Harry Potter was the first “real” book I had ever read.
Sure, I had read small stories and some light chapter books, but this marked the beginning of my love for literature. I was five, and I saw the eye-catching cover of The Prisoner of Azkaban on a shelf in a Barnes and Noble. I somehow convinced my mom to buy it for me. Everything changed from there. Fast forward fifteen years. Now I want to write about books for a living.
So, for that, I owe Harry Potter a great deal. Sometimes I wonder if my tastes in reading, or even my degree of enjoyment from books would be the same if I hadn’t read it at such a crucial age.
But, even the things we hold dear are not exempt from criticism. As I learned and grew, the series I had loved did not. So now, I’m looking back at what shaped me so completely. As I was rereading Harry Potter, I asked myself — what aspects were as good as I remembered, and what failed to meet my adult expectations?
Oh, the Nostalgia
I remember staying up until midnight when I was ten to receive a copy of The Deathly Hallows at Barnes and Noble. It was a big deal for me to stay up that late then. There were people sleeping under tables, sitting on bookshelves, you name it. We were all waiting to see how the story would end. Gryffindor scarves draped upon necks, wands at the ready. And these were mostly adults. I haven’t witnessed any type of response near that for any other series.
The nostalgia that fills me up when I watch or read the series — that’s a definite positive of rereading Harry Potter. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop me from noticing the not-so-positives.
THE CATASTROPHE OF CHO CHANG and other witches and wizards of color
So, I know that the students that go to Hogwarts are from the United Kingdom and there’s not a lot of people of color there. Given that, Rowling should have put in plenty of care and research to her few characters of color.
Instead, we have various forgettable side characters of color like Lee Jordan and Dean Thomas. Not so forgettable is Cho Chang, who I remembered mostly from the movies as a cute character that made me squeal when she kissed Harry. Upon rereading Harry Potter a second time, this character disturbed me.
First of, she is quite possibly the most annoying character to come out of these books, on par with Dolores Umbridge. In addition, most of my qualms with her stem from spoken word poet Rachel Rostad’s critique of Rowling’s books. Some of these include
- putting the only East Asian character in the nerdy house (Ravenclaw)
- the fact that Cho Chang is the combination of two Korean last names while Cho is Chinese (seriously J.K., just Google a Chinese girl’s name)
- having Cho follow in the footsteps of many other Asian caricatures by conjuring the tragic-Asian-woman-falls-in-love-with-a-white-man cliche. In the books, it seems all Cho does is cry over Cedric or cry over Harry or cry in general.
Rowling dropped the ball on this one.
Hermione is An Amazing Example of a Nuanced Young Woman
Hermione, the O.G. Puncher of Fascists
Hermione Granger will forever be in the minds of many young women as a hero in every way. She truly is fantastic. Here is a nuanced, complicated woman that doesn’t revolve around her male counterparts. She’s not a dude character with a girl name. When teaching a group of writers how to create a three-dimensional character, I tend to use Hermione as an example. She has her flaws, her strengths, and she feels realistic because tons of the readers of Harry Potter were her. She was closer to us than Katniss or Black Widow. We were the bookworms who stayed inside instead of playing sports.
So, while Rowling definitely failed on the race representation, she at least offered some young girls a heroine to root for.
The Whole “Dumbledore is Gay” Thing
First, I was ambivalent on Dumbledore’s sexuality. I was ten when J.K. Rowling made her “announcement” and didn’t know about anything gay yet. (Oh, how the tables would turn).
Then, I was fifteen or so. I used it to defend my favorite series. It was so progressive! Even if uh, no one ever mentioned it in the books or the movies.
And now? I’m pissed that Rowling developed such a blatant case of opportunistic revisionism. In a world where queer kids barely get any representation in children’s books — and got less in 2010 — she touted this like she deserved a pat on the back for doing just about nothing.
This is where my fanfiction addiction started
When I first got into fanfiction, I wasn’t much of a nerd yet. I hadn’t read or watched a lot of the shows that spurred slash fiction. So, I stuck to Harry Potter. The world that I would find there would also propel me into another part of my life. One that would cause me to question everything about myself, from my sexuality to my gender to my future as a writer. But that’s probably for another post. For now, I’ll just say: whether or not Rowling’s source material was a step forward for queer representation (it wasn’t), it inspired decades of queer writers to steer the story in their own direction.
Ugh, That Epilogue
Not everyone marries their high school sweethearts and stays in touch and has their children play with each other and names them after teachers that tormented them for years. (Yes you, Albus Severus.) It was a series that had grown so adult as it progressed, then turned back into a fairy tale at the end.
Despite Everything, Still Feeling Something Deep In Your Heart For This Series
Hedwig’s Theme still stirs some piece of magic and inspiration deep inside me whenever I hear it. And a part of me still wants to defend it from the haters when it inspired the majority of my childhood. Another part is disappointed that it didn’t live up to my expectations.
But mostly, I’m happy that I’ve grown up and can look back on one of my favorite memories with a clear mind. I’ve seen people turn ugly in defense of their childhood memories. There were the sexists upset about the new Ghostbusters and the racists upset about a clone trooper being black. Through rereading Harry Potter, I’ve learned and grown. I hope we can all do the same.
update: article changed to reflect that Cho Chang is the only East Asian character in Ravenclaw, not the only Asian character in Ravenclaw.