By Luke Morales
Since its conception, the Harry Potter franchise has become more than just a popular book series: it has become a cultural phenomenon which transgresses national borders. As of 2018, more than 500 million copies of the Harry Potter books have sold worldwide, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows alone sold 8.3 million copies in just the first 24 hours of its release (Scholastic, 2018). To put this into perspective, Suzanne Collins’s The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, prequel to The Hunger Games, sold just over 500,000 copies its debut week—still an impressive number (Italie, 2020). Such a hit as Harry Potter is bound to create and maintain a culture of its own, even in light of an author’s generally unfavorable ideologies. As many Harry Potter fans struggle with how to manage their fandom in the face of author J.K. Rowling’s transphobic stance, the book series may, ironically and more specifically, be used to improve attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ community (Martin et al., 2020; Vezzali et al., 2015). By using academic theory—such as Rudine Sims Bishop’s concept of mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors—and specific examples of application in a classroom environment, this paper will show that the Harry Potter books may be offered as a powerful pedagogical tool to positively affect the attitudes of “insiders” toward “outsiders” while also subverting J.K. Rowling’s transphobia. The essay will use LGBTQ+ and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) populations, in this context, as the “outsiders,” and non-LGBTQ+ and non-BIPOC groups as the “insiders,” while providing specific case study evidence in Latin America to signify the importance of this issue on a global scale.
Prior to finding ways to use the Potter series as a comprehensive teaching tool for diversity and inclusion, we must first understand the need for such a tool and the context in which it would function. A study conducted in 2016 by researchers Enrique Chaux and Manuela León examined homophobic attitudes among adolescents in six Latin American countries by analyzing the responses of almost 30,000 eighth- and ninth-grade students. Though the majority of adolescents who participated in the study did not hold negative attitudes toward homosexuality, the proportion of adolescents holding these attitudes remained large (Chaux & León, 2016). For instance, 30 percent of the surveyed adolescents believed that homosexuals should not be allowed in their schools, and 34 percent agreed that homosexuality should be treated as a mental disease (Chaux & León, 2016). Additionally, 39 percent believed that morality in a country suffers with the presence of homosexuals, and 40 percent would dislike having homosexuals as neighbors (Chaux & León, 2016). The study determined that, when compared to heterosexuals, members of the LGBTQ+ community have a higher chance of victimization in general, including threats, verbal harassment, physical assault, sexual assault, and more (Chaux & León, 2016).
The hostile environment where LGBTQ+ students learn has proven to adversely affect academic performance, psychology, and emotions (Kosciw & Zongrone, 2019). In collaboration with over five different national groups, researchers Joseph Kosciw and Adrian Zongrone from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) analyzed the effects of a hostile school climate on students in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay. According to the study, LGBTQ+ students were “two or more times likely to have missed school in the past month if they had experienced higher levels of verbal harassment related to their sexual orientation” (Kosciw & Zongrone, 2019, p. 21). Additionally, these students were more likely to feel excluded and disconnected from their school community: in all seven countries, they had a lower sense of school belonging than the general student population (Kosciw & Zongrone, 2019). Ostracization at the hands of their peers can leave LGBTQ+ youth with poorer well-being and negative educational outcomes, and it is the responsibility of surrounding adults to support all students, regardless of identity, as they discover how they want to live in the world (Kosciw & Zongrone, 2019).
There are ways in which all students, regardless of sexual orientation, can be supported by teachers in their identity development, as shown in another 2019 Latin American study from the GLSEN Research Institute. In it, researchers Verhoeven et al. explained that, when opportunities are available for a student to incorporate their out-of-school knowledge and personal experiences, adolescents are more likely to regard those learning experiences as meaningful (Verhoeven et al., 2019). Essentially, learning experiences are meaningful when students can recognize themselves in the content of what they are learning, and this representation is desperately needed among LGBTQ+ youth. Another way teachers can support adolescents in identity development is by fostering supportive classroom environments (Verhoeven et al., 2019). Open-minded peers who recognize each other for who they are and want to be are essential in supportive classroom environments, and this environment can “make adolescents feel confident in trying out new roles… in reflecting on their own thoughts and feelings, and in critically assessing social inequalities” (Verhoeven et al., 2019, p. 53). When supported by teachers, adolescents’ exploration of identity can prove to be a fun and freeing experience, and supportive teachers are critical, especially when considering that LGBTQ+ youth have historically been less free in identity exploration.
Literature may act as another tool for teachers to use in supporting students and fostering their positive identity development. Krista M. Aronson, Professor of Psychology at Bates College, says, “We know, according to psychological research, that Black and Brown children are better able to retain and recall plot and character information after reading books featuring characters who look like them” (Aronson, 2000, 01:30). Exposure to multicultural books can also make a difference in how children are raised to perceive and interact with people whose beliefs differ from their own. Additionally, by using the metaphor of mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors, “mother” of multicultural children’s literature Rudine Sims Bishop explains how books are so effective at teaching children about race and culture1. Mirrors are reflections of ourselves that we see in a character: our culture, actions, attitudes (Bishop, 1990). Thus, when a child sees themself reflected in the pages that entertain them, reading becomes a means of self-affirmation (Bishop, 1990). Windows, on the other hand, lead children to understand the distinction between their own identities and others by allowing said children to view foreign identities from a distance, whereas sliding glass doors allow readers to step through the threshold of imagination and into a world where they are part of the world, the culture, and the experience (Bishop, 1990).
Another term for the concept of sliding glass doors is perspective-taking, which is defined by social psychology researchers Stephan and Finlay as “taking the perspective of another person” (Stephan & Finlay, 1999, p. 730). Five researchers conducted three studies in Italy and the U.K. to test whether extended contact through reading the Harry Potter books improved attitudes toward stigmatized groups (immigrants, homosexuals, and refugees). The first study, conducted among Italian elementary school children, concluded that reading passages of Harry Potter related to prejudice improved out-group attitudes (Vezzali et al., 2015). In other words, the perception of outsiders among insiders improved after said insiders read passages from the Harry Potter series. The second study, examining perceptions of homosexuality among high school students in Northern Italy, found that reading Harry Potter “was associated with more positive out-group attitudes among participants who identified more with Harry Potter” (Vezzali et al., 2015). The third, and final study, which examined perceptions of undergraduate university students in the U.K., found that Harry Potter book reading was positively associated with perspective-taking toward refugees among those less identified with Voldemort, and that perspective-taking was associated with improved attitudes toward refugees (Vezzali et al., 2015). The concept of perspective-taking from the research presented, when combined with Rudine Sims Bishop’s theory of sliding glass doors, works to show the importance and benefits of exposure to a multitude of identities, which further emphasizes the importance of diversifying literature.
So, how can teachers and professors alike utilize Harry Potter specifically as a pedagogical tool to teach about diversity? To answer, I would like to look at an example of one pedagogical approach when it comes to Harry Potter and diversity. Dr. Michelle H. Martin, a professor for Children and Youth Services at the University of Washington Information School, taught a summer 2020 Harry Potter course for the University’s Master of Library and Information Program. In the course, she had to consider the expansion of the Potterverse, including the explosion of fanfiction surrounding the series, the creation of the Harry Potter theme park, and organizations such as The Harry Potter Alliance, to name a few (Martin et al., 2020). Additionally, Martin considered that “many students who ‘grew up’ with Harry are now struggling to manage their fandom and their dedication to Rowling’s work when they feel betrayed by the author and the very public transphobic stance she has recently taken” (Martin et al., 2020, p. 27). Though an entirely separate paper can be written about Rowling’s comments on transgender people, including her “manifesto,” it is sufficient to say that many Potter fans were left disappointed, to say the least (Gardner, 2021). Titled “J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues” (2020), the manifesto can be found on the author’s official website. Thus came Martin’s solution to approach the course through a social justice lens, naming it Harry Potter in the 21st Century: Equity, Race, and Privilege in the Fantastic (Martin et al., 2020).
The course was framed after Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games (Martin et al., 2020). In an excerpt from her paper, Martin explained the ideas she used as a foundation for her course:
In The Dark Fantastic, Thomas argues that those who write fantasy have had a failure of the imagination in building worlds that too often exclude BIPOC characters, and when they do, they portray Black and Brown characters only as the “dark other” or villains who need to be eradicated or subdued. The racism inherent in fantasy excludes and alienates non-white readers and forces them to imaginatively create spaces for themselves in the fantasy worlds in which they never appear or are rarely portrayed positively. And even when they do appear—considering the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Rue in The Hunger Games film—there is sometimes a public outcry against the inclusion of minoritized characters. (Martin et al., 2020, p. 28)
What comes to mind with the example provided of Amandla Stenberg playing Rue is the recent criticism of Marvel’s Eternals. It may be coincidence that critics believe the woman-directed, woman-led film featuring a deaf woman hero, multiple people of color, and POC queer characters flopped on the fundamental level of plot and character development and story depth. Regardless, the film industry has a recorded history of backlash with the inclusion of diverse characters, propelling Thomas’s ideas that racism is inherent in fantasy, and expanding the argument to a multitude of biases within various entertainment industries.
Using these ideas from Thomas’s work, Martin created modules that addressed the following topics: Gender & the HP Franchise; The Fantastic, Race & Ethnicity; The HP Community: Social Justice & Fanfiction; and The Economics of HP & Exploring Other Fantasy Worlds (Martin et al., 2020). Throughout the course, the students engaged actively in discussion boards, watched lectures, and interviewed librarians who offered Harry Potter/fantasy-themed programming in libraries and scholars who have published on Rowling’s work (Martin et al., 2020). Additionally, other texts read in the course featured BIPOC writers such as: Gene Luen Yang, Zetta Elliott, Nnedi Okorafor, and Rebecca Roanhorse (Martin et al., 2020).
The course was impressive in that students were both learning about diversity throughout Harry Potter and also applying what they had learned to outreach. For example, the students of the course joined and formed committees at Sno-Isle Public Library that planned virtual programs, three of which were titled, Reel Talk; Slash, Shipping, and Head Canon; and Diversity Matters (Martin et al., 2020). Reel Talk’s goal was “for participants to gain a greater understanding of how the expansion of the Harry Potter universe has also allowed an expansion of representation in the real world” (Martin et al., 2020, p. 29). One mission for Slash, Shipping, and Head Canon was to “explore topics concerning diversity and inclusion within the fanfiction realm, with special attention given to areas of fanfiction where creators deviated from the HP canon (because doing so can make space for more diversity and inclusion)” (Martin et al., 2020, p. 30). Additionally, the purpose of Diversity Matters included encouraging participants “to think critically about the diverse perspectives present in or missing from the works of fantasy they choose to read,” and issuing “a Call to Action by offering suggestions for involvement in online fan communities and organizations that promote a diversity of voices in the fantasy world” (Martin et al., 2020, p. 30).
Another example of a pedagogical approach to diversity with the Harry Potter series lies in a course, titled The Spell Craft of Social Work: Harry Potter and Social Justice, whose scaffolding is explained by Dr. Brent Satterly, a Professor of Social Work at Widener University. The goal of this course was “to galvanize undergraduate students’ motivation, in this case, social work students, on course content and process” (Satterly, 2017, p. 112). By using Harry Potter to promote motivation, engagement, and understanding, professors may lead social work students to develop their professional skills (Satterly, 2017). For example, Harry Potter fans scored higher on the following lessons than non-Harry Potter fans: diversity and acceptance, political tolerance and equality, independence, nonviolence, mistrust of authority, and skepticism (Satterly, 2017). Satterly’s essay concluded, in conjunction with research from Professor Eileen Gambrill at the University of California, Berkeley, that:
If the ultimate goal of undergraduate social work education is to prepare competent professionals who provide effective and ethical services and promote client well-being and social justice, then coupling social justice themes with a Harry Potter fandom maximizes such social work students’ motivation. (Satterly, 2017, p. 113)
The significance of this research is that it supports the idea that a pedagogical approach to the Harry Potter series may not only be beneficial in teaching students about diversity and inclusion but also in empowering students to fight for change while encouraging them to become well-rounded individuals.
It would do well to reinforce and specify that teaching the Harry Potter books is ideal in pedagogical context. In Erskine College professor Dr. Christine Schott’s essay, titled “The House Elf Problem: Why Harry Potter is More Relevant Now Than Ever,” she explains that, in some instances, the changes in the film adaptations of the books “are positive in that they distance themselves from the negative stereotypes found in the books” (Schott, 2020, p. 271). She continues by saying:
But in other ways the omissions are a critical loss. The films perhaps naturally shy away from such “rough edges” of the fantasy world they are making real to viewers; they seek cleaner lines between good and evil, more admirable heroes, less complex villains. But although the films successfully create something more comfortable, more pleasing to our tastes, they rob their audiences of the learning opportunities opened by the books’ less simplistic narratives. (Schott, 2020, p. 272)
Schott’s argument for preferring the books is essentially that, when looking at the texts critically, one can learn more about the underlying themes and messages left by Rowling in the book series than those left in the films.
One example of a complicated narrative that the films gloss over is Hermione’s S.P.E.W. (The Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) campaign, whose goal was to protest against the treatment of house elves. In the Goblet of Fire book, when Nearly Headless Nick tells Hermione that Hogwarts is home to the largest number of house elves in any dwelling in Britain, she is “horror-struck” (Rowling, 2000). Soon after, she founds S.P.E.W., and Schott explains that the campaign isn’t as black-and-white as one may think. For example, Schott discusses how, in the process of fighting for change and Elfish freedom, Hermione has no regard for the will of the elves, as they seem to enjoy their status as subjects (Schott, 2020). We see this in Goblet of Fire when Hermione disguises hats under rubbish, hoping that the elves will unknowingly pick them up, which is significant because receiving clothes is the only way a house elf can gain freedom (Schott, 2020). Schott furthers her argument by saying, “[Hermione’s efforts look] very much like the kind of well-intentioned intervention of (usually white) philanthropists or missionaries who intervene blithely in a community that is not theirs and end up making things worse” (Schott, 2020, p. 267). Though troubled by these failures on Hermione’s part, Schott admits that she would not have been able to have this kind of conversation as a young reader (Schott, 2020). In fact, a young reader who spontaneously thinks that Hermione’s approach to freeing the house elves is faulty is probably rare (Schott, 2020), thus emphasizing the importance of fostering critically engaged discussion, which is typically, among young audiences, found in primarily pedagogical environments.
As seen in the research presented, the Harry Potter novels may act as powerful pedagogical tools for enabling audiences to appreciate diverse identities while recognizing and resisting injustices. This kind of critical discussion is necessary in world education systems which inherently oppress populations seen as “outsiders,” such as those noted in Latin America in regard to LGBTQ+ students, and among youth specifically, as these discussions foster positive identity development. In particular, Dr. Michelle H. Martin’s course acts as a prime example of using Harry Potter as a pedagogical tool to teach about diversity and inclusion. Furthermore, it excels by also teaching about how students may then take their knowledge one step further and apply it to the real world. After all, conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) may be beneficial to an extent on their own, but without the application of one’s DEI knowledge within their own life, these conversations may easily be rendered pointless. This essay acts as a testament to the possibility of cultural understanding, acceptance, and advocacy among those provided with the proper tools to do so, and with the historical fear associated with and subsequent oppression of “other,” utilizing Harry Potter in this pedagogical context will allow current and future young generations to view otherness as not a threat but rather embrace it as a treasure.
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