Debate about the possible meanings of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series continues to grow, drawing scholarly attention to the texts themselves, the movies produced based upon them, and the larger, global cultural phenomenon that Harry Potter has become. Not surprisingly, the themes of gender relations and sexuality have received their fair share of the attention.
Rowling herself has spurred the attention not only through her depictions of adolescent sexual awakening but also through her extra-textual commentary, most notably her claim that she had always thought of Dumbledore as gay. In addition, the sex appeal of the actors playing key characters has been deployed in the movies, along with promotional materials, and sex and relationships continue to fascinate fans of both “shipping” stories and “slash” fiction.
Perhaps most interesting to readers of the series, however, is some of the symbolism found the works, which carries with it certain sexual resonance, even if claims about that symbolism might be greeted with some skepticism. For example, the finale of Chamber of Secrets—what takes place in the chamber itself—can be seen as laden with both phallic and yonic imagery consistent with Freudian messages of conquest. At the same time, the imagery of the episode can be interpreted as a Christian morality tale, full of symbolism consistent with death and resurrection. Need these seemingly contrary interpretations be mutually exclusive? Or might they point to the richness of Rowling’s texts, which invite different types of analysis due to the multivalency of the symbolism she weaves into her stories?
Much commentary has also focused upon the potentially phallic symbolism of the use of wands throughout the series. While the symbols are there to be interpreted, and while they at times lead readers to consider possible double-entendres and similarly transparent (and funny) content, at times (perhaps even, all too often), debate may lead some to claim that "this is what the books are really about." The idea that sexual imagery and references are as baseline to human thinking and reality leads others to shake their heads.
And yet, sexuality is present in the series, in both its overt and subterranean symbolic forms, and it provides a great opportunity to explore how Rowling has written stories filled with multivalent symbolism, as well as a good deal of ambivalence and ambiguity. For example, Dumbledore as a character is constructed as someone who can be "read" as gay, but doesn't have to be; sexual awakening is present but not overtly depicted, alternative forms of masculinity are presented throughout the books (think of Hagrid's hyper-masculinity juxtaposed with his pink umbrella and his question to Norbert, "who's your mummy?"), just as readers encounter alternative forms of femininity. Through sex depictions of sex and gender, the stories seem to empower readers who are interested in bringing their own questions and their own perspectives to the stories. They can “talk back” rather than simply accept the “plain meaning” of the texts.
Professor Edmund M. Kern is a history professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, where he teaches a course called Thinking About Harry Potter. He’s also the author of The Wisdom of Harry Potter: What Our Favorite Hero Teaches Us About Moral Choices (Prometheus Books), which grew out of an essay published as “Harry Potter, Stoic Boy Wonder” in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Professor Kern received his Ph.D. in Early Modern European History from the University of Minnesota. His essays and reviews on the history of witchcraft and religious culture have appeared in numerous periodicals, anthologies, and encyclopedias. He has also served as a media consultant on witchcraft and witch-hunting, historical and modern paganism, and the roots of Halloween—not to mention Harry Potter.