The Duck of Minerva

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Harry Potter, Social Misfits, and the Popular Crowd

July 16, 2011

Amanda Marcotte (via Zack Beauchamp):

“Harry isn’t a nerd,” I said, “Harry is a jock.” I mean, Harry has an existential crisis that gives him some depth, but social outcast and/or geek he’s not. The opposite, in fact.

I realized then that the “band of misfits” theme has so much power over the American imagination (maybe not the British, which could explain Rowling’s choices) that people just sort of shove Harry and his friends into that mold, and then rely on a handful of rationalizations for it—Harry wears glasses, Hermione is a bookworm, Ron is a redhead—in order for that theory to make sense. We’re used to the X-Men or Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Scooby Gang, so much so that we don’t see that Harry’s trajectory is the inverse of Buffy’s. Buffy is a former cheerleader whose magic powers actually make her a geek and an outcast. Harry is a nobody-special who finds out that he’s special, and becomes not just the star athlete and hero of his school, but an actual celebrity. Sure, there’s ups and downs, but his trajectory is away from being the outcast and towards being the homecoming king.

E.D. Kain provides a more nuanced analysis:

Well…almost. Potter may be a chip off the old block, but he’s not an arrogant bully like his father was. Likewise, Potter may not be an outcast himself but he attracts outcasts. Hagrid, Neville, Luna Lovegood, Dobby – these are all social outcasts attracted to Potter because he gladly welcomes social outcasts into his circle, and because he identifies with them in spite of his own celebrity (or perhaps because of it).

Marcotte uses the Snape/Potter animas as an example of the nerd/jock tension, but I don’t think that holds out either. That mutual hatred was born before Harry was a twinkle in his father’s eye. Snape hates the part of Harry that is a reflection of James. If Snape and Harry were classmates, instead of Snape and James Potter, it’s quite likely things would have gone differently between them.

Nevertheless, I agree with Marcotte’s larger point. Harry is no social outcast himself, even if he doesn’t really recognize his own popularity or use it to gain advantage over others. He’s not your typical pop-culture jock either, or your typical hero. His greatness has been largely thrust upon him. More importantly, his success is almost always thanks to the help of his friends. It is his loyalty and his friendship that defines him and bulwarks him against his enemies, not his role as a jock or an outcast. He is Frodo-like in this regard, doomed to failure without the faithful Sam to carry his burden for him.

I want to expand on this a bit further: Rowling consistently pushes the theme that our choices, not our “natures,” define us. Social environment matters a great deal, but can also be overcome by the decisions we make. What Snape cannot recognize is that Harry is a counterfactual James (and even James, despite his character flaws, chooses the right side). Harry grows up bullied, marginalized, and abused. Rather than adopting–as so many would under his circumstances–the role of bully and abuser, he develops a profound sense of compassion and humility. Recall that what shocks Harry so much about seeing Snape’s past (during Occlumency lessons) is that it echoes his own torment at the hands of Dudley.

Indeed, Harry repeatedly rejects the opportunities afforded him by his new-found fame, wealth, and athletic prowess. Consider the first two choices he makes in The Philosopher’s Stone: to turn down Malfoy’s offer of friendship and the chance to be in Slytherin house. Griffindor may be for the brave of heart, but that group includes Ron and Neville; neither of whom seem, at first brush, preordained for courageous feats. In this respect, he’s closer to Buffy than Marcotte recognizes: Buffy also (in the Pilot) aligns herself with the outcasts and nerds.

I think, in another important respect, Marcotte gets it wrong: Slytherin is not the “nerd house,” but that of those willing to let nothing stand in the way of greatness. Snape is a nerd and an outcast, but that’s not why he is in Slytherin. After all, Luna is sorted into Ravenclaw. Hermione is a Gryffindor. Let’s not forget that until magical dentistry and her appearance at the ball, Hermione suffers constant ridicule for her mousy appearance and nerdy disposition. My memory may be off here, but although Hermione emerges from adolescence as a rather attractive girl, she’s never presented as stunningly beautiful. In other words, we should avoid conflating the Hermione of the books with Emma Watson.

My central point is not that Harry Potter is a nerd, but that he is a misfit–by choice. Harry does complicate Marcotte’s distinctions, as Kain notes. But perhaps Marcotte, not popular culture, is responsible for drawing such stark alternatives? After all, the X-Men, contra Marcotte, had popular, rich, and attractive members in their shifting ranks.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.