialist discourse that compared what was thought to be the intellectually and physically superior white European to his colonisable ‘Other’ (Maza, 2012). Subtleties of language and markers of identity – along with neoliberal notions of democracy and ‘development’ – permit this trope of the ‘Other’ as inferior to remain, for difference to mean inferiority.
Rowling’s commentary on Lord Voldermort’s eugenic quest to remove from the wizarding population any genetically ‘impure’ wizards – those of muggle descent – highlights the dangers of biological determinism. This liberal, multiculturalist discourse is common in European politics, which aims to celebrate and accept diversity. Unfortunately, however, Rowling does not translate her commentary into visible change. Her use of biological determinism in the form of familial and gender roles, as well as racial stereotypes, contradicts her multicultural antiracist (Bonnett, 2000) message. The family unit is portrayed as nuclear, heterosexual, cis-gender and white. The only characters that don’t adhere precisely to this family portrait are those that have suffered from a parental death. Luna Lovegood’s mother died by her own spell backfiring (Rowling, 2003) – which implies that Luna’s somewhat curious, ‘different’ nature is hereditary, Harry’s parents sacrificed themselves to save Harry from being murdered by Lord Voldermort (Rowling, 1997), and Neville Longbottom’s parents were driven insane by torture at the hands of Bellatrix Lestrange (Rowling, 2002). The absence of both Harry and Neville’s parents are exemplified as traditional acts of heroic martyrdom. The family construct is uniform in this idealised world of Rowling’s, which is reminiscent of Reed’s analysis of city walkers in London who reify the city into a homogenous, white, historical character (Reed, 2002). Like Reed’s informants, Rowling creates a fictitious world in which her citizens are part of a white, middle-class, nuclear family unit. Similarly, gender identities in the wizarding world are as absolute as they are in ours. Everyone is cisgender, or presumed to be, in a cis-normative fashion that mirrors British society, where transgender individuals are positioned outside societal norms, for their mere presence unsettles the strict gender binary matrix we live within. Assuming there are transwitches and transwizards in Rowling’s creation, and we do so because of the many other parallels to our world, she has erased an entire community in her quest for a superior magical world. This trans erasure – though subtle, and appearing naturalized due to our own cisnormative ontological structures – is entirely contradictory with her social remark. She also misses the opportunity to spearhead LGBTQ+ role models for her readership. Rowling keeps this community at the periphery of her society, and those that enjoy her books are not given an opportunity to see the LGBTQ+ community in a positive light – the only explicit reference to homosexuality anywhere in the series is a homophobic comment made by Harry’s bully of a cousin Dudley: ‘”Who’s Cedric — your boyfriend?” (Rowing, 2003:15). Additionally, one must question why Rowling chose the ‘kooky’ loner old man, in a position of authority over hundreds of children, to play the only homosexual. Admittedly as an afterthought (Rowling admitted that she always thought Dumbledore was gay at a press signing after the series was published (News.bbc.co.uk, 2007), this plays into damaging stereotypes relating to sexual perversions and sodomy, which are reminiscent of the kinds of attitudes that risk the lives of LGBTQ+ people every day.
An extension of this presumptive cisgendering of an entire population, are fixed gender roles and stereotypes. All of the true ‘heroes’ of the HP series are men, even down to house-elf Dobby – whose false consciousness (Marx et al., 1972) renders him the adoring faithful servant even after his liberation from slavery (Rowling, 1998), so that he is willing to die for his liberator (Rowling, 2007). All heroes are signposted as male. Rowling’s magical world is as susceptible to sexist stereotype identities as much as ours is. How much of this is Rowling’s intentional critique of society, or an admission/ imperceptibility of the status of things, we will not know. However as we turn to look at how females in the series are framed, I would argue that even if Rowling’s social commentary is an active one, she does little to remove the prejudices by taking real action against them, perpetuating them further.
All women in Rowling’s world are relegated to either the love object or the faithful, good mother. Cho Chang and Ginny Weasley, despite their intelligence and other admiral traits, are depicted as lovesick and dependent on a male’s affection: Ginny’s character development is eventually portrayed as a tactic to gain Harry’s sexual attention and affection (Rowling, 2005:647). Hermione is consigned to an informative, maternal role. Throughout, she concedes to Ron’s requests to complete his homework for him, is expected to be emotionally intelligent and provide an ‘insight’ into the ‘mind’ of a girl (Rowling, 2003), and offer the theoretical knowledge her male friends need to defeat Voldermort. Despite all of this, she is portrayed as an irritating, smart alek rather than a hard-working, ambitious, courageous young student: “That is the second time you have spoken out of turn, Miss Granger,” said Snape cooly. “Five more points from Gryffindor for being an insufferable know it all.”’ (Rowling, 2003:172). One wonders whether her portrayal would remain so had Rowling assigned her a male gender. Moreover, during the conflict between Bellatrix Lestrange and Molly Weasley in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Molly plays the ferocious mother, using gendered swear words as an insult: ‘”NOT MY DAUGHTER YOU BITCH!”’ (Rowling, 2007:620). Molly is only seen to play an active participant within the battle – and thus on a par with her male peers – when her children are in danger. This is of course not an inherently bad characteristic to have, but it does play into very binary-specific ideas of how certain genders should behave.
So far we have seen how identity markers have created a homogenised wizarding world, despite Rowling’s attempts at teaching her readers the dangers about this exact homogenisation. When the ‘Other’ is introduced, in the form of students from international wizarding schools in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling does nothing to remedy dangerous stereotypes that isolate people from each other through a binary division of ethnic origin. One can connect this idea to Strathern’s work amongst Hagen migrants in Papua New Guinea; she argued that they ‘lived in… comparable moral communities’ (2011:96). We have already seen how identity rests upon a moral judgment (e.g. the wizarding community is superior in all facets to the muggle community), and her ethnic identity markers regarding pupils from foreign schools is no exception. Blommaert and Verschueren have discussed how European nationalisms rest upon a principal ideology of ‘homogeneism’ (1996:109), in which a society that is homogenous is seen as a harmonious one. This homogeneist notion is materialised in the run-up to the TriWizard Tournament (Rowling, 2002). The students from Durmstrang Institute are exemplified as stereotypically Eastern European; they are brutish, violent, harsh and moronic. The all-male cohort sits with the Slytherin house at Hogwarts, known for its fascist tendencies. The majority-female French students from Beauxbatons Academy of Magic are arrogant, superficial and stand off-ish. Throughout the fourth book, Rowling depicts cultural tensions and anxieties arising from their presence, reiterating her creation of a homogeneic world.
I have sought to illustrate how Rowling’s use of stereotypical identity markers – such as gender roles, ‘wizarding’ versus ‘non-wizarding’, and ethnic stereotypes, ensures the binary divide between the identified ‘self’ and the identified ‘Other’, and perpetuates structural and personal injustices through homogenisation. Her use of inherent identificatory markers in her envisioned utopic wizarding world is problematic and essentialising, and looks at lot more like Lord Voldermort’s vision than she may like. My exploration of Rowling’s Harry Potter series has not delved into the positive effects of Rowling’s global success of a series; I have always been an avid fan of her series, but it is important to recognise that although she goes a long way to reprimand Voldermort’s fascism, Rowling’s wizarding creation encapsulates much of the themes wrong with a neoliberal quest for equality and justice – she makes a stand, she highlights (ironically much like this essay)but does not go far enough, which her platform could have afforded her. Having said that, I am not altogether sure I’ll be boycotting her books and the subsequent films produced; recent support from Rowling on Twitter for Noma Dumezweni to be cast as Hermione in the new stage play of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Tan, 2015) reads as such: “brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione” (Rowling, 2015). Other writers have expressed similar sentiments – ‘Growing up, I never thought that Hermione could be any colour other than black.’ (Bush, 2015). Whether or not Rowling’s reaction came from a genuine place – for she could have originally created Hermione as a black girl at Hogwarts, as opposed to the invisible and always-assumed whiteness, which just so happens to play out nicely for her within the seeming PR test surrounding the new stage play – the emergence of the stage play, and the strength of reactions over the race of one of the actors, reveals how very ‘non’ the category of white is, how pervasive our structures are, regardless of our original intentions. So then, is Rowling’s applaud at a (step towards a) diverse cast for the new screen play merely a masquerade for not being the writer to diversify our homogenous media in the first place? We should congratulate and celebrate her applause but equally continue to highlight the homogeneity we see on our screens, plays and on the pages of our most cherished books.
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Chloe is an anthropology student, most interested in concepts of the body, and how structural violence is played out within, between and from bodies.