Parkland Teens Prove Harry Potter Might Yet Save The World

Backlashes, man. Social media is the perfect breeding ground for them. In the weeks after Donald Trump was inaugurated I saw an interesting backlash happen, one that really disappointed me.

People began comparing the incoming Trump administration to Voldemort and other evil characters from the Harry Potter series, and they began talking about themselves and “The Resistance” in relation to Dumbledore’s Army. It seemed great to me, but there were a whole group of cranks who would tell people to read other books or to stop making some simplistic comparisons.

That backlash was disappointing. It comes from a mix of cultural snobbery and misogyny (my anecdotal belief is that vocal Harry Potter fandom leans towards the female, although there are plenty of men and boys who love the series as well), and it misunderstands the very nature and purpose of pop culture… or culture in general.

But the Parkland teens get it. I read these tweets by Time Magazine reporter Charlotte Alter and I saw the power of pop culture reflected back at me:

 

 

 

 

A couple of things:

I think Harry Potter, as a whole, is a monumental work that will be remembered for generations to come, and I absolutely love it and the world JK Rowling created. I just want to get that out of the way.

But even if Harry Potter wasn’t good, this would be good. This would be powerful, because this would remind us of why art matters. Why culture matters. Why stories matter. They give us ways to look at the world, ways to shape our understanding of events and ways to understand how to react and how to behave.

One of the great things stories and art can do is make us feel included or seen – we can watch a movie or read a book and see our own stories reflected back at us. This is why so many people are fighting for inclusion in Hollywood, because of how powerful it is when people who feel marginalized can see their own faces and their own stories playing back to them. It makes them feel like they’re part of something, like their own story matters. We’ve all had this experience, watching a movie and having a character go through things we’ve gone through (even if it’s in a wild, metaphorical genre way) and we’ve felt less alone in the world.

But that’s only half the point of art and stories. The other half is to offer us guidance in difficult times. This has been, for the last few decades, the less popular use for stories, especially movies – we like to see dark and difficult things, we like our heroes to be sullied and broken, we like the moral grey zone for our antiheroes. But the pendulum has been swinging back in the past few years, and Harry Potter has been part of that movement.

This has always been the place of stories in the world. In fact, stories were invented as a way of passing on knowledge and wisdom from one generation to the next. Your ancient hunter-gatherer society told stories to explain where to find the best foraging spots, or how to kill an antelope, or how to survive a winter. They also told stories to make themselves feel better – why they, as a people, were the greatest in the valley, perhaps, or their special relationship with the gods – but the very origins of storytelling were probably practical in nature.

We’ve used stories in this way for millennia. Nobody bats an eye at comparing a current political or social situation to something Biblical, or a Greek myth. We’ve actually added the Greek myths to our language as shorthand – a task is sisyphean, you wear clothes (cloth comes from Clotho of the Fates), you are inspired by a muse, you think this essay is about you because you’re a narcissist – and we’ve done similar with Shakespeare. If we called the Trump administration Shakespearean, or compared him to Richard III, or compared his mob of supporters to events in CORIOLANUS, nobody would complain. They would perhaps be impressed by your smarts. Because they fundamentally understand that this is why we have stories.

This, by the way, is why we have conspiracy theories – they’re attempts to impose stories on the chaos (comes from the Greek mythological Khaos) of the out of control modern world.

What’s the difference between Shakespeare and Potter? Or between the Greek myths and Potter? Near as I can tell: age. Potter, a narrative that appeals to all people in society, from the upper class to the less educated, is new. Shakespeare, whose plays had to first entertain the hoi polloi in the Globe’s floor seats, appealed to all levels of society. Greek myths were told to all levels of society, and needed to be understood by all. The same with the myths of the Old Testament, which grew out of the stories nomadic desert people told themselves.

There could be arguments made about quality, at least when it comes to Shakespeare, and I’ll grant you that as a writer Shakespeare was unimpeachable. Rowling wasn’t writing in iambic pentameter, after all. But what’s the quality of Greek myth? So few of the myths exist in any solid form, and the ones that do – The Iliad and The Odyssey – are oral traditions that passed through many mouths before being finalized in written form. It has thousands of authors, generations of storytellers adding language and eliding elements, the world’s biggest writer’s room. Get back to me in a few hundred years when Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has been through this many interpretations and editions and changes and tweaks and we’ll compare it.

“It’s the singer, not the song,” is a thing you’ll hear, but I think with stories it can be the other way around. Even if you hate the way Rowling writes there’s no denying the way that her story has resonated, and it’s resonated across generations. As a Gen Xer I came to Potter as an adult and, once I had made it through the more kiddie-oriented first two books, found a story that spoke to not just my teenaged experience but also the world in which I live now. It spoke to the Millennials who were raised alongside the books, aging each year with Rowling’s heroes, going from kid lit to YA to monstrous big adult books by the end. And now it’s speaking to the next generation, to kids who were born into a world where there has always been a Hogwarts. And it’s offering them guidance.

There’s one other thing that Harry Potter, like all great stories that speak to wide swaths of people, does: it offers a common language. Especially today, in a continuously fragmented world of pop cultural niches, Harry Potter offers a base point from which we can all talk. We all get the references, even if we haven’t read the books. It’s like Spider-Man, Batman and Darth Vader – these characters become iconic symbols that exist beyond their canonical stories and represent ideas that we can easily exchange with one another. Putting the Imperial March over footage of GOP senators walking down the aisle in Congress is not just funny, it gives us immediate information and quickly communicates with us. It’s shorthand, and it’s another piece of the pop culture puzzle – these things connect us.

To complain that people are using culture that you don’t like to understand their worlds and to communicate is small-minded in the extreme. I get the ways that the internet can make anything annoying – it has made bacon irritating, for god’s sake – but sometimes we need to bow to the enormity of the ways a story speaks to people, and how they speak using the story.

For me it’s beautiful. It’s the whole point of this blog – I believe that our popular culture has lessons and wisdom that can be used to live better lives. Sometimes our pop culture is just fun, or silly, or helps pass the time, but when it’s at its best our pop culture makes us feel seen, gives us ideals to which we can aspire, gives meaning to the events of our lives and allows us a common language to talk about the world and how we feel in it. That’s powerful stuff, that’s meaningful stuff, that’s the reason we tell each other stories.