So this week’s post is inspired by a twitter conversation. Those are always the best, right? This one was between me and J_Marshak on fandom, and very specifically on what I have noticed in contemporary Harry Potter fandom. That is this: despite the overt signs in the books and movies themselves, there seems to be an increasing number of HP fans – within the fanfiction community at least – who are disturbingly fascist in their views of things.
I’m not going to call out any fanfiction stories or authors here. No one set out, I imagine, to replicate this stuff in HP stories, they merely wrote the best they could. So I don’t want to point specific fingers. However, here are some examples, all real as far as I recall, of things I’ve seen in HP fanfiction that make me twitch a little:
- Harry sneaks into Snape’s room, nails him to a wall in a room hidden in the castle, and leaves him to die with some kind of creeping fungus thing eating him
- And that’s because in the same story, written after all seven books were released, Snape is a psychotic murderer and rapist who uses polyjuice to make Muggle women look like Lily Potter before torturing, raping, and killing them.
- Harry, with no hesitation, blows someone’s head up at point blank range after having disarmed them
- Harry and his friends torture Death Eaters “because they torture people”
I’ll stop there. Now, some people might believe those responses are justified. No ethical code, not even the Code of Hammurabi, has dictated these sorts of terms. At least, none you’ll learn about in any usual philosophy course. They are not ethical actions of retribution, they are the acts of a zealot punishing the supposedly wicked – and in literature and history almost always the actions associated with the villains. Yes, I mean even the thing with Snape and the fungus.
The explanation for that is twofold: first, stopping anyone from any crime is not an excuse to torture them. It doesn’t stop them, it doesn’t repay the families of those who are lost. It satisfies the torturer and that’s about it. The second thing is that Snape’s character is not like that in the books at all – so the change in character, like so many others in fanfiction, is pretty much to justify Harry’s turning cold and murderous. What I’m saying here is that the fascist actions of Harry Potter are the goal of the re-writing, not a reaction to the alterations. The alterations are there to create the new character, because that is perceived by the author and fanbase as more satisfying than the original.
So this subset of Harry Potter fans have a problem with any hero who does not immediately kill anyone perceived as “evil.” There should be no chances to make up for wrongdoing. There is no way out of a problem without violence. Remember that these groups are fans of Harry Potter, the character who wins fights by disarming people. They are dissatisfied with that.
Now, I gave you really extreme examples above. But here’s one that I see so often any more that I’m always surprised when it isn’t in a story, now. The fandom trope is that Dumbledore is either actually feeble-minded (in one story Snape was secretly poisoning him) or pretty much evil himself. He manipulates everyone, lies constantly, and never means anything he says. People believe it is literally impossible for someone to have genuinely wanted to spare someone else’s feelings, and so Dumbledore’s actions in hiding the prophecy must mean he never wanted Harry to know because Harry had to be emotionally stunted.
Now, does Dumbledore manipulate events in the books? Of course. But there is no indication that he does so dishonestly. Manipulation is nothing more or less than convincing events or people to do what you want. You do it when you flash your credit card to a barista. You want a coffee, the barista / the company wants to be paid. That is an act of manipulation on both parties’ parts.
Why is it important that Dumbledore is so often rewritten in this way? Because it inevitably makes Harry absolutely hate or distrust him and almost as inevitably a new mentor appears, this one dedicated to teaching Harry how to be a soldier or duelist, or teach him to use his sudden superpowers. Harry Potter the young man hero, who does things anyone is capable of but no one else would think to do, is not satisfying to the fascist mindset, because anyone could do what he did. The fascist mindset needs a leader to be actually better than everyone else. It’s the only way fascism could actually work, if the leader is morally, athletically, and socially superior in fact as well as in social structure. God-kings must lead us, and if a god-king did lead us, we would be obliged to do what he or she said, because they had basically divine fiat.
Dumbledore is the series’ mouthpiece for a lot of the thematic “lessons,” which are all pretty much humanist: everyone deserves a chance to prove themselves, everyone is different, kindness is the best way to encounter difficulties or strangeness, retribution does nothing but increase or continue the problem, authority must be questioned while experts must be respected, and so on, so on. Harry Potter is, at least on its surface, a paeon to ethical humanism (it’s an interesting question whether its interface with the history of fantasy as a genre undermines that message or not, but one for another time).
So what’s fascinating here is that a portion of the fanbase for this book overtly about one thing construes it, in its portion of fandom, as something opposed to what it actually is. Most fandom is conceived as a filling in of perceptual or thematic gaps – what happened between these two scenes? What if these two characters dated instead of these other two? HP fandom has a history of another kind of procedure, that of correcting the text. This fascist bent is in that mold. The books got it wrong. That’s not how heroes act. And then the fan texts portray how a hero should actually act.
And I am frightened by that picture. I know the fascist-hero is big right now. Several things I like on TV are in this mold, such as the NCIS shows, which have a Doc Savage like character heading a team who will gleefully invoke the Patriot Act whenever possible because they’re doing the right thing and so it’s justified in their case – but if anyone above them gets in their way with the same means they’re villains to be gotten out of office as quickly as possible. Think of how many cop shows portray as bad guys the inter-office teams who investigate cops who wrongfully shoot someone. They’re the bad guys even though their job is literally to make sure the good guys stay good. That can only make sense if the good guys are inherently good, independent of their actions. In the same vein Harry Potter is a good guy because he’s the main character, and he should have been the main character of some books talking about how the use of force is justified in some cases but not others.
I can happily describe this point of view as wrong not because I disagree with it – though I absolutely do – but because it’s inconsistent. As I said a moment ago, force is ok in the hands of some people but not others? Where does this distinction come from? Intention? But every single person’s intention is “good” from their point of view. No one says “I will do evil today” unless they have redefined what evil means.
It’s particularly odd given how much magic has, in the past 100 years of fantasy fiction, become a tool to allow the downtrodden to even the playing field. The knights and courtiers might have all the money, but a dedicated person can learn magic and be just as powerful – and usually moreso. Merlin doesn’t teach a spoiled kid, but Wart (in White’s Sword in the Stone). Harry comes from a poor background precisely because it’s supposed to be intellectually possible for anyone to be good or bad.