It’s Time for Progressives to Move On from Harry Potter

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Over the last several weeks, JK Rowling, billionaire author and creator of the Harry Potter franchise, has sparked a wave of controversy among her own fanbase. Progressive fans who had been paying attention were already aware of Rowling’s forays into transphobia (which had been carefully, though unconvincingly, spun by Rowling and her agent as accidental) but it’s now impossible to ignore after Rowling produced a manifesto that officially outed her as a voice of the so-called “gender critical” movement. Of course, there’s already a term to describe the type of person Rowling clearly is – TERF, an acronym for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist.” This is a person who sees herself as a progressive due to her feminist values and beliefs, but refuses to extend those values (or indeed, basic human respect) to trans women (or indeed, trans people in general). Despite her objections to the term, Rowling fits this description perfectly, and her insistence on couching her transphobia in the language of an abuse survivor trying to protect the rights of women gives her away.

It’s been pointed out that Rowling is hardly the first popular author to disappoint her progressive fanbase with beliefs that are both hurtful to marginalized communities and clearly inaccurate. Orson Scott Card, for example, author of the Ender series, has come up a lot in these conversations. People talk about “taking back” Harry Potter from its author, or continuing to celebrate the work while downplaying Rowling herself. But Harry Potter is no ordinary series, and Rowling is no ordinary problematic creator. There’s an entire generation (of which I am very much a part) that not only grew up with Harry Potter, but used Harry Potter to help them form their own system of values and beliefs. These are people who have made their Hogwarts house and the form of their Patronus into core pieces of their identity, people who will gladly credit the Potter franchise for shaping their progressivism. And unlike Card, who has never made a secret of his deep-seated homophobia, Rowling has embraced her position as a leading light of the left, using her platform to advocate for liberal political causes and, more prominently, against conservative ones. As a result, the language of Harry Potter has entered the political lexicon of progressives, particularly in the age of Donald Trump, who has been compared to the villainous Lord Voldemort endlessly for the last four years, even by Rowling herself.

So if you’re a progressive Potter fan, the transphobia hurts. It feels like a betrayal, not only by the person who crafted a story that was formative in your youth, but by someone who you thought was a high-profile ally in the fight against bigotry and ignorance. This isn’t just something you can explain away, a creator you can pretend doesn’t exist. The author of one of the most influential works in modern history has sorted herself into House TERF, and we have to look that in the face and deal with it. This is not the time to circle the wagons and defend Harry Potter because it’s important to us. This is the time to reassess something that has become an important part of who we are, to look at it again with fresh eyes, with an adult perspective, and determine if it can continue to be part of our identities as progressives. And I’m sorry to be the one to say this, but when I go back and look at Harry Potter, I see a lot of things that make me think it’s time to let the series go.

 

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Chapter 1: Harry Potter and the Series Inflection Point

 

Long before she started defending Maya Forstater and Magdalen Berns, JK Rowling had already been earning some questioning glances from the progressive wing of the Harry Potter fan base. Her public insistence that the character of Albus Dumbledore was gay led some to praise her for diversity, while others wondered why Dumbledore’s sexuality was confirmed after the fact rather than in the text. It didn’t help that the Fantastic Beasts spin-off film franchise, which features both a younger Dumbledore and his professed love interest, also failed to textualize the character’s sexuality. Furthermore, in attempting to expand the “wizarding world” as a set-up for that franchise, Rowling has engaged in world-building that is clumsy, incohesive, and occasionally offensive. She rightly came under fire when fleshing out the history of the American wizarding world for characterizing Indigenous cultures as a single community and casually appropriating an Indigenous legend for use in her fiction, and she’s faced criticism for linking the character of Grindelwald to the Nazi movement in the second Fantastic Beasts film. Beyond that, she’s shown a surprising lack of deference to her own previous material in newer work such as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which alters characterizations and breaks established rules set down in the core series. While Rowling isn’t directly credited as the author of either Cursed Child or the Fantastic Beasts franchise, she is known to have been deeply involved in the crafting of both – indeed, her insistence in maintaining complete creative control over the world of Harry Potter is one of the things that makes the discrepancies of later Potter-based work so curious.

This is merely to demonstrate that Rowling has (a) failed to back up her alleged progressivism in her recent work, and (b) struggled in the task of expanding the wizarding world in a way that is satisfying and consistent with her previous work. But the idea that Rowling has “lost her touch” in some way since the conclusion of the core seven Potter books is not a new one, and while the things she’s said and written since the original series ended in 2007 will come up again, they are simply supplemental pieces of information that help us understand the bigger picture. It’s the original seven books that fans fell in love with and that helped shape modern Western culture, and it’s Rowling’s failure to prove her progressive credentials, as well as her ability to world-build, in those books that must form the crux of any argument for moving on from Harry Potter. And after revisiting them, there are two conclusions that I think are fairly indisputable. First, that Harry Potter is, fundamentally, a series for children, which should be objectively considered when discussing its impact on adults. Second, that Harry Potter has little, if anything, to do with progressive values, and should not be treated as though it does. These two points are, naturally, intertwined, and what they mean in combination is that Harry Potter, while a great story for kids, is something that progressive adults need to consider growing beyond.

If there’s one thing most, if not all Potter fans agree on, it’s that there’s a clear difference between the first four books in the core Harry Potter series and the final three. This difference can best be defined with the phrase “shit just got real.” Or, to put it in less crude terms, the Harry Potter series decided to start growing up. Indeed, I believe that one of the central reasons for the Harry Potter phenomenon is the fact that the series aged with its readers. The first four books came out annually from 1997 to 2000; if you happened to be eleven years old in 1997 (or 1998, in America), as many of the older Millennials were, the relatability of the main characters for those first four years was seamless. You were 11 when Harry was 11, 12 when he was 12, etc. It’s important to remember, also, that those early books carried a distinctly whimsical, light-hearted tone, appropriate for and commonly used in popular children’s fantasy. The comparisons to legendary children’s writer Roald Dahl are thoroughly inescapable – Harry’s backstory as an orphan sent to live with his abusive relatives before finding his freedom via magic exactly mirrors that of the title character from James and the Giant Peach, and numerous scenes involving the Dursleys evoke a distinctly Dahlian tone, from Book 1’s plague of Hogwarts acceptance letters to Book 3’s visit from Aunt Marge.

The difference, of course, is that Rowling’s series followed the main characters out of childhood and into adolescence, which meant the readers who had been along for the ride since ’97 got to grow up alongside Harry, Ron, and Hermione. It also meant that Rowling had to start writing more complex material for an older audience. The end of Book 4 raises the stakes of the Potter series dramatically, killing off a non-villainous character for the first time and re-introducing Voldemort as the primary villain. While Voldemort’s presence is felt strongly in the first three books, the action in all three is driven by his disciples – Professor Quirrell, Lucius Malfoy, and Peter “Wormtail” Pettigrew – with the dark lord himself largely remaining a mysterious and formless character. Moreover, while the first four books can generally be seen as individual stories, the last three are very much one large story. They also took Rowling longer to write – whereas the first four books came out within the span of four years, it took seven for Rowling to complete the last three. And of course, the tone of the series shifts dramatically in the last three books as more important characters start to die and the trio of heroes struggles with outgrowing the illusions of childhood – by the time Albus Dumbledore falls from the tower in Book 6, much of the series’ whimsical elements are gone, and Rowling has gone to great lengths to expand the world in which it takes place.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the pinnacle of Rowling’s efforts to flesh out her series and make it something more than whimsical children’s literature. The fifth book, Order of the Phoenix, carries the darkest overall tone of the seven and features Harry’s full-on descent into teenage angst, but there are still hints of the series’ origins throughout the story – Dolores Umbridge, for example, for all her terrifying “banality of evil” connotations, is still cartoonishly evil in a way that Voldemort is not. Half-Blood Prince officially crosses the line from childhood into adulthood. The characters are sixteen now – the age of sexual consent in Rowling’s native United Kingdom – and a great part of the story involves their various romantic entanglements. Hogwarts is slightly less light-hearted with the departure of the pranking twins, Fred and George, and the would-be whimsy of the gang’s trip to their joke shop is almost immediately undermined by the revelation that they’re also supplying weapons and equipment in the fight against Voldemort. More importantly, the world of the series expands in a way never seen before. The first two chapters of the book are, for the first time, told from a perspective outside Harry’s own. Harry’s lessons with Dumbledore provide numerous opportunities for Rowling to expand on the nature of magic and the backstory of the central villain. Some of the more childish ideas from early books are sanded down and made more palatable, such as the introduction of the first not-entirely-evil member of Slytherin House in the form of Horace Slughorn. Indeed, the very name of the book is instructive when looking at how it differs from the five that came before. Each of the first five books is named either for the central MacGuffin of that book’s plot, or for new characters or groups of characters that are being introduced for the first time. The titular Half-Blood Prince, however, turns out not to be a new character, but an old one in disguise, the alias of the apparently traitorous Professor Snape. The sixth book, despite introducing the concept of Horcruxes, is primarily about the relationships between characters we’ve known for nearly a decade by now – Harry and Snape, Harry and Dumbledore, Snape and Dumbledore, Ron and Hermione. The book walks the incredible tightrope of raising the stakes and expanding the universe while still managing to be fundamentally about the characters. It’s one of the reasons that many (including me) find Half-Blood Prince to be Rowling’s greatest novel. By the end, we are primed and ready for the conclusion of the series. Dumbledore is dead; Snape is that man that killed him; it happened on the grounds of Hogwarts, previously the place we all felt safe; we’re aware of the threat Voldemort’s rise poses to both the wizarding and Muggle worlds, and it’s time to conclude the process of bringing both Harry and the series itself to adulthood.

But that’s not what happened.

 

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Chapter 2: Gamp’s Law Says You Can’t Transfigure Your Cake And Eat It Too

 

Fan opinions about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows vary tremendously, but I think there’s a fairly robust consensus that it could have been better. Everyone has their own reasons for where and how the book goes wrong, or at least stumbles enough that the ending isn’t perfect, but here’s my theory: At the exact moment when Rowling should have pushed forward, boldly jumping into the finale of her story, she pulled back. She hesitated. And she retreated to the comfortable territory of books past.

Now, obviously I don’t know how much of the Harry Potter story was planned in advance – Rowling has stated that she had the large part of the central plot written out ahead of time, but she also keeps saying she liked transphobic tweets accidentally when it’s now painfully obvious that she was liking them intentionally, so clearly, like all writers, she’s a liar. But there are several decisions made in Deathly Hallows that suggest a writer somewhat unwilling to tread new ground in her final installment. Rowling has spent years receiving credit for clever foreshadowing or her ability to wrap up loose ends, but much of that is a result of readers giving her the benefit of the doubt due to their love of the series. Observed in a more critical light, many things that had previously been advanced as arguments for Rowling’s skill appear instead to be tacked-on attempts at retroactive worldbuilding that would be perfectly at home in, say, the Twilight novels, which have been criticized far more viciously than Harry Potter ever has.

The biggest example, of course, are the Deathly Hallows themselves. Rowling is returning to her “name the book after today’s MacGuffin” style, which in and of itself betrays a reluctance to continuing moving along the path laid out by Prince. The last thing this book needed was a quest for previously unheard-of magical objects (previously unheard-of, mind you, despite being the subject of a ubiquitous fairy tale in the wizarding world). The hunt for Voldemort’s Horcruxes and the final battle with the Death Eaters would have been more than enough to carry the story – I’m not convinced the book needed a final fetch quest in the first place, but it definitely didn’t need two of them. Even more damning is that the Hallows themselves are either meaningless to the plot or take the series in bizarre thematic directions that don’t seem entirely compatible with the earlier books. The idea that Harry defeats Voldemort in part because he is master of the Elder Wand undermines the series’ themes of victory through love and sacrifice rather than sheer magical power; the Resurrection Stone serves only to give Harry a moment with his loved ones before the climax, and the Cloak of Invisibility is just Harry’s invisibility cloak — the one he receives in the very first book. Again, if you’re giving Rowling the benefit of the doubt as an author, you can assume she always meant to write in subtle differences between Harry’s cloak and the mundane ones that show up later, but if you’re not, it looks an awful lot like Harry’s cloak was changed into something more important to cover up previous discrepancies.

The cloak isn’t the only important element in Hallows that was introduced back in Book 1 and papered over with a thin skin of hasty world-building. The Resurrection Stone lies inside the golden snitch that Harry caught in his very first quidditch game. There’s no quidditch in Hallows, both because it doesn’t take place in the context of a Hogwarts term, and because the game in general had slowly begun fading from the series until being dropped almost completely in Prince. In Hallows, however, the snitch from that first game is suddenly prominent. A bigger offender is Dumbledore’s Deluminator, known as the “put-outer” in the very first scene of the very first book before never being mentioned again, until its sudden return with a fancy new name in Hallows. Whether this was planned from the beginning is irrelevant – it still represents a return to the series’ past, and such representations are littered through the book. Harry returns to Gringotts for the first time since Book 1, the Chamber of Secrets is opened (offscreen, and in hilariously hand-wavy fashion) for the first time since Book 2, and the sword of Griffyndor, another Book 2 relic, takes on new importance (thanks to some hastily scrawled worldbuilding about how goblin-made weapons work and the nature of basilisk venom, yet another Book 2 element) and is even retrieved once again from the Sorting Hat.

And all the while, important elements from more recent books, especially Prince, are not brought back into the story. No more of Prince‘s glimpses into how the war is affecting the Muggle world, for example. There is one chapter – the first – told from outside Harry’s perspective, but it’s more tone-setting than anything else, a far cry from the functions served by the opening chapters of Prince.  And other crucial aspects of Prince are actively undermined by Hallows, the biggest example being the revelation that Harry is descended from a famous and powerful wizarding family, which completely overrides Prince’s oft-lauded statement that prophecy doesn’t matter and Harry’s fate as “the Chosen One” was sealed simply because Voldemort attacked his family. Rowling has attempted to cover up this problem after the fact by explaining that most wizards are descended from one of a few different families, making Harry’s ancestry seem less exclusive, but that doesn’t change the fact that the text of the book proclaims Harry, not Neville Longbottom, to be related to the one wizard who managed to cheat death.

Instead of continuing forward with the themes and plot devices she had used in more recent books, Rowling went back to the whimsy well. But of course, as she was now writing for adults (that 11-year-old who first picked up Book 1 back in 1997 was 21 when Book 7 came out)  she couldn’t afford to be whimsical. It’s hard to be whimsical when you’re killing off beloved characters left and right. So Rowling began retroactively world-building, turning things that didn’t need to make sense because they belonged in children’s books into things that could survive the scrutiny of an adult audience. Not even the basic magic system was immune to this process, as demonstrated when Hermione cites a previously unknown magical law that prevents the trio from conjuring food while lost in the woods. Nothing whatsoever about the previous six books would suggest that wizards can’t conjure food, but Rowling wanted the trio to experience real hunger, an adult problem, without the childish escape provided by magic.

The conflict between Rowling’s two goals – finish growing the series up with its readers, but also re-introduce elements from early books as plot devices rather than expand on more recent ones– creates a dissonance in Hallows, and it’s one of the reasons the book doesn’t entirely work. Fortunately for Rowling, she happens to be both (a) an extremely talented prose writer, and (b) a master of character dynamics and tension stemming from character relationships. The interactions between the trio, the relationships between Dumbledore and his brother, between Dumbledore and Snape, between Snape and Harry, between Harry and Malfoy – these are where Hallows shines. On the personal level, it’s a tremendous book. But on the broader level, when it comes to both the world of Harry Potter and the themes of the story, Hallows muddies the waters rather than clearing them. And when you stop giving Rowling the benefit of the doubt, a picture emerges of a writer who simply wasn’t skilled enough to do her own story justice.

 

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Chapter 3: Poverty and Prejudice

 

It’s important to emphasize at this point that there’s nothing wrong with children’s books, and there would be nothing wrong with Rowling continuing to write them (as, indeed, she has). But as we’ll see, the task of aging up the Harry Potter universe as introduced even in the first book is beyond Rowling’s ability, and probably shouldn’t have been attempted. It’s not just because of inconsistencies in the wizarding world that don’t hold up to scrutiny, though that is absolutely a problem. The bigger issue is that, as Harry Potter transitioned into adult fiction, the themes of the series remained largely childish. Harry Potter is beloved, in part, because of its themes. But analyzing the series reveals those themes as lacking much depth, particularly in terms of what you would expect from a story that helped shape, and continues to shape, the values of its readers.

Harry Potter’s themes are clearest and best expressed with regard to concepts of war, death, and self-sacrifice. Rowling does an excellent job depicting the horrors and consequences of war, and the ramping up of those consequences throughout the series is a huge part of the attempted age-up. Rowling also has plenty to say on the subject of death and why we shouldn’t necessarily be afraid of it, and the power of sacrificing oneself on behalf of loved ones. None of this is in dispute. However, Harry Potter also tends to get credited as championing certain progressive values, and this is where the series falls down.

For example, the question of economic poverty is one that Rowling works into her books, but doesn’t seriously engage with. One of the defining traits of Ron Weasley and his family is that they are poor, and this stands in stark contrast to Harry himself, who has been left a vast inheritance by his dead parents. This contrast is used to create personal conflict between Harry and Ron in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but beyond that, the Weasleys’ poverty has very little impact on the series. In fact, the Weasleys don’t really appear that poor at all. They are never shown to be lacking much of anything essential – they own a house and they never seem anywhere close to running out of food, even after adopting Harry as a de facto extra son. Their poverty manifests itself in the form of Ron’s second-hand robes and school supplies, and other, minor things like out-of-date quidditch broomsticks. They are hardly suffering. Strangely, Rowling draws specific attention to this in Deathly Hallows, when the trio is, as previously mentioned, starting to go hungry after weeks on the run. Harry is used to it from his childhood, and even Hermione is putting on a brave face, but Ron, the poor one, is the member of the trio who cracks. The extent to which he has never known true hunger can be seen in the fact that he believes his mother can create food out of nothing, which Hermione notes to be impossible. So the Weasley’s poverty is really just a shallow character trait that neither affects the plot nor says anything about poverty in general. The only other truly poor character in the series is Remus Lupin, whose condition as a werewolf prevents him from getting jobs. This has nothing to do with poverty, but is openly an allegory for AIDS – though considering AIDS is widely known for afflicting the gay community, it’s somewhat eye-opening that Rowling later had Lupin not only marry a woman, but father a son.

The problem here for progressives is Rowling’s lack of imagination in first conceiving, and then fleshing out, the wizarding world. After all, why should wizards need money? Why would the wizarding world subscribe to a capitalist system? Capitalism places value on resources based on their scarcity, but there’s no scarcity when you can literally change things into other things by magic. What value would gold have, for example, if you could magically make it from other materials? Perhaps, if we asked her, Rowling would be able to tell us the specifics of her magic system that make this sort of thing impossible, but any in-world explanation only serves to underscore the fact that Rowling chose to have the wizarding world operate almost exactly the way the real world does. And for children’s stories, this makes sense – it’s probably more important to build a world kids can relate to and see themselves in than it is to come up with a brand new magical system of economics. But in adult literature, the idea that even possessing magic powers wouldn’t allow a society to find a better solution than Western capitalism is a disturbing and depressing one. And to portray poverty within a capitalist system as a minor inconvenience that is, at worst, embarrassing, is painfully inaccurate. Harry’s excuse throughout the entire series for not sharing some of his vast wealth with his adopted family is that the Weasleys would be too proud to take it, which makes sense considering their relative lack of poverty – you can afford to care about things like pride when all seven of your children are eating well every day – but erases the experiences of those who are actually poor, for whom having a wealthy friend willing to share could make a world of difference.

Because the Weasleys are the poorest wizarding family we see, there’s not a ton of class stratification in Harry Potter. There is an elite wizarding class, to be sure, but we’re not shown any kind of vast lifestyle difference between, say, the Weasleys and the Malfoys. The latter look down their noses at the former, because elitism is one of their character traits, but wizarding society in general does not. Nor does the wizarding world display any signs of discrimination by race, sex, gender identity, or religion. These elements have seemingly been scrubbed from Harry Potter completely, and once again, we can presume that’s because the books were originally aimed at children. In theory, there’s nobility in the idea of presenting kids with a world that simply doesn’t have these forms of discrimination, though it would certainly be far more notable if Rowling had made even one major character a person of color, or outed any characters as gay or queer prior to the end of the series. Given the fact that Rowling, like all TERFs, justifies her transphobia with feminism, you’d think there would be at least some feminist element in Harry Potter, but because there’s no sexism, there can’t be. Hogwarts has received praise for its portrayal of a secular boarding school, but it’s decidedly odd that the wizarding world appears to have no religion whatsoever. And when you think about it, it’s astoundingly bizarre that real world biases don’t make it into the wizarding world, since many of its members are Muggle-born – students who come from regular families, some of which, presumably, hold prejudiced attitudes that their children would pick up on. For a series that is often lauded as being anti-prejudice, it’s surprising to realize that Rowling partially achieved this simply by pretending prejudice doesn’t exist. At least, among regular wizards.

Instead, Rowling introduces other prejudices unique to her particular setting. The most notable of these is the prejudice against Muggles and Muggle-borns themselves. The central characters might all be white, but Hermione is part of a wizard-specific marginalized group, and this allows Rowling to speak to issues of prejudice throughout the series. Moreover, Voldemort himself is prejudiced against Muggle-borns, and his rise to power further allows Rowling to depict marginalized groups being actively persecuted despite the lack of traditional real-world forms of bigotry. The villains of the story can still be racists despite living in a world without actual racism. Magical racists, if you will. Hence the idea that prejudice is a major theme of the series.

Except that it turns out Rowling has very little to say on the subject. In the wizarding world at the time the series takes place, anti-Muggle-born prejudice is largely a thing of the past (this is confirmed in Rowling’s writings on the series’ official website, formerly known as Pottermore). There are only two kinds of people in Harry Potter who are ever seen discriminating against Hermione or any other Muggle-born: Death Eaters, and members of  Slytherin House. In other words, the villains. Despite the insistence of some fans, this characterization of the Slytherins is not misrepresentative, nor is the house redeemed in any way by the end of the story. The house’s primary representatives, the Malfoys and Snape, are secondary villains throughout the series, and for all the talk of Slytherin traits like “ambition,” their true unifying characteristic is racism against Muggle-borns. The house founder was a racist and canonically selected his students based on bloodline, Voldemort was sorted into the house almost immediately, every Death Eater (and, if you believe Ron, every dark wizard ever) was a member of the house, and even Snape and Slughorn, the series’ two “good” Slytherins, are seen making racist comments against Muggle-borns in the books. Slytherin, as presented, is House Racist, and beyond that, they are the ONLY racists. Everybody else has evolved past prejudice by now. This idea – a racist category of person, to which all racism is confined – is utterly ridiculous and betrays a total ignorance of the idea of systemic prejudice. “These are the Nazis,” Rowling seems to say. “They always wear their uniforms, so you can tell who they are; they are the sole remaining practitioners of prejudice in the world, and some of them are good, actually.” This message would honestly be problematic for a children’s story, let alone adult literature.

And we haven’t even gotten to non-humans, who non-Slytherins are prejudiced against…but in this case, the narrative tells us that’s a good thing. Or, at least, perfectly justifiable. Goblins, for instance, are discriminated against under wizard law, and this injustice is neither resolved nor even framed as a negative. We don’t spend a lot of time with goblins in the books – their primary function is to run the wizard bank, Gringotts, which is introduced in Book 1 and then left on the back burner until Book 7, at which point we get our first named, important goblin character, Griphook. Due to their role as bankers, goblins in Harry Potter have been seen by some as an antisemitic portrayal, but at times they read more like indigenous Americans. They have their own brand of magic that allows them to create powerful artifacts, but are denied access to wizard magic. They have waged wars against wizards in the past, and though we get few details, the relationship between the two sides smacks of wizard colonization. And because of past hostilities, they distrust wizards, believing they will break their word without hesitation. This provides an interesting source of tension when Harry and Griphook make a deal whereby Harry agrees to give Griphook the goblin-made Sword of Griffindor in exchange for sneaking the trio into Gringotts. Griphook naturally ends up betraying them to get the sword because he believes Harry will break his word. But here’s the thing: Harry was going to break his word. We are in his head and know that he has no intention, at any point, of honoring his agreement. So Griphook and the goblins are right about wizards…but it doesn’t matter. Harry feels no remorse over his deception, and the sword ends up back in wizard hands, anyway. There’s no indication that the wizard attitude toward goblins is problematic in the slightest.

Things get even worse when you look at house elves, the species characterized by a natural inclination toward fawning servitude. Much is made of the story of Dobby, and of Hermione’s house elf activism, but they are both extreme outliers in their respective communities, and they never manage to convince anyone else of their positions. Dobby is the only house elf in the series who desires freedom from the slavery at work in the wizarding world, and the rest of them think he’s insane. There’s never a defined reason for this, magical or otherwise – he’s just the weird one who, unlike normal house elves, has a problem with his life of magically compelled servitude where you have to injure yourself if you don’t follow orders. Winky, a more typical house elf introduced later, has freedom forced upon her as a punishment and falls into depression and alcoholism, a reaction that makes much more sense to the other members of her community.

The strangest thing about the house elf question is that when we meet Dobby in Book 2, Chamber of Secrets, and the predicament of house elves is first explained, it’s presented as a real problem, and Dobby’s plight as a slave is extremely sympathetic. He’s the first house elf we’ve met, and we meet him in the context of him desperately trying to help Harry at every turn, despite the wishes of his masters. His bondage is a terrible thing that he bravely fights against at physical risk to himself, and Harry freeing him is the triumphant final beat of the novel. Moreover, it turns out Dobby was enslaved to the Malfoys, which drives home the entwined, mutually supported ideas that Slytherins are evil and that house elf slavery is wrong.

In their next appearance, however, we get a glimpse of how the house elves as a species interact with the broader wizarding world, as the trio discovers that house elves do just about every chore there is to do at Hogwarts, free of charge. This is Book 4, Goblet of Fire, where Rowling begins the process of making her story more complex, and this subplot is no exception – all of a sudden, the trio is forced to reckon with the fact that their comfort is the product of, as Hermione herself puts it, “slave labor.” In theory, this is a complex, adult dilemma, quite fitting for a series attempting to grow up with its readership. Unfortunately, Hermione is the only character who ultimately cares about this moral quandary, and like Dobby, her peers ridicule her for it. In an utterly baffling character turn, Harry Potter, the boy who freed Dobby and who would ultimately carve the words “a free elf” on his tombstone, simply doesn’t worry that much about house elf slavery, because now he’s met more of them and they don’t seem to mind. The Malfoys engaging in slavery is injustice, because they are bad masters. Hogwarts doing it is justified because the elves are treated well. If individuals ask to stop being discriminated against, the story seems to say, we should stop. However, if they don’t, possibly because their slavery is normalized within their culture, it’s not a big deal, and only abnormal know-it-alls like Hermione get worked up over it. Again, the emphasis is on the individual, not on the system.

Dobby returns in Goblet, as well, and is a recurring presence for the rest of the series. We learn that he has trouble getting a job now that he’s asking for wages, but later Dumbledore takes him on for an obscenely low price – Dobby is weird enough to want to be free, it seems, but still culturally brainwashed enough to turn down Dumbledore’s initial offer and ask for less. In Order of the Phoenix, we meet Kreacher, whose abusive relationship with Sirius Black leads to the latter’s death. This is meant, it seems, to teach both the reader and the characters a valuable lesson. But in Half-Blood Prince, Harry himself becomes Kreacher’s master, and in Hallows, the trio is able to win his real affection, spending a significant portion of the book being waited on by him. Not even Hermione has much to say about this. Once again, the abuse of slaves is the problem, not slavery itself. The institution is validated by a good relationship between slave and master, and the moral calculation of slavery is based solely on the behavior of individual masters and the attitudes of individual slaves. Much is made of Kreacher leading a host of house elves against the Death Eaters in Hallows‘ Battle of Hogwarts, but there’s never any indication that the relationship between the house elves and the wizarding world is wrong and in need of reform. Even S.P.E.W., Hermione’s home-brewed house elf activism organization, has no payoff that results in a better life for the elves or any kind of change in the wizarding world.

In fact, the only payoff that S.P.E.W. does receive actively undermines the deliberate and performative characterization of Hermione as a put-upon feminist activist of the sort Rowling believes herself to be – a characterization that is presumably the main reason Rowling decided to pivot from Dobby being an oppressed victim in Chamber to the Hogwarts house elves being willing servants in Goblet. The role played in the story by this smart, determined heroine fighting against injustice despite being ridiculed for it at every turn is, quite simply, the impetus for her and Ron to kiss for the first time, which is his reward for suggesting during the Battle of Hogwarts that they evacuate the house elves for their own safety. The relationship between Ron and Hermione, who grow more and more romantically entangled as the books go on, has always required some suspension of disbelief – she consistently seems far too good for him, and Rowling has said she regrets not pairing Hermione up with Harry, instead. So in order to make their first kiss believable, Ron has to do something special, something truly remarkable that makes him stand out, which turns out to be the mere act of recognizing that the house elves’ lives have value. That’s the only conclusion to the S.P.E.W. subplot: a strong, independent woman offering her affection as a trophy to a man because he did the bare minimum required of basic human decency. Again, Rowling has written after the fact about Hermione’s continued fight for house elf rights (though notably not about Ron’s, as his brief moment of caring about something Hermione cares about has already served its purpose) and in Cursed Child, she has even become the Minister for Magic. But in the core seven books, Rowling is thoroughly uninterested in addressing the injustices she introduced, and betrays even her own professed feminism as the series comes to a close. Time and time again, it’s painfully clear that Rowling not only doesn’t understand systemic poverty or prejudice, but she’s not particularly interested in trying to understand them – a revelation that matches perfectly with her presently displayed attitude toward issues of trans rights.

 

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Chapter 4: Institutions vs. Individuals

 

The much-reviled Deathly Hallows epilogue makes it clear that nothing in the wizarding world has changed as a result of the events of the series. The reader finds themselves in the exact same place they were in Book 1: On Platform 9 ¾, with a young boy going off to Hogwarts for the first time, Voldemort having been defeated years earlier. Perhaps this could be read as a satisfying end to a series that has come full circle, but it also demonstrates that Rowling’s focus was always on the journeys of her characters, not their impact on the world they live in. Yet again, she retreats to the trappings of the early books, pulling back from the systemic implications of her story. And nowhere is her refusal to engage with those implications more clear than in her attitude toward the Ministry of Magic, the institutional governing body that holds authority over all wizards and witches in Britain.

The Ministry is omnipresent throughout the series – it is mentioned at the very beginning of Harry’s introduction to the wizarding world in the first book, and is a major contributor to the plot in each subsequent novel. In the early, more whimsical books, the Ministry is portrayed mostly as a secondary antagonist, albeit usually a bumbling, inept one. In both Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban, the trio has to save somebody from unjust punishment at the hands of the Ministry, and Cornelius Fudge, the Minister for Magic, is set up as a thick-headed foil to the wise Dumbledore. It’s also explained very early in the books that Dumbledore has consistently refused the position of Minister, a detail that casts the wizarding government in both a negative and a dismissive light. This particular choice by Dumbledore is reframed in Hallows, but in the early books it seems very clear that Dumbledore is above becoming a mere government bureaucrat. The Ministry is an obstacle, but not a terribly important one; Fudge gets in everyone’s way in a blustering, well-intentioned manner, and Dumbledore and the trio always manage to get the better of him on their way to, or coming back from, the real fight against Voldemort and the Death Eaters. Tonally, this depiction of government fits in perfectly well with a whimsical kids’ series – the Ministry are your parents who don’t believe the magical evil is real and keep making your quest more difficult with obstacles like rules and bedtimes.

In Goblet of Fire, things change a bit. During the book’s opening set-piece at the Quidditch World Cup, we are introduced to two new characters working for the Ministry: Ludo Bagman and Bartemius Crouch. Both characters throw a significantly darker shade over the institution. Bagman, head of the Department of Magical Games and Sports, is a corrupt gambler who used his quidditch popularity to get out of trouble during the first war and spends the entirety of his screen time swindling teenagers out of their money and trying to rig the Triwizard Tournament in his own financial favor. More disturbing, however, is Crouch, head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Crouch’s draconian police practices are the stuff of legend – he infamously sentenced his own son to Azkaban, the wizard prison where inmates are guarded and tormented by Dementors – explicitly evil creatures that drain away your happiness before sucking out your soul. Azkaban is the only place for wizards to go if they do something wrong, and multiple generations of Ministry officials have allowed the practice to continue. The wizarding justice system, as a result, is brutal and vile, allowing no chance for rehabilitation and embodying the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment. It’s telling that Crouch’s sentencing of his son – an act that was, as it turns out, completely justified – is used to frame him in a negative light. The Ministry’s punishment for transgression is so severe that even Death Eaters become sympathetic for having endured it.

The introduction of Bagman and Crouch is the beginning of a larger and darker role played in the story by the Ministry. Neither appears in subsequent books, but from that point on, the Ministry is more directly opposed to Harry and the trio. This is most pronounced in Order of the Phoenix, when Fudge engages in a propaganda campaign against Harry and installs the fiendish Dolores Umbridge at Hogwarts. While Order does climax in a battle with Voldemort and the Death Eaters, Umbridge is the book’s true villain, a monstrous administrator posing as a teacher who doesn’t care about education, uses magical torture as a punishment for misbehavior, and eventually takes control of the entire school. In some ways, she is a dark parody of what happens when administrators get overly involved in education, but she more directly represents the Ministry, which has basically made persecuting Harry part of their policy. In Half-Blood Prince, after Umbridge is removed and Harry is vindicated, Fudge is replaced as Minister by Rufus Scrimgeour, who asks Harry to publicly endorse the Ministry. Harry refuses, showing Scrimgeour the scars Umbridge left on his hand as a reminder of the toll the Ministry has taken on him. The conflict between the Ministry and Dumbledore also becomes much more direct in these two books, as Harry’s anti-Umbridge resistance movement calls itself “Dumbledore’s Army” and Harry expressly tells Scrimgeour that he is on Dumbledore’s side rather than the Ministry’s.

Hallows sees the Ministry completely overrun by the Death Eaters, though interestingly, they don’t openly take power and install Voldemort as Minister. Instead, they use magic to mind control various members of the Ministry, including the Minister, and govern from the shadows. This, specifically, is a revealing way to approach the subject in the last book. The government is, more than ever, the enemy — one of the book’s major set-pieces is the trio’s attempted infiltration of the Death Eater-controlled Ministry — but in this case, they are the enemy because they are being directly controlled by the villains. In keeping with the Hallows trend, they revert firmly to the secondary villain status of the early books and basically stop playing a role in the story about a third of the way through Hallows. Voldemort’s control over the Ministry forces the trio to do most of their later work in secrecy and on the run, but there’s no further direct contact between them, and Harry’s fractured relationship with the wizarding government of his country is something that, like Hermione’s activism, is never actually resolved. We know nothing at the end of Hallows about any changes that might be coming to an institution whose corruption and dysfunctionality has been an obstacle to Harry throughout his wizarding life, and which caused the deaths of an uncounted number of people by obstructing the fight against Voldemort. The “Nineteen Years Later” epilogue makes reference to Harry’s lightning scar, but no reference to the scars on his hand, and while we learn several personal details about how our main characters have aged, nothing beyond them seems to have materially changed.

It’s at this point that Rowling begins the post-publication revisionism of her own work, which I hasten to point out is necessary only because of what she failed to address in the text of the series. In a 2007 live chat with the now-defunct website, Bloomsbury, she filled in some of the details that readers hadn’t gotten in the books. And those details didn’t entirely jibe with the existing relationship between the trio and the Ministry. In Hallows, for example, when the trio meets up with Scrimgeour, he asks Hermione if she’s planning on going into the field of magical law, to which she responds that she isn’t, because “I’m hoping to do some good in the world.” In the chat, Rowling acknowledges this line, but says that Hermione nonetheless ends up working for the Ministry, first continuing her fight for the right of magical creatures, and later in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement – her eventual role as Minister for Magic isn’t mentioned in the chat and seems to have been added later for Cursed Child. Rowling made no mention to Bloomsbury that Ron worked for the Ministry, but again, we find out later that he worked in law enforcement, as well. And of course, Harry himself became head of the Auror office, essentially the Ministry’s top cop. As for the Ministry and the rest of the wizarding world as a whole, Rowling stated off-handedly that “the Ministry of Magic was de-corrupted, and with Kingsley at the helm the discrimination that was always latent there was eradicated.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. For one thing, it’s slightly disturbing, looking back, to see how Rowling goes out of her way to lionize the Aurors. Aside from Arthur Weasley, the Aurors who are part of the Order of the Phoenix – Kingsley, Tonks, and Mad-Eye Moody – are the only good or likeable characters who work for the Ministry, and there aren’t any notable instances of evil or corrupt Aurors. Certainly there are no Aurors who became Death Eaters that we know of. Even the minor character of Dawlish, a Ministry Auror who opposes the Order, is portrayed as merely incompetent. The fact that the wizarding police are broadly considered to be heroic, and the best part of the Ministry, is not a particularly good look in the current political climate, nor is Rowling’s claim that the trick to purging the Ministry of corruption was to put the chief of police in charge.

But the bigger issue is the mere fact that everything instantly got better. The Ministry of Magic has been a thorn in the side of our heroes since Book 1. They have sent innocent people to Azkaban to be drained of all happiness by soul-sucking monsters on multiple occasions. They orchestrated a propaganda campaign against Harry, and one of their representatives tortured him and other students while engaging in a reign of terror at Hogwarts. In Hallows, they were infiltrated and transformed into an analog of Nazi Germany without the public finding out. And yet, not only are they not important enough to be dealt with in the final book, it turns out it was all the result of a few bad apples. It should surprise no one, for example, that Dolorus Umbridge was later confirmed to have been a member of Slytherin House. Ending discrimination in the wizarding government, it seems, is as simple as voting the right person in (Rowling has written, also after the fact, that Ministers are chosen by popular vote, though they have no term limits and hold elections whenever they want to) and the Ministry is suddenly a place where even Hermione Granger wants to work.

In other words, we once again encounter the same issue: The problem lies entirely in the individuals, not the institution. In the real world, just as prejudice isn’t limited to a specific category of person, it also doesn’t just go away when good people take power. Humans have thus far proven thoroughly incapable of eradicating bigotry, no matter who gets voted into office. Harry Potter, on the other hand, portrays racism essentially as a minor problem that is easily handled by defeating the racists in open war. Afterward, the Ministry remains fundamentally unchanged, and Slytherin House is not only still around, but as we see in Cursed Child, will shortly become the house of Harry’s youngest son, Albus Severus Potter, whose middle name honors a man who called his grandmother a racial slur and joined an organization dedicated to her extermination. Again, the extent to which one reads Harry Potter naming his son after Severus Snape as problematic depends primarily on how much thought you care to put into it, and while the simplistic message of defeating the villain and more or less permanently saving the day is (arguably) acceptable in children’s books, adult readers should expect considerably more from their anti-racist literature.

Beyond the fact that Harry Potter doesn’t provide a realistic view of the causes or pervasiveness of prejudice, its solution to this particular problem is troubling when you consider the extent to which Millennial progressives have been influenced by the series in their politics. Donald Trump, while a terrible person and a worse president, is not Lord Voldemort, and his followers are not members of Slytherin House, destined from the age of 11 to fall into the hands of darkness. While there’s value in using cultural symbols like those plucked from the pages of Potter as galvanizing forces to mobilize movements, those movements must be aimed in the right direction and utilize strategies more complex than direct combat. There’s a very real danger that Potter fans who view Trump as Voldemort will consider the battle won if he is removed from office this November. The truth is that Trump is a symptom of a corrupt system rather than the problem in and of himself, and the real fight for progressive values demands institutional, rather than individual, change.

Meanwhile, Rowling’s insistence that some Death Eaters and Slytherin House members can be reformed simply via some offscreen reflection capped by a single act of goodness (or even mere hesitation to commit further evil, as in the case of Wormtail) erases the serious, deliberate, and often painful work that people who hold prejudiced views must complete in order to be welcome in a progressive society. Snape is a hero of the story because he had been on the right side for years, but we never see him being convinced, from a moral perspective, that the ideals of either Voldemort or Slytherin were wrong. He is simply upset that the woman he loved (in a toxic, abusive way) has been killed. There’s never any instance in the series of a Death Eater realizing the error of their ways and changing sides – the closest thing we get to that is the story of Regulus Black, which is told by Kreacher and extremely light on details as to why, exactly, Regulus saw the light. Nor do we get any sort of closure on the inner struggle of Draco Malfoy, a hesitant Death Eater who held racist views and fought for Voldemort in the war, but who is nonetheless present alongside his schoolmates on Platform 9 ¾ during the epilogue. In other words, by including themes of prejudice, injustice, and redemption in her story, but choosing not to resolve any of those themes by the end of the final novel, Rowling suggests that both institutional and individual reform are easy – a dangerous message to be absorbed by an entire generation of political actors.

The final problem raised by Rowling’s post-Hallows character updates is Harry Potter himself. He is the hero of the story, a role model to millions, and apparently a wizard police officer in a world where the biggest threat to his community has already been defeated. This is problematic in and of itself, but more so when you consider the context of a Hogwarts education, and Harry’s relationship with schooling in general. Hogwarts is the one school that British wizards attend from the ages of 11 to 17, and the series often receives praise for its portrayal of a compulsorily educated population. But in seven books, we rarely see Hogwarts teaching anything other than how to use magic, and Harry himself learns nothing outside of magic during his time there. We know that there’s something called “Arithmancy,” which might be some kind of wizard mathematics, as well as courses in Muggle Studies, but Harry takes neither of these classes, restricting himself, as so many non-Hermione students do, to an entirely magic-related curriculum. We know nothing of how Hogwarts helps students develop in reading, writing, science, mathematics, or the humanities, making a Hogwarts education inferior to even the worst of Muggle schools. Again, in children’s literature, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Adult readers, however, should probably be asking why Harry is qualified to lead the law enforcement department at the Ministry, considering he’s never so much as taken a civics class. And Harry was a notoriously bad student – he and Ron rely on Hermione constantly to do their homework for them, and while he knows how to do magic from a practical standpoint, he knows nothing whatsoever about the theory involved. Indeed, one of the most frustrating things about Harry’s education from a reader’s point of view is his insistence on falling asleep and/or not paying attention during History of Magic, a class that Rowling could have used for world-building purposes. Instead, she makes the course professor a droning bore incapable of properly teaching his students anything, a nifty way of getting out of fleshing out the wizarding world within the text itself.

Rowling, to sum up, is not terribly interested in the wizarding world, nor in the institutions that control it. Her focus is, and has always been, on her characters, as well as largely apolitical themes like the fear of death and the power of love, and in those arenas, she is highly successful. But she chose to introduce themes that demand more of her. She chose to try and write books for adults rather than children, books that looked forward rather than backward, and she proved to be singularly incapable of the feat. Hallows and everything that has come since is nothing short of a tacit admission of that fact, and it was driven home when she helped produce Cursed Child, which, despite the fact that it features a new generation of characters, primarily involves those characters going back in time and dealing with people and events from the original series. Even when writing a sequel, Rowling refuses to explore the post-Voldemort wizarding world. She refuses to commit to growing up. And to be frank, the behavior with which she has conducted herself in recent weeks is consistent with someone who holds a rather simplistic, childish mentality toward the world. She doesn’t care to learn anything concrete about the issue she’s taken a stand on, preferring narratives to facts. She’s unwilling to alter her position based on the lived experiences of trans people, preferring instead to double, triple, and quadruple down. And her responses to her critics have resembled nothing so much as a child throwing a tantrum. Even an excellent writer like Rowling can have nothing to offer adult political discourse if she herself doesn’t know how to engage that discourse like an adult, and sadly, a critical look at Harry Potter as political allegory reflects as much.

 

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Epilogue: 10,000 Words Later

 

I’m not telling you to burn your Harry Potter books or throw away your House-specific merchandise (I myself continue to use a keychain proudly emblazoned with the Hufflepuff badger). I’m not telling you to keep Harry Potter away from your children. I’m not even telling you to boycott JK Rowling – you can if you want to, but even a mass boycott would have little to no effect on her wealth. What I’m saying is that, as adults who grew up on Harry Potter, we should recognize that these books, brilliantly written though they are, are not a solid foundation for progressive values, nor are they particularly useful in the realm of real politics. As a progressive Potter fan, you don’t have to stop loving the series, but I think you do have to release it from the burden of propping up your ideals. It is, quite simply, not adult enough to fulfill that promise, just as Rowling wasn’t adult enough to fulfill the promise of her own books. Take from it what you can, as you would from any series, keeping the author and her politics in mind as you do so instead of attempting to erase her from the work, but make room in your heart and in your mind for fiction that can fulfill that promise, that does give you the language and the tools to fight for real change. Think critically about the fiction that helped make you who you are, and honestly consider whether or not it still serves you. If Harry’s compassionate bravery, Hermione’s relentless intelligence, and Ron’s earnest enthusiasm inspire you to embody those things yourself, so much the better. But leave the failed political themes of the Harry Potter series in the realm of childhood, where they belong – and where their author clearly prefers to remain.

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