Social Issues You Probably Overlooked When You Read "Harry Potter" as a Kid

We loved the story when we were reading the books as kids. The fantasy book that revolved around the boy who lived and his fights against the noseless antagonist, Voldemort (don’t say his name out loud!), has been a classic favorite amongst young audiences. With an almost cult-like following formed throughout the years, the series has also been accredited for boosting up literacy rates across the Anglophone world. We were exposed to this fascinating world of magic delivered through words, and were allowed to vividly imagine all the times Draco and Harry fought with their wands; the abundant amount of sweets and junk Ron and Harry bought on their first ride to Hogwarts. However, there were perhaps, many problematic aspects of the series that we didn’t quite realize as unworldly adolescents.

After skim-reading through all seven books during quarantine, I’d like to share how J.K. Rowling, the author of the series, broached on rather harrowing yet socially vital issues throughout the series which deserves a modern analysis.  

 

1) The Uncalled-for Slut-Shaming

Despite Ginny Weasley being a “tomboy” character of the books – possibly characterized as such to go against typical female stereotypes – Ginny still managed to have romantic relationships and was heavily looked down on by a third of the Golden Trio: her “charming” brother, Ron Weasley. Take this exchange from “The Half-Blood Prince” when Ron saw Ginny kissing his friend, Dean Thomas:

“Right,” said Ginny… “let’s get this straight once and for all. It is none of your business who I go out with or what I do with them, Ron—”
“Yeah, it is!” said Ron, just as angrily. “D’you think I want people saying my sister’s a—”
“A what?” shouted Ginny, drawing her wand. “A what, exactly?”

 She has a point. A what exactly? A slut?

According to an Irish feminist and vlogger, Lauren Foley, who has done workshops on gender equality for different age groups, it was a good transition that Ginny was able to stand up for herself immediately to Ron’s reaction. However, she didn’t need to do that if Ron, as Lauren said, wasn’t so “problematic.” There is a fine line between being a protective brother, and being a straight-up bully and slut-shaming your sibling. With such issues being prevalent today, perhaps Rowling wanted to highlight how slut-shaming happens so casually in daily life. Nonetheless, although it is important for women to defend themselves and educate others, this shouldn’t happen; they have no need to. A woman or a man kissing their significant other shouldn’t be your business, and you definitely shouldn’t comment on it.

 

2) The Horrifyingly Racist Names

Cho Chang, Padma and Parvati Patil, Lee Jordan, Kingsley Shacklebolt— yeah, they’re all really bad.  

None of these people of color, or POC characters, portray any sort of significance or cultural importance in the books. It’s only their names that splashes a hint of “diversity.” If we all take a step back, the “big seven” characters are, as what Rowling calls, Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley, Draco Malfoy, Neville Longbottom, Ginny Weasley, and Luna Lovegood. All of these characters are presumably white, and that’s totally fine. What’s disturbing, however, is that the names given to the POC characters seemed as if they were thought of at the last minute, for the sake of trying to include “everyone.” Taking the name Cho Chang, for example, both “Cho” and “Chang” are two common Chinese (and Korean) surnames, assuming that Cho is a transliteration of Zhou (周). Cho Chang as a name does indeed seem to provide that “Asian” touch, but it does make one question over the uncanny similarity it has with the derogatory term often used in mockery of the Chinese language—Ching Chong.

Sure enough, one cannot rule out that Rowling may have just been lazy when creating names for her POC characters, but her actions could have been similarly, deliberate. Perhaps she wanted to give terrible, racist names to her characters to imply that Asian, Black, Jewish, and other commonly marginalized groups of people need to be included more across all platforms. Yes, what she did was a very weak attempt in advocating for diversity, but this could be another way to look at it.

 

3) The Slavery that Everyone Else Finds ‘Funny’

Rowling was able to whip up with something almost humanely revolting in the wizarding world: “perfect slaves”, or ‘House-elves’ in Harry Potter-lingo. Dobby was a House-elf, a magical being who is loyal to their masters. In 2005, Rowling herself said in an interview that, “house-elves (are) really for slavery… the house-elves are slaves, so that is an issue that I think we probably all feel strongly about enough.” It’s good that the author is emphasizing issues like these. Slavery, in many forms, is still ongoing in various parts of the world. However, the most upsetting part about the whole slavery allegory is not only that many characters in the story don’t seem to care, but also the fact that house-elves enjoy being slaves for their masters.

In the 4th installment of the series, “The Goblet of Fire,” Hermione begins an organization called, “Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare,” or S.P.E.W. Though she tries her best to gather people to join the organization to fight for the justice of House-elves, nobody seems to care whatsoever, not even her two best friends. Hermione ended up knitting clothes for the elves (because if an elf is offered clothing, they are said to be set free), but the House-elves perceived her gesture as an insult to them. Rowling continuously amplifies the idea that the elves do not want to be freed, and in a way, normalizing the concept of masochism.

The way House-elves were portrayed, along with their disgust towards freedom (Dobby in exception) almost praises the idea of casteism and slavery—which should not be the case. This goes the same with the discrimination between "Muggleborns," "Half-bloods," and "Pure-bloods." Although it does highlight the issue of the ongoing racism and casteism happening in the modern world, there should have been at least a more explicit message to show why calling someone a "Mudblood" is wrong, or why slavery is simply a no.

 

4) Politics of the Wizarding World – Fictional but Concerning

The Ministry of Magic is… umm… Nazi Germany?

I know that’s a pretty strong and sensitive comparison, but let me explain.

The wizarding world, in the UK at least, fits the description of what we commonly understand in reality – an authoritarian state. Even before Lord Voldemort took over the Ministry of Magic, the politics was all just very confusing; the more you read the book, the more questions you seemed to have. Think about it: “The Daily Prophet” was clearly influenced and controlled by the government. Of course, there was a “liberal” newspaper known as “The Quibbler,” but you clearly don’t remember it when you were reading the books because it was just so irrelevant and frankly, unmemorable.

Let’s also not forget Dolores Umbridge, an Undersecretary for the Ministry of Magic and Defense Against the Dark Arts professor – she was probably much scarier than the Dark Lord. Remember how she banned anything that went against the Ministry? Or in simpler terms, anything slightly liberal? The pink-obsessed professor only provided textbooks from the Ministry themselves to avoid students from referring to outside resources. She physically and mentally punished students for breaking her ridiculous rules using the Black Quill—a dark and powerful quill meant to harm one’s skin. She further extended her authoritative power by forming the "Inquisitorial Squad" — all the members of the squad were comprised only of Purebloods and Slytherin. Umbridge’s distinct brand of evil is relatable in the real world, which is possibly the reason why readers perceive her to be one of the cruelest figures in the books.

With how the Ministry controls the newspapers and education, the plot is not just a fight between Harry and Voldemort, but also the powers of an authoritarian regime and its effects.

 

Phew, that was a long discussion.

Harry Potter has positively affected many of our lives from a young age where we all learned that there is nothing more powerful than love. Let’s once again, not forget the fact that the series had indeed helped many young children improve their literacy skills. Perhaps there was a reason as to why the books were targeted for a younger audience: because they are too innocent to know about the darker elements of the world.

What do you think? Do you agree with the points above, or do you have opposing arguments (which I’d love to know)?