There’s nothing like Harry Potter. Literally nothing.
With the possible exception of Star Wars, I can’t think of a single fiction that has made more of an impact in the past 100 years. The four Hogwarts houses, “muggle,” and “death eater” are English dictionary terms now. J.K. Rowling’s work has birthed sports, religions, and entire genres of literature.
And yet, over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a marked shift in the way people talk about Harry Potter. Maybe it’s because the people who grew up with the series are adults now, and are beginning to look at their childhood passions with a more critical eye. Maybe it’s because of the relentless bad behavior of Rowling herself, from trying to retroactively add diversity to the series to blithely appropriating Native American myths to openly endorsing gender essentialism.
Or maybe it’s all because Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was so bad. I don’t know for sure, but it’s clear to me that it’s time to have the discussion about whether Harry Potter deserves the influence it wields. I thought I’d throw my two cents into the debate with a few reasons the Potterverse deserves to remain relevant, and a few reasons it should be consigned to the literary dustbin.
Why We Still Need Harry Potter
1. It’s a relevant political and social allegory.
Is there ever going to be a time when battles between good and evil aren’t relevant? Only when we run out of evil, and that’s as unlikely to happen as us running out of good.
So Harry Potter doesn’t map perfectly onto any real-world struggles. Who cares? It was never trying to. Instead, the books teach kids an important truth: that a few people in the world straight-up suck, and that makes it all the more crucial for the rest of us to stick together.
As ridiculous as it is to claim that Harry Potter is Holocaust literature, it is true that Voldemort and the racist fifth column he leads are the first form in which many children encounter evil. I particularly remember the scene in which Dumbledore explains to Harry what the protection of his parents’ love really means, and how important it is when fighting Death Eaters that you not start thinking like them.
With an ever-growing menu of hateful ideologies out there to corrupt young people, prioritizing love is a non-trivial message. In the U.K. where Rowling started to write, with Margaret Thatcher barely in the rearview, the idea of caring for people regardless of their origin was even more relevant — and has proven prescient in the Brexit era.
Harry Potter expresses its positive values in other surprisingly prescient ways. Harry never demonstrates a whiff of toxic masculinity. The fact that his signature spell painlessly disarms his enemies makes him something of a precursor to Steven Universe. The use of Dementors as an allegory for clinical depression also holds up, with Harry seeking out therapy from Professor Lupin rather than toughing it out.
Also, it works. Research shows that people who read Harry Potter display more empathy and less prejudice than those who don’t. Basically, it’s the opposite of Fox News. Isn’t that reason enough to keep it around?
2. Rowling’s behavior should not influence how we read the books.
The concept of “death of the author” is controversial, but it applies here. To avoid getting too jargon-y about something I don’t fully understand myself, “death of the author” is the idea in postmodern literary criticism that the author’s intentions are irrelevant to the meaning of a text. Instead of trying to decode what the author was trying to do, we should look only at the words themselves.
Yes, J.K. Rowling has repeatedly espoused colonialist and trans-exclusionary views in public forums. But the whole basis of modern literary criticism is that books can hold meaning not imbued by their authors. Jane Austen probably never intended for anyone to apply Marxist theory to her books, and Shakespeare didn’t write Twelfth Night as queer lit, but both of their bodies of work are elevated by those interpretations.
Fuck J.K. Rowling. She may have written Hogwarts as a TERF utopia for magical aristocrats, but she can’t make any of us read it that way.
3. They are still really good books in a lot of ways.
It’s easy to forget that it’s been 13 years since a mainstream Harry Potter book was published. In that time, the Discourse surrounding them has grown so fervent that it often eclipses the actual events in the story — which is a shame, because it’s well-told.
Each Harry Potter book combines a dramatic plot with charming slices of wizard life, featuring a cast of characters that leap off the page. There are hair-raising twists (who can forget the first time they read It was Quirrell?), boo-hiss villains, stomach-churning setbacks, and plenty of humor. The installments are anything but formulaic: after realizing that Chamber of Secrets hewed a little too closely to the story beats of Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling never repeated the same plot twice.
What I mostly remember about Harry Potter, though, is the detours. The books don’t have dramatic, tightly wound plots that race toward the finish line, and I am completely OK with that. It’s the little things that make them unforgettable to me.
The magical closet filled with the garbage of a thousand years of Hogwarts students. The Weasley Twins spending all of Goblet of Fire blackmailing a magical gambling commissioner. The Three Amigos having a casual conversation while firing pillows across a classroom. Everything about Quidditch. Everything about Luna Lovegood. The scene from the Prisoner of Azkaban movie with the Gryffindor boys popping chocolates that make them roar like wild animals.
It’s imaginative. Gloriously so. It doesn’t always make sense, but that’s imagination for you. I see too few books like that in today’s brutalist publishing world.
You can argue that the prose is a bit workmanlike, but I didn’t notice that on the first read-through, and neither did you. The very fact that we’re still talking about Harry Potter proves that the books are damn good. Good books should have a place in society.
4. Harry Potter is proven to get kids reading.
A blog post featured on Potter fansite the-leaky-cauldron.org describes in detail how Harry Potter almost single-handedly reversed a decline in the world’s readership. Prior to the Potter phenomenon, reading books had become a niche hobby, with children and teens especially almost never reading unless forced to by school.
After Potter hit, that trend was reversed. Reading was cool again. Teens were racing home after school to pick up books. Once they’d read the covers off their Harry Potter books, they went to libraries and bookstores and looked for other stories that would make them feel the same way.
For so many of us, this series opened the door to the entire world of books. It happened to me too. I remember I didn’t enjoy reading as a child because I thought Roald Dahl was the only author in existence, and his weirdly gruesome kiddie revenge fantasies failed to grab me.
Hogwarts was different. It felt like a world that was mine, even though I knew it belonged to millions of other kids too. For a kid who shared a room with his brother until the age of 16, that was not a small thing.
5. It’s possible to acknowledge that a work is problematic and still get positive things out of it.
When I was editing the opinion page of the Whitman College Wire, one of my regular contributors wrote an excellent column about her complicated relationship with Gone With the Wind. It was her favorite book as a teenager, and despite now understanding how deeply racist and sexist it is, she found herself unable to let go of her happy memories of the story.
I agree that, as you grow older, it’s proper to re-evaluate the things you loved as a child. It’s rare, though, that anyone can let go of those things completely, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. A book you read and love when you’re young is part of you. You can no more negate its influence than you can forget a memory on purpose — it’ll only come back stronger in the end.
Instead, it’s best to critically interrogate how the story influenced you, and keep the good lessons you learned while casting off the bad. Many of us Potter fans are learning to do that in real time, thanks to Rowling’s ever-escalating personal shittiness. In fact, it’s because we internalized the Potter saga’s messages of tolerance and love that we’re now able to understand the coldness of some of its other messages.
6. The Potter fandom is bigger than J.K. Rowling or the original canon.
If I had to pick only one reason we shouldn’t cancel Harry Potter at the same time we cancel its author, it would be this.
The Star Trek fandom invented the modern art of fanfiction, but the Harry Potter fandom perfected it. There are concepts for Potter fics that have evolved into entire genres of their own. There are what-ifs, do-overs, time-travel fics, missing-moment fics, and every imaginable ship.
Once, my brother, my cousin, and I got on Fanfiction.net (this was in the days before AO3) and tried to find the most outlandish Harry Potter slash on the internet. After wading through the usual suspects — Harry/Hermione, Harry/Draco, Neville/Luna, Dumbledore/Grindelwald, James/Sirius/Remus — we discovered an imagined letter sent from Professor McGonagall to Hagrid’s brother Grawp, begging him to satisfy her animal lusts. That’s when we decided to back off and read some HP/Super Mario Bros crossover fic instead.
Potter fics have taken on lives of their own. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality spawned a radical fanbase and a new movement for “rational” fiction (while I hate that story with an intense passion, I can’t deny its influence). Dumbledore’s Army and the Year of Darkness showed how a different tone can have an enormous influence on the basic Potter tropes. The Draco Trilogy launched the career of another famous YA author, Cassandra Clare. And who could forget My Immortal, a sprawling, nuanced epic famous for its unflinchingly real portrayals of teenage sexuality?
I’ve met people who’ve read so many Potter fics that they can’t even remember what happened in the original books. That’s as it should be. Stories, once sent out into the world, don’t belong to their authors anymore. By desperately trying to remain master of her universe (see point #3 below), Rowling is only making that more clear.
Storytelling is not about devotion to a canon — it’s about how we make these tales our own. Harry Potter now belongs to too many people to cancel outright. It’s those fans, not J.K. Rowling, who will build us a better Hogwarts.
Why Harry Potter Should Be Forgotten
1. The politics in the story are vastly oversimplified.
While it’s now popular to interpret it allegorically, Harry Potter was never written as an allegory, and it shows. Saying “Voldemort is Donald Trump!” misses the fact that Trump came into power due to a perfect storm of social and political factors we still don’t fully understand. Meanwhile, Voldemort came to power because he’s the child of rape and therefore incapable of love (Yeah, that’s not great either, but we’ll get to it in a minute).
Remus Lupin claims that “the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters,” but in Harry Potter, it is. Every time a character is opposed to the protagonists, you can count the chapters until they join the wizard Nazis: Lucius Malfoy, Draco Malfoy, Walden MacNair, Umbridge, Snape…by the end, the only reason the Dursleys aren’t Death Eaters is that they don’t have wands.
To be fair, there are a few characters with moral complexity, but on the whole, everyone who was good at the start is good at the end. Same with the bad — Dudley and Narcissa are the closest things we get to a heel-face turn.
What’s worse than that: everybody who disagrees with Harry is ultimately proven to be, if not evil, then at least wrong. Schoolmates, teachers, government officials…across seven books, I can count on one hand the number of times someone is allowed to have a legitimate grievance against Harry (to give Rowling some credit, one of those times is when Ron calls him out for being blind to the privilege Harry derives from his enormous Gringotts account).
Even worse: Harry himself is a staunch defender of the status quo. He sees no problems with the way the wizarding world conducts its affairs, save that the Ministry isn’t aggressive enough about dealing with terrorists.
It’s just not possible to meaningfully apply this black-and-white world to the hairy snarls of modern politics. The good and bad guys in our world are not as clear-cut. To pretend they are is harmful and reductionist.
2. Several plot and world details are downright troubling.
There are too many to list all of them, but something probably popped into your head when you first read this section heading. Perhaps the entire enslaved race of sentient creatures that’s portrayed as happy and carefree in their enslavement, while Hermione wanting to free them is treated as a character flaw? Children as young as 11 being allowed to play a sport that regularly kills adults? Umbridge getting raped and her PTSD being played for laughs? Fred and George not being called out for openly selling magical roofies to teenagers? Literally everything about goblins?
Lately, the one that’s been most troubling for me is the secrecy angle. Wizards could solve most muggle problems, but refuse to, because they don’t want to talk to muggles. Canonically, they can cure every muggle disease, so no wizards are getting COVID-19 (Hogwarts has to close for basilisk attacks, but not pandemics).
But they don’t distribute the potions to muggles. Why? The only explanation we get is from Hagrid: “Blimey, Harry, everyone’d be wantin’ magic solutions to their problems.” And…yeah. People do like getting their problems solved. Not exactly a hot take, Hagrid.
It’s later suggested that witch-burnings and religious persecution were to blame, but that point is relegated to supplemental material like The Tales of Beedle the Bard. In the main series, it’s just taken for granted.
They don’t even have to reveal themselves to make the potions. They could just Imperius a medical researcher and have them come up with a brilliant new treatment. Now that I’m a radicalized adult, it really chafes me that Harry never calls the wizarding world out for its callousness. How can you preach tolerance while still believing that 99.99% of the population are hopeless sheep who can only be guided and protected, not taught or valued?
You might say that grand structural change is beyond the scope of the series, but it wouldn’t have been hard. The first Percy Jackson arc ends with the heroes standing up to the gods themselves and demanding they stop treating certain demigods as second-class citizens. How much more thrilling would it have been to have Harry defeat Voldemort by dramatically destroying the International Statute of Secrecy?
Come to think of it, after reading Rowling’s sickening essay in which she tries to pass off her bigotry as love — seems, on some level, to genuinely believe it is love — her wizards’ patronizing opinions of muggles now feels like ominous foreshadowing. “We should love and protect these people, but without helping them, or changing any of the things that are hurting them.”
3. The author is far from a revolutionary.
When J.K. Rowling came out with her infamous “sex is real” tweet, many of her longtime fans took it as a personal slap in the face. Rowling publicly took the side of people who think transgender women are not women, building on a perspective she’s endorsed before by retweeting transphobic accounts.
Travis McElroy memorably tweeted that all of Rowling’s characters would be ashamed of her. Ashly Perez reminded Rowling that she put the words “Never be ashamed” in Hagrid’s mouth.
But perhaps the most heartbreaking tweet came from an account called @notafootstool, who said that Harry Potter got her through her difficult childhood as a trans woman, and that its author’s support for gender essentialism had brought her to tears. “Why. Why?” she asked.
This opinion article in the New York Times goes some way toward answering that question. In the column, Dr. Sophie Lewis argues that American social justice movements, while far from perfect, have done a much better job of becoming intersectional and inclusive than their British counterparts. In the UK, upper-middle-class white activists have used their privilege to advance their narrow concerns, while crowding other voices out of the room.
That’s how you get people who complain that trans women are just forging their identities so they can invade the ladies’ room (the exact argument used by American right-wing evangelicals), and still call themselves “feminist” without seeing any irony. That’s how you get J.K. Rowling. She’s a firm believer in women fighting for an equal position in society, but only in a way that challenges gender roles, not gender itself.
The idea that humanity is composed of nothing but cis men and cis women is a foundational axiom for a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF). TERFs consider people who were assigned male at birth but identify as women to be no different from Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who infamously “identified as black.” They see trans women as “men in dresses” who want to steal their achievements, de-legitimize their movement, and invade their spaces, and trans men as “women in trousers” who want to betray their gender and join the patriarchy.
This philosophy is wrong. Understanding where it comes from doesn’t make it any less wrong. This is only meant as an explanation for who J.K. Rowling has always been: a writer whose beliefs might once have been radical and empowering, but who has chosen to cling to her privilege rather than evolve with the times.
All of this wouldn’t be as much of a problem if she was able to step back from her creation, but J.K. Rowling refuses to let Harry Potter go. She wrote a play. She wrote screenplays. She presides over Pottermore, which tweets out unwanted worldbuilding information, like that wizards spent untold centuries crapping themselves constantly. She’s a lead weight keeping the story locked firmly in the past, and any more positive fan interpretations have to compete with her infallible word. It’s too much to bear.
4. The franchise is becoming bloated and unnecessary.
In her video about Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Jenny Nicholson points out that you can spoil any of the Harry Potter books in a single line. Voldemort comes back. Sirius dies. Snape kills Dumbledore. Harry is a horcrux.
To spoil that movie, though, you’d need about 20 minutes, a flowchart, and a copy of the Lestrange and Dumbledore family trees, and by the time you were done nobody would care. Same with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, unless “the Hogwarts Express food cart witch is an immortal god-like being” counts as a spoiler.
I get why Bloomsbury and Warner Brothers won’t let Harry Potter go. It’s a golden goose. I was even a fan of the first Fantastic Beasts movie. I thought it was exciting, perfectly cast, visually stunning, and refreshing as a Potterverse story without any Potters or Dumbledores.
That’s what I wanted the franchise to turn into. I wanted a trilogy of books about the Hogwarts founders. I wanted stories about wizards in China and South America who didn’t even hear about the Voldemort incident until after it was over. I wanted A Knight’s Tale but for Quidditch.
Instead, I just got Star Wars again, a universe where everything important happens to two families in three locations. If the people who own the Potter IP don’t want to take any risks with it, they should either give it to someone who will, or let it die.
(Imagine a Wizarding World film by Taika Waititi, or Rian Johnson, or Guillermo del Toro, or Danny Boyle. Or Alfonso Cuaron — oh wait they already did that and it was the best one. Maybe learn something from that, WB.)
5. Even considered on their own, the books have a lot of flaws.
Remove all the troubling political and cultural implications from Harry Potter, and the books still have some issues on the literary level. This Business Insider article lists several plot holes left unaddressed by the end of the series, including:
- Why James and Lily couldn’t have made each other the secret-keepers for their Fidelius Charm;
- Where non-prefects bathe at Hogwarts;
- The fact that the Marauder’s Map could have revealed most of the twists ahead of time, including the true identities of Scabbers and Mad-Eye Moody, if anybody had bothered to use it;
- The incredibly convoluted plot to bring Harry to Little Hangleton in Goblet of Fire, when Crouch Jr. could easily have just grabbed him in Hogsmeade and disapparated;
- How Sirius got his wand back after escaping Azkaban;
- Why Voldemort doesn’t require an Unbreakable Vow as a condition for being sworn in as a Death Eater, especially since no less than three of them later betray him;
And on, and on, and on. Once you start thinking about these, you’ll keep coming up with them all day, and half of them will relate to stupid decisions made by Voldemort. A lot of them seem to stem from Rowling having a cool idea for her universe, and throwing it in there without considering its broader implications on either the story or society.
Then there’s the often-suspect characterization. In her first appearance, Ginny is a nervous waif who can hardly speak; she then disappears for two books and comes back as an outspoken dude magnet and Quidditch champion who specializes in offensive hexes. Neither version of her is a bad character — what’s jarring is the lack of any intermediate stages.
There’s more. How the hell are we supposed to feel about Slytherin? Are we meant to feel sorry for Snape because he’s a victim of bullying, when on the next page he shouts the wizard equivalent of the N-word at the woman who’s supposed to be his closest friend? What are we supposed to make of the fact that Harry’s very real child abuse at the hands of the Dursleys is treated as comedy? Or that Dumbledore is objectively awful at his job?
None of these things would be dealbreakers if Harry Potter wasn’t the most culturally significant work of art from the last 50 years. Since it is, flaws we could otherwise forgive should be held up to a lot more scrutiny. When we examine the series in light of its later impact, we find a few slight stories that were never intended to bear such a load.
It’s obvious, and perhaps not surprising, that I still have a lot of feelings about Harry Potter. Watching J.K. Rowling reveal herself as a bigot in real time, I understand how my parents’ generation felt after learning from Go Set A Watchman that Atticus Finch was a patriarchal racist — although worse, since Rowling is a real person with real power.
With all that said, it’s impossible to “cancel” things. If it didn’t work in Ancient Rome, when they tried to damn the memories of hated leaders by destroying all their statues, it definitely won’t work now that we have the internet.
Not only that, but very few people (certainly nobody I’ve met) actually want things “cancelled.” They just want the components of our culture not to be worshiped uncritically. Can you still read Harry Potter? Absolutely. Will it ever be the same? Absolutely not. We’ll never again have that feeling of benevolent Auntie Jo reading us a magical story of wizards and curses, of evil people and the good people who fight them.
But I, for one, don’t think that’s all bad. There comes a time when every generation has to take control of their own stories. Oppressed groups are now standing up and demanding that stories include them, and if authors refuse, those groups write their own damn books.
On that note, I’d like to close by sharing this list of new speculative fiction books by black authors. Happy reading, and stay angry.