Harry Potter and the Formation of Fan Identity
Abstract: The writer works to figure out just what it is about the Harry Potter series that resonates with so many fans, and goes on to describe the complexity and influence of the fandom.
The energy in the air was palpable; you could almost taste the anticipation. Every nerve was on end, like an electric current was coursing through my entire body. Why was I so excited? It was only a book. From our place on line we could see the white boxes from Scholastic, colossal red letters reading, “DO NOT OPEN UNTIL JULY 21, 2007” stamped across the sides. It was almost time. The moment that I had waited on line almost 9 hours for was going to be here in a matter of minutes. I tugged on my scarlet-stripped polo shirt and inhaled the smell of books and carpet cleaner, familiar and yet chemical in my nose. My friends and I were standing now, a few of us rolling up onto the tips of our toes to get a look at the line winding throughout the store and, by that point, onto the street. Behind us were people of all ages dressed up as characters from the series. There were all manner of Weasleys, Snapes, Dumbledores, and even one brave soul as Voldemort.
The line moved so fast that I was at the register with a book in my hand within minutes. The bright orange cover beckoned me, begging to be opened. Did I dare? I ran my eager fingers over the title scrawled across the top: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This book, the book, was finally in my hands and it both elated and frightened me. I wanted to start reading, but that obviously meant that I would eventually finish. I wasn’t ready for Harry’s journey to be over, but I wasn’t alone. As I walked through the double doors of the Barnes & Noble in my hometown, I took one last look at the crowd behind me. I saw the faces of people who looked exactly like I felt: excited, emotional, ready, and also, not. They were all different and yet they were all here for the same reason: to find out how Harry’s story would come to an end.
The Harry Potter or “HP” fandom has become a large and flourishing fan community. Every year, fans get together to attend conferences, see midnight showings of the films, go to Wizard Rock shows, or most recently, see the Harry Potter exhibit or visit the theme park. People perform their identity within this community, sometimes separating it from their everyday lives. This is not to say that every HP fan spends their time secretly (or not so secretly) dressing up as Harry, Ron, or Hermione and pretending to fight dark wizards (although some do.) Most Harry fans look like ordinary people, until they meet another fan. When one HP fan meets another a bond is instantly forged. You can become your “secret self,” the Harry Potter “nerd” who can quote the words of Albus Dumbledore verbatim or knows all the words to every song from “A Very Potter Musical.” You enter a safe space of sorts, able to perform an identity that almost instantly connects you to another human being.
How can a book series have such a profound affect on millions of people, creating an almost unbreakable community that has survived long past the release of the final book? It’s all due the fantasy that we, as fans, have attempted to create. We long for a place where we can be like the heroes of the books and where magic can fix even the most difficult of problems. J.K. Rowling created this world and we all want to live in it. Thus the fans, in turn, created a world in which they could play the part of any character, sometimes even rewriting the story. It’s a place where the values set down in the books become a moral code and the many of the novel’s inhabitants become role models. The need for magic in our lives is the force that binds us all together. So many people define themselves by the Harry Potter community. They believe that a Harry Potter fan is, and always will be, a big part of “who they are.” While I don’t dispute this notion, I think Lev Grossman said it best in his Time magazine article “Feeding on Fantasy” Grossman writes, “Sometimes fantasies tell us less about who we are than who we wish we were.” (2002)
Who do we wish we were? Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, or a Weasley is too simple of an answer. When a fan indulges in any aspect of the community, whether it be watching one of the films or going to the theme park, they are becoming a part of a much larger concept. Ever wonder why the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are so popular? It’s because we, as people, love the simplicity that fantasy can bring to our lives. When we immerse ourselves in a fan community, we perform the values that the object of the community attempts to uphold. Therefore, if the character’s lives have simplicity, ours will too. Fantasy stories usually have one thing in common: a medieval landscape or the absence of technology. This absence of the advanced allows us to transport ourselves to another time, a time unencumbered by the barriers technology inevitably brings. When all that’s taken away, the true underlying causes of actions and values systems come to the surface. People respond to this notion. They find that the lifestyle of Harry and his friends is, “a way to touch on who [they] want to be as a person.” (Grossman 2002) I recently saw on the website Post Secret a post card with the words, “I didn’t do drugs because I thought he wouldn’t approve.” The background of this postcard was the cover of the first Harry Potter book. It’s obvious that fans try to live their lives in the way they think Harry would and perform their identity accordingly. They meet other fans and the performance is not only upheld, but also solidified.
The simplicity of the Harry Potter world also entices the fan. In this universe magic is obviously used in lieu of computers or cell phones. All of your problems can be alleviated by a simple flick of the wand. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of a world like that? When magic, or any element of fantasy, is added into the mix everything becomes a lot more cut and dry. Harry Potter appeals to readers because it illustrates such a straightforward battle between good and evil. It’s Harry vs. Voldemort, the Death Eaters (Voldemort’s followers) vs. the Order of the Phoenix (Harry’s friends and mentors.) We know the bad guys are bad because they look evil and menacing. (Grossman 2002) They wear black hooded robes, masks, and in Voldemort’s case, have a snake-like face with violent red eyes. When the Sorcerer’s Stone film came out, I couldn’t watch the end because I was so afraid of Voldemort. I spent the entirety of that section of the movie hiding in my mother’s shirt. Similarly, the good guys are good because we’re told they are. Harry is obviously our protagonist, so anyone associated with him would be automatically categorized as good. It is this simplicity that fans crave when they enter a community such as the HP universe. On some level, I think they hope if they live by the values set by Rowling in her texts, their lives will become as “simple” as Harry’s. In one-way or another, their enemies become easier to face. In the article “Variations on Vampires: Live Action Role Play, Fantasy, and The Revival of Traditional Beliefs” it states that this uncomplicated illustration of good and evil helps teens deal with “issues of maturation, socialization, and psycho-social development.” (Milspaw 2010) When kids and teens see Harry defeating his foes they believe, on some level, that they can defeat their own.
In this clear-cut battle between good and evil, J.K. Rowling creates a world in which the fan’s own reality is easier to swallow. Harry’s story appealed to so many kids in my age group because they could identify with him. In my experience with HP fans, the majority of them know what it feels like to be ostracized because they’re different. When Harry is being mistreated by the Dursleys, we saw the bully at school that picked on us. Harry isn’t a remarkable child, except for the fact that he’s a wizard. Every kid that read the books saw what was special about Harry, and in turn found what was special inside of them. With Harry we were able to face “the process that is growing up.” (Gray 2000) I believe that Harry Potter fans have a connection with their main character unlike any other fandom. You’re always on Harry’s side, even when he acts like a self-centered jackass, because you love him so much. Millions of other people and I waited on line for 9 hours because of that love. I saw Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 1 three times because I wanted to see a story I cared so deeply about come to life (over and over again.) It is this love and devotion that creates the narrative of the Harry Potter fan community. Together, we live out and sometimes conquer our childhood fears and fantasies.
The Harry Potter fan community and the performances on which it’s built are centered on this idea of coming together in a collective “Otherness.” As I’ve mentioned, many Harry Potter fans shared the experience of feeling “different” or “weird” when they were growing up. They took solace in the fact that Harry was in many ways “different” too. Even if you didn’t identify with Harry as a kid, you found a character in the books in which you saw a little bit of yourself. I know that I, personally, felt connected to Harry’s female best friend Hermione Granger. As an 11 and 12-year-old I was bookish, bossy, and a little too obsessed with “doing the right thing,” very similar to Hermione. All throughout my time reading the series (and even now) I rooted for and cared just as much about her as I did Harry. Every character in the series has a little something weird about them, and that’s what a fan likes to hold onto. The Otherness they see in the characters reflects the Otherness they experience within their own life. This notion is even further solidified by the fact that the Wizarding World is a community of “Others” even within the books. Non-magical people or “Muggles” don’t know that wizards inhabit the same places they do and, thus, Harry and his friends automatically become a minority community hiding within a “normal” world. Hogwarts is the place where the collective “Other” identity of the characters is created and performances such as conventions and wizard rock shows serve the same purpose for Harry Potter fans.
If you’re a Harry Potter fan, there’s no doubt that it will always be a huge part of who you are. It’s true that there is always going to be a discrepancy between your “real world” identity and your “fan” identity, but each identity is nonetheless a part of your person. As a fan you will always be a part of something bigger than just yourself, that collective identity that at one time in your life made you feel as if you weren’t so alone. Like many literary figures, Harry and his friends were there when no one else was and it’s because of this that, “legions of people feel a sense of ownership” (Gray 2000) towards him. You can never stop loving Harry because he’s played such a big part in your life. His story, while bringing joy to millions, has also brought them together. We, as fans, connect ourselves to Harry’s story because in some way it is our own. We all fight dark forces, whether they’re external or internal, and we all fight the daily battle for acceptance. We may not have magical powers, but that’s the beauty of it: we fight Harry’s battles with just our own bodies as ammunition. Being a Harry Potter fan means more than loving the story of a boy wizard who triumphs over evil; it’s being a part of something that’s bigger than a book. It’s being a part of a community of people who believe, no matter which way you portray it, that your weirdness is one of the greatest things about you. Weirdness, to the Harry Potter fan, is the real magic that binds us together.