While we all have a childhood, each one is a unique experience. It’s a stage in life that we remember mostly through old photographs and stories our parents tell us to give us more or less an idea of what we were like as kids. We may also remember our childhoods through specific media we engaged with during that time. Some people think of Disney princess movies like “The Little Mermaid”; others of Disney Channel cartoons like “Phineas and Ferb”; and some of Pixar movies like “Cars.” For me, childhood is synonymous with the Harry Potter franchise.
It is no surprise that, as an avid bookworm, the first book series I became completely obsessed with was Harry Potter. The wizarding world that Harry was immersed in and through which he met his best friends and had life-changing experiences was enamoring for me. Moreover, having been that nerdy girl who brought 700-page long books to school every day, I saw myself in and found solace through characters like Hermione Granger. It’s safe to say that Harry Potter, and everything that came along with it, became my imaginary home, the place in my mind I retreated to when life got too overwhelming. This remained my safe haven for years and years… until I grew up.
Children’s media is notorious for promoting controversial subjects through discreet Easter eggs that become obvious when one goes back to rewatch once grown up. Some of these are promulgated through what may seem like harmless dirty jokes, like in “Shrek” when Shrek and Donkey joke about Lord Farquaad’s large castle as him “compensating for something.” These types of jokes, although inappropriate, are not as deep as others that indirectly reference socially controversial topics, going so far as to cast a negative light on certain minority groups. Harry Potter is guilty of exactly that — and J.K. Rowling is the unarguable culprit.
On the surface, Harry Potter seems very innocent and pure, much like the general concept of childhood. It’s a story about an orphan boy who struggles to find his home and family until he goes to a magic school and meets his best friends. He juggles his classes, relationships and life hardships like it’s nothing. Oh, he also spends his free time saving the world, no big deal. However, it’s what lies beneath the story’s wholesome premise that reveals the problematic history that plagues the franchise and broke the heart of the innocent 9-year-old within me.
To be honest, I only recently really looked into the franchise’s problematic history. I devoured the books in fourth grade, became obsessed with it and it remained a large part of my life ever since. It wasn’t until the 2020 J.K. Rowling transphobia controversy that I truly began to do my research regarding her history and, as a consequence, how her problematic views are hidden within the Harry Potter series itself.
J.K. Rowling is a trans-exclusionary radical feminist — that is, a TERF. Although the most media attention she got regarding her transphobic views was in 2020, she’s been holding these views for a long time. Through a series of Tweets, she has expressed her support for the distinction between sex and gender and her association of womanhood with the biological specifics that characterize the female sex. When I first read her opinions regarding these issues, I was heartbroken. She was, after all, my biggest inspiration to become a published author, which has been my dream ever since I can remember, so her being problematic was definitely shocking and emotional for me. I am nonetheless thankful that she let her true colors shine since, although heartbreaking, it pushed me to investigate the dark web that is the reality of Harry Potter.
Admitting that Harry Potter as a series is controversial was very hard for me. Nevertheless, with time, I have learned that I can enjoy media and be critical of it at the same time, all while refusing to support its creator and highlighting what is wrong with it. That is exactly the attitude I have toward Harry Potter now.
The number of issues that lie within the Harry Potter franchise is astronomical. I will be addressing the most prominent.
Let’s start with transphobia. As previously discussed, Rowling herself is transphobic, so it’s no surprise that she would let this show through her work. It’s especially seen through the character of Rita Skeeter, who is theorized to be the wizarding world embodiment of a trans woman. Her character description includes the mention of “mannish hands,” a “heavily jawed face,” and “very fake nails and hair.” She is also an animagus, meaning that she can morph into an animal (in her case, a beetle). She uses this power to spy on children, shedding light on Rowling’s perception of LGBTQ+ individuals as predatory.
Now, let’s further the discussion of Rowling’s portrayal of the LGBTQ+ community. Through the character of Remus Lupin, Rowling introduced werewolves to the magical world of Harry Potter. She then went on to confirm that they stood as a metaphor for stigmatized illnesses, specifically for AIDS. Lycanthropy is evidently a problematic metaphor for illnesses that carry a stigma, given that it provides for the justification of fear that may correlate with individuals that carry these ailments. She also engaged in queerbaiting, as evidenced by her sudden announcement that Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts’ beloved headmaster, is gay. The problem with this? Nowhere in the books nor in the movies is it explicitly mentioned that Dumbledore is gay. Why couldn’t she have included this detail in the books or movies in the first place?
Next, let’s tackle racism and xenophobia in Harry Potter. In an attempt to compensate for the mainly white main cast of characters, Rowling throws in a few token minorities to try to avoid criticism. She was very sloppy about this since, in providing subpar and inaccurate representation, she gave all these characters stereotypical names as well. To name a few, there’s Cho Chang, the only East Asian character in the series, who is also portrayed as annoying and whiny, which is what leads her and Harry’s relationship to end; Padma and Parvati Patil, who are Indian and were also used as seemingly insignificant love interests; and Seamus Finnigan, the only Irish wizard who is constantly making things explode, referencing the historical and controversial tension between the Irish and the British.
Finally, there’s prevalent antisemitism that can be observed in the series, particularly through the figure of the Goblins, who hold control over the wizarding bank, Gringotts, which already feeds into the stereotype of wealthy Jews. To heighten this stereotype, Rowling describes them to have big noses and beady eyes, physical stereotypes made about Jewish people. To top it all off, the Star of David is literally depicted on the floor of Gringotts Bank. To confront these antisemitic accusations, years after publication, might I add, Rowling mentioned in a Tweet reply that there is in fact a Jewish wizard at Hogwarts: Anthony Goldstein, a wizard in Harry’s year who was sorted into Ravenclaw.
The saddest part of it all? I could go on and on and on… and on. The list of hidden meanings in Harry Potter is basically endless. To put it simply, the reality behind Harry Potter ruined my childhood. While I am still able to reflect upon my reading experience as a positive one and my copies of the books will forever be my prized possessions, the fact that Rowling’s problematic and harmful views are so present in her work is not OK. In saying goodbye to the person who had inspired me to become an author since the age of 9, I bid adieu to my childhood, feeling a little lost and confused in a world I deemed so benevolent just a few years ago.
Daily Arts Writer Graciela Batlle Cestero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.