Books Culture

“Guilty Pleasures”: In Defence of Reading Harry Potter

It may be difficult, on reflection, to recall what life was like when the dominant force in news and conversation wasn’t a global pandemic. But they were such sweet and innocent times, characterised by partisan Brexit bickering, Extinction Rebellion and, of course, Twitter politics.

One of the most pervasive social media uproars in those far-flung and ignorant months before Boris Johnson ushered us all inside and told us to “stay there” concerned J.K. Rowling. After troubling events surrounding the allegations levelled at film stars – which many saw as retroactive attempts at tokenistic diversity – and a disastrously-plotted West End play, the author of the defining texts of many of our childhoods tweeted in defence of Maya Forstater.

Forstater had filed a suit against an employer who, she alleged, refused to renew her contract based on comments she had made which were deemed transphobic. Some accused Rowling of misrepresenting the case when she came out on Twitter arguing that Forstater was forced out of her job “for stating that sex is real” (19 December 2019). Further accusations levelled at Rowling argued that her use of the #thisisnotadrill, common in the so-called ‘TERF’ (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) community, implied the author’s support for the TERF cause.

Like everything else that isn’t COVID-19 related, this particular dispute has greyed into obscurity. Yet, like a whole host of big names, Rowling recently announced a program designed to bring her work to young people who are missing out on aspects of their education in isolation. ‘Harry Potter At Home’ invites students and teachers to access Rowling’s books through an educational open licence for the duration of the quarantine period, with additional features from cooperating companies like Audible.

Young readers will certainly not be alone in visiting (or revisiting) Hogwarts in the coming weeks and months. With Potter ever in vogue, there are concerns for older readers about how to read and relive these books conscientiously. For many, these books offered a space of acceptance, and a message about fighting totalitarianism and intolerance, and yet they are authored by someone who seems to be allying herself with a deeply prejudiced group.

Of course, there is no actual harm in rereading your old copies of Potter. As someone who owns more copies of each book than I would care to admit, I feel no guilt in pulling one off the shelf and sinking myself into what amounts to the best comfort read I can find. There is so much of value in every page. Going back helps you realise how many moments you missed as a child, both humorous and profound. The number of charming double-takes I’ve experienced on discovering a new detail or joke clearly reserved for the adults is ever-increasing.

The community around Hogwarts seems to delight in welcoming both new readers and returning ones; concepts like ‘Potterless’ (a podcast that documents the journey of a twenty-something reading the books for the first time, accompanied by his more experienced friends) have seen wild success. And these new ways to revisit an old story also make perfect quarantine time-fillers.

The concern comes with buying into the brand now. There’s no end of new Wizarding World content but – much like cosmetic products, food, and clothing – we surely must consider what we’re supporting by giving our money to certain media. If you consider yourself to be in support of trans rights, then it becomes difficult to be comfortable buying anything Potter-branded. There is no easy answer to this. Some fellow fans have, with heavy hearts, shut themselves off from new content: they don’t feel able to endorse J.K. Rowling’s views and they believe that, by spending money on the brand, they are doing so. Others have proposed donating money to charities who support trans people in order to offset the ‘debt’ they feel they owe by buying-in.

At this time, when content forms an even bigger part of our lives than usual, it might be worth asking what cost entertainment levies, and whether it’s a price worth paying.

Tom Martland

While not studying, Tom (he/him) has written across a range of subjects, including national publications in engineering and arts sectors - primarily for the Musical Theatre Review. He is Secretary of the Oxford Socratic Society and often stays up too late arguing about ethics.