The 99%: The (Class) Difference Between “The Boy Who Lived” and “The Girl on Fire,” Part One

gold coins from Harry PotterHarry Potter and The Hunger Games have nearly nothing in common, except for the small fact that these books, written for children and young adults, have managed to capture the imagination and rapt attention of readers of all ages.  Their created worlds are wholly immersive; traveling to Hogwarts or District 12 means temporarily leaving your own space and coming to understand a new society with different ways of making meaning, finding success, doing good, and—as always—preserving hierarchy.  The different ways that social class is handled in both series are independently insightful, but more interesting in comparison.  Today I'll focus discussion on more on Harry Potter; my next post will focus more on Katniss Everdeen. 

J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series embraces familiar tropes of social class mythology in the creation of the wizarding world. The evil wizards and witches are, per usual, wealthy, though their wealth is nearly coincidental to their worldview—it seems that racism rather than classism would be a more apt paradigm (this despite the fact that the wizarding world seems disproportionately white).  The evil wizards and witches are mostly "purebloods" who strive to eliminate Muggle blood from wizarding families—they shriek the term "Mudblood!" in the same dehumanizing way someone would use a racial slur.  The Death Eaters are even cloaked in hooded capes reminiscent of Klan members.  There's a collision of privilege here, based on real class advantage and irrational, dangerous, imagined "racial" superiority.

Yet, the wizards are also almost all presented as wealthy, as old families with old bloodlines and old money, clinging to power for power's sake.  In contrast, Harry's best friend Ron comes from a poorer family; he buys used schoolbooks, he wears hand-me-down robes, he receives homemade Christmas presents and can't afford the newest broom.  Hermione comes from a middle-class Muggle family, where both parents are dentists.  Hagrid's accent and lack of social polish show his low cultural capital; Dobby the house elf lives in servitude. In truth, most of Harry allies seem to have less class privilege that most of his enemies.

Lest we forget, though, Harry himself is rich.  His parents left him piles of galleons in Gringott's.  He can splurge and buy candy for his friends on the Hogwarts Express, and he can afford the newest, fanciest Firebolt.  However, his class privilege seems "undone" by the poverty of his upbringing, brought about by his aunt and uncle's neglect.  By living under the stairs, nearly starving, and playing perfectly the part of abandoned orphan, Harry "redeems" himself for his wealth.

In contrast, The Hunger Games is more directly about class conflict: there's the Capitol, which has money and power, and there are the Districts, which don't.  The Districts are intentionally impoverished as a way of keeping them ignorant and obedient.  Money (or lack thereof) isn't a metaphor in The Hunger Games, but it seems to be in Harry Potter, where social class becomes a marker for moral stature.  If money is indicative of arrogance and prejudice—if not fully fledged evil—then disadvantage become the mark of goodness, familiarity, and trustworthiness.  However, the conflict within Harry Potter is not about class (like it is in The Hunger Games); it's about a broader concept of good verses evil that never truly acknowledges the extent to which, by implication, either of those are influenced by class status.

More broadly, Harry Potter masks class difference, while The Hunger Games accentuates it.  Indeed, one of the more fantastical elements of Harry Potter is that it takes place entirely at a very elite boarding school, where all young witches and wizards are admitted based on their ability to perform magic, rather than their ability to pay.  Meanwhile, prep schools in the real world remain bastions of economic elitism (for context, the New York Times reported this week that non-boarding private prep schools in Manhattan now cost upwards of $40,000 per year).  Having characters of diverse class backgrounds attend the same school, with all the trappings of wealth, conceals class difference by appearing to elevate everyone.

In Harry Potter, then, social class is a way of telling us something about the characters more than the actual lived reality or a source of conflict that it becomes in The Hunger Games. This is because in the wizarding world, power doesn't come just come from money and other forms of social privilege, power comes from magic—and it seems that magic is quite an equalizer.

But there's no magic in The Hunger Games.  While Harry was rescued from his room under the stairs and swept off into the land of magic, there's no one to save Katniss from starving except herself. And when she gets swept away to a land of wealth and privilege, it's to kill or be killed.

More on Katniss and The Hunger Games coming tomorrow!

Previously: Finding North, We're Not Broke

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Comments

11 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Voldemort

So, how do you see Voldemort playing into this? He came from a primarily impoverished background.

Yes, he did -- in a way. And

Yes, he did -- in a way. And I should have discussed this more directly in the post.

I think Voldemort's poor background is overstated. His father's family (the Riddles) were apparently very rich (they were supposed to be very prominent members of Little Hangleton), although his mother's family (the Gaunts) were apparently less well-off. Then again, as I've written before, class is about more than money, and the Gaunts were descended directly from Slytherin -- they probably had a lot of whatever connotes wizarding cultural capital. The neglect and misery that Tom faced during his childhood was because his mother died and his father abandoned him. That's why he grew up in the orphanage. I think this childhood was designed to mirror Harry's as closely as possible: parents dead/gone, left to be raised by indifferent caretakers who misunderstood magic. Obviously the results are very different, but the fundamental class background isn't that big of a contrast -- particularly if you compare the Riddles and the Potters, and you define class as being about more than money.

"this despite the fact that

"this despite the fact that the wizarding world seems disproportionately white"
Sentiments like this just irk me. It seems to stem from the typical American perspective that the world is like America and has to be like America. In England, the population is a lot less diverse than in America, and the book is about European ideas of magic and fairytales. There are, indeed, quite a lot characters of colour in the book. And, you wouldn't scold a, say, Nigerian author for not including white people in novels about hir homeland, would you? I mean, I get that American culture is predominately white, despite the fact that a large part of it's population isn't. However, I don't think the right approach to European media is to criticize it for being too white, but rather, to promote media that is created by non-European artists. (Although that is of course easier said than done.)

the "disproportionately white" wizarding world

True, isn't something like 87% of the UK made up of people who self-identify and appear white?

Also though

Also though, we're talking about wizards, who do not exist in a reality that includes census data. It would have been nice to see the Harry Potter franchise (the films especially, because as I understand it the books were more diverse) include more characters of color, especially considering how popular they became. I mean, if he can have a flying broom, couldn't Harry have a best friend who isn't white without it seeming too unrealistic?

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Hm, but the thing is, it's

Hm, but the thing is, it's not like this is a complete fantasy world (like Lord of the Rings). It is set in 1990's England. Yes, Hermione could have been black (although of course then that whole 'Mudblood' thing would have gone into entirely different territory). The thing is though, afaik, Rowling never thought the thing would be so successful, and she wrote about the world as she new it. There were quite a lot of people of colour in the books (e.g. Cho Chang, the Patil twins, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Lee Jordan, Angelina Johnson, etc.), and the movies seemed pretty diverse to me, too, at least compared to other European movies (consider this still http://library.creativecow.net/articles/kaufman_debra/Harry-Potter-Cines...).
I think this is basically the same thing like with what I said before. I agree that most of what is considered "mainstream" media in the USA and Europe, and, probably by extension also the rest of the world, is by white people about white people, and that is obviously a problem. I don't think the solution to this, however, is for white artists to make more art about people of colour, but rather to promote art by artists of colour. This is not to say that white people should never write about poc and the other way around (especially since "poc" is everything but a homogeneous group), but rather that instead of faulting white writers for being ignorant of how to tackle perspectives not that similar to theirs, I would rather criticize the industry/the consumers for prefering such a homogeneous culture landscape.
PS: I think a distinction has to be made between books and movies, because whereas books are usually written by only one or two people and therefore necessarily are shaped by that person's worldview, a professionally produced movie is a huge undertaking where it would be much more easy to include different perspectives - especially in the USA, of course.
Sorry for being so off-topic, by the way, I hope you don't mind.

So because Harry doesn't have

So because Harry doesn't have a best friend who is a person of color, the wizarding world is disproportionally white? She includes people of color, they just aren't one of the three main characters.

And if one of his two best friends were black or Indian or Chinese, they'd be the "token minority" and people would accuse Rowling of making his BF a person of color for the sake of it.

I included that line not to

I included that line not to imply that Rowling should have felt obligated to include more people of color in the story -- although it would be nice to see more protagonists and heroes aren't white in all forms of media. I included it to clarify what I meant by "race", which is something wholly different than what is meant by "race" in the real world. I was explaining how, even with a mostly white lineup, the central conflict of the story can still be about a very specific kind of "race" that has to do with the purity of one's blood and one's wizard lineage.

I absolutely agree. I am a

I absolutely agree. I am a European (Polish) and lived in the US for four years. HP has quite a number of various ethnic groups. Please remember, that including Scots and Irish is also diversifing it in a way. It's not just about the skin color! Harry's romantic partner for a while was Cho Chang, and his friends are many, not just the two main characters. We also have Black on the "bad side" in Slytherin, so there is no clear racial distinctions that to be evil you have to be white and rich.

I think the fact that the author is British changes also the view of class, aristocracy and privilege. We are talking about a place with REAL aristocracy, with lords and dames. That's a quite foreign concept in the US, which does have its own version of aristocracy, but different.

I think JKRowling did a pretty good job of creating more complex image of race, money, privilege and the general evil/good lines, especially considering it was supposed to be just an adventure book for kids.

and here's the thing about

and here's the thing about this whole "wealthy wizards are evil" thing mentioned. There are only a couple families specifically mentioned in HP that are Death Eaters who are wealthy. Only one is specifically coded as wealthy: The Malfoys (and the exception being the Blacks). Everyone else is not even mentioned as wealthy. The Weasleys are not wealthy because they have a lot of children and Mr Weasley prefers a lower-paying job because it makes him happy. It's more of a choice, and they're happy. Ron mentions in passing before how his dad could have been promoted and risen in the Ministry, thus making more money, but he chose not to. This is not uncommon.

You also have Harry's family, whom we know was very wealthy from his father's side, one of the oldest wizarding bloodlines. And the thing is, we don't know the wealth of the other students at Hogwarts. We assume that Neville's family comes from wealth judging from the way his grandmother dresses, but everyone else it's not mentioned. We just assume that pretty much the other students at Hogwarts are middle-class. I never read the books in the way that you did, and only thought of wealth in passing. Malfoy was snotty because he was rich (and his parents were rotten), and Ron was bitter because he was poor and couldn't afford the finer things, yet he was a good moral person because his parents were.

It should also be noted that there is no tuition at Hogwarts. If there is, it is not mentioned. Or I just don't remember it being mentioned.

My reading about the whole good vs evil isn't that it necessarily stems from wealth or privilege, but rather from obsession of pure bloodlines, wealth having nothing to do with it. I remember in Book Six, Dumbledore was taking Harry on the journey of learning who Voldemort is, and they came across the memory of the Gaunts. The family was crumbling, albeit one of the oldest wizarding families. They were described as low-intelligence, ugly, and stubborn, and it was hinted that it was due to inbreeding (well, more than hinted at). Basically, the family refused to marry and have children with people with Muggles in their bloodlines. And they were dirt poor. Literally. Tom Riddle Jr grew up in orphanages and was likewise poor and had to rely on the charity of others to get by. And yet we know how he turned out. So we have the Weasleys who are poor and good, and Voldemort who grew up poor and is, well, the most evil. And we have Harry's family who was very wealthy, and we have the Malfoys. It seems that Rowling was saying that it doesn't matter how much money or how little money you have, what matters is your tolerance, acceptance, and goodness, and perhaps that it's more inherent than anything else.

As for The Hunger Games, I haven't read those books so I can't comment.

But most of what you're

But most of what you're saying is exactly my point - that the conflict is Harry Potter is more about "race" than social class; that class is alluded to but then masked over (by, for example, not having Hogwarts have any tuition.) I addressed the ways I think Harry's money and upbringing are used both in support of and against him in the post, and I think that Voldemort's upbringing was written to mirror Harry's -- see more in the comment above.