Picture the scene. It’s Valentine’s Day. You and your SO are settling into a three course meal at your favourite café, and phones are off so you can be entirely in the room. It’s set to be a nice romantic evening. Then, somehow, you get onto the topic of the cultural significance of Harry Potter. Though never becoming a heated debate (he knows better than to argue with me by now), the conversation lasts the entire night, even after you get home, while you occasionally remember to enjoy the delicious food and the bottle of plonk you’re sharing.
It’s a bit of a theme for our dates, actually. It’s never really a date if politics and culture aren’t debated at some point. We’re both politically minded people and I’m a German literature graduate with a penchant for social politics. He’s a microbiologist and brewing enthusiast, so the friendly debate of “whose degree is more important” often rolls about. That particular night we’d been discussing postgraduate funding, and he’d argued that I couldn’t get funding because “it’s just not a beneficial field of study for the country.” Hell-bent on proving him wrong, I turned to the one example that is universal no matter where your interests lie: Harry Potter, of course.
9 years after the series’ final instalment was published, and 5 years after the final film was released, J.K. Rowling’s magical world is still finding its way back into the limelight (not least due to Rowling herself, thanks to Pottermore and the next generation theatre production Harry Potter and the Cursed Child). Rowling is still regularly coming under both fire and praise for her random declarations of “Dumbledore was gay!” and “POC went to Hogwarts!” as her fans, desperate not to become disillusioned with their childhood heroes, seek the cultural representation that is so craved by the multicultural world of book enthusiasts.
The term “cultural representation” is bandied around a lot today among readers and cinephiles. It sees a lot of backlash with people declaring “you won’t be happy until all characters are genderqueer POC in a wheelchair!” as though disabled, genderqueer POC don’t exist and that putting them in books with dragons and wizards is just too unrealistic. Despite the scorn it’s received, though, the notion is a significant one. Literature has always been either a portrayal or challenge of society’s attitudes, and if we’re only representing one small portion of the global population in our literature, what does that say about who we as a society see as the heroes and villains in our world? If our beloved characters are all shaped by the same cookie cutter, how do we allow those who don’t fit the mould to fit into society?
That scruffy, scarred, teenage boy united and inspired a generation. I was one of the lucky ones; I grew up with The Boy Who Lived and he impacted my life, my friendships, my personality, and my later career goals. I was even luckier, in that I saw myself largely represented in my beloved characters. As a young, frizzy-haired, girl who only wanted to read and do well in school, I got to see myself as a hero. Imagine the effects that has on a young girl’s self-esteem in a world where young girls are still constantly being handed the short straw. It makes sense, then, that my generational peers are not overly comforted by Rowling’s declarations of cultural inclusion years after the books were actually published. I can only imagine how it must feel to be a young person trying to find your place in the world, and finding that you can’t even fit into the entirely fictional world you escape into. And to be told as an adult – years after the effects had already taken hold – that people like you were there, they just weren’t written about, almost feels like adding insult to injury. This representation is just one of the reasons why Harry Potter is one of the latest literary works to be added to university degrees and courses, as people try to delve deeper into the societal impact of this revolutionary series.
Literature has been a cornerstone throughout history, with famous titles shaping our world views, recording political and sociological revolutions in any given culture, and inspiring the individual’s life attitudes. With studies suggesting that reading fiction can help shape our personality and inspire empathy, it’s no wonder that scholars are still studying the written word. From Harry Potter, through Shakespeare, and back to the times of Euripides, literature has created the idioms we use, signposted new world views, and taught us important life lessons. The study and debate around these works is aimed at analysing what we’re being influenced by, helps us to understand cultural attitudes throughout history, and how that’s affected the world we live in today.
So the next time someone teases you for being a book nerd, challenge them to consider what kind of world we’d live in without any good books.