Jul 17, 2011

Harry Potter Is Not a "Jock"



Hat-tip to Andrew Sullivan on the most wrong-headed analysis of Harry Potter I think I've ever seen, which, to my great surprise, comes from Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon. In addition to getting important plot points completely wrong, Marcotte reveals far more about herself than she does the Harry Potter series. Marcotte attempts to address the Harry Potter as "nerd" with "misfit" friends narrative. I don't know whose narrative that is but it isn't Rowling's, which Marcotte tangentially acknowledges before going on to debunk it anyway.

Harry, Marcotte explains, isn't a "geek." He's a "jock." While it's certainly true that Harry distinguishes himself as an athlete in the richly symbolic game of Quidditch, I think to call him a jock is a bit of a reach. Nor are athletes so feted at Hogwarts as to make such "jocks" the in crowd. The social structure is far more complex than that. There is no jock/geek dichotomy in the Harry Potter universe.

As Sullivan points out, Marcotte misidentifies both Harry and Ron as "stereotypically privileged." Ron is best known for coming from a poor family and relying on frequently embarrassing hand-me-downs. The wealthy Malfoys openly mock the Weasleys for their poverty. Harry is an orphan raised by relatives who treat him like Cindarella and his own hand-me-down clothes have the added benefit of being absurdly large because they come from his fat, bully cousin. He spends the first years of life consigned to a cupboard under the stairs. Neither of these boys' lives could be remotely described as privileged.

Far from being part of any "jock" in crowd, Harry is not popular. He's famous. And fame is a fickle mistress. Like so many famous people, he learns that the only thing the media and the media consuming public enjoy more than building a hero up is tearing one down. He endures periods of ridicule and ostracizing that are at least as horrible as the life with his Aunt and Uncle; a life he still has to endure every summer. 

She's somewhat closer to the mark with her positioning of Snape but still misrepresents the story arc.

The most genuinely nerdy character is Severus Snape, which becomes even more clear in the flashbacks where Snape hates James Potter for his easy charm with the ladies, especially Lily, who Snape loves.  Snape is shown as being tortured by the popular kids when he's young.  As an adult, he and Harry don't like each other, and it's a continuation of the nerd-jock animus that both of them feel.

Snape is something of an odd duck but we only see a snapshot of his conflict with James Potter; one in which we learn that Harry's father was a flawed person. (None of Rowling's characters can be defined in simple black and white terms.) But to cast even that conflict as jocks vs. nerds is reductive. And to characterize the dynamics between Harry and Snape similarly is ludicrous. Harry's conflict with Snape starts because Harry's convinced Snape is trying to kill him. He thinks that, in part, because Snape gives off a decided whiff of malevolence. Subsequent revelations such as his history as a "death eater" only seem to confirm that assessment.

Harry's girlfriend is also a poor Weasley and Marcotte gets her wrong, as well.

Harry's girlfriend is not only a star athlete as well, but is clearly the most popular and beautiful girl in school, with all the boys fawning over her.  It's a feminist touch that Rowling didn't make her the wizarding version of a cheerleader, but that's what makes the books so perfect for the modern era.

There's far more than a touch of feminism in the Potter series as Laura Hibbard points out in her post on the inspirational and unapologetically smart Hermione Granger. But Ginny Weasley, while athletic and attractive, is no Heather.

There really is no such in crowd or out crowd at Hogwarts. The closest thing to such a dichotomy rests in something far darker, which Marcotte reduces to the point of absurdity in her analysis of Hermione.

Hermione is the best piece of evidence for the "band of misfits" theory, but she still doesn't rise to the level of a true geek character.  Oh sure, she gets taunted for being Muggle-born and is the smart girl who annoys the other kids.  But while I'd say she's a tad nerdy at the beginning of the books, she evolves into one of the popular kids at Hogwarts.  She becomes very beautiful, is good friends with the most famous young man in their world, and she dates a famous Quidditch player.

Hermione's "Muggle-born" status makes her situation a little more precarious than the risk of a bit of teasing. It's a matter of life and death. One of the more overt themes in the Harry Potter series is the analogy to Nazi Germany in which Muggles are the equivalent of Jews and other "mud people." This is something Rowling makes even more obvious in that they're referred to by "pure blood" aspirants with the pejorative "mudblood." As Voldemort rises to power again, Muggles are targets of his genocidal vision. I don't think it's an accident that Voldemort's major supporters the Malfoys are extremely blond.

Ironically, for an author setting her story in a magical realm, Rowling's social commentary is more overt than her brilliantly structured basis in Western Alchemy. But she's not dealing with issues as pedestrian as high school cliques. She's taking on the class system at it's most horrific. Voldemort is, among other things, a Hitlerian figure. He is also one of the most well-drawn portraits of psychopathy in modern literature but that's a discussion for another day.

Harry's goodness is defined in part because he embraces genuine outcasts: Muggle-borns, a giant half-breed, an impoverished werewolf, a poor wizarding family with a socially suicidal affection for Muggles... He forms his associations based on character rather than prestige or lineage. Harry's own mother was also Muggle-born and embraced by James Potter who also risked his life to associate with people based on who they were rather than their bloodlines. To reduce such richly drawn characters and themes to a discussion of the popular crowd is just silly.


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