How “Harry Potter” Empowered a Generation of Fans to Fight Against Injustice
by Chantal Boezaard
The rise of the Internet in the 1990s caused significant parental concern. Children stopped reading and spent more time playing video games. That changed with J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, published by Bloomsbury in 1997. The book was an international best seller, engaging an entire generation and inspiring them to read.
Today, that generation, born between 1981 and 1996, is commonly known as Millennials. Tellingly, this group is also often referred to as the Harry Potter generation. Millennials were exactly the right age to appreciate the first Potter book when it was published. They grew up with the books and subsequently, the movies. In 2011, researchers Anthony Gierzynski and Julie Seger undertook a nationwide survey in the United States examining the political influence of the Harry Potter series.¹ They found that at least 65% of the Millennial generation had read at least one of the books. Moreover, they reported that this generation was positively influenced by their enthusiasm for the series in that after reading them, they remained more “accepting of those who are different, more politically tolerant, more supportive of equality, less authoritarian, more opposed to the use of violence and torture” (6). The authors argued that exposure to the storylines, themes, and characters in the texts had influenced Millennials to be more involved in politics and more willing to agitate for social action than the generation that preceded them. The resonance of this series in shaping a generation by cultivating a kind of ethos cannot be underestimated.
As a fiction writer, J.K. Rowling did not intentionally set out to be a change agent, but Harry Potter does carry important moral and social messages. To understand more about the social influence of the series on Millennials, I conducted a series of social media discussions with some of the generation’s most ardent fans, on MuggleNet’s Facebook page.
Community and Friendship
One of the most important and named topics that fans generated from the novels is that of friendship. Some fans even blamed the books for giving readers an unrealistic image of how friendship should be:
I guess Harry Potter is to blame for I not having any ‘best friend,’ as the friendship between the trio elevated my expectations from my friends to an unachievable level.
American podcasters Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile created a celebrated podcast titled Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, where they read and discuss the Harry Potter novels as a religious text. They identify friendship as one of the fundamentals upon which the story is based. In Episode 10, dedicated to the subject of friendship, they talk about Sorcerer’s Stone, in which the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron became inseparable. The key moment in the book is as follows:
From that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.” (SS 161)
Friendship and loyalty toward other people are what Potter fans value highly:
The first lesson ‘Harry Potter’ has taught us is that not all knights wear shining armors. Some of them wear hand-me-down robes, have red hair freckles, and can defend their soul mate’s honor even with a broken wand.
Now, you might think, “Doesn’t everyone value friendship?” But it is also about acceptance and about seeing beyond the superficial and external to the person underneath. What we are trying to figure out here is what values Harry Potter fans exactly prioritize above everything else, what values they took from the story as a life lesson, and what value they carry with them as a political, social, and moral compass.
Fiction as a Role Model
In their book Narrative Impact: Social and Cognitive Foundations, Timothy C. Brock, Melanie C. Green, and Jeffrey J. Strange discuss the effect of fictional narratives:²
Emotion is to fiction as truth is to science. We could no sooner read a novel that did not move us, than an empirical article that did not offer a validly drawn conclusion. Fictional narrative has its impact primarily through the emotions. When an emotion occurs, we experience it as striking. Sometimes a novel can affect a person’s whole identity.” (39)
The power of fiction is not simply its capacity to tap into our emotions but the way this is done through vivid ideas, mythic qualities, imagery, and a moral landscape. By saying that someone’s identity can be affected by reading fiction, does that mean that someone’s political choice is also affected? Brock, Green, and Strange explain that when we absorb a story, our emotions are our own, not those of the characters. But by the means of the story, our emotions may be transformed by having them deepened or understood better. At that point, they may be extended toward people of kinds for whom we might previously have felt nothing. When that moment arrives, and the reader finishes the last sentence and puts the book down, a reader’s identity can be transformed. This is a process that Shira Gabriel and Ariana F. Young (2011) refer to as “narrative-assimilation,” the experience of reading a narrative that leads one into psychologically becoming part of the collective described within the narrative.³ In this respect, Twilight fans will become vampires, Lord of the Rings fans will become Hobbits, and Harry Potter fans will psychologically feel that they are witches and wizards. This transformation of the mind and affection for the stories we read is what we also may call the becoming of a fan. Melissa Brough and Sangita Shresthova (2012) describe this process:⁴
Fans are typically understood to be individuals who engage deeply with, and often assert their identity through, popular culture content.” (3)
Fans have what we could speak of as a fictive role model, one that teaches them important values alongside the values taught to them by parents, teachers, and other life guides. However, the story – and fictive role models – can also function as replacements, when real-life role models are not present:
My parents never really taught me any of these things. I learned most of it from books. Especially, ‘Harry Potter’. Like how the media will manipulate the public by not reporting the truth, which is parallel to our reality. The media are constantly blowing things out of proportion or not reporting the whole truth. Everything is clickbait. The whole thing where the Ministry was ignoring the fact that Voldemort was back because they basically didn’t want to deal with it.
What is emphasized in the above quotation is that fans of the Harry Potter community feel a revelation or change of mind after reading the books.
Fight Against Injustice
Since Harry Potter fans identify themselves with the books’ central protagonist and the stories’ namesake, they thereby engage with a central theme woven through the story, which is social injustice. We see the theme of injustice woven through the whole story like a red thread demanding attention, gravitas. There are injustices against werewolves, against giants, against house-elves, and against non-pure-blood wizards. Prejudice and inequity are major themes in the books that provide a prism and framework in order to see this major thematic reality of all human societies past and present. Fans replied that the fictional fight against the injustice toward minorities gave them the confidence and power to step up and fight against it in the real world:
I think ‘Harry Potter’ taught me to open my eyes to injustice against minorities. I don’t think I would be as sensitive to the amount of prejudice and hatred I see in everyday life if I hadn’t spent my childhood reading about the mistreatment of werewolves and Muggle-borns in the wizarding world.
Along with knowledge of discrimination, fans also said that the Harry Potter series motivated them to address social injustice. They argued that the fictional fight against the injustice against minorities in the novels gave them the confidence and power to address these real-world situations. That to fight for what you believe in is good and right is a key message in the novels. Perhaps some young people learn this message from parents and teachers, but it is extraordinary to think that this message has resounded powerfully through a series of fictional novels to shape a generation into a common ethos that they talk about, cultivate, and share on fansites.
The fight against injustice goes together with multiple other themes the fans marked as important, including the idea that our choices define us and that you need to have a positive attitude. Another significant message is that a person is defined not by what they are born but what they grow up to be:
Standing up for the right things and no matter how bad things get, they can get better and to not give up hope. There are people out there who love and care even if you don’t know they exist yet.
Another female fan from Germany related her Harry Potter experience to a real-world experience:
I remember being the one in school who stopped people bullying a boy with a disability. I stood in front of him and said clearly to stop this shitty asshole attitude this instant. It isn’t funny, it just shows what weak excuses of humans they are. They really stopped, though I had to defend him a few times. I can’t say for sure, but I like to think that ‘Harry Potter’ gave me the courage to stand up to others when something was so clearly wrong. I am really not a Gryffindor, but when I see something that’s wrong, then I will say so. I think ‘Harry Potter’ taught me that among other things.
The Harry Potter novels exemplify the injustice that happens in real life. J.K. Rowling has linked the exile of the werewolves in the books to the injustice of people who suffered from AIDS in the early 1990s. And even now, the political fight being waged by some Americans against Mexicans is very similar to the fight Voldemort made against “Mudbloods.” In fact, the idea of “America First,” used by Donald Trump at his inauguration, sounds very much like “Wizards First” or “Pure-Bloods First,” which was challenged by the character of Kingsley Shacklebolt:
We’re all human, aren’t we? Every human life is worth the same, and worth saving.” (DH 401)
Hearing from fans why Harry Potter is so utterly important to them helps us better understand why these books have influenced their lives and choices on a deep level. A generation that grew up in the middle of this engaging and enchanting story was able to tap into and decipher the ethos and values of these books – between the lines, so to speak– that perhaps non-fans have no idea about. From the survey results of Gierzynski and Seger, we already knew that Harry Potter had a life-changing impact on readers’ tolerance. But my exploration through surveys and group discussions has given a more detailed and holistic explanation of the impact of Harry Potter – its capacity to teach and generate a generational way of life. Perhaps we now know more and can understand why fans keep returning to this story and why they will carry it with them for the rest of their lives.
¹ Gierzynski, Anthony and Julie Seger. “Harry Potter and the Millennials: The Boy‐Who‐Lived and the Politics of a Muggle Generation.” Sociological Theory, 2011.
² Brock, Timothy C., Melanie C. Green, and Jeffrey J. Strange. Narrative Impact: Social and Cognitive Foundations. Psychology Press, 2002.
³ Gabriel, Shira and Ariana F. Young. “Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten: The Narrative Collective‐Assimilation Hypothesis.” Psychological Science, 2011.
⁴ Brough, Melissa and Sangita Shresthova. “Fandom Meets Activism: Rethinking Civic and Political Participation.” Transformative Works and Cultures, 2012.
Chantal Boezaard is a 24-year-old journalism student. She received First Class Honors for her research on the impact of children’s fiction on their political preference at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. The focus of her research was Harry Potter, and her full study is available at https://doingpoliticsthroughhp.wordpress.com/.