In a diverse, forward-thinking age, the wonderfully woke generation of so-called millennials are starting to look more closely at the entertainment of the past. Look at the backlash of Friends‘ arrival on Netflix earlier this year. We still love it, but we can no longer ignore the lack of multicultural characters, the ‘token’ lesbian couple or Joey’s constant creepiness. We notice things more, and we won’t stand for the things we’re noticing.
I think it’s great that we’re taking issue with shows like Friends. It shows how much more accepting we are just 20 years later. The world is a scary, discriminatory place, but I genuinely believe my generation is the most tolerant yet and I have high hopes for what it can achieve.
It’s OK to like problematic things. Friends still makes me laugh and cry. We just need to be aware of what’s wrong with it too. With that in mind, I turned my attention to the Harry Potter series.
J. K. Rowling has had some controversial opinions lately, but whatever I think of her keyboard-warrier habit, I do think that the Harry Potter books are not, as a rule, very problematic. However, there are some messed-up moments that I have picked up on as I grow more observant of these attitudes. Here are 7 problematic moments in the Harry Potter franchise.
1. The token black guy.
In the past, Rowling’s books were always considered diverse, but more recently people have picked up on the fact that those diverse characters are sort of sidelined. And when you think about it, with so many characters in the HP universe, there really aren’t many non-white people at all.
Yes, there are characters from different ethnic backgrounds in Harry Potter, but we are led to understand that all of the main characters are white British.
2. The prevalence of the nuclear family.
Possibly this is down to Rowling’s own memories of having to struggle along as a single mother. There is – with one exception – no confirmation of any parents who have divorced or separated. There are many single-parent families, yes, but the absent parent is always dead, not divorced. For such beloved books, this is highly unrelatable. I don’t have very many friends at all whose parents are still together, yet Rowling seems to think this is the norm.
Of course, we have one exception: Voldemort. This is where it becomes really problematic. We are genuinely told that Voldemort became the most evil wizard of all time just because of the way he was conceived – because his parents didn’t really love each other, and therefore he can’t feel love. So children of divorce can’t feel love? Children of one-night stands? Children of rape?
And speaking of Voldemort’s parentage, here is the point that inspired this whole blog post, and which is in my opinion the most startlingly problematic moment of the whole series.
3. Merope Gaunt raped Tom Riddle.
Merope rapes Tom Riddle. She tricks him into swallowing love potion and, while he is under the influence of that love potion, they conceive a child. This is the wizarding world’s equivalent of having sex with someone too drunk to give consent.
We are encouraged to sympathise with Merope, not Tom. Dumbledore comments that Tom ‘never bothered’ to find out what became of his son, but why should he want to? Of course it’s not the baby’s fault, but if a woman got pregnant by their rapist any reasonable person would not judge her for having an abortion or putting it up for adoption. Yet Dumbledore judges Tom. What kind of message are you trying to put across here, JKR?
Speaking of love potions, shouldn’t they be illegal? Fred and George sell them in their shop – to teenagers. Either they’re running an illegal business or the Ministry need to crack down on sales of wizarding Rohypnol.
4. Dumbledore is too gay for kids.
What a day for the LGBT+ community when everyone’s favourite headmaster came out as gay! How they cheered when he professed his love for Grindelwald! Except that never happened, because J. K. Rowling waited until the books were safely tucked into our children’s bookshelves before she announced that particular characteristic.
We all know why Rowling didn’t include any mention of this in the books: she knew that homophobic parents around the world would be put off, and think it’s too ‘adult’ a theme for a kid’s book. She may not agree with these opinions, but she was certainly pandering to them.
5. Teachers who harrass their students.
I freaking love Snape but why is he allowed to be such a dick? He openly favours the Slytherins and outright bullies the other students. He actually risks poisoning Neville’s pet toad just to make a point. Not only is he not held accountable for the way he treats the students, but at some point they actually promoted him to Head of House!
Then there’s Umbridge, who causes physical pain to students in detention and makes them bleed. Yes, this was part of the Ministry’s Big Brother act, but surely Dumbledore could have done something about it? He stopped her from throwing Trelawney out on the streets, after all.
6. Never judge a book by its cover. Unless that cover is green and silver and has a picture of a snake on it.
The books are an ongoing warcry against racism and intolerance, but Rowling shows a certain amount of hypocrisy in the way she portrays the Slytherins. Generally they are an evil, ugly, stupid bunch, with the odd few who can string a sentence together. Out of all the Slytherins we meet in the books, Slughorn is the only one who can be considered ‘nice’, and he and Snape are the only ones proven to be on the side of the Order. Every other Slytherin we meet is an arsehole.
Then just look at what happens in Deathly Hallows. Pansy Parkinson makes one ill-advised bid for freedom by offering Harry up to save her own skin (to be fair, she is a scared teenager: I’m not sure why everyone else was being so noble), and she, along with the rest of the Slytherins who kept their mouths shut, is locked in the dungeon! The whole House are judged by the actions of one person.
7. Harry, you can call ChildLine for free on 0800 11 11 or get in touch online.
The Dursleys abuse and neglect Harry without remorse. He is made to sleep in a cupboard for the first decade of his life. Bars are put on his window and his bedroom door is locked from the outside in Book 2. They encourage their son to bully him (“Poke him with your Smeltings stick, Dudley”) and Harry is provided with just enough food to keep him alive, but no more.
Yes, Harry has to stay with the Dursleys at least once a year until his 17th birthday to ensure that his mother’s protection holds. But couldn’t Dumbledore have turned up at any point over those 17 years to frighten the Dursleys into treating him better? They didn’t have to love him, but surely the threat of three little pig tails could have convinced them to at least give him 3 hot meals a day and the right to join them on family outings. Maybe Dumbledore was just too busy trying to get out of that closet JKR had locked him up in.
I will always love Potter, and I’m certainly not suggesting that anyone should stop reading them or boycott these books. On the contrary, I think everyone should read Harry Potter! You don’t know what you’re missing!
I’m re-reading Half-Blood Prince at the moment, and am loving it as much as ever. I am, however, intrigued to see if I spot more problematic moments as I re-read the other books. If anyone has noticed anything I didn’t mention, please feel free to comment!