“Potterversity” Episode 35: “Rule Breaking as Resistance”
Find out how breaking the rules leads to seeking justice in the wizarding world – and our own.
An early critique of the Harry Potter series complained that Harry, Hermione, and Ron often break the rules and don’t always get in trouble for it. In this episode, Katy and Emily talk with Dr. Beth Sutton-Ramspeck about how seeing the limitations of rules and having the courage to break them prepares the series’ characters for political resistance.
Beth’s new book, Harry Potter and Resistance (Routledge 2023), fully explores these issues. Beth explains how she developed the idea behind her book, how it relates to her earlier work on “literary housekeeping,” and how Harry Potter helped her move beyond scholarly burnout.
We discuss concepts of “dirt” and “cleanliness” in the book series, and how they connect to the desire to clean up society and politics. The Potter books present a complex understanding of the value or dangers of that which is termed “dirty” or “impure.” Cultural rules determine what counts as dirty or clean, and so transgressing such rules can be an act of resistance. On the other hand, in some cases, the act of cleaning is a fundamental act of care for fellow human beings, which is a form of resistance in authoritarian regimes.
The Potter series also embraces ambivalence in that characters are not always entirely good or entirely bad. Emily notes that a central aspect of early Christian ministry involved removing barriers to the supposedly “unclean” and that this was an act of social justice.
Beth notes that resistance is about principled opposition to rules that are unjust. It’s not just about Fred and George nicking food from the kitchens but defying rules that perpetuate inequality and oppression in the wizarding world. We talk about the rule-oriented, unjust forces in magical society and how characters like Cornelius Fudge, Dolores Umbridge, and Argus Filch use rules to entrap and suppress the marginalized.
The wizarding world is built on unjust laws and systems that are open to authoritarian abuse. Beth explains that in such systems, telling the truth is itself an act of political defiance, as we see with Harry when he reports Voldemort’s return. We talk particularly about house-elf rebellion and its difficulties. Dobby makes it clear that house-elves have the capacity for freedom, despite the various restrictions that keep them enslaved.
The Harry Potter books incorporate ideas related to nonviolent resistance that overlap with Martin Luther King Jr.’s concept of creative maladjustment and Ibram X. Kendi’s antiracism writings. Characters like Dobby, Harry, and Hermione are maladjusted to the unjust rules of their society, and this provokes responses that challenge the corrupt dominant culture.
Beth also explains to us how transformative it was for Ron, inheritor of pureblood wizard privilege, to literally walk in Reg Cattermole’s shoes at the Ministry of Magic. Being able to see fictional characters behaving in creatively rebellious ways helps us to see rule-bound injustice in our own society and have the courage and creativity to defy these rules to construct a better world.