Social justice in Harry Potter

Under the hood of this fantasy series, this Christian allegory, this festival of fun in seven volumes, lies a certain concern for social justice. Besides the ‘strong female leads’ – sporty Ginny handy with a Bat-Bogey Hex, cleverest in her year Hermione, stay-at-home mother and serious destroyer of Dark Witches Mrs Weasley, etc etc – the dispelling of the stigma around blood-transmitted werewolf condition claimed as a metaphor for HIV infection, and the ‘I always thought Dumbledore was gay’, the climax involves a more obvious allegorical battle between the ‘blood traitor’ Weasleys et al on the one hand, and on the other, the uber-racist Death Eaters taking it beyond the occasional ‘Mudblood’ slur to actually deny the magic powers of the Muggle-borns, analogous to the denial of humanity to oppressed peoples.

Until, halfway through the Goblet of Fire, we find an anomaly: SPEW, or the Society for the Protection of Elfish Welfare. This grassroots movement is set up by Hermione, who sees that house-elves are often badly treated by their owners, do a lot of dirty work around the castle, aren’t paid or given holidays, and seem to have internalised their position of servitude such that they bow, scrape and make themselves invisible. A single elf is glad to escape this fate; Hermione sees how happy Dobby is in his emancipation and is convinced that the elves are an oppressed population in need of her help. Undeterred by the majority of her peers who say things like ‘but house-elves love serving people; it’s in their nature’ (a statement amply borne out by the evidence), she gets up a society with a name, subscription, badges and all, and annoys everyone by rattling her collection plate around the common room, being more self-righteous than usual, and berating her good friends for seemingly normal behaviours like eating a lot and not making their beds: their very mode of being expresses their privilege and facilitates ‘slave labour’. Lastly, she takes it upon herself to act in the supposed best interests of this group by acting against their declared wishes: she leaves knitted clothing around Gryffindor Tower in the hope that the elves will inadvertently pick it up, tricked into becoming free, or in other words conned into a life moulded on another person’s wishes. She is the perfect caricature of the social justice warrior.

What are we to make of this? Hermione’s activism is largely ridiculed; seen as unnecessary and at odds with the reality that house elves have a specific mode of being that allows them fulfilment doing hard labour in the Hogwarts kitchens, however unsuited this mode of being might be to the humans observing it. It goes beyond the concern and care that of course is required in interpersonal interaction: no one supports actual bad treatment of elves, goblins, Centaurs etc, and it is indeed Ron’s concern for the house-elves’ welfare during the Battle of Hogwarts in the Deathly Hallows that finally brings him and Hermione together. What are we to believe? Is change only to be achieved in the context of personal relationships and not in political spheres? Is it in fact impossible to effect change when the status quo is so ingrained that even good friends and mentors cannot get behind the cause? Or are we being shown that not every perceived oppression in fact exists?

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