28 October 2007

Rowling's Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

I'm finishing this past Harry Potter Week (and a Day) with an observation I've been musing on for a while. Author J. K. Rowling's recent remark that she considered Prof. Albus Dumbledore to be gay adds another example to a pattern of how her books have been progressive on the surface but undercut those themes in how their larger story plays out.

Rowling is clearly progressive in her politics. She went to work for Amnesty International right after college. Since 2000 the British press has tried to peg her as a supporter of Gordon Brown, now Prime Minister for the Labour Party. She's used her celebrity to support aid for single parents.

That progressivism shows up in her books' messages of inclusion, particularly at Hogwarts School. Both that school and the quidditch played there are for girls and boys equally, contrary to the history of British (and most other) schools and sport. The student body reflects the modern UK's multi-ethnic population, with no visible tensions. The headmaster is Dumbledore, so far the most important figure in children's literature identified by his creator as gay. The books also have a progressive attitude toward notions of aristocracy.

From the start inclusion and exclusion has been a major theme. In the family or under the stairs? Muggle or wizard? Rich or poor? Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Slytherin? On the quidditch team or off? In the Triwizard Tournament, in the Order of the Phoenix, in Dumbledore's Army? In Hogwarts itself?

The overarching story is a battle for inclusiveness against aristocratic racists who want to exclude "mudbloods," "half-breeds," and other undesirables. The final battle in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows turns out to have its roots in a similar battle against fascism before 1945, and to require the combined forces of wizards, elves, centaurs, giants, and other creatures.

Fantasy lets authors depict evil in embodied form, and we readers expect that evil to be vanquished by the end of the saga. That victory can restore an old order or give rise to a new one with more promise. Consider the government reforms under way at the end of the Bartimaeus and Lionboy trilogies, their outcomes undetermined. Consider the breakdown of theocracy itself in His Dark Materials.

Rowling chose a different path. Her story is one of restoration, not reform. No part of the wizarding world is more tradition-bound than Hogwarts School, which becomes Harry's true home. In each book, Hogwarts is threatened and rescued. Its restoration includes the traditions that Harry comes to love because they define Hogwarts culture. The epilogue assures us that the Sorting Hat and house rivalries that divide the school remain intact, and there's no hint of pedagogical change. Thus, however much the books espouse progressive values, their primary narrative is a regression to the past.

Another overarching plot follows Harry's desire to enjoy a happy, intact family of the sort he briefly knew as an infant. The epilogue to HP7, set years after the rest, shows him with his wife and three children, his best friends with their children. (And his old school rival with his children, too.) Support and love outside the nuclear family structure, as the Order of the Phoenix provided in the middle of the series, is not apparent. And there are no single-parent families of the sort that Rowling supports in real life.

And what about the books' inclusiveness? Dana Goldstein's "Harry Potter and the Complicated Identity Politics", published in The American Prospect, suggests that the fantasy genre itself complicates any message of tolerance and mixing:

Rowling's ideology cannot simply be described as anti-racist, for as strongly as she condemns racially-motivated violence, Harry Potter remains a classic work of fantasy. And fantasy is a literary genre intent, above almost all else, on the reassuring order of classification and categorization, of blood lines and inheritances.
I think that's too reductive. Just as fantasy authors don't need to show a return to "reassuring order," they don't need to emphasize categorization and inheritance. But Rowling chose those strains within the fantasy genre, and I think they ended up working against her stated themes. Again and again, we see the action of her books undermining the values that Harry learns.

Stated Value: Inclusiveness for all ethnic groups. Action: Harry, his two closest friends, apparently all of his teachers, his godfather, and all but one of his mentors and protectors appear to be white and English. The British learn to appreciate French and Bulgarians as relatives and friends--but they still talk funny.

Stated Value: Equality of the sexes. Action: Boys get beat up a lot more than girls.

Stated Value: Appreciation of other species. Action: In HP7 Griphook snatches up the Sword of Gryffindor because goblins believe artworks never stop belonging to their makers. But later the sword magically pops into Neville's hand; a human idea of property not only prevails but receives magical endorsement. House elves start out enslaved to the human owners of their homes, and end up more loyal than ever. Centaurs want nothing to do with us, but come around to seeing that attitude as a mistake. Humans don't have to compromise their lifestyles or their values.

Stated Value: Respect for differences. Action: The books assure us that it's okay to be a werewolf like Lupin, and it's okay to marry one, as Tonks does. It's okay to be a free house elf like Dobby. It's okay to be gay like Dumbledore. But all those characters are violently killed. Killed by the racist villains, to be sure, so the books don't endorse their murders. Nonetheless, they're all still quite dead.

For me this amounts to a recurring dance of two steps forward, one step back. That does leave us a few steps forward. But Rowling might have been able to create a more thoroughly progressive narrative by choosing a different structure and details that better reflected her themes.

Circling around to the announcement that spurred this week of Oz and Ends postings, I suspect that Rowling's identification of Dumbledore as gay will become a milestone in children's fantasy literature. However, it's such a limited picture of gay humanity that within a generation it will seem no more progressive than the portraits of African-Americans in Uncle Tom's Cabin. We'll have to struggle to remember just what an impact Rowling had.


lili said...

the thing with the blood-lines always irritated me, because the message was always something like this:

HARRY: Hermione, you are still a really excellent witch, EVEN THOUGH your parents are Muggles.

By which he is STILL implying that Muggles are 'less than' Wizards. Which the book totally supports, as there is not a single Muggle who is an actively good character. Apartheid, much?

And with the Dumbledore thing, I am just upset that, if we really do believe that Dumbledore was gay, then we also have to believe that he was in the closet. And for someone as brave and outspoken as Dumbledore, that's pretty sad, and doesn't really feel like a 'positive message' at all.

Anonymous said...

"But all those characters are violently killed."

Wow, never thought of it that way.

Any chance you're planning to read "The True Meaning of Smekday" and discuss some of these same issues?

J. L. Bell said...

I can put Smekday on my list. I like the website.