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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Harry Potter and the colonialist fantasy

While some may advocate for separating the art from the artist, Rowling’s regressive views have always been present within the text


By GEETIKA MAHAJAN — giamahajan@ucdavis.edu


Even before the “Harry Potter” book series was complete, it began to transcend the kind of popularity typically associated with works of children’s literature. Describing it as a “bestseller” didn’t really encompass the full extent of its reach — it was practically a cornerstone of early 2000s culture. However, as the author of the series, J.K. Rowling (JKR), became more vocal about her anti-trans views, people became more hesitant about expressing their love for the series. Some even called for a boycott of anything that would put money in J.K. Rowling’s pockets (and rightfully so — as she has gone on record to say that many of the royalties she receives go directly toward organizations that actively work to limit transgender rights.)

Rowling’s sudden shift from beloved children’s author to transphobe seemed shocking to many ardent fans of the series, but a more careful reread of the books themselves demonstrates that her regressive, Blairist politics were always apparent within her work, manifesting in the way that the Harry Potter books themselves function as a sort of colonial fantasy. 

The Harry Potter books contain not just magical humans but a variety of various human-adjacent magical creatures — werewolves, centaurs, goblins, house elves and giants, to name a few. Though they all, to some extent, possess the same ability to perform magic as the wizards themselves, none of them are present as students of Hogwarts or are even seen in the wizarding world outside of the roles that have been predetermined for them. That is to say, all goblins appear as bankers and are apparently content to remain bankers forever; all house elves appear as docile workers who actively resent anyone who attempts to free them. The wizarding world seems to function as “a place for everyone and everyone in their place” — and this hierarchical structure may sound familiar, because it is. 

It mimics the sort of stratified society that colonists would salivate over, in which the colonized do not resist inferiority, or even seem to prefer it. There are very few examples of non-human magical creatures being accepted into wizarding society; two prominent examples — Remus Lupin, a werewolf who was introduced as the Defense Against Dark Arts teacher in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” and Firenze, a centaur who became a Divination professor in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” These are noteworthy exceptions because they are recognized in the text as particularly outstanding members of their species, more tolerable than their savage counterparts. This too, is an extension of the colonial fantasy, wherein inferior members of society can aspire to a certain level of assimilation that will grant them access to the world of the colonizer. Of course, even then, they are not recognized as true equals; both Lupin and Firenze rely on the benevolence of those in power to maintain their positions and are still subjected to prejudices that even their elevated status cannot dispel. 

If Rowling had wanted to write “Harry Potter” as an anti-colonialist text, she could have easily done so. Throughout the seven novels, she lays out the framework of a society that is, essentially, stratified by class. She even discusses the prejudices that non-human wizards face in this society — yet the “resolution” does not bring about any sort of justice for them. Harry’s defeat of Voldemort, which has supposedly saved wizardkind, does nothing but preserve this stratification. Voldemort himself advocates for the subjugation of a certain class of wizards, claiming that those who were born to non-wizards should not be allowed the same level of access, education or privilege that pureblood wizards are granted. This is, essentially, what wizards themselves have been doing for centuries — classifying certain creatures as the “other” and restricting their rights on that basis. 

It was not so much about the atrocities that the death-eaters and Voldemort were committing, but the fact that the atrocities were being leveled against humans, rather than the house elves, werewolves, goblins and other magical creatures that the atrocities were previously reserved for. When Voldemort is defeated, no efforts are made to create a more inclusive society, nor is there any indication that there is a demand for change. Such is the colonialist fantasy: the biggest threat to social order is never the liberation of the lower classes, because the lower classes do not even consider liberation a possibility.  

It could be argued that the portrayal of certain characters in the series resist the stereotype of the colonist. In fact, Rowling makes it a point to demonstrate just how benevolent Dumbledore is in particular. Multiple magical creatures extol upon his kindness for “accepting” them into the wizarding world — but the acceptance is simply tolerance, not complete inclusion. Often, the characters who are offered this kindness have something to offer to the wizards in return. Titular character Harry Potter’s compassion is less conditional, but he fits into the colonialist narrative in a different way; throughout the course of the series, the reader learns that Harry himself has been born into a position of power. Even if he had not defeated Voldemort as a baby, he would still have been the son of two wizards who were highly respected in society; the books do not chronicle the tale of some underdog who has no place in the world of wizards, but describe how Harry is able to return to his place at the top of this hierarchy. In Rowling’s world, the good guys are people born in positions of power and privilege, and the bad guys are people also born in positions of power and privilege but who abuse their elevated status. The only struggles are between these two groups, the former always emerges triumphant, and the subjugated classes around these dueling, privileged groups, are content to remain inferior forever. 

HBO has recently announced that they plan to develop a Harry Potter reboot — a declaration that has been met with everything from positivity to indifference, to outrage. Already, people have been discussing the moral implications of watching a show knowing that some of the royalties JKR earns will go directly towards anti-trans organizations. But it’s important to remember that it was not her transphobic tweets that ruined the series post-factum — it is the fact that colonialist-like regressiveness has always existed throughout the novels.   


Written by: Geetika Mahajan — giamahajan@ucdavis.edu

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