Friday, November 25, 2005

bell hooks v. harry potter

From The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks:

While feminism may ignore boys and young males, capitalist patriarchal men do not. It was adult, white, wealthy males in this country who first read and fell in love with the Harry Potter books. Though written by a British female, initially described by the rich white American men who "discovered" her as a working class single mom, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books are clever modern reworkings of the English schoolboy novel. Harry as our modern-day hero is the supersmart, gifted, blessed, white boy genius (a mini patriarch) who "rules" over the equally smart kids, including an occasional girl and an occasional male of color. But these books also glorify war, depicted as killing on behalf of the "good".

The Harry Potter movies glorify the use of violence to maintain control over others. In Harry Potter: The Chamber of Secrets violence when used by the acceptable groups is deemed positive. Sexism and racist thinking in the Harry Potter books are rarely critiqued. Had the author been a ruling-class white male, feminist thinkers might have been more active in challenging the imperialism, racism and sexism of Rowling's books.

Again and again I hear parents, particularly antipatriarchal parents, express concern about the contents of these books while praising them for drawing more boys to reading. Of course American children were bombarded with an advertising blitz telling them that they should read these books. Harry Potter began as national news sanctioned by mass media. Books that do not reinscribe patriarchal masculinity do not get the approval the Harry Potter books have received. And children rarely have an opportunity to know that any books exist which offer an alternative to patriarchal masculinist visions. The phenomenal financial success of Harry Potter means that boys will henceforth have an array of literary clones to choose from.


reformist_muslim said...

I'm not sure whether this much can be read into Harry Potter. After all, the bad guys are a bunch of 'pure-blood' aristocrats who view Potter as an upstart who mingles with worthless low class rabble.

On a related subject, I've posted on the positive fact that two muslim girls being cast in the movie hasn't caused a big fuss.

Silencer said...

well, every action/adventure movie glorifies violence when used by the right people to fight the forces of evil (but apparently that's ok for them because they're not Muslim).

Abdul-Halim V. said...

reformist muslim, i think you may have a point in the sense that in pretty much every movie, one can find a mix of good and bad elements.

But sometimes those bad elements are at the same time so subtle and so pervasive in the culture that either people don't notice them at all, or they take them for granted. It's like a fish not noticing water.

So I don't think its an issue of being anti-Harry Potter and burning copies of the book in big piles so that no one reads it. I've read and gernerally enjoyed the books myself. I want to see how the story turns out.

But at the same time, I would want to read critically and notice what assumptions seem to be made in the books. And I don't think there is anything wrong with talking about these political sorts of issues in a pulblic sort of way, and then maybe the next time someone else sits down to write a book series they might write it with different assumptions (maybe the main characters will be women of color, as in several of Octavia Butler's works. Maybe instead of killing the villan, the hero will persuade them to change sides by presenting a compelling argument... This is just off the top of my head)

You have a point in saying that Harry opposes the racist aristocrats but why even make magic a "blood" issue anyway?

You know what I mean?

Abdul-Halim V. said...

silencer, yup

reformist_muslim said...

abdul halim, the only problem i have with feminist/orientalist critiques is that too often people use them too read things into words which are so far-fetched as to be remarkable.

having said that, i think the points that you and arafat make are especially interesting and should be explored.

Abdul-Halim V. said...

reformist muslim,

i understand that you see some of these comments as far-feteched. I guess from my perspective, I think writers put a certain amount of thought and effort into different details when they write a story. Describing characters, making up names, making up settings, etc.

I had a little bit of experience with this after working on a short film project with some friends of mine. The result was a very short film but along the way towards the finished product ALOT of different choices need to get made.

And I don't think that bell hooks is necessarily saying that Rowling is a racist and that we should all hate her for writing the Harry Potter books. My impression is that she looks at things a bit more holistically.

I mean, for movies and books there is a process of natural selection. There are many books which are written but not published. There are many screenplays which are written but don't get made into movies.

So that's not Rowling's fault.

arafat said...

I just made a few remarks on Sister Scorpion's blog (she posted a number of good links), and I thought I would copy it here since it's relevant:

Like my post-colonial lit professor, I believe that criticism need not ruin the aesthetic enjoyment of literature.

I also think we need not be afraid of reading too much into things. An author produces a work within a sociohistorical context: problems of representation and things like that are therefore not necessarily the "fault" of the author, but rather a subconscious reflection of contemporary society. We don't have all the answers, but even if we agree that Rowling's representation of ethnic minorities is deplorable, it does not mean that Rowling is an evil mastermind who deliberately crafted it as such. It could simply mean that Rowling is an innocent failure, despite attempts - and that failure most likely is simply because the world sucks.

Well at least I think it does, more or less.

arafat said...

Also, I second you Abdul-Halim, in saying that I find Rowling's use of the "blood" motif problematic. Yes, of course, her admirable didactic message comes across in Harry Potter fighting "pure-bloods" and co-operating with mixed-bloods like Hermione. But I think it's just too complicated for kids. I mean, if I were a sixth-grader right now, I'd just go to school, join up with my boys, and pick a fight with the enemy kids because they're stupid muggle-bloods.

Abdul-Halim V. said...

Yes Arafat,

actually, I feel more than a bit silly bringing this up but the blood (midichlorians) thing was also one aspect I didn't really like about the Star Wars prequels either. It made the force into something kind of genetic (almost racial).

Like Harry Potter, it is also mitigated by other factors. (many different aliens still seem force capable, the Jedi are pretty diverse as a group) but it still seems like some kind of hereditary aristocracy.

pheromone cologne said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bryce said...

I have not read her book where she criticizes Harry Potter and I am sure it would be interesting but still not sure I would agree with it. Like some people pointed out Harry is against the pure blood fanatics. Also keep in mind it is England which is a mostly white country. Hermione is a very strong character. You can say she is a nerd goody two shoes but that is more of a clique stereotype that applies to plenty of men then a gender role, as a matter of fact her extensive knowledge of magic could make her comparable to a scientist or mathmetician in our "muggle" culture something that is not stereotypically female. Though she has plenty of emotion she is a person who mostly lives in her head, this has typically been a gender role for males. She is also not the love interest of the story, she is for Ron I suppose in the last book but not for Harry, she is not in the book to be the heroes girl. I suppose the Ginnie character is a girl who fits into a gender stereotype quite well but plenty of women in real life do to. In order to not be sexist does a book or movie have to pretend that gender roles don't even exist? This book is not set in the future. There broom sport game I recall has females playing in it and there are many powerful witches(female wizards). Using the term witch as a positive or at least neutral term seems positive. Ultimately I think it is true that there are not enough stories with women as the heroes and main characters, women have been elevated to sidekicks that can fight as well as kiss but still seem to face a glass ceiling when it comes to hero status. I don't think we can lay the blame for this at the feet of one author or series of books however. Go write a good story about a girl or woman who is a hero that either doesn't involve boys and rumors and kissing/sex at all or keeps the sexual part very secondary. This book is not part of some big evil conspiracy and I don't see the evidence for it being racist

Abdul-Halim V. said...

Thanks for stopping by and leaving comments.

I"m not terribly opposed to what you said. From my perspective, bell hooks' point isn't that the Harry Potter books are evil, I think hooks is just being extraordinarily observant and sensitive to certain features and aspects of popular culture.

Also, I don't think she's faulting Rowling either, the real decision-making agents are the publishing companies who make the broad decisions regarding the contents of popular culture.