The first labor agitator I ever admired was Hermione Granger.
When you’re a kid, you don’t know names like Mother Jones or Eugene Debs. Generally speaking, your parents aren’t going to sit you down and have you watch Matewan or Norma Rae or better yet Harlan County, USA. They aren’t teaching you Das Kapital or The Wealth of Nations in primary school. But if you were of a certain age, you did have Harry Potter.
In the second Harry Potter novel, Harry is subject to the clumsy heroics of a servant named Dobby. Dobby is a house elf. In the Harry Potter lore, house elves are a species that are almost entirely part of a slave caste. Wealthy wizarding families own them; they serve the families’ every whim. And despite possessing powerful magics of their own, they are bound to their masters for life. Their magically enforced loyalty to their masters is so strong that if they disobey their masters’ orders, they will violently punish themselves. Dobby considers himself mischievous before his freedom is delivered and regularly smashes his ears in his family’s oven for his imagined transgressions. House elves can only achieve the freedom Dobby is accidentally given if their masters give them an article of genuine clothing instead of the rags they are usually forced to wear.
The exploitation of the house elves is a recurring thread in the Harry Potter series, a thread that reaches its climax when Harry’s kindness towards his godfather’s bitter and ancient house elf leads to the discovery of one of the series more important MacGuffins. It also sees its emotional resolution when Dobby sacrifices his life in the last book of the series to save Harry because Harry was responsible for his brief experiences with freedom. But the political heart of the house elf narrative arc lies in the founding of S.P.E.W.
In the fourth book, Harry’s friend Hermione founds the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.). After witnessing first hand at the Quidditch World Cup the cruelty that house elves suffer, Hermione decides to dedicate what little free time she has to protesting the subjugation of house elves (when she’s not helping Harry and Ron save the world or being the top student at Hogwarts). Even at the virtuous Hogwarts, none of the house elves except for Dobby, who eventually finds employment there, are paid. Harry appreciates Hermione’s goals even if he’s not as dedicated to the cause as she is, but Harry’s other best friend, Ron Weasley, actively thinks Hermione is deluded. Both Harry and Hermione were raised by Muggle families (non-magic users). Ron was born into a long-line of witches and wizards. His father works for the wizarding government. To Ron, house elves’ place in the world is natural. It’s how it’s always been and although he helps out in S.P.E.W. because he’s (mostly) a good friend, Ron doesn’t see why there’s any need to change that order. Ron doesn’t experience a change of heart until the climactic final battle for Hogwarts when he realizes that these slaves will likely be slaughtered to help save the school he and his friends called home for so many years.
Notions of class and race run through the entire series. Hermione is discriminated against by many traditional wizarding families because she is a “mudblood” (a witch/wizard born of muggle parents). Although Ron’s family can be traced back through generations of magic users and his father essentially runs one of the Ministry of Magic’s departments, the family’s poverty marks them as easy targets for the condescension of wealthier families, such as the Malfoys who originally owned Dobby. The main villain of the series, Lord Voldemort, is fantasy Hitler, intent on waging a literal race-war against Muggle-born witches/wizards, not in spite of being half Muggle himself but quite directly because of the deep shame he feels for this. And he gains power because those prejudices are so deeply ingrained in the wizarding world despite claims to normalcy and greater tolerance even after his initial defeat when Harry was just a child.
And all of the heroes of the story exist on the fringes of wizarding society. Harry was raised by Muggles despite his murdered parents being witches/wizards (and his mother was a “mudblood”). Ron is poor and his father’s fascination with Muggle society also alienated the Weasleys from other wizards (and gets Ron’s father in trouble with the law on several occasions). Hermione is a “mudblood.” Their friend Neville has parents who were tortured to insanity by the henchmen of Voldemort during his first reign of terror. Luna Lovegood, another friend, is considered touched in the head because she was raised by the Harry Potter equivalent of a hippie that runs a counterculture newspaper. When it’s time to stand against the rise of magical fascism, the books’ heroes know what’s at stake because they weren’t enmeshed in the privilege that blinded so many others in the magic community from the real dangers so many faced.
Of course, the older I got, the more I realized that there were problems to J.K. Rowling’s vision of social justice. In a series that deals so explicitly with race, the core cast is overwhelmingly white. There are characters of color. The Patel twins, Gryffindor Dean Thomas, Quidditch announcer Lee Jordan, Auror Kingsley Shacklebolt, Quidditch star Cho Chang. But as the condensed film versions of these stories clearly illuminate, the characters that matter are white. The amount of lines spoken by non-white actors in the films is pathetically small and it’s because their roles are only slightly expanded in the novels. The London stage adaptation of Rowling’s sequel play to the books cast a black actress as grown-up Hermione, and it makes perfect thematic sense. It integrates the legacy of actual, real-world racism into this story of fantastic racism. The books never actually specify Hermione’s race but considering the casting of the films, there’s little doubt that Rowling meant her to be white. And in a version of the Harry Potter universe where everyone that makes a difference to the plot is white, that displays a most basic lip-service to real-world oppression without doing anything to counter the legacy of white supremacy in popular culture.
There’s also the whole “Dumbledore is gay” situation. I’m 100% fine with Dumbledore being a homosexual. In addition to being lily-white (pun half-intended for any of the book’s fans), the Harry Potter books are also painfully heterosexual. Until Rowling off-handedly mentioned that Dumbledore and Grindelwald were lovers in an interview years after the last book was released, there were no canon queers in that series. There are dozens and dozens of named characters in that series. Not a single one of them was ever mentioned as being anywhere on the LGBT spectrum. And by saying that Dumbledore is “gay,” Rowling gets to feel good about diversity in her novels without once again doing the actual work of creating diverse characters.
And the house elf stories are even more problematic. It gleefully engages in the horrific but popular misconception that slaves are often happy with their lot in life simply because they do not know better. When Dobby gains his freedom, he is ostracized not only from much of human society (because he is an elf that demands to be paid for his services) but also from elves who think his newfound confidence and sense of personhood is uppity willfullness. And by telling almost the entire story from Harry’s perspective (later books in the series have prologues told from other characters’ points of view), the story of Dobby’s liberation begins to reek of the “white savior” trope. Hermione and Harry (and to a much lesser extent Ron) are the saviors of these beings who seemingly can’t do anything to help themselves despite possessing more magical power than any teenage wizard would have. Dobby is strong-willed and independent and one of the most noble characters in the entire series but virtually every other house elf is an uncomfortable caricature of the antebellum house slave.
J.K. Rowling created a universe that asks kids to think about big, important real-world issues, and that’s nothing to scoff at. Considering that we live in an age where so much of contemporary young adult fiction is either nihilistically dystopian or naively optimistic, Rowling’s warm hopefulness leavened by an honest recognition that the shitty parts of our past are never as far away as we’d like to believe remains necessary. But when it comes to actually executing on those ideas, Rowling isn’t quite capable of sticking the landing. As an introduction to social justice praxis, the Harry Potter books can be light fun (and there are few characters in all of fiction that I feel as much attachment to as Harry and his core crew of friends), but any serious discussion of those themes has to recognize Rowling’s failure to think seriously about redistributive justice or contemporary identity politics. And so what happens is that you get older and the books become uncomfortably close to exploiting real-world oppression to create a heroic fantasy for its young white heroes (and readers).
And in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Rowling (the film’s screenwriter) finds herself stumbling into the same thematic potholes.
The first entry in a new prequel, spin-off franchise, the film takes place in the 1920s. The lead character, magical zoologist Newt Scamander, comes to America to set a magic bird free in its natural habitat (that plot point sounds silly but the silly stuff is often the best part of the film) but quickly gets embroiled in a mystery that’s destroying muggle homes and drawing undue attention to the American wizarding community.
American magic users have their own set of prejudices different from the British of the more contemporary Harry Potter universe. Witches and wizards in England are allowed to marry Muggles. Witches and wizards in America are forced to have as little contact with Nomag’s as possible (a name so hilariously utilitarian that it has to be Rowling taking a shot at America’s lack of imagination). A major plot point of the film is Newt Scamander (and the American witch sisters that get dragged into his misadventures) befriending a Muggle whose memory Newt failed to erase when he first had the chance.
There are allusions to the poverty and economic exploitation of the era that would eventually engulf the globe with the Great Depression. A deranged, anti-magic fanatic runs an orphanage where she tortures her wards and brainwashes them with anti-wizard propaganda. The American version of the Ministry of Magic has a law enforcement department led by a man with dictatorial powers over guilt and innocence. And that culminates in an examination of America’s (continuing) use of the barbarous death penalty. And American wizards have a particularly horrific death penalty where those subjected to it are mentally pacified with happy memories while they burn alive in a pool of corrosive liquid.
But minus its absolutely on point critiques of capital punishment, Fantastic Beasts once again finds Rowling on the verge of having something to say without committing in the necessary ways. Newt is primarily joined on his journey by disgraced American Auror Tina Goldstein, her sister Queenie, and Muggle baker Jacob Kowalski. I don’t want to profile people based on their last names, but as someone whose half-Jewish mother’s maiden name is Swartz, the Goldsteins are meant to be American Jews. Kowalski is an American Pole. And in a story that explicitly evokes American miscegenation laws, the film fails to ever mention virulent American anti-Semitism (Hitler was very popular in certain portions of America before the outbreak of World War II precisely because of his anti-Semitic leanings) or anti-Polish sentiments which were nearly as prevalent as American anti-Semitism. The President of the American wizarding community is a black woman, but the film fails to engage with the fact that anti-black racism and misogyny were codified, de jure elements of every day American life.
It seems obvious that Rowling was attempting to make the wizarding world come off as more progressive than human society, but that logic falls apart for several reasons. A) She shows how horribly prejudiced the magical community is in a host of other areas constantly and B) by failing to engage with actual oppression but using marginalized characters, Rowling appropriates the experiences of marginalized and oppressed people without giving back to those worlds in a substantive way (and Rowling also has a bad habit of shameless cultural appropriation such as patronuses which are nothing more than Native American spirit animals without any mention or nod towards Native American mythology/religious practices).
I realize this sounds like I’m being nitpicky about a children’s series, but these things matter. J.K. Rowling has a platform. She wrote one of the most popular book series… ever. She has legions of young fans and adult fans all over the world. People pay attention to what she writes. And when you have that sort of platform, you have an ethical obligation to use it for the most good possible. And Rowling tries. I’m not denying that she does, and I’ve been a vocal, ardent fan of her approach to character driven fantasy storytelling since I was in elementary school and one of my friends let me borrow her copies of the first three books. But trying isn’t the same thing as doing something the right way. And when you include material as sensitive and vitally important as social justice in your storytelling, you have another ethical obligation to do it right. And outside of The Casual Vacancy, I’m unsure if Rowling is capable of handling these issues with the nuance and care they deserve.