The Problematic Politics of Harry Potter

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If you were born in the late ‘90s or the early 2000s, you were born into a decade where either the Harry Potter books were being published, or the movies of the chronicle of the legendary boy who lived were coming out. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, I will leave it up to you to decide. The magical world of witchcraft and wizardry enthralled and captured the imagination of an entire generation across the globe. Millions waited ardently for a Hogwarts letter that never came; hundreds bashed their heads into the pillar between Platforms 9 and 10 at London’s King’s Cross Station; while many others still waited for the sweet release of The Deathly Hallows.

Harry Potter, for the uninitiated (yes, believe it or not, an entire generation of Zoomers who have never heard of Hogwarts, separates us from that of the Potterheads), is the story of the eponymous boy who is gradually exposed, over the course of seven books, to a world where magic is a reality. In the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, young Harry, the boy who lives with his abusive uncle and aunt and cousin Dudley, receives letters from a school of magic called Hogwarts. Here Harry Potter goes to study magic, learn spells, and, in the end, use his knowledge of the same by fighting an evil villain. The plot is straightforward, and it is the author’s (she who shall not be named in this article) descriptive prowess that makes for a thrilling, page-turning read.

But is Harry Potter really a children’s book? Well, one could argue it is not just for children, an adult can enjoy it just as well. Let me present the question from a different angle: is Harry Potter a book safe for children? Or is it, in the vein of the Monster Book of Monsters, inappropriate and dangerous?

Since its completion in the late 2000s, the Harry Potter series has given birth to not just countless works of fan fiction, an author who does not understand that she needs to put the pen down, and a franchise that has made it one of the biggest intellectual properties in the world, but also to a series of studies and research papers and even doctoral theses centring around the Wizarding World. As a student of English literature who grew up reading and watching this franchise, I will have to admit, this was like a dream-job.

I therefore made it a point to have a critical second look, not for leisure, at the story of the magical world of Harry Potter. I borrowed my sister’s illustrated copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, grabbed some sticky notes, and sat down to read. And with great regret, I must inform you that Harry Potter, though a book meant for children, is actually not safe at all; it is a vile, devilish machination written in a hypnotic way to enthrall and bewitch, when really it presents some extremely problematic philosophies and ideas. To learn more about my shocking findings, read further.

Engorgio!—Dudley Dursley, the Boy Who Lives to Eat

It is no secret that the author of the Harry Potter series (you know who) has little regard for people who are different. But the fact that one of her philosophies of intolerance extends to fat-shaming and is propagated in her work of middle-grade fiction is a low we would not expect even from her. It is true that Harry’s cousin Dudley, over the first few chapters of The Philosopher’s Stone, is repeatedly ridiculed in the fashion of “Roald Dahl” descriptions for his obesity.

Defenders of the author, if there are any remaining today in the free world, might argue that the kid has it coming, that he is spoilt, and that if he were not so spoilt, he wouldn’t be so easy to pick on. It is true that Dudley is a spoilt brat, a disobedient screeching nitwit, and, I even go ahead to argue that he is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but to call him a large pink “beachball”, when he is merely an infant hardly seems justified. It is an easy joke to call a child fat and make him act gluttonous to cement this assertion. But we must note that this is where problematic prejudices and body-image issues arise from. It would not be so funny, if the genders were reversed and Dudley were a young girl instead. Statistics show that a significant cross-section of the female population suffers from body-image issues, which lead to eating disorders in kids as young as 7 and 8 (Sharan and Sundar). Surely, there are better things to make fun of, especially in Dudley’s case, than something he has no control over, like his weight? Yet, the author continues to put in at least one reference to Dudley, his father, and his aunt’s obesity, in each book. The references to Dudley Dursley’s multiple chins and his being like a pig in a wig according to the Chosen One, Harry Potter himself, are some that are particularly vivid in my mind still.

Magic is Mine: Selfishness and the Gatekeeping of Technology

The wizarding world is hermitic in the Harry Potter Universe. This means they are not willing to progress further with technology (one group of memesters said that technology in Harry Potter is frozen in the 19th Century), or share their own advancements with the outside world. There is no room for altruism in the wizarding World of Harry Potter. When Harry asks his good friend Hagrid about the purpose of the Ministry of Magic, his response is the following:

‘Well, their main job is to keep it from the muggles that there’s still witches an’ wizards up an’ down the country.’
‘Why?’
‘Why? Blimey, Harry, everyone would be wantin’ magic solutions to their problems. Nah, we are best left alone.’

There is a word for this kind of attitude, it is called selfishness. Here, by acting as a mouthpiece for the general wizarding sentiment, Hagrid exposes the gatekeeping of magic the wizarding world has been doing for a long, long time. It is true that muggles (non-magical folk) are incapable of magic, but it is not unheard of that wizards and muggles can live in an integrated environment. In The Tales of Beedle the Bard, there is a tale by the title ‘The Wizard and the Hopping Pot’, which tells us of a generous wizard who cured the maladies of the local muggles, before things turned sideways, and it all ended tragically. In fact, more than one tale in the Beedle stories speaks of Muggle-Wizard coexistence. However, these remain fairy tales of apocryphal standing, and have scarce relevance in the real wizarding world.

Within the wizarding world, the politics of fascism and exceptionalism are especially rife, but they have already been written about in great detail (McKenna). What I want to shed some light on is the softcore fascism that is present as a proxy for more hardcore, card-carrying, muggle-killing, Dark Arts as propagated by the likes of Gellert Grindelwald and Lord Voldemort. While the more liberal wizards are not bent on exterminating their non-magic counterparts, they do hold them in a sort of sceptical distance, and do not venture too close to them. Wizards like Arthur Weasley are made fun of for showing interest in Muggle technology, and his mispronunciation of ‘electricity’ is played for laughs extensively in the fourth book, not merely for the magic folk, but for the non-magic readers as well. This is only to show that wizard-muggle harmony is not to be taken seriously, and that people with superior arms—in this case, superior wand-arms—are not to share their powers with those weaker than them. This is what is evidently soft-wizard supremacy.

The Goblin Question: Racial and Ethnic Specialization in the Wizarding World

It has been discussed in great detail by researchers and scholars that Harry Potter poses a lot of pertinent questions on identity and race, and the conflicts surrounding them (Zirdum). Clearly, the books demonstrate a very strong anti-racist and anti-fascist stance, but how deep does it go into studying the nuances of race and identity we see on a day to day basis in the real world?

In the Harry Potter books, the theme of stereotypes and focusing on one ethnic group is woven into the story. Let us meditate on what we mean by ethnic specialization. A subset of stereotype, ethnic specialization is related to professions, and is the kind of (usually false) belief that makes one think that all Indians are IT men, for instance. In Harry Potter, such conceptions of ethnic specialization are reinforced by characters like the Goblins. The Goblins, who are obvious stand-ins for the banking Jewry of Europe, are a race known for their shrewd and stern nature, not unlike the Orthodox Jew. They run Gringotts, the only wizarding bank. This stems from the popular stereotype against the Jewish people, which has been dubbed “economic antisemitism” by some scholars (Reuveni and Wobick-Segev).

It doesn’t stop with goblins being good with money. There are other “races” in the wizarding world that exhibit specialization in particular branches of magic. The centaurs are good at divination and predicting the future. The house-elves are the most submissive of slaves to their masters. Even the ferocious Dementors, who showcase some level of sentience, are relegated to the task of interrogation and tormenting prisoners in the Wizarding World’s version of Guantanamo Bay—Azkaban.

Conclusion: A Melting Cauldron of Issues

Harry Potter sets out on a quest to be a fun story and a moral allegory for the real world’s politics and social issues. It delivers on a lot of these fronts. But its more problematic aspects, nonetheless, cannot be ignored. It is hoped that this article is taken in the spirit of instruction in which it was intended and not as a childhood-destroying ploy that seeks to do to the Harry Potter books what Beatrix Bloxam did to The Tales of Beedle the Bard. Until next time, mischief was managed.

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