A “Harry Potter” Conference… in Your Lap: A Chestnut Hill Recap
This past weekend, the annual Harry Potter Conference took place virtually at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That’s right, virtually. Co-coordinators Dr. Karen Wendling and Dr. Patrick McCauley invited Potter scholars to discuss various aspects and applications of the beloved series over Zoom. Some of the topics included racism within the books, psychological analyses of the characters, and gender representation in Quidditch. A recurring theme in the discussions was Rowling’s recent tweets. McCauley made the point that because of them, the Harry Potter community needed this event to provide a place for fans to discuss their evolved thoughts and associations with the books: “This is the year the conference had to be in place.” And indeed it was: The co-coordinators did a fantastic job putting together a successful event with deep, insightful conversations. Out of all the panels I attended, two stuck out to me.
Ghosts of Fandom Past, Present, and Future: MuggleNet on the Changing Face of Harry Potter Fandom
A panel comprising MuggleNet director Kat Miller and staff Laurie Beckoff, Richa Venkatraman, and Mary Wojcicki was invited to discuss the evolution of the Harry Potter fandom. The presenters credited the change to things like TikTok, “the death of the author,” and the years following the completion of the series.
Since the final novel was released, “fandom lost the ability to think critically about the text, since that’s all we did when the books were coming out,” Miller claimed. However, this hasn’t stopped people from continuing to produce deep analyses, like podcasts and classes. In addition, MuggleNet has been seeing less website activity as the years pass. It’s natural that the number of engaged fans would deplete, but the rise of Malfoy TikToks seems to be replenishing the numbers.
While fans’ interactions with Harry Potter have fluctuated in the past few years, Rowling’s tweets seemed to be the biggest catalyst for changes in the fandom. MuggleNet specifically lost several staff members and volunteers on both sides of the debate because “they didn’t agree with [the site’s] stance or didn’t want to contribute to fandom,” as Miller put it. While this is completely understandable, there are staff members angered by the comments who have continued their affiliation with the site, like Venkatraman, who said, “We can’t separate the creation from the creator, but as a fandom, we are what made Harry Potter what it is because we care so much about it and put so much into it. Making our own versions of the story in our heads is incredibly valuable.”
I think that’s a good idea to sit with.
“You Have Your Mother’s Eyes”: Identity Development in Harry Potter
Dr. Christopher Bell from the University of Colorado discussed underlying issues laced within the text that may not be noticeable for some at first glance.
An interesting idea he brought up is, “When people think about Harry Potter, they think about the characters in terms of the actors that were cast for the movies,” the majority of which are White. When looking at the physical character descriptions in the text, the Weasleys and Luna can be presumed to be White because of their red/blonde hair and blue eyes.
However, other characters are given more ambiguous racial descriptions, including Harry and Hermione. Both major characters are described vaguely enough that readers can envision them with darker skin, but the installation of the movies negatively influenced that. Dr. Bell said, “Whiteness as default is neither necessary nor particularly imaginative.”
In addition to unclear physical descriptions, Rowling based racial conversations in Harry Potter on blood purity, which resurfaces throughout the series. It seems to be tied to socioeconomic status, what with the extremely wealthy pure-blood Malfoys. In contrast, this doesn’t apply to the Weasleys, who are also a pure-blood family. Despite the socioeconomic status of these two families, both are afforded privilege that half-bloods and Muggle-borns are not, one example being protection from racial slurs. “Mudblood” is described as a filthy word used to demean students with Muggle parents, and Lily is deeply offended when Snape uses this language.
In the modern United States, pure-bloods would be labeled as White people, half-bloods as biracial people, and Muggle-borns as people of color. Let that sink in.
Check out the Harry Potter Conference in 2021 for similar conversations with scholars and Potterheads alike.