DSQ > Winter 2009, Volume 29, No.1

Much ado has been made about J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and its relevance to our current socio-cultural milieu, with the author herself stopping to endorse (and perhaps enforce) a queer reading of the text's famed patriarch, Albus Dumbledore. Karen A. Brown's new text, Prejudice in Harry Potter's World, rightly gives critical space to examining Harry Potter's treatment of the so-called others within its magical midst. Brown's purpose, in her words, is to "demonstrate how certain 'common practices and beliefs' can be socially devastating — whether in the real world or in J.K. Rowling's fictional wizarding world" (7). Indeed, the critic has quite an undertaking, seeking to cover the various plots and sub-plots including muggles, squibs, parselmouths, class difference, ageism, werewolves, house elves and, among other others, the wrongly accused. Brown's discussion of what she terms "the disability issue" in chapter 4 would be of particular interest to DSQ readers, but I would argue that the entire text explores issues within the field of Disability Studies. I must say that I looked forward to reading Prejudice in Harry Potter's World as it promised an amplified discussion of the Harry Potter series and seemed to integrate Disability Studies with various other critical approaches. Despite it being a compelling addition to analytical perspectives on the series, Brown's text remains a somewhat uncomplicated discussion since it does not adequately mobilize a theoretical arsenal made necessary by its own objective.

Prejudice in Harry Potter begins with a discussion of the social hierarchy within the novels. In Chapters 1 and 2, titled "Social Hierarchy and the Nature of Wizarding World Prejudice" and "How the Hierarchy is Maintained: The Four I's" respectively, Brown takes care to delineate how the hierarchy works, who (or what, in some cases) maintains it and the way in which characters attempt to disrupt it. Here, she cogently describes many of the characters' confrontations with the social hierarchy. Most notable in this discussion is the explication of Harry Potter's experiences of prejudice and stigma as a parselmouth in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In this discussion, Harry becomes the exemplar of how swiftly the wizarding community closes ranks in an effort to maintain their social hierarchy. The next chapter, "Extreme Measures: Examining the Mindset of the House Elf," is one of the more daring chapters in this text in that it attempts to investigate the politics of internalized self-hatred. Her gesture toward Hermione Granger's identity politics as a muggle, or self-proclaimed "mudblood" is especially apropos, and Brown expands upon those issues in Chapter 5, "What's Wrong with Hermione Calling Herself a 'Mudblood'?: Examining the Politics of Naming and Self-naming in the Series." In Chapter 4, "On Squibs and Werewolves: A Closer Look at the Disability Issue," Brown uses the specific language of disability to interrogate the understanding of so-called able wizardry and disabled wizardry. Chapter 6, "Parenting and Prejudice," picks up the discussion of social hierarchy again in an effort to examine how this social knowledge is learned behavior; of central import to this discussion is Molly Weasley. Brown undercuts Mrs. Weasley's portrayal as the lovely matriarch by re-reading her reactions to social others. Chapter 7, "Harry Potter: The Should-Be Delinquent," interrogates the moral compass of the series, juxtaposing the delinquency of Harry Potter and Tom Riddle, er, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named or You-Know-Who or, for the daring among us, Lord Voldemort.

Brown's text hits its stride when discussing the boy wonder's best friend, Ron Weasley. Specifically, Brown's interrogation of the Weasley family's relationships to social others highlights several factors integral to her argument: the functioning, maintenance and possible destruction of the wizarding world's social hierarchy. In her examinations of the social hierarchy, Brown carefully demonstrates how Ron's attitudes and reaction manifest a lifetime of obeying and living by wizarding social customs. Ron's overt distaste for game-keeper Hagrid's giant blood and his reaction to myriad other social situations crystallizes that "it is worth noting that the pre-revolution wizarding world was highly susceptible to another wizard war, because it had all the elements of a society on the brink of upheaval" (85). In her discussions of Ron Weasley, Brown effectively pinpoints the ways in which the Weasleys' progressive identity politics has some limits. For Brown, these limits, upheld by Ron and Mrs. Weasley, bring to the fore the underlying biases taught by years of adherence to rigid social mores. Unfortunately, this portion of the text remains uncomplicated in its discussion of bias, unlike Tobin Siebers' discussion of the ideology of ability in his recent text, Disability Theory. That is, as cogent as Brown's discussion is, it neglects to explore the links between the Weasleys' bias and larger issues of stigma and acceptance of so-called normalcy.

I commend Brown for her reach into difficult territory in Chapter 3, "Extreme Measures: Examining the Mindset of the House Elf." She examines internalized self-hatred with an eye toward parsing complications and understanding the house elves' relationships to themselves. Her analogies to slavery within the United States give her argument some more depth and clarity. In other words, the house elves become more than just a small army of creatures with pitiable low self-esteem; in Brown's argument, their subjectivity and agency (realized in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) highlights the extremity to which wizarding world socialization prioritizes the magic of wizards above other magical creatures.

Nevertheless, despite these achievements, Prejudice in Harry Potter's World remains uncomplicated in its analysis, neglecting to mobilize arguments that are integral to its central thrust. I would attribute this to the theoretical framework of the text. Brown relies mainly on one text, Gordon Allport's The Nature of Prejudice. While Allport's text is seminal in its discussion of prejudice and psychological underpinnings thereof, Brown's discussion needed to draw from a more varied panel of theorists and critics to avoid reading like a case-study of Allport. It is not my aim to rewrite Brown's text; instead, I want to pinpoint the areas where, for lack of specific Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory perspectives, Brown's argument does not fulfill its stated objective. For instance, the discussion of house elves mentions the famed Willie Lynch papers as an inroad to understanding self-hatred, but does not make use of scholarship that specifically details the effects of internalizing self-hatred: Simi Linton's Claiming Disability, Carter G. Woodson's The Miseducation of the Negro, and Franz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth would have been quite useful to her argument in that they describe and, attempt to explain the extent to which internalized self-hatred curtails the agency of a group of people. As a result, Brown's close reading of Dobby, Harry's house-elf friend, rings as if he is a token to be lauded by readers rather than a more complex figure.

What's more, Brown makes little use of Disabilities Studies scholars in the chapter specifically focused on disability. Brown uses the social model of disability, to be sure, but does not undergird her argument with scholars that examine disability primarily. This becomes particularly important in her discussion of the supposedly magically disabled. I understand that Brown uses this phrase to designate the squibs and the werewolves as disabled within the magical community. Nonetheless, the neologism appears to create the same kind of disruption as other neologisms (ie handi-capable) in that it leaves the understanding of what constitutes disabled unexamined. There are myriad discussions of naming within both editions of The Disability Studies Reader, No Pity by Joseph Shapiro and The New Disability History by Longmore and Umansky. Brown's neologism permits a minimization the fact that J.K. Rowling's three main characters are white, heterosexual, and able-bodied. It would seem that this narrative choice should be interrogated in the face of Brown's extensive work on social hierarchies, if only to demonstrate the ways in which Rowling's text relies on some of the social realities it attempts to debunk. Certainly, these magical creatures would be considered disabled in the wizarding world, according to the social model of disability; however, the employ of terms and characters' embodiments of and reactions to these terms deserves to be expanded a la Vivian Sobchack's Carnal Thoughts or Simi Linton's Claiming Disability or Nancy Mairs' Plaintext. What's more, Brown's claim that "racial, nationality and religious biases are not usually linked with disability issues" (122) would have been nuanced had the text incorporated analyses similar to Synder and Mitchell's Narrative Prosthesis: Disabilities and the Dependencies of Discourse and the work of other scholars like Ellen Samuels, Chris Bell, and Anna Mollow.

In the end, I believe that Brown's Prejudice in Harry Potter's World is well timed and its speculations about the way we understand and discriminate against ontological categories are quite cogent. However, the enterprise fails because it attempts to cover too much ground and becomes little more than a case study of the Harry Potter series using Allport's text. The theoretical framework is appropriate but appears to be more applied than grappled with. I take Brown to task for these critical choices, because of the capacity her text has to illuminate Harry Potter and the relevance it has to the world in which it and we live.

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