Monday, September 10, 2012

The real fantasy in Rowling's Magical World

I love the Harry Potter movies. I have seen all of them at least several times. Although it's easy to read the background politics of Harry Potter as a liberal attack on White racism in a multicultural UK, I have no idea if JK Rowling had any conscious intention about. But even if she did I don't think it's at all that simple.

The Bad Guys are the magical equivalent of "racists", --the Malfoys are superpale and blonde--although both groups, they and The Good Guys are multiracial. It's about pure-blood Magicals against mixed-bloods or spontaneous magicals born to muggles. (And isn't the term muggles pretty close to negroes? A name imposed on non-magicals by a superior race?) Easy, though, to cast Harry and Friends as contemporary multiculturalists vs Voldemort as Hitlerian RightWingers.

Easy, but wrong.

The Magical World appears indeed to be one of racial, ethnic and sexual egalitarianism. But it is radically different from any real human world so constituted. It is an accomplished, unremarkable, taken-for-granted and utterly passionless fact. Without tension, without resentment-based power struggles, without any racial or gender competition or hatred. To say nothing of the absence of an alienated youth culture.

All the peoples of color at Hogwarts, for instance, aside from their skin hue or ethnic history are completely assimilated into a thoroughly traditional British culture. Without any change of character at all, they could be played by native English. With the exception of Cho, who has a brief romance with Harry, all the others are merely window dressing --local color, if you will--with no role in the narrative. Kingsley Shaklebolt, who is Black, eventually becomes Minister for Magic. Aside from the visuals of his skin and clothes, he could just as well be an actual English wizard. I mean, even his name...Ginny dates Dean Thomas, who is Black, but finally, like the other major characters, marries within her own race, with Harry.

And in Goblet of Fire, at the Quiddich World Cup and the TriWizard contest, ethnic/racial/gender identities are utterly intact. The French girls are all French, the Bulgarian boys all Bulgarian. No African or Asian "diversity."

Boys are boys and girls are girls, a truth accepted and uncriticized. Married couples --including the wife taking the man's name-- are utterly traditional and rarely (unlike dating) interracial. Molly Weaseley is a heroic character and also a completely traditional housewife and mother to her boys. It is in fact a world that imagines equality without ever seeming to have required feminism or multiculturalism to create it.

In short, a total fantasy.*

Yet it also contains, without remark or protests, elements that would horrify contemporary liberalism.
All the major characters are White. POC's and their kiss-ass friends have noticed and, predictably, whined. "White privilege" and all. (I bloody well hope so.) As we all know, it is against the law for White people --especially in a White country like England--to be in a group by themselves.
The house-elves are a slave race. Individual manumission is possible, but no one protests the existence of this peculiar race-based servitude but Hermione, whose moralist crusade against this and other forms of "wizard superiority" are met with a mixture of indifference and disdain. Harry frees Dobby out of friendship, not principle. He uses Kreacher just as a master would use a slave and makes no attempt to free him. (In the books, when elf slave Winkie is dismissed and freed, she degenerates into a hopeless drunk.)

Squibs, like Mr Filch, --here again, named by their superiors--born of wizards but lacking magical powers, are so poorly thought of and treated that it is common practice to try to integrate them into the muggle world, among "their own kind."

And there is no economic or class equality: rich and poor exist unremarkably, absent any government program to redistribute wealth. No one protests the treasures held in the vaults at Gringott's.   
The French and Bulgarian magical schools which compete for the TriWizard cup are both ethnically pure White --no African or Asian "diversity" in them and they are sex-segregated. To say nothing of the stereotypical traditional styles of femininity and masculinity they represent. Again to no protest or even remark from Rowling's characters at race-mixed and gender-mixed Hogwarts.
Azbakan prison is a grim, cruel, isolated, miserable and punitive place, accepted as such, and there is no attempt to reform it and seek better treatment for prisoners.

Humanoid species do not intermarry: elves, goblins, centaurs, and there are semi-human species, which do, but the magical humans --witches and wizards--dominate them all, make the rules and hold all the power.  
In the books there is a reference to failed Goblin Rebellions, which the Goblins clearly lost. They run the bank but have no political power and are forbidden by law to use wands. As Griphook states when he learns that Harry buried Dobby with his own hands, he is a very unusual wizard.
Only human Magicals, witches and wizards, are allowed to carry wands. (And who would extrapolate from there, for instance, that in the real world, racist-fascistically, only Whites be allowed to carry guns?)
Even if her conscious intention is to support the suicide of multiculturalism in Britain, the lineaments of her story and magical world powerfully undercut that very idea. I notice in the movies that whenever any characters preach, be it about death or friendship, it is flat and trite, the weakest moments in her work. She is a storyteller, not a propagandist. Even if she wishes to be.
And very importantly, the group that Voldemort and Company hate so much, the mixed-bloods** and the spontaneous magicals born of two muggles, have no, none, not the slightest trace of group identity as outsiders against the Magical world and its culture. They are all utterly devoted to it, unquestioningly. Like Anglo-Indians utterly devoted to the Raj. Integration and assimilation are the universal desires, not resistance and diversity. Mixed or muggle parentage is noted as a matter of fact, but not a matter of interest, much less victim-privilege or advocacy. Their loyalty and identity is Magical. This, too, makes the situation utterly unlike racial or ethnic relations here in the real Muggle world.

So the apparent easy congruence between contemporary egalitarian liberalism and Harry Potter's social order, which has its own unapologetically unequal hierarchies, is in fact more complex. Almost to the point of rendering her over-arching moral issue itself as mere fantasy.

And it is complexity --of culture and character and narrative, both conscious and unconscious--which is one of Rowling's gifts. As a critique of English racism, it fails, under the weight of her writer's talent.

*Very much like Star Trek, where technologically-created abundance has transformed the nature of humans and our societies beyond race, class or gender.  Utterly unreal...which is fine, it's the definition of fantasy...but no grounds on which to take an ethical attitude.

**Voldemort himself is a mixed-blood, with a muggle father and a witch mother.

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