Book Review: “Harry Potter and Resistance” by Beth Sutton-Ramspeck
Harry Potter has inspired resistance in more ways than one since its publication, and Beth Sutton-Ramspeck’s new book provides a deep, interdisciplinary, and multifaceted approach to resistance within – and against – the story. Having written most of the book before the Harry Potter author’s Twitter controversies, Sutton-Ramspeck addresses them in the preface but spends more time engaging with scholars who have criticized the series for being conservative and supportive of the status quo. While she acknowledges the lack of radical social upheaval in the wizarding world – and sometimes contradictory portrayals of resistance – she primarily explores how resistance lies at the core of Harry’s story in both organized movements against authoritarianism and individual defiance of cultural norms.
Harry Potter and Resistance uses a wealth of critical theory from various fields as well as current events all the way through the Trump presidency and the COVID pandemic. The extensive bibliography, which includes both classics of political philosophy and contemporary studies in emerging fields, is a testament to the deep level of research that went into this book, making it a crash course in social theory, though not necessarily as inviting a read for the average fan. This is a volume for readers eager to dive deep into not only Potter but also the civil rights movement, numerous branches of feminism, and the relatively new field of “disgust studies.”
While the word “resistance” will likely bring to mind the Order of the Phoenix and Dumbledore’s Army, Sutton-Ramspeck also examines more subtle and abstract forms of resistance, from breaking laws of society and magic to defying ideas of normalcy and purity. She finds resistance embedded in questions of cleanliness, truth, tradition, and creativity; in the daily lives and actions of the characters; and in the very fabric of the magical world, uncovering the nuances of rule breaking when it is done in different scenarios by different characters, both heroes and villains.
Ron, who tends to be much less prominent in scholarship than his best friends, receives a decent amount of attention as the only member of the trio raised among wizards, who learns to grow from his internalized prejudices. Considering house-elves through a feminist lens, Sutton-Ramspeck pushes back against the accusation that the series condones slavery, taking a close look at Dobby and domestic labor. Her careful analysis of language connected to dirt reveals prejudices deeply embedded in both Muggle and magical society. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s concept of “creative maladjustment” offers an intriguing perspective on the merits of discomfort and imagination in the struggle to build a better world.
Sutton-Ramspeck’s most compelling argument lies in the value of the complexity of the series and its depiction of resistance. She examines rules, dirt, gender, house-elves, and honesty from many angles, engaging thoughtfully with criticism of the series and considering the different meanings and messages readers have gleaned from the books. By leaning into the moral ambiguity and unresolved issues of the series, she gets to the heart of what makes Harry Potter so hard to resist. Perhaps when it comes to the pull of Harry Potter, resistance is futile.
Harry Potter and Resistance, published by Routledge Books, is available now.