JK Rowling knows what it is like to be marginalized. Before Rowling found unprecedented success as the author of the Harry Potter novels, she struggled to make ends meet and it comes as no surprise that her personal struggles have influenced her writing of the Harry Potter series. Through my reading of the Harry Potter series, analysis of various credible sources, and using a cultural studies approach to analyze these texts, I have concluded that Rowling’s novels could be viewed as an impetus for facilitating the discussion of issues facing today’s society. In this essay, I will explain the many ways in which Rowling’s own marginalization and personal experiences have manifested themselves in the Harry Potter novels and present textual evidence that suggests Rowling seeks to empower those who live on the margins of society. Furthermore, I argue that Rowling critiques many of society’s accepted social norms, institutions, and ideologies through the Harry Potter novels and in this way she has helped to shape a generation.
Immersed in the Culture of Harry Potter:
How J.K. Rowling has shaped a Generation
Meet J.K. Rowling
Joann (more often recognized as J.K.) Rowling knows what it is like to be marginalized. According to Wikipedia, Rowling finished her first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, while “unemployed and living off of state benefits.” At the time, Rowling was a clinically depressed single mother, separated from her husband (whom she left in Portugal) with a young child. Moreover, her ground-breaking novels were written in coffee shops whenever her baby, Jessica, would fall asleep (“J.K. Rowling”).
Rowling was no stranger to hardship even before she was a single mother on welfare. When Rowling was 15, her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and lost her battle with the disease ten years later (J.K. Rowling Official Site). It is not hard to imagine that Rowling was deeply affected by the loss of her mother at a relatively young age and that her mother’s death has influenced her writing of the Harry Potter novels. According to Wikipedia, Rowling was able to provide a detailed description of Harry’s loss because she understood losing a parent herself (“J.K.” Rowling).
Rowling also held a position as a researcher and bilingual secretary with Amnesty International in the years before she found success as an author (“J.K. Rowling”). According to Amnesty International, its mission and vision is,
Amnesty International's vision is of a world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards. In pursuit of this vision, Amnesty International's mission is to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of the rights to physical and mental integrity, freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom from discrimination, within the context of its work to promote all human rights.
Rowling could have chosen to work at any number of employers, but there is something to be said about her personal choice to work for an organization that fights for human rights. In my opinion, Rowling has continued to put Amnesty International’s mission into practice through the ideas conveyed in her novels. Given that Rowling has also become known for being a philanthropist (“J.K. Rowling”) as a result of her support of such organizations as Comic Relief, One Parent Families, and Multiple Sclerosis Society of Great Britain, it can be assumed that Rowling wants to help those who are less fortunate and is working toward the betterment of their lives.
When Rowling finally found success and a publisher for her book, she was subjected to the tradition of male authors in the fantasy novel genre as she was instructed by her publisher to take a pen name (J. K. Rowling) in order to appeal to the target audience of adolescent boys who might be unwilling to read books written by a female author. We can see evidence of the supremacy of male authors in this genre by the relative success of male authors compared to lesser-known female authors. Recently, I visited a Borders bookstore in Toledo, Ohio. On the end-cap of the fantasy section, there was a display of popular fantasy novels. I only saw a few women represented among the display and I did not recognize their work. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance all speak to the popularity of male-authored fantasy novels. Names like Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising Series), Stephenie Meyer (The Twilight Saga), Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time), and Marion Zimmer Bradley (The Mists of Avalon) are relative unknowns in the shadow of male authors of fantasy novels. I have no doubt that Rowling is aware of the gender discrepancy within the fantasy genre and that she must feel empowered being a successful female fantasy author despite all of her personal struggles. Moreover, Rowling is more popular than all of the male authors combined. In fact, Rowling is the only author to make Forbes’s “The World’s Billionaires” List with a net worth of $1 billion (and Rowling is well-known for being richer than the Queen of England).
It is common knowledge that Rowling has pulled from her own personal experiences in the writing of the Harry Potter Series and, in my opinion, it would be impossible to completely separate one’s own experience from their literary work. Skylar Hamilton Burris (a freelance writer and editor) comments on this concept. According to Burris, the Historical Approach to Literary Criticism is described as, “critics see works as the reflection of an author's life and times (or of the characters' life and times). They believe it is necessary to know about the author and the political, economical, and sociological context of his times in order to truly understand his works.” In other words, in order to gain a more complete understanding of a text, readers and critics should study some biographical information about the author of the text, given the fact that literary texts are a product of the author’s experience. This is why it is important for us to consider Rowling’s past experiences when analyzing the Harry Potter texts.
In this essay, I will explain the many ways in which Rowling’s own marginalization and personal experiences have manifested themselves in the Harry Potter novels and there is sufficient evidence to suggest that Rowling seeks to empower those who live on the margins of society. Furthermore, Rowling critiques many of society’s accepted social norms, institutions, and ideologies through the Harry Potter novels and in doing so has helped to shape a generation. In this essay, I will explore two of the cultural dimensions, race and gender within the Harry Potter series. Before we explore the ways in which Rowling has expressed her perspectives in the novels, let us consider some background information on the Harry Potter series.
A History of Magic (NOT by Bathilda Bagshot)
Millions of people all over the world and of all ages have read the Harry Potter novels. I have been an avid reader of the Harry Potter series since I was in Middle School, but when I began reading the books for my own enjoyment as a child, I never imagined that I would be taking an entire course studying the literary value of the novels at the collegiate level. J.K. Rowling has not only created arguably the most popular book series of all time, but she has created a series with great relevance and substance, and in doing so, she has helped to shape the identities of a generation. The Harry Potter novels have been translated into dozens of different languages and over 100 million copies of the books are in print world-wide (Heilman 1). Just taking a trip to a local store will offer Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Jelly Beans, Chocolate Frogs, Wizard’s Chess sets, wands, Gryffindor scarves, etc. It would be difficult to find someone who did not have some type of understanding as to what defines Harry Potter and a whole generation has grown up being surrounded by the influence of the Harry Potter novels, movies, and other merchandise and undoubtedly being immersed in the culture of Harry Potter has helped to shape the identities of people all over the world.
Given the popularity and controversial nature of the novels, many authors have written about the issues stemming from the books and, thus, there is a vast collection of texts discussing the Harry Potter series. Most of the critical essays that I have come across discuss the popularity of the Harry Potter novels, whether or not the books are “morally objectionable” and should be banned, and/or the common themes and archetypes present in the novels. In my preliminary research, it was difficult to find credible sources relating to Harry Potter and social issues. I could not find a single article that addresses the implications of Rowlings’s constructions of social class structures, gender roles and race within the frame of Rowling’s own life experiences and marginalization. In order to contribute to the current body of research, I hope to research and analyze the connections between Rowling’s own experience and the novels, the ways in which Rowling is working to empower minorities and those who live on the margins of society, and how Rowling is working in her own way to deconstruct social norms. In this way, my paper’s niche will be to determine the manner in which Rowling has shaped a generation through the critique of various social constructions in her incredibly popular novels.
How “The Boy who Lived” has shaped a Generation
Elizabeth Heilman argues in Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter,“When narrative text and images become such a pervasive part of the cultural environment they also become part of the identity of people who read and consume the images and narratives… The text and images of Harry Potter become part of who we are” (2). Heilman’s idea that the “text and images of Harry Potter” become part of readers is critical to my argument in that it creates a direct link between readers and Rowling. As discussed earlier, the Harry Potter novels have become a cultural phenomenon. Studies show that popular culture does have an impact on young people and that popular culture (including cultural phenomena such as the Harry Potter novels and movies) is an agent of “socialization” that often can change or reinforce the beliefs, values, and opinions of young people (Koch). In this way, Rowling has the power to shape the identities of her readers by the perspectives that she presents within her novels. Tammy Turner-Vorbeck builds on Heilman’s argument in her article, “Pottermania: Good, Clean Fun or Cultural Hegemony?” claiming,
Pottermania has become a cultural phenomenon. The Harry Potter books, the Harry Potter movie, the related media publicity, and an expanding selection of heavily marketed paraphernalia permeate our popular culture and have significant societal implications for children and for child culture. (Heilman 13)
Although Turner-Vorbeck argues that, in her opinion, the messages in the Harry Potter novels are manufactured by corporate America and that the books will have a negative impact on children readers, her alarm stems from the fact that these books do have the power to impact the opinions and identities of readers. I agree with Tuner-Vorbeck to a point—I concede that the widespread media phenomenon that was launched from the novels is a business with corporate goals; however, Turner-Vorbeck disregards the positive overall message of love, equality, and compassion that Rowling has made central to the culture of Harry Potter which cannot be separated from any product associated with Harry Potter (for those who have read any of the novels or viewed any of the movies).
A prime example of Rowling promoting positive ideals is discussed by Ken Vesey in his article, “What’s the Matter with Harry.” Vesey argues that one of the central topics of the novels is love. Vesey explains that this theme is voiced through Albus Dumbledore at the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when he tells Harry, “If there is one thing that Voldemort cannot understand, it is love,” and that because Voldemort does not understand the true power of love, he did not expect the love of Harry’s mother to protect Harry. Vesey’s article is a response to critics of Harry Potter and claims that the novels clearly portray a message of love (the novels are a tale of good vs. evil) and given that Harry’s main goal is to combat dark magic (a positive message), these novels will continue to be successful and the attacks on the novels are baseless. Rowling uses Dumbledore as the ultimate voice of reason and guidance in the novels. When Dumbledore converses with Harry (especially at their regular sit-down talks at the end of novels 1-5), there is always some advice espoused that can be applied to any reader’s life. Given that Dumbledore is one of the Wizarding World’s most powerful and respected wizards, that he is Harry’s mentor, and that he is the leader of the fight against Voldemort, readers can clearly interpret his values and are likely to agree with the statements that he makes.
If we can establish that Rowling’s moral messages come through the text loud and clear, and that the books have been read, enjoyed, and understood by millions of people all over the world, then it can be argued that Rowling should be able to have some kind of influence on the beliefs of millions of people around the world. Therefore, Rowling’s influence has shaped a generation and will continue to promote respect for all different types of people and empower the marginalized for generations to come.
Racism: Muggles, Magical Creatures, and Mud-Bloods
I find the fact that these novels have the potential to significantly impact millions of children all over the globe particularly interesting especially given the themes, opinions, and ideologies that are promoted in the novels.
In the Harry Potter books, Rowling has created an ideological world presenting privileged in insiders and outcast outsiders across a wide range of signifiers. These include gender, social class, peer group affiliations, race, culture, and nationality. As such the Harry Potter novels legitimize numerous forms of social inequality and their related cultural norms, rituals, and traditions. Yet, there are tensions and critiques within the texts as well. (Heilman and Gregory 242)
J.K. Rowling creates a magical society that reflects many of the societal issues facing the real world today. For example, in Harry Potter’s world, many people prioritize Pure-Bloods over Mud-bloods. In this way, Rowling’s novels provide a dialogue for issues such as race and social class reflected in the power struggle between Pure-bloods, Mud-bloods, and Muggles that can help readers to develop their own perspectives on social ills. Yet, Rowling’s perspective is clearly expressed and a message of equality for all races (magical or not) is conveyed through the protagonists, heroes, and generally accepted “good guys” (i.e. Dumbledore, McGonagall, Harry, Hermione, and others). Furthermore, the three main characters, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, are each of a different race (Half-blood, Pure-blood, and Muggle-born respectively). Even though they all come from different backgrounds, they are the closest of friends and can only overcome the ultimate evil (Voldemort) by working together. The friendship and unconditional love shared between the three sends a powerful message of equality of all races to readers.
It is common knowledge that Rowling wanted to write these novels to help her daughter gain better understanding of and a better ability to cope with ugly truths in the world, such as death. As discussed earlier, Rowling was briefly married to a Portuguese man who is the father of her child, Jessica. This makes Jessica an individual of mixed cultures and races. Introducing race through Rowling’s constructions of the different species within the novels can help people of mixed heritage, like Jessica, to understand and appreciate their backgrounds while also helping those of majority races to understand and be tolerant of minorities.
An example of Rowling promoting equality in the series is the Fountain of Magical Brethren in the Atrium of the Ministry of Magic. According to the Harry Potter Lexicon, the fountain is comprised of a group of golden statues depicting a wizard, a witch, a centaur, a goblin, and a house-elf. This fountain represents the harmony that should ideally exist between all creatures. Given that this fountain is placed in a main entry way to the Ministry (there are lots of fireplaces that can be used for transportation through the “Floo Network”), it is visible to a great many people and it sends a message that equality between all different people is a goal that everyone should be working toward. However, at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the Fountain is mostly destroyed during the Battle of the Department of Mysteries. The destruction of the statue is symbolic in that it represents a shift in the power and influence of Voldemort’s followers and the changing wizarding worldview. “After the fall of the Ministry in 1997, the fountain was temporarily replaced by a statue of a wizard and a witch sitting atop enormous thrones made of nude Muggles” (“Fountain of Magical Brethren”). Clearly, Rowling is sending a message through the destruction of the Fountain and this message is the changing attitude toward Muggles caused by Voldemort is detrimental to society. This statue is very different from the whimsical, shining, and harmonious nature of the original. Having a Wizard and a Witch sitting on a thone of Muggles clearly suggests that the Ministry is now advocating the dominance of Wizards over Muggles. In my mind, Rowling is creating an image very reminiscent of paintings of Christian Saints conquering demons. Traditionally, demons are depicted as crude, nude creatures, writhing together in agony (and these depictions are often accompanied by the Virgin Mary or some other saint standing on top of them, representing God’s holy power over evil beings). In other words, I see the replacement fountain as portraying Muggles as primal, evil, and even demonic creatures that must be supressed and controlled by Wizards. Fortunately, after Voldemort’s defeat, the Fountain of Magical Brethren is supposedly restored to its original form (“Fountain of Magical Brethren”), representing the idea that harmony has been restored. In this way, when evil characters are in control of the Ministry, their depraved intentions are put on display for everyone to see through many forms of media, the replacement statue included.
The Fountain of Magical Brethren is only one example of Rowling’s many obvious indicators of the nature of good and evil in the Harry Potter novels. In an interview with Time Europe, Rowling discussed the reasons why she decided to “kill-off” the character Cedric Diggory at the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. She explains,
If you're choosing to write about evil, you really do have a moral obligation to show what that means. So you know what happened at the end of Book IV. I do think it's shocking, but it had to be. It is not a gratuitous act on my part. We really are talking about someone who is incredibly power hungry. Racist, really. And what do those kinds of people do? They treat human life so lightly. I wanted to be accurate in that sense. My editor was shocked by the way the character was killed, which was very dismissive. That was entirely deliberate. That is how people die in those situations. It was just like, “You're in my way and you're going to die.”
If anything, Rowling does a great job of showing a very clear difference between good and evil in the Harry Potter novels. There is no question about the absolute evil nature of characters like Voldemort, Bellatrix Lestrange, and Dolores Umbridge. There are few morally ambiguous actions taken by characters in the novels and other than Severus Snape and Peter Pettigrew, each character easily fits into the good/evil dichotomy. Only the most evil of people would be able to mercilessly kill an innocent teenage boy (Cedric Diggory) and in such a careless manner. Steven W. Patterson builds upon Rowling’s statement in his article “Kreacher’s Lament: S.P.E.W as a Parable on Discrimination, Indifference, and Social Justice,”
There’s an awful lot of discrimination in the Harry Potter series of novels. Nearly all of the time, the discrimination comes out in the behavior of characters who are equivocally evil…the message is clear: discrimination is something practiced by evil people (qtd. in Baggett 105).
Both Rowling and Patterson point out that the most diabolical characters in the series exemplify negative qualities. Simply put, Voldemort and his followers are racists. The Death Eaters want to “cleanse” the Wizarding World of all Mud-bloods and Muggles in order to preserve the purity of the Wizarding Race (which mirrors Hitler and the Nazi’s desire to rid the world of Jews and create the Arian Race). As discussed earlier, pop culture icons have the power to influence readers. Due to the powerful message of equality that is central to the Harry Potter novels, and Rowling’s clear distinction between the nature of good and evil, it can be reasonably assumed that having the wickedest characters in favor of racism helps to reinforce the predisposed anti-racist attitudes of Harry Potter fans.
Women in the Wizarding World
As stated in the introduction, Rowling is a minority in her field (there are few successful female authors in the fantasy genre compared to male authors). Rowling is one of the richest and most successful people in her field (and the world in general) and the fact that she is a woman makes her story even more incredible. We know that the Harry Potter novels have been influenced by events from Rowling’s tumultuous life, as the Harry Potter novels are a reflection Rowling’s life and times, and therefore, some characters must exemplify qualities related to Rowling’s own life. For example, the character Hermione Granger is modeled to a degree after Rowling herself. On her official website, Rowling writes:
I have often said that Hermione was a bit like me when I was younger. I think I was seen by other people as a right little know-it-all, but I hope that it is clear that underneath Hermione’s swottinessthere is a lot of insecurity and a great fear of failure.
Hermione’s character also helps to break down the stereotypes and degradation of women given that Hermione is the epitome of logic and intelligence in the novels (and these traits have been traditionally associated with the male sex). For example, Mimi R. Gladstein argues in her article, “Feminism and Equal Opportunity: Hermione and the Women of Hogwarts,” that, “Women in the…world of Harry Potter are anything but second-class citizens. J.K. Rowling depicts a world where equal opportunity among the sexes is a given” (Baggett 49). Gladstein’s article describes how Rowling portrays women in such a way that challenges stereotypes and gender roles in the novels. The thesis suggests that Rowling creates a world wherein it is not a big deal that women are in positions of authority, play professional sports, and are logical and rational.
There are many women in positions of authority in the Harry Potter novels. For example: Minerva McGonagall is a transfiguration teacher, Head of the Gryffindor House, Deputy Headmistress of Hogwarts, a member of the Order of the Phoenix, and becomes the Headmistress of Hogwarts. In the novels Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,McGonagall proves herself to be a warrior and a talented “duelist” as she is able to “hold her own against younger and more agile Death Eaters” (“Minerva McGongall”). Other examples of strong female characters include Hermione Granger (a very talented and brilliant witch, member of Dumbledore’s Army and one of Harry’s closest friends), Nymphadora Tonks (an Auror and member of the Order of the Phoenix), Angelina Johnson (Captain of the Gryffindor Quidditch team), Ginny Weasley (Member of Dumbledore’s Army and later Gryffindor Seeker), Luna Lovegood (Member of Dumbledore’s Army), Rowena Ravenclaw and Helga Hufflepuff (Founders of the Ravenclaw House and Hufflepuff House) and do not forget Dolores Umbridge and Bellatrix Lestrange. While both of these characters are depraved in every sense of the word, Umbridge (High Inquisitor and later Headmistress of Hogwarts) and Bellatrix (a powerful dark witch and one of Voldemort’s most loyal Death Eaters) play crucial roles in the novel and hold positions of great power and influence.
However, not all of Rowling’s female characters reverse women’s gender roles. Characters like Fleur Delacour, Cho Chang, and the Patil twins are portrayed as beautiful, but with little other substance and in many ways represent female stereotypes. Fleur is described in the novels as being the archetype of feminine beauty. According to the Harry Potter Lexicon, “Fleur is part Veela (her grandmother was one, GF18), with blue eyes, long silvery-blonde hair, and very white even teeth. Her voice is ‘throaty’” (“Fleur Isabelle Delacour”). Fleur is often described as haughty, vain, and self-absorbed. It is also obvious that Fleur is very aware of her uncommonly good looks and uses them to get what she wants out of males. Cho Chang is described as very pretty and popular. While she is the object of Harry’s affection earlier in the series, her character is not very developed. She spends most of her time feeling distraught and guilty over Cedric’s death (her former boyfriend). In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Cho succumbs to verita serum and reveals the secret location of the meetings for Dumbledore’s Army. Therefore, the small glimpse we get of Cho portrays her as beautiful, but weak and emotional.
Other examples of stereotypically feminine characters are Aunt Petunia (Harry’s aunt who is a homemaker and doting mother to Dudley), Molly Weasley (a doting, nagging, housewife, and mother of seven children), Madam Pompfrey (Hogwarts School nurse), and Professor Trelawney (emotional and weak Divination teacher). Traditionally, women were expected to stay in the home and raise many children, nurse sick children back to health, and have been associated with weakness and acting on their emotions, rather than using logical reasoning. All of the aforementioned women fit into these socially accepted gender roles.
In my opinion, Rowling has been very smart about the way in which she portrays women in the Harry Potter novels. Not all female characters are direct reversals of women’s gender roles, nor do all of them embody female stereotypes. Realistic femininity is nuanced—there is no singular definition that defines what it is to be a woman. Harry Potter’s world is very much like that of our reality. Rowling does a fantastic job of creating an environment that functions in a very similar way to the real world. Other than the fact that creatures are capable of performing magic, the other rules of the physical world hold true, and institutions such as schools (Beaubatons, Hogwarts, etc.) and government agencies (the Ministry of Magic) very much like our own are represented. Karl Miller agrees with this idea and argues in his article “Magic in the Air” that, “J.K. Rowling’s magic plays well, and you might also say that she plays the game, that she waves her preposterous wand in a restrained and realistic fashion. Some fantasies are more truthful than others, and the Harry Potter series is one of them.”
However, there are subtle differences between Harry’s world and our own in the context of women’s gender roles. For example, women Quidditch players play professionally alongside men. In today’s world women do play professional sports, but in leagues separate from men and women’s leagues do not receive the same media attention, nor are they anywhere near as popular as men’s professional sports. On the contrary, in Harry’s world it is commonplace that women play alongside men in Quidditch from Hogwarts to the Quidditch World Cup. Unfortunately, if a woman in our world wanted to play alongside men on the Highschool Football team or in Baseball’s World Series he/she would be met with much opposition. I do not see the integration on males and females in professional sports happening in our world anytime soon. While Rowling’s critique here might be subtle it is an idea that stood out in my mind when reading the novels.
While I have categorized some characters as more traditional and some as reversing traditional gender roles, each character has attributes of both categories (which is true of real women in today’s world). For example, we see Molly Weasley as the ultimate mother figure for most of the novels, however she is a member of the Order of the Phoenix and we see her as a fierce warrior in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when she kills Bellatrix. Moreover, Hermione has moments of weakness and suspends her logic and reasoning when Ron leaves after a fight with Harry in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Rowling describes Hermione as weeping and emotional which adds a stereotypical dimension to Hermione’s character. In doing so, Rowling gives a true sense of realism to the novels. While it is clearly put forth that Rowling supports the equality of women in society she does it in a subversive, realistic, and effective way.
It is no coincidence that J.K. Rowling has included controversial topics such as race and gender roles in her novels. The question then becomes: why write about these topics in the Harry Potter novels? Unfortunately, decades after the civil rights and feminist movements, our society has not progressed beyond racism and sexism. While awareness has been increased, many people’s misconceptions and beliefs about race and gender have not changed and the Harry Potter novels are a reflection of the times in which we currently live.
In her own life, Rowling has experienced the harsh realities of our world. In writing the Harry Potter novels, Rowling is doing her part to shape the beliefs of her readers in order to start a movement of progression towards a more equitable and loving society by critiquing society’s treatment of racial and gender minorities. I believe that Rowling’s challenges to racism and sexism in the novels will not go unnoticed and will impact in some way each reader of Harry Potter, hopefully leading to a brighter future for us all.
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