Harry Potter the Jock

I’m going to write a few posts about Harry Potter in anticipation of seeing the latest, and final, film.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Amanda Marcotte has a smart observation about Harry Potter and his band of non-misfits:

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.

She goes on to list the evidence: Harry is captain of the Quidditch team; his girlfriend is beautiful and popular; Hermione is also beautiful and popular (if bookish) and dates a major international Quidditch superstar; Harry’s father, James, was similarly popular and both his parents were attractive and well-liked; and so on and so forth.

“Let’s face it,” writes Marcotte, “if “The Social Network” took place at Hogwarts, Mark Zuckerberg would be in Slytherin and the Winklevoss twins would be in Gryffindor.  Case closed.”

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.

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27 thoughts on “Harry Potter the Jock

  1. And, even though the Weasleys are poor and red-haired, they become prefects and head boys. That’s genuine status. Fred and George mock Percy for it because he’s a prat, but they wouldn’t mock Bill or Charlie.

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  2. He’s a social outcast for about half of the 2nd book, a few months of the 4th book, all of the 5th book and all of the 7th book – that’s about half the series.

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      • The Ministry was having the Daily Prophet write that he was nuts/an attention-seeker, everyone (except the DA) thought he was lying about Voldemort being back, the Ministry did their level best to have him expelled, and after Dumbledore was forced out Umbridge and the Slytherins were basically running the school.

        And in the 7th book he was Undesirable #1, being blamed for Dumbledore’s death, and was being hunted down by the government, which I think qualifies pretty well as being an outcast.

        One of the themes of the books seems to be that public opinion is very, very fickle, so the student body and the wizarding world as a whole switch back and forth a lot between loving Harry and hating him. And Harry, being a sensible person, doesn’t put much stock in fame based on who he is – the fact that he surviving the Killing Curse, but enjoys any respect he gains based on his own achievements (such as his flying ability).

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        • I think there’s a significant difference between having one’s reputation stained and being a social outcast. I mean, right now someone like the former gubernator of California has a stained reputation but is hardly qualified to be called a social outcast.

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    • Yeah, I’m with E.D. here. Harry was definitely a jerk during the 5th (the proverbial “adolescent” section of the series) and was ragged on by the tabloids, but this is also the book that he forms the D.A., fights the insidious Umbridge, and saves Mr. Weasley’s life. By the end, Harry, Dumbledore, and co. have been proven correct, as it is clear to everybody that Voldemort is back. So I wouldn’t call him a social outcast for the book because, for the most part, people respect him and realize how much pain he is going through, even if they can’t understand it themselves.

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  3. > Snape hates the part of Harry that is a reflection of James.

    Nitpick. Snape hates Harry because he’s a constant reminder that Lily chose the rich, privileged, popular jackass James over his (in his own mind) more genuine affections.

    It ties into why Snape is willing to play the role he does: Snape hates himself.

    Something counter to the “band of misfits” theme. None of the misfits (even Hagrid!) has too much trouble getting the girl/guy. The only spurned lover in the series is Snape.

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    • Lily cared for Snape for a long time- maybe longer than she should have. She didn’t break with him because he was nerdy, or poor, or had a bad family life- it’s because he was a goddamn Death Eater in training. Snape would always love Lily, but that love wasn’t enough to turn him away from his path. James cared about Lily too- enough to become a better person. But the book doesn’t talk much about why Lily picked James over other people, even though it’s obvious why she selected him over snape, because the book’s not about James or Lily.

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  4. Reading these books to my kids when they were younger, I always thought of HP as the quintessential British Heroes story. Despite the anti-anti-mudblood plot lines, everybody in the story seems to be locked in their role and their eventual status by bloodlines.

    An American written HP would have had characters rise, fall, be heroes or villains based on other things.

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    • Pure-blood:
      Weasleys
      Neville
      Malfoys (and other assorted Death Eaters)
      Sirius and the other marauders

      Half-blood:
      Harry
      Snape
      Voldy

      Muggle-born:
      Hermione

      How do those categories reflect role or status?

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      • I have read I don’t know how many adventure stories of various kinds to my kids over the years, and there is a fundamental difference in British Heroes and American Heroes that I think reflects what the different cultures have historically thought made a man great.

        The British heroes, especially the children’s and folk heroes, have traits and destines that are directly related to bloodline; this doesn’t necessarily mean class. British stories that I read my kids just always seem to have the hero be some kind of deposed king-nobleman-figure (often deposed as a baby so unaware of their destiny), who in the adventure regains his birthright. (In a way in fact, the purpose of the adventure is to show that blood rises as it should.)

        British heroes are heroes because their father’s were, whether they knew them or not. In fact, a strong cliche in British tales is to have the hero be a lost scion; the hero is a Good Man because he was raised by the commoners, but he becomes a Great Man because of his bloodline. (Think Arthur or Aragorn for example.)

        Most other characters are to a certain extent trapped to follow whatever role their blood lines dictate. So, in HP for example, Ron is a faithful goofy guy with his heart in the right place. Malfoy is kind of a villain, but mostly cravenly so. For most of the characters, even the minor ones, the strength of character and wisdom of choice seem pre-destined because of the blood that conceived them. And while most stories have exceptions to this they are the exception and usually fill the side-kick role (e.g.: Sirius to Harry’s Dad); they are never the hero.

        American stories my kids read were totally different. American heroes might well have started out scoundrels or thieves or low-lifes or the humble son of an Iowa farmer, but there didn’t have to be a bloodline that made their ascent acceptable. Usually they are just gifted kids/men that succeed because they are more skilled or more clever than everyone else.

        Cultures make the heros they want to see.

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  5. Well, yes, most Gryffindors _are_ jocks. Or, at least, wish to be jocks. (You’re pretty clearly sorted by what you want to be, not what you actually are.) Gryffindors crave the roar of the crowd, the rush of success. You can very clearly see it in Ron.

    It’s a bit hidden in Hermione, because she want to win accolades _academically_. Which is what separates her from Ravenclaws, who want ‘knowledge’, not ‘get better grades than other people’. This is not normally classified as ‘jocks’, but it’s same sort of mindset. Training fifty hours a week, studying fifty hours a week, same thing.

    And with Harry, he’s happy to just be even moderately respected, unlike how his ‘family’ treats him. And is why he’s so like Voldemort and almost sorted into Slytherin, which is where people go who demand ‘respect’ for who they are, instead of what they do. I.e, they both might want to be famous, but Gyffindors would want to be, for example, movie stars, whereas Slytherins would want to be politicians.

    In fact, Harry Potter is perhaps the most _positive_ portray of jocks there. None of the current ones are bullies. The closest is someone like Cormac, who is just overly demanding of his teammates.

    The Maruaders, OTOH, _do_ appear to be bullies, of a fairly mild variety.

    And there’s another outcast in the series beside Snape…Luna, who seems to be teased by her dormmates because she has some sort of emotional issue that keeps her from ever getting angry or depressed. And hence, apparently, she can be teased with no repercussions, as she doesn’t get upset about it.

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      • I think I was pretty clearly a Ravenclaw even at 11.

        And being in Hufflepuff would have at least one advantage. They are, after all, very friendly over in Hufflepuff…so I suspect all of them get laid by graduation. Someone should write a fanfic where they’re all basically hippies. ;)

        It’s kinda funny how most people in fandom think about the houses. Harry’s perception of them is sorta bland. He likes Gryffindor, and doesn’t like Slytherin, and doesn’t know much about the others. This is clearly silly, but it’s what happens in a viewpoint book.

        Then others flip it around, make Slytherin the ‘misfits’, and work from there, but that’s even sillier than taking Harry’s observations at face value. Slytherin is where all the extremely rich and powerful purebloods end up, it’s like writing about all those poor misfit legacy students attending Yale. Huh?

        Yes, we have the Marauders, so it’s not impossible, but there’s class issues there I suspect most non-English readers are missing. Snape wasn’t a misfit because he was in Slytherin, and wasn’t in Slytherin because he was a misfit. He was in Slytherin for exactly the same reason that Voldemort was, and for exactly the same reason Harry almost was…his home life was horrible, and he wanted some respect, _any_ respect, as a human being.

        And they ignore the other houses. Where are the Ravenclaws who attempt to learn a little too much forbidden knowledge? Slytherin would play with the Dark Arts to conquer the world…Ravenclaws would play with them _because they’re there_. (Surely scientific experimentation doesn’t count as ‘evil’, right? Famous last thoughts.)

        And where are the Hufflepuffs who are _wrongly_ loyal? I’ve actually seen a few that postulated Umbridge was a Hufflepuff, who was loyal to ‘the government’, whoever that was and however wrong or horrifically evil it was, and that makes a twisted amount of sense.

        I’m sure such fanfics exist (There are more than half a million Harry Potter fanfics on fanfiction.net.), but, statistically, of the fanfics that try to make a point the houses, something like 75% seem to be ‘Gryffindors are heros, Slytherins are villians’, and another 20% seem to be ‘Slytherins are misunderstood, Gryfinddors are jerk jocks’.

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  6. Marcotte’s analysis, I think, misfires. Yes, indeed, Harry is a jock, and he enters the wizarding world with some big advantages–wealth, and the legend of being the Boy Who Lived. But he spent ten of his first eleven years in a world where those advantages counted for nothing, and he’s always well aware that they’re irrelevant to his deepest needs: to find the love, friendship and family he’d never had, and to set his moral purpose. Moreover, and this is key, Harry’s obsessions increasingly take him beyond the school culture; from at least *Order of the Phoenix* forward his focus is on Voldemort, not on school politics. His leadership of Dumbledore’s Army doesn’t refute that; he’s a reluctant leader, and the DA isn’t a proper school club, but [in Molly Weasley’s dismissive term] a “teen-age gang,” a student rebellion, as much against the government as against the school administration. Even as it maintains the school framework, *Harry Potter* becomes less and less a school series. Insofar as his fellow students accept him as a leader, he leads them ultimately into an elemental life-and-death struggle that breaks the bounds of Hogwarts.

    Other parts of her analysis ring false. Ginny is attractive to guys, but I don’t see her as at all “popular” in the usual Heathers sense; her attraction to Harry is as the feisty lady jock who doesn’t take any guff and who’s willing to put up with a guy who Rowling rightly calls “a pretty scary boyfriend.” Hermione beautiful? Emma Watson is beautiful, but the Hermione of the books is a bit dowdy, uninterested in spending a lot of time on her personal appearance, and a bit slouchy from carrying all those books. She’s rather distant from most of her fellow female students, except for Ginny. Yes, there’s Viktor Krum, but he’s a visitor from Central Europe, totally outside the school culture, and sees something in her no one else does; despite that, in the end she’s unwilling to play the arm-candy game.

    All told, it’s dangerous trying to shove Harry and the gang into a genre like this. Rowling plays with genres, but the magic comes from her ability to at once blend disparate genres together and to transcend them.

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  7. Not unusually for Marcotte, she completely misses the point and bungles her facts. The only points at which popularity is remotely discussed in the book is in regard to Cedric Diggory being popular. I was never under the impression that Ginny was popular and Hermione was most definitely unpopular in school. This is stated more than once. Harry and his friends become outcasts when they try to tell the truth about Voldemort and by the end of the series are far more concerned with events outside of their school than within it. Popularly doesn’t matter to them.

    Frankly, the comparison of a small British private school, with a total of 200 students, to an American public high school is absurd cultural chauvinism. These are not really comparable situations, no matter how much she tries to squeeze them into that mold.

    The real conflict in HP has nothing to do with popularity or jocks/nerds but between social classes. Harry is born of a half-wizard woman, Hermione from muggles. Ron is of “pure blood” but his family is poor. Their enemies are not the jocks or in crowd, but the “pure bloods” of the old wizarding families. It’s a struggle between the privileged kids of the aristocracy and the kids of the common folk who rise according to their merit.

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  8. You could also say that the “outcasts” Harry attracts aren’t outcasts in the American “too hip for the room” sense, but more like “the last true knight in a corrupt kingdom”. They’re outcasts because they’re holding fast to the old ideals of honor and justice, and the New Modern Age Of Wizardry is all about equivocation and making deals and coming to terms.

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