Previously on this series, we talked about the economics of the wizarding world and the devastating results of segregation. Today, we're going back to Hogwarts to talk about one of my favorite aspects of J.K. Rowling's magical universe: The anti-authoritarian politics of Harry Potter. As Harry, Hermione, Ron, and the other Hogwarts students grow from precocious kids to competent young adults, | they learn about charms and potions and gain all kinds of magical skills, but they also learn that a lot of the adults in their world don't have the best intentions. Over the course of seven novels, they all have to deal with the fact that almost every single person with significant power abuses their position, even before it is clear that Voldemort has returned to life. Oh, and in case this wasn't obvious, get ready for tons of spoilers for the original Harry Potter series. And with that in mind... Welcome to Out of Frame. We all know that our eponymous protagonist is at the center of a violent power-struggle before he's even born. Voldemort's entire ambition is to acquire power and take over the world so that he can impose his will on wizards and muggles alike. Even as he rebuilds his army of Death Eaters, he uses his superior magic and intimidation to influence politicians and prominent families towards supporting policies that enforce his fundamentally racist world-view. But of course, we already know that Voldemort's lust for power is evil. What's more interesting is how frequently power is shown as dangerous even in the hands of other characters. Take for example Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge. Out of a combination of incompetence, fear, and personal ambition, he first tries to befriend the "famous" Harry Potter so that he looks good in the press, but then willfully ignores clear evidence of Voldemort's return because he's afraid that it will expose his own failures as a leader. Fudge's main goal is to retain his power, even at the expense of people's lives. And because of his incompetence, when Voldemort finally does regain his full strength, it's far too late to stop him. You'd think that the Ministry of Magic would have learned a valuable lesson there, | but Fudge's replacement, Rufus Scrimgeour, does the same thing. Although Scrimgeour was the head of the Auror's Office... essentially the magic-world's FBI... once he gained power, his attention turned towards maintaining appearances over achieving meaningful results in the defense of innocent people. Instead of working with powerful wizards with experience battling Voldemort like Albus Dumbledore and his Order of the Phoenix, Scrimgeour mainly just tries to present himself as the stronger, more capable leader in order to project the appearance of security to his citizens. And just like Fudge, he tries to use Harry Potter as a political prop. It doesn't work and he's eventually assassinated, only to be replaced by Pius Thicknesse, who was already under Voldemort's control. Again and again, Ministry of Magic officials expose themselves as dangerously incompetent or worse, completely aligned with Voldemort's goals of world-domination and pure-blood supremacy. We see Lucius Malfoy at the Ministry, talking to other high-status officials. This problem extends to other people in lower level positions of power as well, like perhaps the most singularly hated character of the entire story: Delores Umbridge. Here is a woman with no discernible knowledge or skills who, thanks entirely to her associations with the Ministry of Magic, gains control over Hogwarts and uses her power to silence dissent and criticism, restrict information, and even torture students who refuse to comply with her unconscionable demands. As with most things, Harry bears the brunt of everyone's lust for power and control, | and so he quickly grows to distrust most of the adults in his life. Particularly those in government. But there's another aspect of the Harry Potter universe that is almost entirely ignored in the movies but which plays a major role in the books: The enslavement of house elves. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, we meet Dobby the elf. He's initially presented as a well-meaning nuisance to Harry. After showing up in his bedroom uninvited, Dobby tries to stop Harry from returning to Hogwarts first by wrecking his Uncle Vernon's dinner party and then by making it impossible for Harry and Ron to get to the train on time. The really curious thing about Dobby is that each time he begins to say why Harry's in danger at Hogwarts, he beats himself up instead. In the movie, this is played as slapstick comedy, but it's actually kind of horrifying. It turns out that Dobby is bound to the Malfoy family, and he literally can't tell Harry the truth because doing so would mean speaking ill of his master... something he's physically unable to do thanks to the magic that ties him to the Malfoy's house. Eventually Harry gives Dobby the means to claim his freedom, but it all opens up major questions about the morality of the magical society Harry was so excited to join. The movies downplay this theme, but it's a huge deal throughout the books. It's a shockingly dark twist for a series meant for kids, but we learn that all the delicious food Hogwarts students enjoy throughout the year and most of the maintenance of the castle is all provided by elves bound to the school. Enslaved house elves are apparently common throughout the wizarding world. When Hermione finds out, she begins a multi-year campaign to free all the house elves at Hogwarts and to champion house elf freedom in general. Most people don't take her seriously, and even the house elves themselves aren't interested. This is all pretty heavy stuff for kids, so I guess I get why it was taken out of the movies, but it's another way in which the Harry Potter story presents the case that concentrated power invites corruption and abuse, particularly for the least powerful in society. And it's a layer of depth that adds context to the political struggles on the surface. I'm sure it'll come as no surprise to regular viewers of this series that I think this is a very good thing. J.K. Rowling built a deep and realistic universe with Harry Potter. It's one that continues to spawn new movies like Fantastic Beasts, stageplays like The Cursed Child, | and an unlimited supply of stories and art created by fans. It would be easy to attribute this success just to Harry's thrilling adventures with his friends | and the uniquely creative creatures and characters that inhabit Rowling's mirror-world version of 1990s England. But I think that Harry Potter owes its enduring legacy to the fact that while it presents itself as literature for teens and young adults, its themes and allegories provide valuable insights into the real world. It's meant to be read by kids, but it doesn't talk down to them. In between Quidditch matches, transfiguration classes, and relationship drama, Harry Potter teaches its readers that adults, including parents, don't always do the right thing. It shows us that politicians are often interested in maintaining their status and prestige, even at the expense of protecting the rights of their citizens. And it reminds us that power is dangerous in anyone's hands, not just the "wrong" ones, so maintaining a healthy skepticism of authority is important. But it also leaves us with the inspiring message that defending freedom for everyone is an ideal worth fighting for. Even when it could mean making the ultimate sacrifice. There's not much more heroic than that. Hey everybody, thanks for watching this episode of Out of Frame. I'm taking a short break next month so I can catch up on another exciting project that's going to be released at the beginning of the year, so the next episode won't be out until February. In the meantime, I just wanted to say thank you to all of you for watching these videos and participating in the incredible discussions in the comments. It's been really amazing watching this channel grow over the last year, and I'm looking forward to seeing what we can do next year. If you have any ideas for future episodes, let me know. Also, check out FEE.org/shows for all the other content we're producing each week and don't forget to like and subscribe to @feeonline on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. See you next time.

Out of Frame

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About this show

Video essays that explore the intersection of art, culture, and big ideas written & produced by FEE's Director of Media, Sean W. Malone.

December 6, 2018

JK Rowling's wizarding world isn't all wands, charms, and transfigurations. The magical universe inhabited by characters like Harry Potter and Newt Scamander is rife with the dangerous incompetence of adults, unchecked corruption, and appalling abuses of power, and not just by Voldemort or Grindelwald.


Written & Produced by Sean W. Malone
Edited by Arash Ayrom & Sean W. Malone