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Harry Potter 5, Contemporary Politics & Cultural Studies for Kids

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J. K. Rowling’s latest Harry Potter offering certainly covers a lot of ground but, I suppose, that’s not a huge surprise for a 766 page book aimed primarily at children! I confess I enjoyed the first four books of the series as a bit of a guilty sin. The stories are quite gripping and Rowling has an interesting mix of fantasy elements, major borrowings from literary sources, and a sufficiently new spin to engage a global audience. However, as a few members of the Discipline of English, Communication and Cultural Studies of which I am a postgrad student, have reminded me of how bad the grammar is and how a whole generation of children are being taught to stick ‘ly’ on the end of every third word! However, two things struck me most about this latest book: firstly, that it engages so directly with real world politics; and secondly, (building on the first somewhat), that Rowling has been able to develop a media awareness in children that Cultural Studies has been looking to develop since its inception.

I think I read an article somewhere about The Order of the Phoenix dealing with real politics, but I can’t find it, so perhaps it was my imagination. However, I would say, such an assertion would be spot on. Dolores Umbridge, to my mind at least, embodies the particularly worrying trends in US politics. She is creating new rules to suit her increasingly fascist reign (can anyone say the ironically named US Patriot act?). She is completely intolerant of ‘others’ (symbolically through her hatred of the “half-breeds” such as Hagrid). She usurps the powers of the seemingly just in the world, like the United States’ disregard for the UN (Umbridge [US] takes over Dumbledore’s [UN] school and, for a time, forcing him to leave). And, through the Slytherin-filled Inquisitorial Squad, we see the danger of laws which empower certain views over others and then police those views. Incidentally, the Inquisitorial squad also reminds us of the Spanish Inquisition (in its more monstrously real form rather than the Monty Python one). So, in many ways, The Order of the Phoenix actually felt like a critique of contemporary politics, to me!

The gift that Rowling has given Cultural Studies, though, is definitely the biggest bonus from the book’s release. One of the biggest difficulties and trauma’s for Cultural Studies is how to communicate a critical perspective on media to children, especially younger children. Given that media, such as TV and the internet, are becoming part of children’s lives earlier and earlier, it is of critical import that they be prepared to analyse what they see and not passively consume it, nor take it all to be true. In The Order of the Phoenix, one of the issues that Harry, Hermoine and Ron face every day is the Ministry of Magic is influencing the national Magic Newspaper, The Daily Prophet, and the paper is continually lying about Harry Potter. Thus, to my mind, a whole generation of children are getting to see how media works: if Harry Potter can be misrepresented in the newspaper, and so many children would understand how hard that was for Harry, then they are already somewhat forewarned about the power and politics of the media. Moreover, using that as a basis, getting primary school age students to think critically about media will, I suspect, be much easier. Looking critically at the media is always important, and I’m very impressed that Rowling has given teachers a new and powerful tool to use in teaching that important lesson.

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  • Alex

    Although I have not read Harry Potter, what I have read about the new book makes me think your US/UN analogy is backwards.

    Wasn’t the split between Harry/Dumbledore & Umbridge over the threat that Voldemort posed? Umbridge (UN) denied the threat and ridiculed/persecuted Harry & co. (US) for believing it and trying to do something about it. It seems to be more of a statement against stale bureaucratic inertia than a shot at John Ashcroft. Wanting to attack a problem head on is certainly not a quality that makes me think of the UN.

  • Tama

    Alex, I see your point about the US/UN analogy. However, I guess I saw Umbridge’s hatred and persecution of ‘half-breeds’ and numerous ‘others’ in a similar light to US (& “coalition of the willing”) attacks on Iraq and the so-called “Axis of Evil” states. I guess the Voldermort character to me reinforces that there are always some forms of evil that must be fought, but that in the Harry Potter world what ‘s ‘really evil’ is being confused with what we irrationally fear and thus persecute (and the UN, after all, has been involved in many a conflict). I still find Dumbledore to be a very UN type character …

  • Gloria

    I agree with Alex, however I would compare Dumbledore to Prime Minister Blair,Harry and co to the UK. I also tend to see Hagrid as more of a symbol of the U.S./Bush, although he is not the brightest of characters( even our allies tend to think that our people our little dim, especially Bush), he is brave and his heart is in the right place.