How to Analyze Harry Potter
J.K Rowling’s children’s story of the young wizard Harry Potter began in 1997 with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and instantaneously created frenzy in the adolescent reading community. Parents and teachers alike were amazed at the degree to which the story captured the imagination and hearts of children around the world, resulting in a phenomenon that had not been seen in years–the preference for books over television (Blake, 2002: p. 27). The book discusses the story of an orphaned boy who finds himself under the brutal guardianship of a middle-class “muggle” (an epithet for “mortal”) uncle and an aunt who resent their “different” nephew. When he is recognized by the magical community as the most powerful wizard in the world, his relatives reluctantly allow him to attend Hogwarts, a boarding school where he can perfect his magical skills. In the tradition of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, the book illustrates the archetypal cosmic duel between the forces of good and evil (Gupta, 2003: p. 33). By focusing only on the fact that the story is set in the supernatural world, however, some critics have missed this overarching theme and characterized the book as Satanic (Whited, 2002). There is a significant body of texts which circulate over online domains that attempt to ideologically undermine, resist and intentionally re-work the intent of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. In order to understand these resistances to Harry Potter, it is important to characterize why fans hate this and why they enjoy these texts and the source of anti-Harry Potter frustration about these particular fans who find pleasure. To examine anti-Harry Potter commentary, Ian Eng’s critical analysis of audience-text responsiveness will be applied because of its intricate assessment of textual displeasure, its reasons and the ways in which the audience justifies their textual discontent.
When texts reach a plateau of international recognition, there is oftentimes hatred that is expressed for them. It is clear that some individuals not only wish to undermine these texts, but to challenge their legitimacy in cultural institutions such as education (Zipes, 2001: p. 41). Harry Potter is one of these texts and, because of its cultural success, individuals feel that it is a threat to cultural order if these texts were to be placed in educational institutions. To analyze these individuals, Ian Eng’s theoretical framework will not only be necessary, but highly interesting. Here is an example of an individual who dislikes Harry Potter with a furious passion:
I remember way back when Harry Potter comprised of a few shitty books that only a few stupid kids enjoyed. It made insulting their worth quite painless and easy – though with this new Harry Potter revolution, including: movies, action figures, coloring books, cartoons, comics, and all sorts of other absolutely pointless bullshit marketing… – Justin (http://potterforums.com/)
Justin’s frustration is clear–his hatred in Harry Potter is merely because of its mass cultural motivations, to perpetuate capital by any means necessary, and in this case, Justin states that the Harry Potter phenomenon is accompanied by varieties of materialistic goods, “movies, action figures, coloring books, cartoons, comics…”. For these receivers of Harry Potter, they feel that it is simply a mass cultural need to generate more capital consumption (Gotz, 2005: p. 21). According to Ang (1985), an individual who resists mass cultural ideologies is an individual with a discontent towards mass produced and mass marketed products. For simplicity purposes, we shall call them “haters”. These haters are very aware of the mass cultural dissemination of products that they distinguish, in a very Frankfurtian way, as “bad culture” and subsequently “good culture” is formulated (Ang, 1985: p. 94).
Dichotomy is Formed in Harry Potter
Essentially, Justin and many others like him dichotomize good textual production with one that is bad, thereby asserting that the possibility of consuming these “good culture” texts is not sought after. These individuals justify their dissatisfaction with Harry Potter because of its mainstream orientation (Whited, 2002). Such a view coincides with the mentality of Theodore Adorno and his essays regarding the influence of popular culture texts. According to Adorno, popular cultural texts undermine the legitimacy of a “democratic” state (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1997: p. 20), that these texts divert members of democracies to other irrelevant objects (television, magazines, mass produced popular texts ) (ibid, p. 35). Such a hatred for mass cultural texts has been persistent since the dawn of the Gutenberg Press, when it was possible to mass produce texts and circulate them to wider audiences around the world. Today, such texts are not only produced massively, but also promoted through every means necessary (ibid, p. 29), as Justin had stated, these texts adopt multiple forms and cross genres. Adorno felt that this was a threat, and Justin does as well, and this is the reason for their hatred of such texts. Since haters are clearly aware of these mass cultural ideologies (that mass products are simply created to facilitate the continuation of capitalist goals), their logic is highly centered upon the traditional views of Adorno–that there is high and low art, that low arts are products promoted by mass culture for mainstream consumption purposes and to generate more capital (Reijen, 1938: p. 22). This is the reason for their discontent, their disapproval of mainstream “pointless bullshit,” as Justin has conveniently stated. Their presence ensures the continual struggle to maintain “good culture” versus “bad culture”.
Ang (1985) had not accounted for another interesting kind of hatred. Harry Potter has a very unique audience-textual critique. These anti-Harry Potter commentators have found a tertiary level of hatred, in that they have found a way to compare it to the present day, by arguing that its universe is questionable, that these texts seek to produce a paradigm shift in religious thinking. Simply put, there are a large volume of texts that situate Harry Potter as the anti-Christ, and that Harry Potter promotes occultist practices. They cite passages from Harry Potter to situate their frustration, passages very much like this:
“See what I have become?” the face said. “Mere shadow and vapour…I have form only when I can share another’s body…but there have always been those willing to let me into their hearts and minds…Unicorn blood has strengthened me, these past weeks…you saw faithful Quirrell drinking it for me in the forest…And once I have the Elixir of Life, I can create a body of my own..Now why don’t you give me that Stone in your pocket?” (Harry Potter, p. 213)
Although Ang (1985) does not describe this form of textual hatred, it is important to discuss its implications, and for simplicity purposes, this form of hatred will be called a “belief-conflict response”. This belief-conflict position asserts that such texts directly threaten their fath, and that it damages the legitimacy of it. Furthermore, these types of haters feel that such writers promote occultism and attempt to justify it religiously. Much like Arabs who become threatened religiously from outsiders and declare fatwa against them, Catholics and Christians worldwide have declared the same fatwa against J.K. Rowling, accusing her of promoting occultist behaviour and themes. It is significantly interesting to understand taht these Potter aters not only dislike it for its mass cultural intent, but also feel directly threatened religiously. These fans express their hatred of Harry Potter and to those who enjoy it. The remainder of this analysis will concern itself with responsive strategies from other types of audiences.
Fans develop an ironic enjoyment for Harry Potter
Ang (1985) also describes another type of audience who have pleasure in a product, but realize its mass cultural innovations (96). These audiences are called the “ironical viewing audience” according to Ang (1985). These individuals “state explicitly that they are fond of it, while at the same time employing these norms and judgments the ideology prescribes” (Ang, 1985: p. 96). Here is an example of an ironical viewer:
I love reading Harry Potter, but I know that everyone says that it’s just driving capitalism, but I don’t care what they think. I know that it does, but that’s not the point, you know. I love reading it because it’s funny sometimes, especially the story line, even though it’s severely cliched, hahaha – JackRabbit (http://potterforums.com/)
JackRabbit has this evident liking for Harry Potter in an ironic way. He views Harry Potter as a cliched story made to promote capitalism, but enjoys it because of its ability to give him pleasure. His pleasure, seemingly, is ironic because he finds the plot humorous. JackRabbit is aware that this story is a “bad object” (Ang, 1985: p. 96) and, therefore, lies his contradiction in his pleasure of Harry Potter, however, he “‘solves’ the contradiction between the moral of the ideology of mass culture and experiencing pleasure in [Harry Potter]: with mockery and irony” (Ang, 1985: p. 97). These individuals have a love-hate relationship with Harry Potter and find it increasingly difficult to justify their pleasure in the text knowing very well that it is mass produced.
How do Harry Potter Fans Justify their Fandom?
The final audience type that Ang illustrates is a “loving” fan community. These fans express their enjoyment in two ways: 1) by “internalizing the judgements of ideology of mass culture” (Ang, 1985: p. 104) and 2) by deploying protectionist strategies to “[challenge] the ideology of mass culture” (ibid: p. 105). Firstly, an example of how they internalize mass cultural ideologies can be seen from this example:
I realize how terrible it can be for someone to automatically conform to Harry Potter’s morals. I’m also aware of how it can reproduce the beliefs of western culture, but these books are good because they can help you explore what they really are about. You can’t be gullible to it, I think this is an insightful way of looking into our society – JimBeanFan
This comment appears somewhat vague and ambiguous, as Ang would state. JimBeanFan deduces that his liking for Harry Potter is its ability to explain his position in society, although being very vague in his moral stance about his liking for Harry Potter (Ang, 1985: p. 105).
Secondly, fans who love Harry Potter may exercise perfectionist strategies that manifest into arguments that confront and disintegrate mass cultural ideologies. Here are two examples of perfectionist strategies:
Harry Potter helps us all even if we don’t know it. It is another world to jump into if we don’t like what’s going on now. You can disappear for a while and get involved into the character’s thoughts and feelings. And you can relate to them at times! You start to know them and you gain a friend. Way to go J.K. Rowling, you rock – Nashi110 (http://potterforums.com/)
Sorry in anyone’s behalf but we are Harry Potter fans and proud of it too, so we tend to get protective of the story, but it is a great story and this is coming from someone who thought reading period is a waste of time, but I believe it has changed me, I love it and now I love to read, so why not give it a try or watch the movies so you won’t feel alienated from your friends? – Clau_goddess (http://potterforums.com/)
Here, Nashi110 and Clau_goddess feel a need to defend themselves against those who are too critical of their Harry Potter fan interests. These individuals recognize these cultural forms of disdaining popular cultural forms, and so they “must stand out against them in order to be able to like [Harry Potter] and not to have to disavow that pleasure” (Ang, 1985: p. 106). In order to defend themselves, Nash and Clau equally maintain a “feeling of unease” (ibid, p. 106), and usually, they express their defense in an emotional context and therefore justify their resistance from haters emotionally.
According to Gross berg (1992) fans divide the world into a dichotomy of those who understand them (Us) and those who do not (Them) (58). This distinction is characteristic of haters, who not only hate the popular text, but also dislike those who enjoy them. Justin, for example, retained amusement ridiculing those who enjoyed Harry Potter and his discontent began to grow once the “Harry Potter revolution” had begun. However, each fan invests a time that is significantly different from the next fan, and these investments can come in the form of “affect”. Grossberg (1992) states that “affect is what gives ‘color’, ‘tone’, or ‘texture’ to our experiences” (57). Those who hate Harry Potter do not understand this affective sensibility of those who enjoy it and that is the prime reason why they show resistance to haters.
The Family-Friendly Libraries Association (which opposes the more liberal American Library Association) fore-warned that Harry Potter books are inappropriate due to their “occult” themes, violence, and anti-family bias (Gotz, 2005: p. 22). Most disagreements were raised by parents against the public reading of the book in elementary classrooms, yet American municipalities placed the restrictions on students in the first to fourth grades being allowed to take the book out of school libraries (Blake, 2002: p. 73). In 2000, after complaints from a handful of parents that the story glorified witchcraft, the Durham Regional School Board decided to require parents to sign a consent form before allowing Harry Potter to be read in classrooms (Gotz, 2005: p, 12). The book was subsequently challenged in Cornerbrook (Newfoundland), Pembroke and Niagara Falls (Ontario) and Hannah (Alberta), where the title has been restricted to use in the school library only under supervision (Whited, 2002). Nevertheless, others see in Harry Potter a Christ figure that alone can save the world from the Prince of Darkness (Reijen, 1938: p. 16). In several Canadian Christian churches, the book has even become the subject of theological reflection groups for families. With the production of the films based on the novels, the popularity of Rowling’s books continues to soar and they are quickly becoming classics in children’s literature. It is still posible in 2007 to buy a hardcover first edition–for $11,000 (Gupta, 2003: p. 35). The American Library Association has bestowed on this new children’s classic the dubious distinction of being the most frequently challenged book of the twenty-first century.