Holy House Elves!: Working Through the Problematic Tropes in Harry Potter

In the wake of all the recent social unrest and the pandemic and everything, I’ve had trouble thinking of topics for this blog. I don’t want to be silent on important issues, but I wasn’t sure I should dig into racism in the U.S. and/or the effects of the pandemic, since I’m a goofy white lady who hasn’t been directly affected by racism or the pandemic. However, there is one current controversy I feel semi-qualified to comment is this: J.K. Rowling being a big, transphobic Death Eater.

I’m not trans, so I can’t comment on it from that perspective, but both trans and cis people are extremely upset with her. Why? Because she’s using her massive platform to target a marginalized minority whose members are already at risk for being victims of transphobic violence. She knows what she’s doing, and yet she sees herself as some sort of bizarre, transphobic hero. Weirdly, she does keep trying to justify herself because she knows people don’t like her views, but she doubles down on her hateful views anyway. She wants complete control over her image, and she wants to be hateful and cruel without consequences. She is both Lord Voldemort and Dolores Umbridge made manifest.

Even though I want to comment on her awfulness, I’m not going to break down how stupid and horrible her transphobic arguments are, since YouTuber Sarah Z has already done that. I’m also not going to go into how this relates to Death of the Author because Lindsay Ellis has already done that. However, I do want to elaborate on something that both of those critics bring up: J.K. Rowling has intentionally made herself inseparable from the Harry Potter book and film series, and her intolerant fingerprints are all over the series. I want to point out some specific examples of JKR’s exclusionary world view that appear in the series.

Problematic Tropes in the Harry Potter Book Series:

  • Fenrir Greyback, the predatory werewolf, is a metaphor for pedophiles: Of all the disturbing tropes discussed here, this is the one that stood out to me most while I was reading the series for the first time during my adolescence. Why did this metaphor stand out to me so much? Well, I was raised Roman Catholic, and Half-Blood Prince (where Fenrir Greyback first appears) was released in 2005, just three years after revelations about the rampant pedophilia in the Catholic Church began emerging in 2002. In fact, in December of 2002, my parish’s pastor was removed a few weeks before Christmas because he’d been credibly accused of pedophilia, and two more victims of his came forward over the next couple of years. So when Fenrir Greyback was first introduced in Half-Blood Prince, Lupin describes him as preying exclusively children and saying that Greyback was the werewolf who bit him. At the time, I was startled by the parallels, but I thought J.K. Rowling was trying to draw parallels between fictional monsters and real-life monsters, maybe as a way of reaching out to her readers who’d been affected by them. However, in recent years, she’s claimed that lycanthropy (the condition of being a werewolf) is a metaphor for HIV/AIDS in the books, which makes me wonder if she sees all LGBTQ+ people as either kindly people like Lupin or predatory monsters like Greyback. She is very fond of binaries, after all (more on that below). She made that comment, like so many other comments, so that she appears very woke without having to do any of the hard work of actually being woke. By claiming that lycanthropy represents HIV/AIDS, J.K. Rowling actually perpetuates horrible stereotypes that conflate homosexuality (and other sexualities outside of heterosexuality) with pedophilia, which is completely wrong and untrue. This claim suggests that she has some disturbing views on LGBTQ+ people, which relates to her awful transphobia.
  • The Hogwarts house system is based on boxing people into neat “types”: The Sorting Hat sorts every student into one of the four houses based on what it sees in the student’s head. This concept is so ubiquitous to Millennials and Gen Z-ers now that there are tons of “What’s Your Hogwarts House?” quizzes on the internet, including the “official” Pottermore quiz. Buzzfeed even has quizzes that sort you into a Hogwarts house based on your aesthetic choices and your K-Pop biases. You can also sort celebrities and fictional characters into Hogwarts houses. Knowing your Hogwarts house has become similar to knowing your Zodiac sign or your Myers-Briggs types: an easy way to sort our complex personalities into simple categories. (For the records, I’m a Hufflepuff Virgo INFP, apparently.) Did you know that Lin-Manuel Miranda self-identifies as a Slytherin? He does. Now, I love personality quizzes. They’ve been one of my vices since I was a teenager. I take them when I’m bored. But I began noticing years ago that there were no good Slytherin students at Hogwarts, and fans of the series often write Hufflepuff off as the useless house. Basically, Hogwarts houses can become a toxic concept if taken too seriously, and it’s worth noting that J.K. Rowling loves to sort people into boxes. That might be why she’s so transphobic: she can’t sort trans people into boxes, so their existence freaks her out. It’s possible that J.K. Rowling cannot comprehend anyone that she cannot easily categorize.
  • The Goblins are Jewish stereotypes: I feel really awful that I didn’t notice this until one of the Jeopardesses pointed it out, but once she did, I could not unsee the parallels. You see, in past eras, Jewish people were portrayed as big-nosed, due to awful physical stereotyping, and greedy, often because they worked with money (apparently, Jewish people once worked as money lenders in the Middle Ages and Renaissance because Christians were forbidden from lending money, or so I read once). Why is it harmful to imbue the Goblins with Jewish stereotypes? Because those stereotypes still have effects on Jewish people today. For instance, there are many Jewish Jeopardesses, and one of them went on a prolific run as a Jeopardy! champion four or five years ago. During her run as champion, she found comments from strangers online claiming that she was only winning so much because some sort of Jewish conspiracy. She faced comments about greed, which other champions like James Holzhauer and Austin Rogers never had to face. She simply wanted to do really well on her favorite game show, and she studied really hard, and she became champion. But she was still dogged by those horrible comments. Characters like the goblins in Harry Potter can contribute to that anti-Semitic stigma.
  • Outside of Dobby, House Elves are portrayed as happy slaves. Let me be clear: “happy slaves” were never a thing in reality. Enslaved people have always been oppressed throughout history. The “happy slave” myth has always been an excuse or justification for slavery. Maybe J.K. Rowling wasn’t aware of that because she’s British, not American, but the South has used the “happy slave” myth to paint slavery as not-so-bad. A group called the Daughters of the Confederacy even wrote this myth into history books used in Southern schools to whitewash to horrors of slavery. Overall, the “happy slave” myth is really harmful. That’s why it’s so disturbing that all House Elves outside of Dobby are portrayed as a race of happy slaves. Dobby is unusual because he wants to be paid for his labor, and other House Elves see him as crazy because of his views. Now, I will admit I have a Dobby magnet on my fridge that I found at Five Below. When I was younger and more into the Harry Potter series, Dobby was one of my favorite characters because he was noble and brave and willing to risk his life to save a kid he didn’t even know. Additionally, he recognized his own oppression and believed he deserved better than unpaid labor (though he does reduce the wage and time off that Dumbledore offers him for a kitchen job at Hogwarts, which is problematic). Outside of Dobby, Winky’s and Kreacher’s behavior and their unfailing loyalty to their human masters is frankly disturbing. I do wonder if this portrayal has something to do with British colonialism and how Boomer and Gen X British people learned their history. Still, it’s just another example of J.K. Rowling’s screwed-up beliefs about minorities.
  • America just doesn’t work the way J.K. Rowling thinks it does: I remember being so excited when she started dropping information on the American Wizarding World on Pottermore in preparation for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Ultimately, though, her depictions of the American Wizarding World (and the entire Wizarding World outside of Britain, to a certain extent) was disappointing and full of stereotypes. For instance, she turned Native Americans in a single monolith, not a groups of diverse nations and tribes with many different belief systems and mythologies. Then she took their mythologies and spirtual beliefs and just roped them into her own world, claiming that skinwalkers are just Animagi (wizards who turn into animals by choice) and that thunderbirds are related to phoenixes. Overall, her understanding of American mythologies came across as extremely skin-deep: she knows the names of things and a tiny bit about what they do, but that’s it. In fact, all her references to America are skin-deep, like the way the American Wizarding World stays completely separate from its Muggle (or, uh, No-Maj?) world. That separation is probably supposed to be a metaphor for America’s anti-miscegenation laws (laws preventing people of different races marrying, procreating, and even kissing onscreen in movies), similar to how blood purity is a broad, general metaphor for racism. However, unlike the Wizarding World’s blood purity problems, she gives explicit details about how the separation started, which has nothing to do with racism or slavery (the real causes of these laws) and everything to do with the Salem Witch Trials. (The whole metaphor is very weird.) Also, she doesn’t quite get how the American government works. At the beginning of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, we see a building that’s labeled “U.S. Ministry of Magic.” However, the U.S. government doesn’t have Ministries the way the U.K. government does. We have Departments, such as the Department of State, the Department of Justice, the Department of Education, etc. Instead of a Ministry of Magic, the U.S. would more likely have a Department of Magic. Also, she created the Magical Congress of the USA or MACUSA, and it has a president. Again, that’s similar to U.K. government, where the Prime Minister is the head of Parliament. In the U.S., the President is the head of the executive branch of government, not the legislative branch of government. Congress makes the laws, the President enforces the laws, and the Supreme Court determines whether those laws are constitutional. The three branches keep each other in check so no one branch becomes more powerful than the other. Elementary schoolers learn about this governmental structure, so J.K. Rowling should be able to learn about it, too. Not all governments are structured the way the British government is! She really doesn’t care about any place in the world beyond her own immediate horizons in the U.K., which is unfortunate, since her works have international appeal.
  • She never had the guts to actually portray Dumbledore as gay. We might as well bookend this post with J.K. Rowling’s problematic portrayals (or lack thereof) of LGBTQ+ people. She just can’t portray Dumbledore as gay, even though she claims he’s gay. She wants the credit for creating a gay character without actually having to portray a gay character, which is just backwards and sad. Many other people have voiced their opinions about this particular problem, so I’m going to end this list here.

Yikes, J.K. Rowling is a screwed up person with a lot of awful beliefs. However, she did make some keen observations about parts of humanity in the Harry Potter series. These include “the wand chooses” the wizard, which can relate to how people feel called to certain careers or other aspects of their lives; the entire character of Professor Umbridge, who is every petty teacher, DMV worker, or government bureaucrat anyone has ever met; and the way Tom Riddle is charming and manipulative and has every teacher except Dumbledore believing he’s completely harmless (I went to high school with a guy like that, and manipulative people like that are very, very real). But now I wonder if Umbridge and Voldemort simply reflect her own dark side. When I was growing up, I admired her a lot, and I wanted to become as successful a writer as she was (and still is). I now realize that reaching that level is nearly impossible and takes a lot of luck. I also see that she’s an incredibly limited person, and writing this post is an act of catharsis for me. It’s my way of recognizing how she’s been able to hurt people all along, and that she was never the accepting, empathetic mother-goddess that everyone wanted her to be. It’s time to let J.K. Rowling go and realize that we’ve all grown beyond her.

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