Harry Potter and the Adult Appropriation

The other day I was with my daughter in a restaurant near King’s Cross. The Asian family sitting next to us had clearly been to the Harry Potter store: the little boy (who was no older than seven) had a stuffed Hedwig under one arm, a copy of HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS under the other and a wand in his hand, and babbled happily (and adorably) throughout the meal about Patronuses, Horcruxes, Hogwarts houses and all manner of Harry Potter lore.

It struck me then how long it has been since I heard a child talk about Harry Potter. Over the last ten years or so, nearly all the conversations I’ve had on the subject have been with adults – many of them fans, many of them passionate. Books, films, a mountain of merchandise; a play – not to mention Pottermore, with all its recent controversies - and eighteen years after its birth, the Harry Potter phenomenon shows no sign of abating.

But where have all the children gone? Where is their place in Potter’s world?

I remember reading my early copy of HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE to my daughter when she was six. She loved it –even writing a fan letter to J.K. Rowling, to which she received a charming, handwritten reply, which she still treasures.

Later, when I promised her the audiobook of the new Harry Potter for Christmas, and found, too late, that it wouldn’t be available until the following spring, I recorded the whole thing myself onto cassette tapes – a labour of love that took me over fifty hours’ recording time, but which turned out to be worth every minute.

I remember her reaction, aged seven, to the casting of the first Harry Potter movie. Having followed the story with immense interest, when Daniel Radcliffe’s casting was finally announced, she ran into her bedroom and burst into tears. When I asked her why, she said; “Because I wanted to be Harry.” When I pointed out that Harry really had to be a boy, she sniffed and said: “That’s just sexist.”

When she was nine, I remember getting her a day pass onto the set of the second movie (a birthday treat, wangled, with some difficulty, from one of my film contacts). We met Daniel Radcliffe (I’ve never seen my child so wide-eyed and star-struck) and Jason Isaacs (that was my turn to go weak at the knees), and although I wasn’t supposed to take any photographs of the set, I do have a single picture of Anouchka, on the Night Bus: long plaits and dungarees, and an expression of sheer delight.

Later, we went to first screening, a week before the première: the audience was almost entirely made up of happy, excited children.

Since then, over the years, I’ve watched the rise and rise of J.K. Rowling’s boy hero with great admiration. Never before has a children’s book attracted such a following. The Harry Potter books, with their clever marketing (a “serious” jacket for older readers, a brightly-coloured one for children) transcended genre and challenged the boundaries between “adult” and “children’s” fiction. For the first time, many adults felt they had been given permission to enjoy reading children’s books; and children, after years of schools imposing worthy and improving (but often quite dull) reading lists, had something of their own, that was definitely not on the curriculum.

The benefits to literacy were immense. Boys have always lagged behind girls where reading fiction was concerned: but with Harry Potter, boys too were reading and enjoying books. Adults, too, experienced the benefit. I’ve written extensively about this elsewhere, and I’ve been outspoken in supporting the right of adults to read and enjoy fiction intended for children. The same “Get a life”-ers who are now deriding the adult players of Pokémon Go were vocal about Harry Potter: they sneered at grown adults getting excited at the adventures of a boy wizard; they sneered at the cosplayers and the fanfic writers and the people who stayed up till midnight to buy the new books as soon as they came out. But the fans didn’t care. They kept going. Not just children, but adults deserved to enjoy the world of Potter.

To a certain extent, J.K. Rowling became a victim of her own success. The woman who had once sent handwritten notes to her young admirers soon found that she was being mobbed everywhere she went. It was alarming; especially when it became clear that in such crowds, the children were often being pushed aside by adults who wanted to get close to her. She almost stopped appearing in public altogether, except on occasions when she could ensure an audience of children.

The films expanded the fan base. Merchandising grew out of control. At first J.K. Rowling tried to curate the Harry Potter merchandising, but with hundreds of new designs and products being suggested daily, it became impossible. Online, the forums went crazy. Cosplay went crazy. Reading groups went crazy. Fanfic abounded. It was amazing; magical, but it must have been a little frightening, too. Like Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, J.K. Rowling had started something no-one could stop, not even the magician herself.

But where were the children among all this? Where were the children’s voices? Little boys like the one at King’s Cross? Little girls like my daughter?

Nowadays, the shop in King’s Cross is mostly filled with adults. The people queuing up to be photographed at Platform 9 ¾ are almost always adults. My daughter (still a Potter fan) currently happens to be a spot operator at the Palace Theatre, where THE CURSED CHILD is opening. There too, the audiences consist overwhelmingly of adults; many of them Americans; many of them having flown over expressly for the performance. And the online presence – articles, reviews, controversies, fanfic archives, discussion groups – is also, overwhelmingly adult.

Following the controversy over THE HISTORY OF MAGIC IN NORTH AMERICA, the term “cultural appropriation” has been much used.

Wikipedia defines the term like this:

“The… adoption of …. cultural elements in a colonial manner: elements are copied from a minority culture by members of the dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context—sometimes even against the expressed, stated wishes of representatives of the originating culture.”

And yes: I can totally sympathize with those affected. A story, or series of stories, originally belonging to one group of people, has been appropriated and used to promote the agenda of another group of people, thereby taking power from the first group and giving it to the second. It has happened before: many times. In every case, the source material has mostly been lost, corrupted, and even outright claimed by those appropriating it.

Norse myths were appropriated by Christian scholars in the 12th century, and re-interpreted with a Christian agenda. The Victorians bowdlerized Greek and Roman myths to remove all mention of “immoral” sexual practices, and rewrote them to suit their own culture. The Arabian Nights were traditional stories appropriated from sources in the Middle East, and given an increasingly European slant.Grimm’s and Perrault’s and Andersen’s fairy tales were all appropriated from ancient sources - and often given a moralistic, patriarchal bias.

Ironically, these fairy tales were originally meant for adults. Only recently have these tales been thought of as stories for children. And now, we have come full circle: adults, without meaning to, have somehow appropriated one of the most successful children’s stories ever written, and, with the best of intentions, are making it all about them. Their ideas; their fandom; their agendas; their concerns.

Which isn’t to say that we, as adults, don’t have the right to these books, or to the ideas within them. But we don’t own them. We have to remember that. Ours is not an exclusive right. These stories were not meant for us, even though a story can – and should – be read by anyone who wants to. But not at the expense of the children for whom they were written; the children who were elbowed out of the way by adult fans in 2013 when the Hogwarts Express set off from King’s Cross; the children who were unable to pay the enormous ticket prices for a handful of author readings, held in sports stadiums and concert halls instead of bookshops and libraries.

I’m not saying adults should feel bad about loving Harry Potter. But adults are the dominant group. Children are the minority. When I was a child, there was very little contemporary literature expressly written for children. Harry Potter changed all that. It gave power to a generation. The power to choose what they wanted to read; the power to own their story. To take that power away from them - to the benefit of the dominant group - seems like another kind of appropriation.

So, adults, please: enjoy the show. Enjoy the books; write the fanfic; cosplay your favourite characters. Share fan theories; write blog posts to your heart’s content: after all, that’s what stories are for.

But don’t forget; you’re visitors in the world of Hogwarts. And if, while you’re there, you find yourself standing in the way of a child, step aside. If you ever find yourself silencing children’s voices, shut up. It’s still their world. Remember that. And without them, it wouldn’t exist at all.
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Published on July 22, 2016 09:37
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message 1: by Kateřina (new)

Kateřina I wouldn't probably go so far as to call it "cultural appopriation" - I feel that the term is used in the context of far more serious issues (growing up is far away from stealing the cultural heritage of an entire culture/nation/race/tribe). I agree with the conclusion - generally, if you are standing in the way of a child, or silencing their voices, you are pretty much an asshole. I think that children of every generation have their book - wasn't it Funke before Rowling? I fear that what we are talking about is not actually the books but social behavior. We are being moralists - and I have very little belief in those, or in their power to change anything.

message 2: by Joanne (new)

Joanne Harris I didn't say "cultural." But I do think that in terms of power, economic, social and otherwise, it is a kind of appropriation. And yes, children of every generations have their books, but this phenomenon has never existed on such an enormous scale. We need to at least consider the effect on the original audience...

message 3: by Katherine (new)

Katherine Kuzmenko I totally agree with Marlene - I am one of those adults, but Harry has been with me since my own childhood, we basically grew up together - so it is my world, for sure, it would be too heart-breaking to think that I have to let it all go since I'm no longer of the appropriate age... But I am willing to share - half of my students at school are huge fans of the novels and I do hope that my own baby boy will love them, eventually. The children are still there, but, probably, with the main character being an adult now, the boundaries have gotten somewhat vague, it's like our real world - some parts of it are too dark and dangerous to let the youngest ones see them.

message 4: by Joanne (new)

Joanne Harris I think that's very natural - and of course, no-one ever has to let anything go. Your childhood is yours forever. And part of the fun is being able to pass on something we love to another generation. But I also think that part of being an adult is being able to stand aside and let children enjoy what we enjoyed without our adult feelings and experiences getting in the way...

message 5: by Martina (new)

Martina I was a child who grew up reading Harry Potter. And I can proudly say that I've introduced my niece to the wonderful world of HP and now we enjoy the experience together. Just as I was waiting for the new releases of the Half Blood Prince and the Deathly Hallows (and the movies), she is now anticipating the Cursed Child script, the Fantastic Beasts movie...

message 6: by Joanne (new)

Joanne Harris I think that one of the great joys of being an adult reader IS introducing the books we have loved to the next generation. Anyone who feels threatened by that new generation isn't behaving like an adult at all...

message 7: by Abi (new)

Abi I found this an interesting read and made me think (especially when at the midnight release of the Cursed Child Saturday) about the generational links with enjoying literature. The first HP book came out when I was 15 (and I remember then wishing I had been younger!). The subsequent books came out as I was studying at college and University, moving out of home for the first time - so I feel I grew up with them. I've recently re-read them (now aged 34) and feel I have learnt new lessons from the books - which I probably wouldn't have been open to, especially at 15. While I was at the release party Saturday - reflecting on the last 20 years, I saw all ages - middle aged couples, people like me in their thirties, families and young children. I smiled when I saw them dressed up - clutching their other HP books and merchandise - a look of excitement and joy on their faces. It was then that I realised that yes, these books are for children of all ages - but as Joanne identifies - the children come first; I stood back towards the end of the queue and encouraged the children forward, to enjoy the dressing up, the games and collecting the books first. Because that's the natural order of it all. I sadly don't have children of my own, but if I did, I would enjoy being able to share the books I have loved to the next generation. That's the joy of sharing the love of reading.

message 8: by Felix (new)

Felix Simcock I had no idea about the pushing and excluding of children at JK Rowling events. I'd like to offer this little rant though to any who might find it relevant. I was born in 1988 and by 1990 - 91 I was heavily in to videogames and nerd culture. When deciding what to do to pass the time with friends, I was often made to feel awkward suggesting to play more videogames after an hour or so playtime already under our belts. God forbid I bring it up in public and embarrass my peers. Today the same type of people who derided my hobbies boast about how "back in the day" they were the early champions of some forgotten gem of nerd culture and my blood boils.

message 9: by Joanne (new)

Joanne Harris Sadly, there's a lot of it about...

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