Harry Potter, Diversity, and How It’s Affected Millennials

Last night Chebk and I (sort of) participated in the first ever Harry Potter Book Night! Alas, we had planned a party but a) Our friends were too busy to attend and b) Then we were too busy with Real Life (i.e. work) to party. So mostly I ended up waxing nostalgic by my lonesome and interrogating Chebk over text message about her Harry Potter memories.

The first book in the series was release in 1997, when I was still slightly younger than Harry, but by the fifth or sixth books we were roughly the same age. I was lucky enough to literally grow up with the Golden Trio. I’m glad Harry Potter Book Night exists to introduce a bunch of new kids to the magic and dragons and spells. Yay!

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The first editions everyone has.
Chebk got me a handy Hufflepuff light to signal to fellow badgers.

I gotta be honest, though. I was never a radical fan of the series, which seems lame now because I lived through so much of the hoopla. Some particular stand-out moments:

  • A friend walking around our high school campus, courting death, as he proudly carried a piece of paper declaring “DUMBLEDORE DIES ON PG. 596.” Mind you, this was only a week after Half-Blood Prince came out. It is the only time I have ever seen so many people aghast, murderous, and concerned. It was a long day. I don’t know how, but he survived unscathed.
  • The highlight of my very short career as a drugstore cashier was working the night shift before the midnight premiere of the Half-Blood Prince movie. Hundreds of people coming in to the store in costume, all stocking up on enough candy to feed a small army. My last customers of the night were a gaggle of Bellatrix Lestranges. Wigs, elaborate dresses, and full make-up. It was awesome.
  • Freaking out through my entire graduation party because it was set the same day as the release of the last Harry Potter book. I left as soon as I could, got my book, and read like a maniac so I could finish it that night. Juuust in case someone decided to walk around with spoiler-y pieces of paper by the next day.

The series permeated every inch of our generation, to the point where even casual fans like myself commit to the fandom unconsciously. Case in point: I consider myself a Hufflepuff. I decided which house I would be in simply because everyone else did. There was no interest, no investment — there was only Harry Potter.

(Chebk on the other hand is a hardcore Slytherin. When asked why, the answer is simply that she is and was and will forevermore be one. I accept this.)

Chebk's contribution to Harry Potter Book Night.
Chebk’s contribution to Harry Potter Book Night.

The way I see it, this series defines our generation as simply and pervasively as Lord of the Rings did for my parents’ generation. I’m sure someone has a detailed and satisfying explanation of the effect of the fantasy genre on youth, but I am not that someone. I am, however, the person that is going to point out that — thank goodness — there has been at least some diversity progression from Tolkien to Rowling.

While pretty much all of the main cast is whitewashed — although I accept all headcanons of of PoC Harry and Jewish Hermione — there are still diverse players that have significant impact on the story: Cho Chang is Harry’s first romantic storyline in the series. Padma and Parvati Patil feature in the Yule Ball, (somewhat tragically, for them). Kingsley Shacklebolt holds a lot of authority in the Order of Phoenix and then later as Minister of Magic.

Sadly the other PoC to round out the cast are only really seen as PoC in the movies: Angelina Johnson, Lavender Brown, Dean Thomas, Blaise Zabini, etc. Even then, we see blatant whitewashing, such as the case of Lavender Brown starting out portrayed by a black actress (Jennifer Smith in Prisoner of Azkaban) and then being replaced by a white actress when Lavender becomes a speaking role and love interest for Ron Weasley (Jessie Cave in the last three movies).

Additionally, there is the famous posthumous coming-out of Albus Dumbledore and the very blatant HIV metaphor in Remus Lupin’s lycanthropy and society’s ableist reaction (also acknowledged openly by Rowling). The impact of Lupin’s storyline is effective because the reader is able to see the prejudice he faces even without the HIV parallel. However, Dumbledore falling on the LGBTQ spectrum is significantly less representative precisely because there is no textual evidence to support it. Adding on his sexuality as an addendum means it is easily refuted by naysayers. Sadly, actual context to the Grindewald-Dumbledore relationship would have been pretty damn meaningful exactly because of the major themes of love and its value and meanings, as well as its repercussions.

Still, while it may not seem like much if I think about it too hard, I think even this bit of representation (and the fact that fans are still talking about Harry Potter, representation, and diversity) is monumental to getting a wide range of people discussing diversity (from race to disabilities to sexuality) in the context of a fandom that they connect with, understand, and, most importantly, love.

The strange, sad progression of Lavender Brown from non-speaking to speaking role.
The strange, sad progression of Lavender Brown from non-speaking to speaking role.

Personally, I will forever be grateful for Cho Chang. Yes, her character arc was messy and unrewarding. Yes, she was only granted significance in relation to male characters. But she was there. She existed in the forefront. Seeing her on screen for the first time in Goblet of Fire was amazing for me — an Asian actress playing an Asian character in a very popular Hollywood film! It was a revelation for me, a triumph, a pride.

Hopefully next year we can throw a real Harry Potter Book Night shebang. For now, I’ll just leave you with this slam poetry by Rachel Rostad called “To J.K. Rowling, from Cho Chang.” The world is changing. Diversity in books matters. Harry Potter will always be a miraculous beginning for me. Thanks for celebrating with us, readers.

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