Amidst the books which have accompanied me through summer, the most famous is the series about Harry Potter, undoubtedly.
WARNING I can’t say I’ve approached it with no prejudice, especially seeing all this awful transphobia of JK Rowling. Let me explain something: I’m sick with the misunderstanding around non-binary and trans people. I’m sick with perceiving them as funny/thwarted/unnatural ones, with dehumanizing them. I’m sick with dehumanizing anybody who’s rare or different, anyway. Please understand: being trans is no game or whim. In the binary world of ours, it’s neither funny nor easy. If you want to complain on terrible PC and cultural marxism or claim JK the victim of misogyny, this is not the place for it. WARNING
I’ve been no fan, angry with the author displaying her bias. I’ve been ready for a sceptic read. I’ve been ready to examine whether the books were really the children of their times in the question of representation or female characters.
To me, they weren’t.
Even in the ʼ90s and before, there was fantasy with important or even leading PoCs characters. The Chronicles of Valdemar by Mercedes Lackey, The Chronicles of the Cheysuli by Jennifer Roberson… Many of Robin Hobb’s characters can be read as non-white, too, and the same applies to the case of several books by Patricia A. McKillip. Not to mention Ursula LeGuin and her worlds which often were literally all of colour. Or Tamora Pierce.
And non-heteronormative characters? Again, Ursula LeGuin, Mercedes Lackey, Darkover by Marion Zimmer Bradley… And, after a fashion, non-binary Fool/Lord Golden at Hobb’s.
Female protagonists? LeGuin’s Tenar, Lackey’s Talia and Elspeth, Pierce’s Alanna…
Diversity wasn’t a common postulate back then, that’s for sure, but it doesn’t mean that some authors hadn’t accomplished the said postulate already.
Then, why all those writers have never been as popular as Rowling? Why is Hogwart much more famous than Valdemar or Earthsea? To my mind, the answer is complex.
On the one hand, the works of Ursula LeGuin have been already considered classic and thus not attractive for a popular reader (just as McKillip’s)—not to mention that the world of Earthsea grew more complex and ambigious than magical England of Rowling has ever been.
On the other one, you have had mediocre writers like Mercedes Lackey or Jennifer Roberson. The latter one wrote her Cheysuli too sexist and cliched to grow or remain really popular, but Lackey? In my opinion, her series of Valdemar has been all a YA reader needs: big backstory, rich world, important lessons, likeable characters, diversity. I think that it’s better than one may think, and deserving more popularity. To me, no worse in style and pace from HP, really. Then, why her books have been never so popular? Is it possible that they were the victim of their own sincerity, filled with diversity before it has grown fashionable?
To my mind, Harry Potter is what a fan from the beginning of our century wanted—that’s the crucial thing about this series.
Be against racism but do not make your PoCs too important. Be compassionate towards AIDS-afflicted people but do not introduce LGBT characters openly and marry off any potentially queer heroes. Write your protagonist as an Average Orphan with bad
stepmother foster parents and an Old Mentor making amends for his ambigious and secretive past. Be against classism but make your main character and his kinspeople extremely rich in their world. Set your story against the commonly known backdrop of England around which quite a big part of our culture have been already centered. Add some Universal Message about the Power of Love and Friendship, and—voilá!
I’m not saying this moderate conservatism was necessarily bad, even if I’m glad that the fandom has changed, demanding open diversity and openly grey characters, and openly unobvious conclusions.
The said keeping of the status quo was visible in the popularity of other fantasy series, though, no matter whether it was bad writing or good.
Twilight series offered a conservative tale of restraining oneself from sex and finding happiness in a traditional marriage, pretending at once that the Native American werewolves introduced some diversity into the universe.
Or Robin Hobb’s books about Farseers—not necessarily very famous ones, but apparently popular, with their own fanarts and forum. Could their popularity have something to do with status quo? With characters whose allegiance remain roughly the same, and who are punished for illicit affairs either with illegitimate pregnancy or with love drama? With characters lacking somebody both queer and ordinary (like Jesper and Wylan at Leigh Bardugo, let’s say)? With the well-known setting of eternal quasi-Middle Ages?
And then, of course, there is ASoIaF, a big tale for “adults”. Neo-liberal in its individualist message, focused on the noblemen. Presenting PoCs either as barbarians or slave-holders, or exotic guests from some faraway paradise islands. Fetishizing patriarchy and feudal abuse, and apparently lacking the perspective of the commoners. And making some unfortunate decisions about queer people as well.
No wonder that Harry Potter got so popular. It hit the spot. It was moderately tolerant and perfectly homely. Just as most of the fantasy bestsellers back then. It was tolerant enough to oppose the most hard-headed racists and suprematists, showing them as utterly bad. It was also very homely, using well-known cliches and tropes, already present in (urban) fantasy and fairy tales. There was a Dark Lord, a Chosen One, an old castle, and hell bunch of old families. There were wands and brooms, and Avada Kedavra instead of Abracadabra. There was Butterbeer and mutton pie. There was the well-known formula of unusual school adventures, and the world which everybody brought up on the western culture could recognize—an alternative England (still observing Halloween and Christmas, though) filled with mythological creatures from half the Europe: vampires, goblins, elves, giants, centaurs, unicorns. If some species were added, it was only a fancy bonus. If some nations and ethnic minorities were added, it was a bonus too—just look how the Eastern Europeans, especially Russians, are portrayed; either as Dead Eaters (Dolohov and Karkaroff) or coarse but good guys (Krum). And then you have the French, and poor Fleur and her kinswomen portrayed more or less as sexual objects in whose company guys go mad. Those French. So sensual, you know.
And, finally, there is the whole confused question of race. Really confused.
Having eight or ten PoCs in your series isn’t the problem, even. The problem is how those people are marginalized even if they are important for the Good Side (Kingsley Shacklebolt). How they are on the backstage while having potential for being on the first stage (Dean Thomas). How they are treated as mere pretty tokens and get confusing names (Cho Chang is the both). How their status is irrevelant to the real-world racism (Zabini).
It’s very sad. You have characters who have potential, whose problem isn’t the very absence from the universe or the “open” interpretation of their identity. Their problem is being either stereotypized or on the backstage, or both. And learning that Dumbledore could have been partially Native American (and we learn it in the last book, yeah) doesn’t change it.
Many writers thought back then that this was the place of characters of colour. On the backstage.
And then, the times changed and Rowling announced that Hermione may be black as well. And do you know why it smells fake? Because she tried to pretend that her universe is more diverse than actually is.
You have authors like Rick Riordan who simply write new series and introduce diverse characters. You have authors whose characters have been diverse from the very beginning. And you have JK Rowling and “look how gracious I’ve turned with PoCs!”.
The metaphorical racism of Potterverse doesn’t help, either, as it is quite convoluted.
On the one hand, the magicians, with their halfbloods and muggleborns and fear of interracial children like Hagrid, harbour a racial obsession fitting ante-bellum South or Nazi Germany. On the other one, the said magicians were the persecuted ones once, and it may be the reason for their contempt for the muggles. And your magical status has nothing to do with your skin, i. e. Zabini at Slytherin. And there are other races, often submitted to the human mages, races holding some potential for the metaphor of xenophobia and discrimination—like goblins and their notion of property and mutual relations, making Harry aware that no group in the magical world has been ever innocent. If only the said goblins were not bankers with specifically shaped noses, reminding of the worst and the most harmful stereotypes about the Jews…
And then, there is the total fail of the house elves. Rowling?… Their portrayal is actually an equivalent of the slave characters from Gone with the Wind. Happy to serve and obey their masters, happy with their slavery. The old South’s propaganda at its best. There is even a naïve, histerical abolitionist in the person of Hermione, and there is a good
Southerner mageborn, Ron Weasley, who knows better. There is Dobby, of course. But Dobby is an exception. Just as the almost-abolitionist opinions of Dumbledore.
You can’t be anti-fascist and antiracist on the one hand and portray your non-“human” characters and their apologists like that on the other one.
And racism isn’t the only issue which is portrayed with presumably good intention but problematic realization.
You can tell the same about the non-existent LGBT people in Potterverse. Making allusions to HIV through Lupin’s werewolfness is no representation—and today, it would be considered quite offensive, to reduce the concerns of gay people to the already stereotypized HIV problem— no matter if the sexual minorities used to be portrayed metaphorically twenty years ago rather than introduced straightforward. If you want to write about queer people, write about them. Not about werewolves or Witted Ones, or whatevah. Write about them and do not announce your character’s gayness post-factum to show how “tolerant” you are. And, above all… Ok, I’m not going to comment Rowling’s transphobia again.
Or let’s take the portrayal of women and personal relations in the series. It isn’t sexist in the way of Belgariad or Xanth, but still, one can find several problems with it. I has, afer a fashion, many of the problems of Robin Hobb’s Six Duchies series, including pretending that there is more gender equality in your setting than actually is.
This dissonance is visible not only in the two families, the Dursleys and the Weasleys, who are the two sides of one “traditional” family model with a bread-winning daddy and a mom looking after the kids and the household. The only difference is that the Dursleys are Evil Rich Bigots with one pampered kid, and the Weasleys are Good Poors with the whole pack of children.
Do not misunderstand me. I appreciate the character and the hard work of Molly Weasley—more than Arthur’s, actually—but I think that the families like the one of hers were already in the minority in the UK over twenty years ago. In 2000, two-third of UK mums were working, damn!
And then, you learn of notable witches and female headmasters of Hogwart long before anybody postulated equality in the muggles’ world. You learn of McGonagall’s efficiency and of Tonks’ courage. On the Wrong Side, you have Bellatrix as the right hand of Voldemort. That’s on the one hand. On the other one, you have the Blacks and the other magical aristocrats caring mostly about their male members. So, yes, there is a big dissonance.
Just as it is about the family life in this world supposedly quite egalitarian on the gender level. Strangely, almost everybody marries one’s school girlfriend or boyfriend. Strangely, literally all characters (except Hagrid, perhaps) are born to married couples—just compare it with Percy Jackson’s milieu and its problems with absent parents. Nobody has heard of divorce or patchwork families. Nobody has heard of non-heteronormative relationships. Nobody, including teens buzzing with hormones, has ever heard of premarital sex, which makes catcalling Ron and Lee Jordan even nastier, presumably showing that those boys are only joking innocently.
Guess how all this has reflected the private life in the UK even back in the ’90s. Poorly, I would say.
You may think that the message of HP on love life isn’t conservative since, for example, Ron’s bigotry on Ginny’s boyfriends is ridiculed. But the very absence of some social trends is more telling than Ron being criticized both by Ginny and Hermione.
I would never expect I would say it, but The Farseer Trilogy and the Tawny Man trilogy are more realistic on love and sex than HP is. There is a lot of rant against extramarital relations there, but those relations do exist, at least. And they aren’t condemned to the bone, and they concern teens as well.
The women and their significance in the story is another question. Hermione, Luna or Minerva McGonagall don’t lack personality or agency. They lack their own perspective, just as Ron and Neville do, actuall—due to Harry being the centre of plots and events. They lack PoVs or some equivalents of them.
Strangely, though, the males in the series suffer less from the Harry-centrism than the women do. Somehow, most of the magical families relies on sons—Potters, Blacks, Dumbledores, Malfoys, Weasleys… Weasleys where there are six sons and one daughter. The most important figures of the universum—the enemy, the mentor, and the ambigious character—are male too: Voldemort, Dumbledore, Snape. And the chosen one, Harry Potter, is a boy, after all.
I don’t mean that all this has come sexist on purpose. I mean that it tells a lot of our culture where a male character is default, somebody (presumably) universal. And changing it isn’t about introducing Harriet Potter. It is about portraying girls sisterly, in believable situations and affiliations, without assuming that all their activities are giggling and plotting against each other once a pretty guy appears. Harry Potter doesn’t offer such a perspective. He doesn’t offer the perspective which would fully apply to boys and girls alike, either.
You may think that my thoughts on the series are harsh, but it’s more like liking something despite of its obvious flaws, actually. I don’ t hate or even dislike HP. I consider it a bit overrated but still inspiring. It has a generic plot, an issue with its author, and several social controversies, but its British setting is vivid and convincing, and many of the characters—like Snape, Slughorn, Molly, McGonagall—surprisingly well-drawn. It also gives a clear and keen message on fascism, and on the work of the public institutions in the times of crisis. And this message, although flawed in its details, cannot be ignored. No matter if the ultraconservatives claim Harry Potter for their own, the series will never belong to them. Once they criticized it for magic and “pagan” symbolism. Now they are excited because they get a transphobic author who produced an average child of its time with lack of diversity.
One can only laugh at it. And decide oneself what the problematic heritage of Harry Potter means for her, him or them.