Harry Potter Essays Community

This summer marks twenty years since J.K Rowling published her first Harry Potter novel in the U.S. Since then, readership of the novels has expanded continually; there has never been a more successful book series (450 million copies sold and counting) or a more culturally prominent literary phenomenon. “Muggle” is now in the Oxford dictionary, and still today the series holds a venerable place on the New York Times Bestseller List.

But despite this prominence, literary critical study of Rowling’s novels has thus far been limited, even as popular books, articles, and blogs for general readers proliferate. While philosophers, historians, theologians, sociologists, even business professors have take on Harry Potter, literature scholars (outside of the children’s literature community) have not yet given these novels the careful scholarly attention they deserve. This book attempts to remedy that by assembling a series of literary critical essays on the HP novels. The editor is looking for essays from various perspectives, both text and reader-centered, using digital humanities, critical race, feminist, and gender studies, eco-critical, materialist, postcolonial and other approaches. Successful submissions will consider the novels primarily as literary, not cultural, phenomena and will not approach the texts first as children’s books.

Please send abstracts to ckfarr@stkate.edu by December 31, 2017. Full essays will be due in March. Again, only literary analyses will be considered. 

The makeover is a privileged spectacle in the Harry Potter series. Hermione Granger’s transformation for the Yule Ball in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, hotly debated by feminist readers of J.K. Rowling’s novels, constitutes only the most obvious makeover in the series. Many other characters also undergo largely non-magical regimes of transfiguration and self-fashioning. From Neville Longbottom’s development into a brave, socially conscious resistance leader to Kreacher’s becoming “much happier and friendlier” when shown a modicum of consideration to Voldemort’s physical and ideological self-sculpting, these novels are fascinated by narratives of a character’s metamorphosis (7:271).1 Such a fascination is perhaps unsurprising for a coming-of-age story, one of the many genres that Rowling weaves into her heavily pastiched series. That said, this essay focuses on the narrative of the makeover—rather than related or synonymous genres such as the bildungsroman, the rags-to-riches story, the fairy tale, or the Cinderella story—in order to accentuate the late twentieth and early twenty-first-century historical context of the Harry Potter series and ideologies of self-improvement and self-sufficiency promoted in this period.

The makeover, and particularly the makeover television show, as Angela McRobbie argues, enacts a “dramatisation of the individual” (125). Though makeovers usually involve the guidance of experts and the entrance of the participant into a new social group, they seek to produce an improved individual: sleek, agile, and ready to compete with others to be a stand-out in that new social group. As noted by McRobbie, Jessica Ringrose, and Valerie Walkerdine, this process of transformation isolates its participants, sets them up for almost inevitable failure because they need a makeover in the first place, and propels them into the economic and ideological currents of neoliberalism. The political and economic system of neoliberalism, which I will discuss in greater detail below, extols the value of the free market, individualism, and personal responsibility; it regards interventionist government, most forms of collectivity, and social justice projects as inimical to these values. Makeovers serve neoliberal ends first, by encouraging their participants to see themselves as auto-entrepreneurs [End Page 115] fully responsible for their own socioeconomic success or failure, and second, by downplaying the makeover scenario’s attentiveness to social connection and to the uneven social circumstances that impact the capability and “need” of people to remake themselves. By examining the makeovers of Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley, I will argue that Rowling’s novels, despite, and in some cases because of, their politically liberal investments in equality and individual choice, share values with neoliberalism that preserve certain hierarchical and oppressive social structures critiqued in the novels. While these novels make some admirable attempts at promoting social justice, they also disappointingly accept self-improvement as its substitute.2

Harry Potter, Heroine?

Regardless of the many references of critics to Harry Potter’s Cinderella story and even to this character as a “Cinderfella,” it might still appear odd to think about Harry’s development as a makeover given the feminine associations of this process.3 Indeed, Terri Doughty argues that “the Harry Potter books are quintessentially boys’ books,” not a description that makes the series sound particularly well-suited to analysis through the lens of a makeover (243). By reading Harry’s transformation into a wizard and his continuing enculturation into the wizarding world in terms of a makeover, I am not suggesting that Harry is a girl, that his boyishness is non-normative, or that this character is inherently feminine because his creator is a woman. Rather, I wish to play up the literary and cultural histories and ideological uses of the makeover, especially its tendency to insert its recipient into a conventionally feminized position of myopic self-scrutiny and its serviceability for cultural politics of various stripes that idealize autonomous individuality. During the years of the Harry Potter series’ conception, composition, and setting—approximately 1990 to 2007—the popularity and visibility of makeover narratives grew dynamically.4 As McRobbie discusses, makeover television programs exploded in Britain and the United States during the 1990s. These shows focus on largely female participants and audiences, and they encourage viewers to “aspire to ‘glamorous individuality,”’ an individuality that feminizes its aspirant insofar as she or he submits to a regime of shopping and self-styling as the pathway to autonomous and meaningful citizenship (McRobbie 125). Makeovers—from the perspective of an only strategic essential-ism—might be said to involve their participants in the feminization [End Page 116] both of being objectified and of being encouraged in the false belief that one’s independence increases through this process.5 In relation to the former type of feminization, Ringrose and Walkerdine suggest that makeovers are part of a larger feminization of culture that involves people coming to see themselves as objects, objects not so much in the sense of being cogs in the machine and alienated from their labor as of being individuals who must continually refresh and validate their image in order to succeed culturally and economically. They argue, “both women and men are incited to become self-reflexive subjects, to be looked at and in that sense feminized and in charge of their own biography” (241).6 This summary of the imperatives of modern subjectivity dovetails nicely with Rowling’s series, particularly given Harry’s initial anxiety to fit in to wizarding culture, his frequently evoked distaste at being ogled for his fame, and his relief when Quidditch successes allow him to think “no one could say he was just a famous name any more” (1:225). Harry often feels alienated from and unable to determine his self-image. His narrative arc across the series involves both gaining control over his image and making himself fit certain of the predictions and ideals others have for him, such as being as good a Quidditch player as his father or demonstrating his worthiness to be considered “the Chosen One.” The undertaking of living up to the hype of his own identity is a bizarre process of self-determination determined by other people and social forces. Like Harry, makeover candidates contradictorily learn that they must be obedient and conform to a specific set of rules and cultural values if they wish to gain control over their fashion, fat, family, or personal life in a way that will demonstrate their self-sufficiency and significance in culture at large.

I would argue that this fantasy of the makeover as a scene of (false) empowerment extends beyond reality television. Set in 1991 and published in 1997, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone makes Harry’s and his readers’ point of entry into the magical world the shopping arcade, Diagon Alley, where Harry purchases the accessories of a magical identity. As Karin E. Westman points out, “rampant consumerism … greets Harry when he enters the wizarding world, a community complete with its own international bank, global trade, and thriving monopolies alongside entrepreneurial ventures” (310). The enchantment of Harry’s initial visit to Diagon Alley originates in shops and shopping. Upon his entrance to this commercial street, we hear that “Harry wished he had about eight more eyes. He turned his head in every direction as they walked up the street, trying to look at everything at once: the shops, [End Page 117] the things outside them, the people doing their shopping” (1:71). According to the tautological but seductive logic of this scene, shopping at these shops will make Harry into one of the magical people doing his shopping. Harry’s acquisition of material objects necessary to wizarding life and the instruction he receives from Hagrid on the conduct and uses associated with these objects constitute a literary version of what Ringrose and Walkerdine call the makeover’s emphasis on “consuming oneself into being” (230). At the outset of the series, Harry may already be a somebody by being “The Boy Who Lived,” but he also feels like a nobody or a sham for being ignorant about his native world and the reasons for his revered position within it.

The process of forging an identity in Rowling’s series is linked vitally to the issue of choice, because acts of choice are cast in these books as the sign that one possesses autonomous individuality. Choice and independent identity are thus mutually constitutive, with choice facilitating the construction of individuality and individuality demonstrating its existence through instances of choice. While choice holds a prized status, the possibility of making truly free and unencumbered choices frequently appears dubious. Harry’s first shopping trip to Diagon Alley offers him material means of bringing himself into being as a wizard, but this activity also involves strict lists, predetermined choices, and sometimes no choice at all. Does he want “to bring an owl OR a cat OR a toad” to Hogwarts as his acceptance letter states that he may? (1:67) Hagrid preemptively responds, “toads went out of fashion years ago, yeh’d be laughed at,” and since Hagrid is buying, he, not Harry, chooses the more fashionable owl (1:81). More significantly, Harry’s lessons about the school houses—gleaned in his first encounter with Draco Malfoy and Hagrid’s subsequent rehearsal of the dominant characteristic of students in each house—establish his anxiety about being assigned to an undesirable house and persona. For, as Julia Pond and Farah Mendlesohn each point out, both the Sorting Hat, which selects a student’s house, and the process of buying a wand, which “chooses the wizard” according to Mr. Ollivander, illustrate the pervasive force of determinism in a series that repeatedly insists upon the value and possibility of choice (1:85). The series’ most cherished quotation and, arguably, its thesis appear near the end of book 2 when Dumbledore counsels Harry, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” a statement that has been received consistently if wishfully as a sign of the series’ unwavering belief in autonomous individualism (2:333).7 Yet in his preparatory makeover [End Page 118] for integrating into the magical world, Harry makes very few choices. Such limited decision-making capacity can be explained according to the practical rationale that he is a novice in this world and the narrative rationale that growth of independence can only be registered by initial dependence. However, the spectacle of Harry shopping himself into being in a manner thoroughly regulated by educational and commercial institutions presents a significant contradiction with the series’ investment in choice and autonomous individuality.

Harry’s series-long makeover involves gaining control over his identity and making it his own, a process often nudged forward by the perils of self-estrangement and feminization. It may seem paradoxical to suggest that makeovers feminize their participants while also suggesting that Harry’s makeover into an individual is propelled by threats of feminization. However, I would argue that makeovers combine their fiction of producing an independent individual with the regulative pressure of normative gender ideology in order to produce individuals whose investment in their own autonomy prevents them from seeing themselves as normalized in any way, including their gender. Initial questions about Harry’s identity produce embarrassed responses that bespeak his fractured sense of self. When the Weasley twins first spot Harry’s most famous feature, one asks,

“What’s that?” … pointing at Harry’s lightning scar.

“Blimey,” said the other twin. “Are you—?”

“He is,” said the first twin. “Aren’t you?” he added to Harry.

“What?” said Harry.

Harry Potter,” chorused the twins.

“Oh, him,” said Harry. “I mean, yes, I am.”

The two boys gawked at him, and Harry felt himself turning red.


The books labor to close the gap for Harry between Harry Potter as a “him” and an “I,” but his celebrity persistently impedes this goal. Rita Skeeter gives Harry a taste of the nauseating intrusion of yellow journalism in one’s sense of self with a report on the Triwizard Tournament that casts him as a sentimental prig unabashed to cry over his parents’ deaths: “Harry still got a sick burning feeling of shame in his stomach every time he thought about it” (4:314). Several years later, when Rufus Scrimgeour attempts to enlist Harry’s aid in generating positive PR for a Ministry of Magic losing the battle to defeat Voldemort, Harry has become much charier of being turned into a “mascot” or a “poster boy,” [End Page 119] bluntly stating, “I don’t want to be used” (6:346, 650). Both encounters illustrate Harry’s awareness of fame’s potential to objectify, infantilize, and feminize its object, but he learns this lesson first from Gilderoy Lockhart. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which is largely about the horrors of being famous, holds up the foppish Gilderoy Lockhart as the terrifying spectacle of the fraudulent individual Harry could become. Just as Harry fears for himself, Lockhart can’t live up to his reputation. But, the “enormous peacock quill” he uses to sign his fan mail spelling out his wrong relation to the sex-gender system, Lockhart serves as a cautionary example in Harry’s makeover process of a man too conspicuously invested in making himself over. The glaring disparity between his public persona as a skilled magician and the private reality of his limited proficiency makes him the pathetic villain of the novel and a tutorial for Harry on the need to mend the fracture in his own sense of self by cultivating the independence and understated individualism of normative masculinity, an individualism self-contradictory (but no less well received) for being a norm.

As Harry moves toward increasing individualism—evident, for instance, in his resolution at the end of book 6 that “[h]e could not let anybody else stand between him and Voldemort”—this staunch solitude clashes with the series’ investment in group dynamics and the power of collaboration (6:645). No matter how many times Harry is told, “You need your friends,” or how many times he acknowledges he would not have survived his many trials without the help of friends and mentors, the overarching message of the series is that extreme individualism epitomizes the most admirable and valuable type of personhood (6:78). Delineating the series’ clashing concepts of subjectivity, Lena Steveker argues that the books ultimately privilege “the liberal-humanist notion of the unitary, separate male Self” over the “concept of identity based on pluralistic relationality” visible in Harry’s reliance upon others to achieve his heroic goals and his psychological link with Voldemort (70, 69). Pointing to the many instances of characters’ physical and moral revulsion at Voldemort’s inhabiting and blending with Harry’s identity, Steveker writes, “the notion of relational identity, depending on both self and (internal) other, is depicted as being detrimental to human existence” (78). I would develop this argument by suggesting that the paradigm of unitary, autonomous selfhood is not simply “nostalgic,” but actually central to conservative contemporary politics such as those exemplified by the makeover, which promote independence while masking the social and political isolation that is its price (Steveker 81). [End Page 120] Harry reflects at length on the conditions of his own individualism and dependency when Ron is selected as a prefect in their fifth year at Hogwarts. Examining his feelings of surprise, outrage, and shame at Ron being chosen rather than himself, Harry holds an internal dialogue about whether he “think[s] himself superior to everyone else,” whether he possesses more skill than Ron at anything but Quidditch, and whether his heroism has ever been an exclusive achievement:

Ron and Hermione were with me most of the time, said the voice in Harry’s head.

Not all the time, though, Harry argued with himself. They didn’t fight Quirrell with me. They didn’t take on Riddle and the basilisk. They didn’t get rid of all those dementors the night Sirius escaped. They weren’t in that graveyard with me, the night Voldemort returned. …

And the same feeling of ill usage that had overwhelmed him on the night he had arrived rose again. I’ve definitely done more, Harry thought indignantly. I’ve done more than either of them!

But maybe, said the small voice fairly, maybe Dumbledore doesn’t choose prefects because they’ve got themselves into a load of dangerous situations. … Maybe he chooses them for other reasons. … Ron must have something you don’t. …


Frustratingly, Harry cannot come up with any concrete examples to support this final inference, not recalling Ron’s loyalty or perceiving how Ron’s repeated subjection to experiencing his own averageness might better fit him to provide guidance to the average Hogwarts student. Regardless of Harry’s bafflement, this passage demonstrates the series’ consciousness of its conflicting messages about the importance of collectivity and the necessity of individualism. This conflict is settled, at least temporarily, at the end of book 5 when Dumbledore suggests the latter value matters more. Though Harry drops the question of Ron’s worthiness to be a prefect, Dumbledore concludes his conversation with Harry about Sirius’s death and Professor Trelawney’s prophecy by returning to the question, apologizing, “You may, perhaps, have wondered why I never chose you as a prefect? I must confess … that I rather thought … you have enough responsibility to be going on with” (5:844). It turns out that what Ron has that Harry doesn’t is limited responsibilities. He is neither special nor living under the burdens of heroic individualism that Harry does, and so he receives the prefect badge as a consolation prize and a means to relieve the hero of one more responsibility. If the friendship between Ron and Harry is meant [End Page 121] more broadly in the series to constitute an instance of collectivity, it is an extremely hierarchical example of mutual reliance.

It might be argued that that Harry’s messianic heroics, especially at the end of book 7, are required by the magical logic of prophecies and spells rather than Harry’s or the novels’ attachment to his special singularity. Harry does make choices about fighting Voldemort that are circumscribed by magical prophecies, but rather than underscoring his personal limitations or the social circumstances in which the prophecies emerged, these choices tend to illustrate his remarkable autonomy and miraculous ability to maneuver fate. In “A Story of the Exceptional: Fate and Free Will in the Harry Potter Series,” Julia Pond performs a nuanced analysis of these Manichean forces, observing, “It appears upon first reading that Rowling champions choice, but with examination, one sees that Harry’s world remains unexpectedly at fate’s mercy” (202).8 According to Pond’s Nietzschean interpretive paradigm, Harry’s story is an “exceptional” one in which he pushes the limits of fate more successfully than most other people because of his strong will. One problem with the image of Harry as an individual exercising remarkable autonomy within the bounds of fate is that the term fate is a mystification of its quotidian synonym, social context. Fate sounds magical, like something sprung up ex nihilo, while social context, also deterministic in its influence, sounds drearily mundane. The hocus pocus of terminology and magic in this series and critical responses to it sometimes obscures its socially realistic elements and ideology. For instance, Voldemort chooses Harry rather than Neville Longbottom as his nemesis not simply because of a prophecy made by the delightfully loony Sibyll Trelawney but for commonplace but powerful reasons of ethnic prejudice and entwined narcissism and self-loathing. Dumbledore explains to Harry that Voldemort “chose, not the pureblood (which, according to his creed, is the only kind of wizard worth being or knowing), but the half-blood, like himself. He saw himself in you before he had ever seen you” (5:842). If we get caught up in the wonders of the series’ fictional magic and the logic of its rules, we can overlook the ideological spells it weaves out of issues shared by the wizarding and Muggle worlds. Pond’s essay concludes with a maxim representative of many analyses of these books that attempt to derive a productive lesson for Muggle readers: “Rowling leaves her audience with a Nietzschean moral through Harry’s actions; by recognizing personal talents and accepting limitations, readers may also embody heroes, striving to excel within their personal limitations” (203). But [End Page 122] the example of Harry’s willful individualism provides a contradictory lesson: Harry is an exceptional individual, and we may be too if we try hard enough. Exceptionality, it seems, can be universal—a proposition that would void exceptionality or make it prescriptively uniform, enthralling everyone to the same vision of personhood. In this model, homogenization rather than collaboration would serve as the mode of the series’ group dynamics. And, as we will see, collectivity, individuality, and choice in the novels and discourses surrounding them are often made over in ways that negate the very differences and disputatiousness that would seem inalienable to these concepts both internally and in relation to each other.

You Too Can Be Like Harry Potter

Reduced to its most basic logic, the makeover entices us to show that we are special individuals by choosing to fit in. This logic also governs the Pottermore.com website, created by Rowling in partnership with Sony.9 In the video announcing the launch of this site, Rowling described it as “something unique, an online reading experience unlike any other. … It’s the same story with a few crucial additions; the most important one is you. Just as the experience of reading requires that the imaginations of the author and reader work together to create the story, so Pottermore will be built in part by you, the reader” (“Rowling Announces”). Upon setting up an account with this website, one is transported to Diagon Alley in order to buy, with magical money, a pet and school supplies and then given the option to be chosen by a wand and sorted into a school house by completing a questionnaire. Imitating Harry’s entrance into the wizarding world involves a similar experience of being a bystander to one’s own identity formation. The collaborative creative activities on this site turn out to be equally passive: tweeting with other house members; dueling other participants by learning a proper sequence of wand/cursor movements; making potions through tedious clicking and dragging; and moving one’s cursor over tableaux from the series to discover potions ingredients, galleons, magical candy and toys, and tidbits of information about the series that Rowling reports she has been “hoarding for years” (“Rowling Announces”). If these pursuits feel as empty as the mostly contentless magic books that can be found or bought on the site, never fear; Pottermore is also “the exclusive place to purchase digital audiobooks, and, for the first time, e-books of the Harry Potter series” (“Rowling Announces”).10 [End Page 123] The website effectively shrinks the wizarding world and Rowling’s novels to fit inside the commercial marketplace of Diagon Alley. Its many acquisitive activities sell us our own special individuality: successful endeavors are rewarded with points tallied by house and by individual. And, according to the rationale of the makeover that promises both uniqueness and assimilation, Pottermore also extends to its participants the rewards of belonging—to a trite, virtual, and thoroughly commercialized community.

As I noted earlier, the makeover narrative has most recently been co-opted by neoliberal politics because of the makeover’s power to encourage people to think of themselves as fully independent economic agents. The shared goal of producing individuals who fit a very specific mold creates a fertile intersection between neoliberalism and the makeover. Neoliberalism is a term more familiar in British and European popular discourse than American, one reason why its use in the analysis of a British book series may be fitting.11 At the risk of reiterating ideas already well known to those familiar with neoliberalism, I will offer some definitions of this philosophy and its historical emergence into mainstream political thought. Such explication will hopefully prevent oversimplification of neoliberalism as an obvious and obviously revolting mode of thought in the same way that the logic of self-evidence informs “Republicans for Voldemort” bumper stickers. Though indeed noxious, this ideology has so successfully and subtly permeated the ether of contemporary political thought in Western democracies because it shares, at least in form, certain central values with liberal democratic politics—including, most significantly to this essay, a mutual investment in the figure of the autonomous and rational individual whose liberty of choice is of paramount value. According to David Harvey’s history of neoliberalism, “The founding figures of neoliberal thought took political ideals of human dignity and individual freedom as fundamental, as ‘the central values of civilization’. … These values, they held, were threatened not only by fascism, dictatorships, and communism, but by all forms of state intervention that substituted collective judgments for those of individuals free to choose” (5). The Ministry of Magic—tellingly led by a man named “Fudge” and rarely trusted by the heroes of Rowling’s novels—exemplifies the sort of bumbling and inefficient interventionist government that neoliberal pundits envisage as most threatening to individual freedom.

Importantly, the liberalism in neoliberalism refers to the economic liberalism of free market capitalism, not to the political liberalism in [End Page 124] which, as Wendy Brown clarifies, “the state exists to secure the freedom of individuals on a formally egalitarian basis” (sec. 6).12 In a 1998 article written for a popular audience, Pierre Bourdieu defines neoliberalism as “a programme for destroying collective structures which may impede the pure market logic” (Bourdieu n.p.). He describes neoliberalism’s “new order of the lone, but free individual” as willfully and dangerously blind to practical economics and specific social settings that influence individuals and their choices, arguing that “in the name of a narrow and strict conception of rationality as individual rationality, [neoliberalism] brackets the economic and social conditions of rational orientations and the economic and social structures that are the condition of their application” (Bourdieu n.p.). Most critics of neoliberalism agree that its defining characteristic is the privileging of free market economics and the attendant ethical aim, as Harvey describes it, of “bring[ing] all human action into the domain of the market” because “the social good will be maximized by maximizing the reach and frequency of market transactions” (3). Neoliberalism differs from the economic liberalism of earlier laissez-faire capitalism in subordinating all acts, ideas, and institutions to pure market logic.13 Every aspect of individual and social life must accordingly be approached through a type of cost-benefit analysis, which involves “submitting every action and policy to considerations of profitability … [and] … the production of all human and institutional action as rational entrepreneurial action” (Brown sec. 9). Pottermore.com could be thought of as a neoliberal enterprise insofar as it turns the world of Harry Potter into a marketplace where virtually every act can be accounted for numerically in house points, galleons, or dollars. The appeal of neoliberalism and its subordination of everything (including the state and the social welfare of its citizens) to the market is supposed to be greater individual liberty, particularly as seen in the fantasy of the free market as a “beneficent sphere in which social production is subordinated to social need as consumers exercise their freedom of choice” (Clarke 55). Liberal-democratic politics and neoliberalism notably agree upon the value of choice, an overlap that can draw otherwise politically liberal people into resisting collective political commitments, which might entail majority decisions that contravene their individual liberty and political preferences. Choice can thus become such a precious commodity that people will sacrifice other rights and democratic responsibilities to other citizens in order to possess it. [End Page 125]

Historically, neoliberalism entered mainstream political thought in the Regan-Thatcher era, the beginning of which corresponds roughly with Harry Potter’s birth in 1980.14 In “Specters of Thatcherism: Contemporary British Culture in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series,” West-man notes that the action of the novels takes place largely within the tenure of Margaret Thatcher’s political heir and successor, John Major (307).15 As the title of this essay suggests, most of the major events in these novels and the bulk of their composition occurred at a time after Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister but a time still strongly influenced by the new brand of conservatism she brought to Great Britain.16 One of Thatcher’s most infamous remarks about her political beliefs touches on two central aims of neoliberalism: de-emphasizing the impact of social circumstances upon individual choice and delegitimizing collective politics. In a 1987 interview, while discussing the state of the education system in England, Thatcher opined:

I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” … and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour.


Thatcher shows no concern with how people’s problems arise but unilaterally insists that they “look to themselves first,” a phrase that might suggest the primacy of self-interest and greed in human nature until the following sentence clarifies that it is an individual’s duty to take care of herself first and “then” help her neighbor. Implicit in this assertion is that thinking about or conducting oneself primarily as part of a social group (larger than a family) is an underhanded means to escape one’s duty of personal responsibility. This sentiment was intensified when the Prime Minister’s office issued a statement to the Sunday Times clarifying Thatcher’s incendiary remarks about the nonexistence of society: “[Margaret Thatcher] prefers to think in terms of the acts of individuals and families as the real sinews of society rather than of society as an abstract concept. Her approach to society reflects her fundamental belief in personal responsibility and choice” [End Page 126] (www.margaretthatcher.org). Choice here seems to be limited to the choice or refusal of personal responsibility. Though it would be hard to imagine Thatcher and Rowling getting along—especially since Rowling took a grant and the dole to support herself while writing her first book—it’s also hard to ignore that they agree on seeing individual choice as more powerful than social circumstances.

The Harry Potter series is not a neoliberal manifesto. Rowling clearly casts in a negative light the excessive, wasteful, and pugnacious consumerism of Dudley Dursley, as more than one critic has argued.17 However, the novels less overtly buy into the same vision of the ideal citizen as neoliberalism: a person who cherishes choice and cultivates individuality. The series’ valorization of choice and faith in the possibility of unrestricted self-shaping open it to conformity with an ideology that rejects the significance of social forces in delimiting the possibilities of particular lives. (These are the very social forces Rowling would have her readers notice in the fear of the werewolf disease that bars Lupin from employment, in the prejudice against giants that nearly banishes Hagrid from Hogwarts, or in the naturalized belief in wizarding culture that house-elves are inferior to wizards and therefore fitted for a life of servitude.) Perhaps most obviously, Rowling’s series would regard the neoliberal cost-benefit model of conducting political and personal life as anathema to its calculus of heroics, which treats each life as invaluable and no price in pain or death too high to pay in achieving the moral good. No matter how impractical or risky, Ginny Weasley will be pursued into the bowels of the castle, Cedric Diggory’s body will be returned to his parents, and Sirius Black will be saved from various instances of captivity. The individualism of such heroics, however, falls in line with Thatcher’s mantra of personal responsibility and choice. Though Hermione may remind Harry in their hunt for Voldemort’s horcruxes, “You don’t have to do everything alone,” he ultimately does do almost everything on his own, delegating heroic tasks here and there or accepting the help of others so he can make it to the big showdowns on his own (7:583). In his final fight with Voldemort, Harry announces to the many watching, “I don’t want anyone to try to help. … It’s got to be me” (7:737). The books work hard to make us believe Harry rather than Hermione and to believe in the necessity of heroic individualism rather than the possibility of successful collectivity. Throughout the series, characters deny or question Harry’s exceptionality and ability to succeed at anything on his own. These attitudes subtly encourage readers to be protective of and invested in Harry’s individuality. “The [End Page 127] Dursleys,” Shama Rangwala observes, “never call Harry by name, preferring ‘the boy’ or ‘you,’ thus denying Harry’s individual subjectivity” (129). Similarly, Voldemort’s habits of belittling Harry and attributing his achievements to his dependence on others also refute Harry’s autonomy. Characteristically in book 7, Voldemort declares that Harry “has survived by accident, and because Dumbledore was pulling the strings,” taunting him, “you crouched and sniveled behind the skirts of greater men and women” (7:737, 738). This gibe notably infantilizes and feminizes Harry, tying into the series’ use of normative gender ideology to encourage Harry’s embrace of individualist heroics. The many “evil” assaults on Harry’s individuality mark it as a valuable commodity worth defending.

One might object that the collaborative heroics of Harry, Ron, and Hermione and the many instances of help Harry seeks in achieving his goals demonstrate the series’ endorsement of community-driven politics over individual heroics. Ximena Gallardo-C. and C. Jason Smith argue that “Harry is never the self-centered, independent hero, but instead relies on his inclusion in a larger group: his friends, Gryffindor House, Hogwarts, and the entire non-Muggle world. Further, the series valorizes collective action, as the conflicts always require action by cohesive communities” (203). The cynosure of these cohesive communities, as Gallardo-C.’s and Smith’s list of (incrementally) “larger” groups indicates, is the trio of friends. But this collective of three who act as one and who become totally isolated in the series’ last installment constitutes a rather slim image of collectivity. The numerous marriages and impending marriages between the story’s heroes—Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione, Victoire Weasley and Teddy Lupin, George Weasley and Angelina Johnson18—keep heroism in the family that Thatcher rhetorically positioned as equivalent to the individual. The epilogue to book 7 in which many of these couplings are revealed is set appropriately on Platform 9¾ given how it railroads the characters into traditional familial and romantic arrangements (including the homosocial triangle in which Harry effectively marries Ron by marrying Ginny). As Mike Cadden argues, this epilogue “suggests that Voldemort has to be defeated, after all, in order to make the world safe for the care-free domesticity that Harry was denied when Voldemort attacked his home” (354). Once the threat to family and Hogwarts traditions has been purged, everything can return to normal: house rivalries and the loathing of Slytherins can be preserved despite the promising scene after the Battle of Hogwarts when “McGonagall had [End Page 128] replaced the House tables, but nobody was sitting according to house anymore” (7:745). The value of individual choice also remains intact in the epilogue. Notwithstanding Harry’s praise of Professor Snape as an admirable Slytherin, his son, nervous about the impending Sorting, finds relief in the promise, “It doesn’t matter to us, Al. But if it matters to you, you’ll be able to choose Gryffindor over Slytherin. The Sorting Hat takes your choice into account. … It did for me” (7:758). The importance of defining one’s identity through the force of personal choice is the ultimate moral of the novel’s final scene regardless of the cultural customs and family history that influence Albus’s choice.

Hermione: Forget S.P.E.W.

If the process of Harry’s makeover sells him and the novels’ readers on the indispensability of individualism, Hermione’s makeover involves the parallel task of directing her attention away from collective politics. Over the course of books 4 to 7, the energy Hermione devotes to changing the social attitudes toward and the legal status of house-elves through her organization, the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.), is redirected into the more conventional and privatized pursuits of forming Dumbledore’s Army (the D.A.) and choosing the proper romantic partner. Harry exemplifies the makeover’s glamorization of the individual, while Hermione is subjected to the more subtle aspect of the makeover that strives to produce a general amnesia about the social contexts in which makeovers take place and to which they respond. Though they employ slightly different terminology, Jackie C. Horne, Brycchan Carey, and Todd S. Waters all discuss the schematic opposition Rowling draws between Harry’s personal, individualistic worldview and Hermione’s broader institutional approach to reading the world.19 Most analyses of Hermione’s politics focus on her response to racism in the wizarding world.20 She founds S.P.E.W. in outrage at discovering the “slave labor” performed by the Hogwarts house-elves and the cultural logic of otherness that justifies this labor (4:182). Horne’s essay, “Harry and the Other: Answering the Race Question in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter” (essential reading for anyone committed to thinking critically about the series) argues that these novels ultimately advocate an appreciative multiculturalism as the appropriate countermeasure to racism rather than a social justice response that would rewrite the “rotten and unjust systems” in the world that Hermione points out so fervently (4:125). Horne concludes, “though [Rowling’s] novels show [End Page 129] moments of collective action in the fight against Voldemort, at heart they are about the emotional growth of a boy rather than the depiction of the rise of a collective political movement” (98). I would argue that the failure of Hermione’s social justice antiracism is intimately tied to the perceived levels of interest in other political concerns the novels raise, including war, romantic pairing, and ideals of female beauty. During a press conference following the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Rowling commented on the issue of narrative interest in response to fans’ questions about why she killed off several characters close to Harry: “When you have a hero who is growing up and going to fulfill a certain destiny, which Harry now is, the ruthless answer is it is much more interesting for him to do that alone” (“Post Half-Blood”). This response reinforces the appeal of Harry’s individualism and also importantly underscores that certain narratives are generally agreed to be more captivating than others. Hermione must forget about S.P.E.W., I would suggest, because collective political action is treated in these books as a dull topic, difficult to sustain, and less compelling than narrower concerns of family and romance.21

Described in book 1 when warning Harry and Ron against rule breaking as “hissing at them like an angry goose,” Hermione gets to occupy the much more enviable role of the swan by book 4 when she shocks everyone with her ability to dress and style herself according to conventional standards of female beauty. Seen through Harry’s eyes, Hermione

didn’t look like Hermione at all. She had done something with her hair; it was no longer bushy but sleek and shiny, and twisted up into an elegant knot at the back of her head. She was wearing robes made of a floaty, periwinkle-blue material, and she was holding herself differently, somehow. … She was also smiling—rather nervously, it was true—but the reduction in the size of her front teeth was more noticeable than ever; Harry couldn’t understand how he hadn’t spotted it before.


Hermione’s makeover, as I stated at the outset of this essay, has provoked intense and divided responses in critics. Farah Mendlesohn reads this transformation as “the magical equivalent of plastic surgery … a gender issue of which I feel Rowling should be ashamed,” and Elizabeth E. Heilman and Trevor Donaldson similarly conclude, “The message to girls is: get a makeover. You are not okay” (174–75, 152). Spending more time analyzing the description of Hermione’s makeover and the events that [End Page 130] precede and follow it, Katrin Berndt and Tara Foster independently arrive at more positive evaluations of this makeover as involving only the minor physical adjustments of straightening hair and shrinking teeth already being corrected with braces; they also note Hermione’s disinterest in the “bother” of maintaining this appearance on a daily basis and argue that she is pleasing herself in making choices about her look and her date for the Yule Ball (4:433). While I would tend to agree more with Berndt’s and Foster’s interpretations, neither the positive nor the negative analyses of Hermione’s makeover recognize the way that Rowling creates in this scene an intersection and competition between concerns about racial oppression and ideals of female beauty. Discovering that those attending the ball must place individual orders for dinner rather than serving themselves in the usual Hogwarts buffet style, “Harry glanced up at Hermione to see how she felt about this new and more complicated method of dining—surely it meant plenty of extra work for the house-elves?—but for once, Hermione didn’t seem to be thinking about S.P.E.W. She was deep in talk with Viktor Krum and hardly seemed to notice what she was eating” (4:416–17). Referring to this scene when objecting to various ways Rowling undermines Hermione’s antidiscrimination efforts, Mendlesohn argues, “Hermione herself is shown up as a hypocrite when she fails to question the provision of the tournament banquet” (180). It is certainly disappointing to see Hermione forgetting about the house-elves because she is distracted by boys and beauty. But, vitally, we only see this from Harry’s perspective. We never hear what Hermione thinks of the banquet or says to Krum. She might be so distracted by her Cinderella splendor that she forgets S.P.E.W., and she might be so dazzled by the desirable older boy who is her date that she wouldn’t dare bring up the uncool topic of house-elf rights. However, she hasn’t been shy about promoting S.P.E.W. to Hogwarts students, and she has never seemed flustered by Krum’s fame before. These speculations aside, the interesting thing about this scene is what readers, including Harry, see and regard as interesting in it: a girl oppressed or pleased by female beauty rituals and a girl oblivious to the world because she has scored a hot date to the big dance. The house-elves are forgettable compared to the question of Hermione’s feelings about her self-image.

Hermione’s engagements with collective politics increasingly make such politics appear dreary, impractical, or misguided unless the collective operates hierarchically and has a goal of preserving the traditions of a world under attack. With Voldemort’s return at the end of book 4 [End Page 131] and the Order of the Phoenix’s efforts in book 5 to alert the wizarding world to this event, Hermione expands her interest in collective politics by founding the D.A. This expansion, however, might be considered a type of contraction because the D.A. is a temporary coalition formed to defend the wizarding world from an obvious threat rather than to alter foundational principles of that world as S.P.E.W. aimed to do. When Hermione describes her idea to establish a group for those wishing to learn the practical components of Defense Against the Dark Arts that the Ministry has banned at Hogwarts, her “face was suddenly alight with the kind of fervor that S.P.E.W. usually inspired in her” (5:325). Though Harry initially sees this proposal as one of Hermione’s “farfetched schemes like S.P.E.W.,” he and many others quickly respond to it as “possibly more important than anything else we’ll do this year” (5:326, 344). Even with the book’s clear connection of S.P.E.W. and the D.A., the former appears foolish while the latter looks daring and urgent. From Hermione’s first attempt to get other students interested in S.P.E.W., “[m]any regarded the whole thing as a joke” (4:239). At the same time that the D.A. is gaining momentum, her efforts to free the house-elves by hiding clothes she has knitted around Gryffindor tower become ridiculous and problematic. Ron jokes that the hats “might not count as clothes” and may have been mistaken by the elves as part of the rubbish Hermione hides them under because they look like “wooly bladders” (5:256). Harry likewise sees Hermione’s endeavor in a comic light, mentally noting, “she was getting better; it was now almost always possible to distinguish between the hats and the socks” (5:334). Paired with these rather nasty cracks about Hermione’s deficient skills at feminine handicraft, her attempt to deceive the elves into accepting freedom makes the entire project of S.P.E.W. appear absurd and gravely out of touch with the elves. She is either enforcing freedom upon a group of sentient beings who genuinely enjoy enslavement—a “dangerous and irresponsible” fantasy of the subaltern as Horne argues—or liberating them from false consciousness that can only be recognized through the patronizing illumination offered by those belonging to a separate enlightened group (101).22 Whether regarded as comic relief, condescending liberalism, or both, S.P.E.W. never gains broad-based interest even if it raises Harry’s and Ron’s consciousness (and perhaps the novel reader’s as well) about the lives and social status of oppressed communities. The D.A. gets a more enthusiastic reception than S.P.E.W. because it doesn’t require the messy business of breaking down entrenched barriers between groups for the benefit of society at [End Page 132] large with the possible result of inconveniencing and disempowering those who previously benefited from hierarchical social arrangements. The need for the D.A. arises because of an opposition between people belonging to the same group: wizards.

Somewhat differently, Brycchan Carey accounts for the decreasing prominence of S.P.E.W. and the house-elves in the final three books as a matter of political practicability: “S.P.E.W. is only a viable organization while the political process remains more-or-less intact. … Although individual house-elves remain an important part of the story thereafter, Hermione’s campaign effectively ends at the point that the normal political processes of the wizarding world are curtailed” (165). Normalcy and practicality lie at the heart of this rationale for setting aside social justice projects when threats to the dominant group’s liberty and the established “political processes” arise. This type of thinking accords with the neoliberal cost-benefit model of adjudicating individual and political decisions. Though it may be practical to forget social justice and political self-examination in a time of war, such disregard reinscribes (however tacitly and unintentionally) the “rotten and unjust systems” that undermine any claims of the dominant group to a moral high ground in that war. Hermione never completely gives up her efforts to draw attention to house-elf welfare, but the single mistake she makes on her Ancient Runes O.W.L. exam thematically echoes the way the novels shift her political energies into the realm of practical defensive magic on behalf of her own social group: “I mistranslated ‘ehwaz’. … It means ‘partnership,’ not ‘defense,’ I mixed it up with ‘eihwaz’” (5:715). The series correspondingly substitutes partnership (exemplified in the collaborative aims of S.P.E.W.) with defense when Hermione founds the D.A. and authorizes Harry as its leader. Raising her hand to pause Harry’s address to the students gathered for their first secret meeting, Hermione insists,

“I think we ought to elect a leader” …

“Harry’s leader,” said Cho at once, looking at Hermione as though she were mad, and Harry’s stomach did yet another back flip.

“Yes, but I think we ought to vote on it properly,” said Hermione, unperturbed. “It makes it formal and it gives him authority.”


Invoking the democratic process in order to fortify what she had previously referred to as the “obvious” choice of Harry to lead this group, [End Page 133] Hermione sets in motion a collective in which each member will follow the direction and model of their exceptional leader (5:326).23

Because of Hermione’s insistent analysis of the world in institutional terms, someone almost always seems to be trying to make things personal for her, whether Pansy Parkinson and Severus Snape making hurtful comments about her appearance or Draco Malfoy and his attempts to make her hear the word “Mudblood” as a personal insult rather than the systematic racism she understands it to be.24 Similarly, Hermione’s criticism of Rita Skeeter’s dodgy journalistic practices leads to Hermione no longer being described in Rita’s articles about the Triwizard Tournament as “stunningly pretty” but rather as “plain but ambitious” (4:315).25 Both descriptions, though, position her solely as an object of sexual desire for Harry or Viktor Krum, material Rita can use to spin a juicy love triangle. Despite Rita’s nonexistent journalistic ethics and despite the distracting demonization of her “heavy-jawed face,” “thick fingers,” and garish feminine masquerade that functions as the token of and punishment for her professional transgressions, we might notice that the story she fabricates for Hermione is not so different from the one Rowling tells. Hermione may make it possible for Harry to defeat Voldemort in book 7, but her own journey in these books that celebrate individual choice narrows to a story about choosing the right boy, even if the choice between Ron and Harry appears to be a nonstarter from Hermione’s point of view. When Hermione decides to stay with Harry in pursuit of the horcruxes, Ron storms off, saying, “I get it. You choose him” (7:310). However wrong Ron may be according to the text of Rowling’s novels about the love triangle Hermione occupies with him and Harry, a quick tour of the internet reveals many readers still interested in this plot, including Rowling, who stated in a 2013 interview for Wonderland magazine, “I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. … In some ways, Hermione and Harry are a better fit” (“J.K. Rowling: Author and Philanthropist”). So much for the urgency of house-elf rights.

Ron: Remembering the House-Elves

Not as sustained in duration as Harry’s or Hermione’s makeovers, Ron’s transformation involves what could be deemed an awakened consciousness of the house-elves and their vulnerable social position. I use the conditional tense in this description because Ron’s new awareness operates almost entirely as the excuse for and backdrop to his entry [End Page 134] into an explicitly romantic relationship with Hermione. Throughout the series, Ron acts as a guide for his Muggle-born friends and the novels’ readers as they gain familiarity with the wizarding world. In this role, he also functions as the mouthpiece for many received ideas in his culture, which is largely why he finds Hermione’s concern for elfish welfare so nonsensical. Over the course of book 7, however, Ron’s interaction with Kreacher and especially Dobby’s death in the process of liberating the trio and several others from Malfoy Manor change his attitude toward house-elves. He speaks from this position of heightened awareness during the Battle of Hogwarts:

“Hang on a moment!” said Ron sharply. “We’ve forgotten someone!”

“Who?” asked Hermione.

“The house-elves, they’ll all be down in the kitchen, won’t they?”

“You mean we ought to get them fighting?” asked Harry.

“No,” said Ron seriously, “I mean we should tell them to get out. We don’t want any more Dobbies, do we? We can’t order them to die for us—”

There was a clatter as the basilisk fangs cascaded out of Hermione’s arms. Running at Ron, she flung them around his neck and kissed him full on the mouth.


Critics have read Ron’s declaration in this scene as a “thoughtful intervention” and an indication that in taking this new political position “he becomes worthy of Hermione’s love” (Carey, “Hermione Revisited” 168, Berndt 174). Rowling likewise explained this scene in a webchat with fans: “Ron had finally got S.P.E.W. and earned himself a snog!” (“Post Deathly”). It would be nice to be able to agree with these analyses, but this would be possible only if the three heroes had made any attempt to alert or free the Hogwarts elves, even by delegating the task to the eager members of the D.A. The plight of the elves and the question of what to do about them are dropped after the kiss, which is all anyone seems to care about in this scene. Moreover, the novel completely overlooks the power of the house-elves during this moment and the ensuing battle, an odd failure of memory considering that it is Ron and his brothers who have repeatedly reminded others that “house-elves have got powerful magic of their own,” including the power to “Apparate and Disapparate in and out of Hogwarts when we can’t” (2:28, 7:195). Yet when the elves enter the combat of their own accord, they [End Page 135] fight in a ludicrously and pathetically manual fashion, “screaming and waving carving knives and cleavers,” “hacking and stabbing the ankles and shins of Death Eaters” (7:734, 735). Like S.P.E.W., the elves provide comic relief rather than a reminder of the abilities and collective force of disenfranchised communities.

Revealing Choices

It’s impossible to tell whether Rowling’s portrait of the house-elves’ relative powerlessness and her more concentrated attention to the main characters’ romantic relationships in book 7 is part of the novel’s design and social commentary or simple absent-mindedness. Interviews and pieces of writing depicting the wizarding world published since the completion of the final novel only complicate the unanswerable question of intention. Yet the problem of intention plays an important part in an overlooked message about choice the series puts forward as an alternative to its celebrated formulation that the act of making a choice confirms a person’s autonomy and individual identity. There are, I would argue, two registers of choice depicted in the Harry Potter series: one in which choice is a conscious, willful act that shapes and asserts the self, and another in which choice acts as if of its own accord, revealing glimpses of ruptures and dissonances in the self and the social order. While in book 2, Dumbledore argues that it is “our choices … that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” in book 1 and again in his notes to The Tales of Beedle the Bard, he reflects that “[h]umans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them” (1:297, 107). The latter observation about choice points to an irrational and potentially counter-intentional force present in any instance of choice. In choosing what seems desirable or beneficial, we can commit ourselves to something detrimental to our well-being. This capricious aspect of choice might be seen in the way that the choice to make oneself over can enchain one to specific scripts of personhood rather than increasing self-determination, or it may be seen in the way that neoliberal ideology has gained acceptance and orthodoxy through the terroristic pictures it paints of life without choice (choose this political ideology or lose the option to choose). Rather than the sign of fully conscious and autonomous intention, choice may be an index of what Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman call “nonsovereignty,” a term that “invokes the psychoanalytic notion of the subject’s constitutive division that keeps us, as subjects, from fully knowing or being in [End Page 136] control of ourselves and that prompts our misrecognition of our own motives and desires” while it also “invokes a political idiom and tradition, broadly indicating questions of self-control, autonomy, and the constraints upon them” (viii). Even conscious choice, regarded through this paradigm, can unexpectedly contravene and call into question what comprises one’s personal and political interests. Interpreting Dumbledore’s axiom about humans’ knack for making bad choices as an articulation of nonsovereignty in Rowling’s novels might seem to strike a gloomy tone for a conclusion—but perhaps only for those who see inconclusiveness and open questions as useless and moribund rather than vitalizing. As Berlant and Edelman argue, sustained thinking and conversation about “the problems of radical incoherence and relational out-of-synchness that threateningly traverse the subject and the world” can also explode entrenched modes of thought, legislation, and living, making way for change (66). Too often the Harry Potter series’ endorsement of choice leads to choosing more of the same, particularly in defining choice as the sign of an individual liberty that must be upheld at all costs, including others’ liberty.

Dumbledore makes his less familiar assessment of choice specifically in regard to the Sorcerer’s Stone and the Elder Wand, two alluring and dangerous objects that Harry is able to forgo possessing with little effort and no sense of regret. Harry’s remarkable capacity to resist these objects bolsters the popular reading of Dumbledore’s more famous pronouncement about choice as evidence of the series’ faith in individual autonomy. His choice not to accept the Elder Wand’s allegiance but rather to rebury it with Dumbledore effectively concludes his makeover from a self-estranged orphan to a self-possessed hero. In not choosing a wand and thereby reversing the dictum by which “the wand chooses the wizard,” Harry makes himself the unparalleled embodiment of autonomy in his world. With its climactic image of Harry as the people’s “leader and symbol, their savior and guide,” book 7 reinforces the message that individuals are more compelling and more politically efficacious than collectives (7:744). It may be the case that Harry’s intention to sacrifice his life to save others and his relinquishment of the Resurrection Stone, which brings his dead loved ones to his aid, indicate that he has “give[n] up the concept of ‘home’ as defined by a child (‘me and my parents’) and instead chooses a broader sense of community and collective responsibility,” but this is a community he does not intend to live to see or to take part in building (Gallardo-C. and Smith, “Happily” 104). No matter how [End Page 137] collaborative certain aspects of Voldemort’s defeat may be, Harry remains the Chosen One whose lone heroics ideologically underscore the idea that special individuals are required to create and lead communities. For all of Hermione’s grass-roots political organizing, for all of the books’ attention to extensively socialized structures of oppression, the Harry Potter series conspicuously chooses the individual and individualism as the best guide to liberty.

Simply exchanging the series’ attachment to individualism for an emphasis on collectivity, however, would not be a foolproof means of escaping impediments to social equity. The term nonsovereign—in naming the disconnections, noncorrespondence, and volatility of social relations and self-relations—might remind us that a collective is no more likely to be consistent or rational than an individual or a specific political philosophy.26 This is something that Bourdieu overlooks when opposing the “individual rationality” stressed by neoliberalism to the broader “economic and social conditions of rational orientations” taken into account by liberal democracies (Bourdieu n.p.). Arguing that the best defense against the personal isolation and economic disparities wrought by neoliberalism is a renewal of the social order, Bourdieu imagines this new sociality as “[o]ne that will not have as its only law the pursuit of egoistic interests and the individual passion for profit and that will make room for collectives oriented toward the rational pursuit of ends collectively arrived at and collectively ratified” (Bourdieu n.p.). Neoliberalism notably shares Bourdieu’s investment in rationality by striving for what Wendy Brown describes as the “production of all human and institutional action as rational entrepreneurial action” (sec. 9). These points of view converge in the assumption that human rationality will cause people to see their particular political program as sensible and beneficial, a logically unsound assumption given that it advances two very different sociopolitical configurations. Perhaps surprisingly then, the force of irrationality may be a vital energy to engage in political and literary endeavors to imagine community and make it livable—not because irrationality is predictable or controllable but because any attempt to conduct a politics that does not attend to this force is blind to a major component of human experience and doomed to be foiled by it.27 Critiques of reason cannot be persuasive if they operate through a logic of rationality and if they neglect irrationality. This is the flaw in Meredith Cherland’s otherwise persuasive criticism of Rowling’s humanist rationalism in the Harry Potter series. Writing about the social justice pedagogy that could be practiced in relation to the series, Cherland argues, [End Page 138]

In Rowling’s humanist view, it is rationality, not desire that must triumph. [In book 7] Harry exercises agency by consciously choosing to turn away from his desires for love and peace and also by controlling his desire for revenge. In a time of widespread war in our own world, students may wish to “trouble” (question) Rowling’s views and Harry’s triumph. We must move beyond the ideal that individuals must choose. Where desires are in conflict, is it not better to see and name the desires we experience and understand how they construct us as agents in the world? Understanding our selves and our desires may be our best hope for acting wisely.


This criticism of reason and choice is rational in the extreme, assuming that we can fully understand ourselves and our desires and that naming them would make others more disposed to respond to us equitably and rationally. Cherland trusts in “understanding” to take account of any conflict and capably defuse it. But understanding can never fully account for desire, irrationality, or nonsovereignty. As Edelman argues, “Our faith in thought’s ability, by acknowledging nonsovereignty, to account for it in such a way that it enters into the count we produce of ourselves and our relations … may bespeak a … fetishistic belief in the power of knowledge to operate on what knowledge doesn’t govern in the first place” (86).

Reading choice as always potentially expressing the nonsovereignty of the person or group that makes it provides some ways to register how the Harry Potter series disrupts the grandiose and conventional visions of personal autonomy and social liberty that orient its makeover teleology. The series, in fact, includes images of the psychological and sociopolitical forces that render complete, unfettered, and rational governance of self and others impossible. Repeatedly, choice is presented to Harry as a matter of wholly conscious decision, including when he finds himself in an unconscious state chatting with the deceased Dumbledore about the “choice” to return to the Battle of Hogwarts or to go “On” to some sort of magical afterlife (7:722). This portrait of a conscious unconscious choice displays a bizarrely formulated instance of an individual’s capacity for willful and rational choice. The scene attempts to domesticate the unconscious as just another level of consciousness and to deny its unsettling irrationality. Harry’s need for Dumbledore to confirm whether this experience is “real” or has “been happening inside my head” indicates how self-alienating one’s own subjectivity can be (7:723). It also suggests how much we need fantasies [End Page 139] to stage and stabilize our understanding of reality. Harry’s magical dream conversation with Dumbledore reifies the fantasy of unrestricted choice and carries this palliative fantasy back into the conscious world as the means of defeating Voldemort. During his final standoff with Voldemort, Harry insists upon a power of choice that is as quotidian as it is magical in being the product of his mother’s sacrificial love. He demands of Voldemort,

“Don’t you get it? I was ready to die to stop you from hurting these people—”

“But you did not!”

“—I meant to, and that’s what did it. I’ve done what my mother did.”


In this scene, mere intention is enough to guarantee a desired and unambiguous outcome. The ultimate fantasy of the Harry Potter series is not that one can fly on a broomstick or transfigure a teapot into a tortoise, but that one can make autonomous and rational choices about oneself and the world because both are fully knowable entities. Mother love and a heavenly Albus Dumbledore nearly plaster over Dumbledore’s own disruptive assertions that choices have a way of backfiring upon or surprising us. Harry’s high profile attainment of unhampered and unparalleled autonomy may be improbable even according to the operational principles of his magical world, but it feels plausible because the narrative of the exceptional hero is so entrenched in our literary and political landscapes. Significantly, the extreme fictionality of this scenario can be imagined while the enfranchisement of the house-elves (and the oppressed groups they allegorize) is unthinkable even as fantasy fiction. But the magic of this fantasy series need not only be found in the spell of individualism it weaves. By a strange sleight of hand, these books show us how eagerness to affirm autonomy of choice can misdirect attention from those others whose choice, desires, rationality, and intentions remain oppressively but also disruptively inconceivable.

Lauren Byler

Lauren Byler is an assistant professor of English at California State University North-ridge, where she teaches nineteenth-century British literature as well as a course titled “Girls’ Books?,” from which her essay on the Harry Potter series is derived. Her work also appears in Novel, Victorian Literature and Culture, and Texas Studies in Literature and Language.


1. Parenthetical references to Harry Potter books are given by book number and page number. See “Works Cited” for book numbers.

2. Horne’s essay on racism in the Harry Potter series offers detailed definitions of social justice and examples of its partial but failed deployment against racism in these books. She clarifies that “social justice pedagogies focus on teaching students to examine the social, political, and economic structures in which they live. … social justice antiracism assumes that racism lies not only in individuals, but also in the institutions that grant privileges and power to certain racial groups in a society, and restrict other racial groups from the same” (79). While I also address racism in Rowling’s series and advocate a social justice approach to analyzing and eradicating it, I attempt to connect issues of racism and sexism to the books’ ideological embrace of autonomous individualism. Rowling’s novels, I argue, imbibe and reproduce an extreme individualism that is part of their contemporary political landscape and that can lead to blindness or indifference toward many kinds of social injustice.

3. For discussions of or references to Harry Potter as a Cinderella figure, see Gallardo-C. and Smith (“Cinderfella”), Blake, Doughty, and Saxena. Relatedly, Gruss describes Harry’s alignment with the Gothic heroine, and Grimes traces parallels between the Harry Potter series and a number of fairy tales, many of them centered on a heroine rather than a hero.

4. 1990 is the year given for Rowling’s conception of these novels both on her personal website, www.jkrowling.com, and in the brief “About the Author” biography included at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

5. As I hope my arguments in this essay indicate, I am not suggesting that being objectified or being duped by ideological messages are inherently or exclusively female states or experiences. I use strategic essentialism in defining the makeover in part to be consistent with theorizations of the makeover found in my sources and in part to invoke and then unsettle the conventional ways in which makeovers are associated with femininity. The empowerment and autonomy promised by various iterations of the makeover may be naturalized as masculine qualities, but they can be conferred upon male or female makeover participants who are equally prone to the disciplinary containment of the makeover process.

6. The feminization of contemporary Western culture has a particularly fascinating bearing on education, children’s reading practices, and the understanding of male and female educational aptitudes and achievements. As Andrew Blake writes in The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter, Rowling’s series became central to the British national project of improving boys’ low reading scores on standardized tests, which were seen as auguring badly for the vitality (or is it the virility?) of the nation: “The academic success of girls was interpreted as a signal of a more general cultural and economic ‘feminization,’ in which changing employment patterns in the West meant that women were also more employable than men, and unskilled men in particular had few job prospects” (29). Erica Burman discusses this anxiety about education and gender in Britain specifically in the context of neoliberalism. In an analysis that has striking resonances with Hermione’s story and the reception of this character in popular culture, Burman describes the neoliberal strategy of highlighting individual girls’ successes in education and involvement in giving charity to others as a means of distracting attention from various structural inequalities of culture (including gender inequalities that adversely affect women and girls and divisions in class and race that also impact educational and economic success). Though Hermione tries to draw attention to institutional inequalities in her world (as I discuss later in this essay), she remains largely alone in these efforts, notable for her unpopular politics and her intelligence in developing and acting upon them. Ironically, because of her uncommon interest in collectivity, she ends up being an outstanding individual.

7. Many critics embrace this quotation as a straightforward endorsement of free will. See Barrett (2) Doughty (248–49, 257), Gallardo-C. and Smith (“Happily” 91, 104), and [End Page 141] Westman (328). More notably, several critics who variously highlight the presence of determinism in the series still find ways to insist that choice can be free and willful. Like Pond’s reading of fate and free will in the Harry Potter series, Donaher’s and Okpal’s conclusion is representative of this tendency to note and then dismiss obstructions to choice: “Although there may not be a lot of choice in the Harry Potter universe, when choice is possible, its importance is manifest” (58). These arguments basically amount to saying that choice can be free when you choose it to be free. See, for instance, Hopkins’s assertion that “despite the prophecy, despite his past, Harry still has a choice, and, Aslan-like, it is because he exercises that choice that he ultimately escapes death, in Rowling’s equivalent of the Stone Table cracking and the Deep Magic reversing the workings of more superficial magic” (69). This interpretation is pure metaphysics, likening Harry to the allegorical Christ figure Aslan so as to produce an Other external to the system in which fate limits free will, an Other that thus can guarantee that free choice trumps all.

8. For other discussions of the fate / free will question in the Harry Potter series, see Donaher and Okpal, Hopkins, and Mendlesohn.

9. Since the composition of this essay in 2014, Rowling has rebooted the Pottermore. com website. Its new incarnation repurposes a good deal of content from the old site, though users can no longer compete to win house points in the way I describe in this essay (at least at the moment, but the site is constantly evolving). The online store component of Pottermore.com, however, remains a robust portion of the site.

10. I refer to the magic books that can be discovered in Pottermore’s tableaux or bought with virtual galleons in the virtual Flourish and Blotts as “mostly contentless” because a few of them contain instructions on how to perform the video-game-style magic of cursor-hand-eye-coordination required to participate in the site’s Dueling Club.

11. On Americans’ lack of familiarity with the term neoliberalism, see Fish.

12. Brown’s essay, “Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” appears in Theory and Event, an online, nonpaginated journal. I parenthetically cite the section numbers she uses in her essay for ease of reference.

13. As Brown argues, one of the major differences between neoliberalism and earlier forms of capitalism is that neoliberalism believes that the state’s main job is maintaining the health of the market with as little interference in the market as possible and that the state should conduct itself in the same entrepreneurial terms as the market. According to her analysis, the liberal democratic state is losing its independence from the market under the political influence of neoliberal policies: “Neo-liberal governmentality undermines the relative autonomy of certain institutions from one another and from the market—law, elections, the police, the public sphere—an independence that formerly sustained an interval and a tension between a capitalist political economy and a liberal democratic political system. … Put simply, what liberal democracy has provided over the last two centuries is a modest ethical gap between economy and polity” (sec. 21, 22).

14. Harry Potter’s date of birth can be calculated most easily from the dates of his parents’ deaths, “31 October 1981,” revealed in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (328). With his birthday being 31 August and being a one-year-old when Voldemort murdered his parents, Harry would thus have been born in 1980. As early as book 2, however, some perceptive reading and math, which Westman performs in “Specters of Thatcherism,” could reveal that Harry was born in 1980 (308).

15. Mendlesohn also discusses the role of Thatcher-Era politics in the Harry Potter series. She argues that “Rowling has no real problem with authoritarian figures or with hierarchies. What is in dispute is how they are constructed, and in many ways, this is a battle between versions of Toryism and is thus built upon 1980s politics” (167). She describes the Malfoys as the aristocracy and the Dursleys as an “aspirationalist Thatcherite shopkeeper / middle-class business family,” concluding that “Both are rejected by the Dumbledores and Weasleys, who see them as unacceptable extremes and who claim for themselves the moral high ground of moderation” (167). However, Mendlesohn then [End Page 142] argues that the “‘good guys’ in this structure are … similarly aristocratic” to the Malfoys (169). I believe that casting the heroes of the series as a version of old Toryism (even if a more “moderate” version of old Toryism) misses the way that they embody the more current politics of neoliberalism. The prudent and measured “moderation” of the heroes that Mendlesohn notes could be described as more characteristic of neoliberalism’s lip service to a rational and calculated approach to the world than of an aristocracy traditionally associated with excess and luxury. Though I agree with much of Mendlesohn’s analysis, I think she forgoes the opportunity to make a more urgent argument about the series’ problematic alignment with ongoing conservative political ideology.

16. Set in 1997–98, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows takes place during the early days of the Blair administration that were regarded with hope by many liberals in Great Britain and abroad. This timing may cast the Blair government in a positive light as a Muggle version of Kingsley Shacklebolt’s new post-Voldemort ministry, or it may position this administration as another iteration of ruling powers that need to be overthrown. On the failed promises and neoliberal alignments of Blair’s Labour government, see Blake, McRobbie, and Ringrose and Walkerdine.

17. See Blake, Rangwala, and Westman.

18. Rowling indicated a marriage between George Weasley and Angelina Johnson both in material that could be found on an early version of her website, www.jkrowling.com, and in a recent piece of fiction portraying the 2014 Quidditch World Cup on Pottermore. com. One might also add to the list of marriages between the series’ heroes the decision made in the cinematic version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to turn Neville Long-bottom and Luna Lovegood into a couple. Though Rowling indicates that Neville and Luna married different people in the two sources described above, fans tweeting about the recent piece released on Pottermore expressed regret that these two didn’t marry.

19. Horne aligns Hermione with institutionally minded social-justice antiracism and Harry with individually oriented, self-improving multicultural antiracism. Carey describes Hermione’s response to the house-elves as a “public one” and Harry’s as “personal” (“Hermione” 105). Waters reads Hermione as “the Real Chosen One” because she is an “organizer” who coordinates people while Harry is the more traditional and less effective lone hero (199). Waters’s title, “Is Hermione Granger the Real Chosen One?” interestingly and problematically places Hermione in the paradigm of individualism—the one and only Chosen One—despite his essay’s advocacy of coordination theory. This title suggests how difficult it is to think about heroism and social change in terms that don’t wed these actions to individualism.

20. Though I believe Horne’s essay is the most compelling discussion of race and racism in the Harry Potter series, other important analyses of these topics and Hermione’s relation to them include essays by Anatole, Carey, Cherland, and Ostry.

21. The filmmakers who cut out the house-elf portions of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in planning the film surely made this choice primarily to give the movie a standard running time. However, this decision also suggests the feeling that the house-elf narrative is slow, dull, and ancillary on the page or the screen.

22. For essays discussing the “false consciousness” of the house-elves, see Ostry (96) and Rangwala (138).

23. Notably, Harry’s authority as leader of the D.A. is seconded by Cho Chang and the group is named by Ginny Weasley, two girls who become romantically involved with Harry. Not unlike Hermione, no matter how talented, spunky, and socially conscious these girls are, their narrative trajectory is propelled by personal and romantic forces, particularly their relationships to Harry.

24. Pansy Parkinson and Draco Malfoy keep up a campaign of personal attacks on Hermione that are so pervasive in the series that they hardly need description. However, Snape commits one of his cruelest and, from the standpoint of his double-agent status, most unnecessary attacks on the teenagers he is supposed to be protecting and educating [End Page 143] when he tells Hermione that he sees “no difference” in her appearance after a misfired spell causes her front teeth to grow “down past her collar” (300, 299). What purpose could this comment serve other than to get Hermione to shut up about the world and everything in it by staying focused on herself?

25. In her various pieces of writing about the 2014 Quidditch World Cup, Rowling depicts a continuing relation between Hermione and Rita Skeeter in which Rita attacks Hermione’s appearance as a way of diminishing her political commitments and successes. Giving her readers a summary of Hermione’s post-Hogwarts life, Rita writes, “After a meteoric rise to Deputy Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, [Hermione Granger] is now tipped to go even higher within the Ministry, and is also mother to son, Hugo, and daughter, Rose. Does Hermione Granger prove that a witch really can have it all? (No—look at her hair)” (“Dumbledore’s Army Reunites”). Interpreting this press release produces as much ambivalence as interpreting book 7’s lapses in remembering the house-elves. On the one hand, Rowling appears to be sending up the obnoxious and belittling amount of attention the media gives to the hair and clothing of powerful women in the public eye. On the other hand, Rowling doesn’t offer much of a remedy for this problematic trend. Rita’s faux concern with the glass ceiling models the form of postfeminism that McRobbie describes as involving “intra-female aggression” and “aggressive individualism,” both operating on the antifeminist logic that female success should be understood in terms of top-girl individualism (127, 5). The only means of critiquing Rita that Rowling can imagine is Ginny Weasley Potter giving her “a jinx to the solar plexus”—a response that aligns with postfeminist intrafemale aggression much more clearly than with any intelligent feminist verbal reply (“Quidditch World Cup Final”).

26. Political collectivity, according to Berlant and Edelman, is always the impossible but necessary fantasy of politics, given fantasy’s function to provide consistency and stability of self and social meaning—though they differ on how much fantasy can be teased into a tool of antinormative politics. Berlant’s politics include a reparative aspect and involve what she variously terms “potentials for moving along with the unbearable” and “moving differently with affect” (89). This kind of movement “involves discovering and inhabiting disturbances in the relation between one’s affects and one’s imaginaries for action” (89). For Edelman, politics is a type of originary and irreparable rift as the result of which “political potentiality” means “the potential to experience the negativity that is the political: the division within community as well as the division from community; the division that leaves community, like the self, an always unresolved question” (109). Divisions of community appear throughout the Harry Potter series, visible in the tensions between Harry’s and Hermione’s methods of facilitating social change or in the way that the adult heroes of the story uphold or ignore social inequalities in their world despite their purported fight for equality. As Horne notes, the adult heroes of the series frequently divert or interrupt Hermione’s attempts to address house-elf rights: “While it is easy for these adult characters to see the racism of Voldemort’s anti-Mudblood campaign, it seems less easy for them to engage in a discussion that might point out the ways in which their own culture is supported by the oppression of other races, especially that of the elves” (87).

27. Edelman clarifies that his and Berlant’s shared politics “starts … with the nonsovereignty of consciousness” (84). This means that their definitions of politics and their visions for antinormative politics remain attentive to the unconscious, the irrational, and the unknowable as vital forces in human experience. Edelman helpfully rephrases the problem with assumptions of reason’s sovereign status in humans by quoting Nietzsche: “Everywhere reason sees a doer and doing; it believes in will as the cause” (85). Willful choice is the prime mover in reason’s universe. No other causes of action than conscious will can be imagined from a point of view oriented and anchored by reason. [End Page 144]

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