[NB: writing this, I’ve ended up scribbling a LOT more than I thought I would, so this is probably going to be written in several parts.]
This week I’m in Seattle – partly to catch up with old friends, and partly to attend my favourite con: GeekGirlCon. It’s exactly what it sounds like – a con focused on celebrating women and girls in geek culture and building an inclusive, welcoming, intersectional space for geeks of every gender, size, colour, shape and creed. It’s my happy place. We went to a bunch of amazing panels – Afrofuturism 101, Sappho on the Silver Screen, Breaking Stereotypes with Star Wars – and there were many more we missed. Last night, myself and himself sat around with old friends and dissected the good/bad/ugly of Star Wars (midichlorians featured heavily), with a Mon Mothma mini trapped in a gelatinous cube.
All of this reminded me how much I *love* critically engaging in geek culture. It’s something I did a lot of here in Seattle that I haven’t really continued in Dublin. I miss sitting around and talking shite about Star Wars or Doctor Who (a short skirt is not a personality trait, Moffat) – without anyone gatekeeping or getting bent out of shape.
While getting coffee yesterday, I had a minor revelation about JK Rowling and Harry Potter – and so rather than spend my morning researching the Master’s thesis I’m supposed to be writing, I’m wearing my Time-Turner and ‘Feminist Killjoy’ badge and ready to ramble about Dumbledore, bravery, wokeness and White Feminism™.
First things first – I love Harry Potter. It’s flawed, sure. Never going to deny it. But it’s also had a massively positive impact on my life, personally. I remember reading the books out loud to my little brother on holidays, and the legitimate SHOCK I felt when it was Quirrell trying to get the Philosopher’s Stone. I remember queuing up for books at midnight and staying up until dawn reading them, usually in tears by the end. I met some of my best friends in university because of Harry Potter – including my husband – and these are still some of the best people I know. Like the Discworld series, I re-read them at least once a year, and there are bits that still make me cry. But I firmly believe you should be critical of the media you love so here we go…
NB: as well as being an HP fan, I’m also white, British, middle-class woman educated in Classics – not disimilar to JKR herself. I *always* try to be intersectional and not a White Feminist™, but I know I’m an imperfect critic. Feedback welcome. Also, this should go without saying, but spoilers for all Harry Potter books and films to follow. Cursed Child spoilers will be kept to a minimum, and tagged separately.
My whole meandering thought process started with Harry naming his second child “Albus Severus” after two headmasters, describing Snape as ‘probably the bravest man I ever knew’. This started me down a whole rabbit-hole about bravery in Gryffindor, and specifically, how Dumbledore displays and rewards this defining house-trait.
‘Their daring, nerve and chivalry set Gryffindors apart!’
Snape is a character who deserves more analysis than he’s going to get here – suffice to say, Harry isn’t 100% wrong when he calls Snape brave. Through books 4-7, Snape’s double agent role puts him in significant personal danger for very little personal gain. He risks himself repeatedly to protect his friend’s child, in her memory but also because Dumbledore asks him to. Like many characters, Snape trusts Dumbledore – even after discovering that he’s been raising Harry to die at the right moment. Alone and (presumably) friendless for most of his adult life, Snape can be considered brave – even though he’s also a terrible teacher and abusive to most of his students, to the extent that he *really* shouldn’t be allowed in a school.
But what of Albus Severus’ other namesake – Dumbledore? Is he brave? Thinking back through the books, I struggled to come up with an instance of him doing something I’d consider brave. Sure, he drinks that potion in book six – putting himself at risk of pain and danger. This is probably the closest to brave Dumbledore comes. But later information changes this perspective – Dumbledore was already cursed, dying and with a backup plan to be killed just in case. There’s a difference between putting your life on the line when you’ve months to live, not decades. What about Dumbledore’s duel with Grindelwald, or his organisation of the Order of the Phoenix? See, thing is, I don’t think he does these things because he’s brave – I think it’s because he feels guilty. And rightly so – he shared Grindelwald’s ideal of oppressing ‘lesser people’ for the greater good. He also avoids facing Grindelwald until he has no other option – by which time, many more people have suffered. He doesn’t risk himself very often, at all. He gets other people to risk themselves for his ideals and his causes – often with little explanation or justification. Everyone just trusts that he’s a good guy – but he’s an expert manipulator more than anything else.
I literally cannot think of anything other situation where Dumbledore’s actions are brave, or daring. Intelligent? Sure, he’s smart, he’s an incredibly talented wizard. But brave? Not so much. Harry, for all his faults, is frequently brave in the face of danger – although reckless and foolhardy are also good descriptors of many of Harry’s actions. That final Gryffindor quality – chivalry – is an odd one. Chivalry, really? I mean sure, for a school founded in medieval times, that’s a socially acceptable quality. But in modern times? It reminds me of Voldemort’s “bow to death, Harry” in Goblet, and of Dumbledore’s persistent cups of mead offered to the Dursely’s at the start of Half-Blood Prince. There’s something incredibly contemptuous about chivalry – the connotations of being polite in battle, and ‘saving’ those lesser than yourself. Which is something we’ll come back to later.
Lastly, what about the kind of bravery Dumbledore encourages in his students? I still hold that the bravest Gryffindor is Neville Longbottom (I will fight you on this). Neville stands up for what is right not because it’s easy, or becuase he’s had some eldery Machiavelli persuading him to, or because he’s angry, or looking for revenge. He stands up to his friends because he believes they’re doing the wrong thing. He protects his fellow students throughout Snape’s tenure as headmaster, leading the DA in a way that Harry never could. He faces constant bullying from his teachers and is often dismissed by the Trio. In Philosopher’s Stone, Dumbledore’s last-minute house points put Gryffindor over the top – 50 each for Hermione and Ron, 60 for Harry for their work in getting through the defences constructed around the stone. Don’t get me wrong – the Trio are brave – albeit also reckless – in their actions to protect the Stone. (Interestingly, their actions are probably for naught; Quirrell was never going to get the Stone out of the mirror, and Dumbledore was already on his way back – they could have stayed in bed. But that’s by the by). But it’s the final points from Neville that tip them over the top – “It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to one’s enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to one’s friends”. Dumbledore’s right here – it’s much harder to tell our friends that they’re wrong than it is to call out strangers on Twitter. So why does Neville only get 10 points? Huh?! Why is this greater courage undervalued? Because really, Dumbledore doesn’t value Neville’s bravery – consciously or not, he values the recklessness that will lead schoolkids to try and take on powerful dark wizards – because that’s what he’s raising Harry to be. And, of course – Dumbledore doesn’t stand up to his friends either. We don’t see him standing up for his own students in the face of Snape’s bullying. By Hallows, we know that Dumbledore did stand up to his erstwhile friend Grindelwald – eventually, after he’d terrified half of Europe. But not, you know, when it could have saved lives.
Black Hermione, SPEW and mudbloods – where’s the intersectionality?!
Better writers than me have talked about the excellent Noma Dumezweni as an adult Hermione in Cursed Child, and how it’s awesome to see black Hermione – even if it’s too little too late. Fan art has racebent Hermione for years, as her physical descriptors in the books left her ethnicity open to interpretation. Princess Weekes has an excellent analysis of how book Hermione *can’t* have been black – not because of her physical descriptors, but because if Hermione was a person of colour, hearing ‘Mudblood’ at Hogwarts wouldn’t be as easy to shrug off, as it would be another racial slur, another layer of discrimination and oppression. If you’ve not read it, go read that article now – she makes a bunch of other great points that I’m going to reference, rather than plagiarize.
Weekes makes the point that we don’t *need* an analogy for racism (Mudbloods/blood purity) or slavery (house elves) – those things exist in the real world, and by dealing with the analogies JKR avoids tackling these systemic issues in her fantasy world. I agree – but when we look at how JKR *does* deal with her fantasy racism and slavery, I still see failure to address it intersectionally.
In DH, Hermione says to Griphook “I’m hunted quite as much as any goblin or elf, Griphook! I’m a Mudblood!” in an attempt to get the goblin to help them to break into Gringotts. Thing is though – she’s really not. Sure, by the time of Voldemort’s control of the Ministry, Muggleborns are being hunted and tortured (and this is always bad). But goblins have systematically been oppressed for *centuries*, regardless of who has been in charge at the Ministry. Goblins have had their cultural artefacts confiscated and given to wizards, they’re forbidden from owning wands, they’re treated as ‘creatures’ rather than intelligent beings equal to humans. And this is before we get into the significant number of similarities between anti-Semitic stereotypes and the portrayal of goblins. Hermione sees her oppression as equivalent to Griphook’s – and even though Griphook points out all the ways in which it’s not, his portrayal is hardly sympathetic. Hermione’s privilege blinds her to the deeper injustices in wizard society.
But wait, I hear you say: “Hermione starts SPEW! When she learns there’s a whole race of beings enslaved, she tries to save them!” This, dear reader, is the problem – she tries to save them. Don’t get me wrong here – slavery is generally considered bad for a number of reasons. But this brings us back to the chivalry issue – Hermione tries to save the elves without asking them what they want, or how to deal with it. She assumes she knows best, even when her actions are clearly offensive to the elves. As discussed here by Cate Young: the issue isn’t that Hermione wants to help, it’s that she doesn’t ask what help is needed. Elves want to be treated with dignity and compassion – by assuming she knows what’s best for them and tricking them into being freed, Hermione stunningly fails to do that.
But what of Dumbledore and these issues of systemic oppression? In his own words: “We wizards have mistreated and abused our fellows for too long, and we are now reaping our reward.” He’s often presented as the lone voice of equality, standing up for the oppressed. I’d argue this is far from as simple as it seems. But as I’ve already written WAY more than I thought I would, I’m going to save this for another post. Nerd analysis is fun, but sometimes I get carried away. 😀