When Harry Met Katniss
It is easy to imagine how Harry Potter would feel about the N-word.
Hermione doesn’t have to announce her support to Dumbledore’s marriage to Gandalf. SPEW paints a clear enough picture on her stance towards minorities.
We’ve never heard Katniss’s opinion on refugees, but we doubt she’d support indifference towards a people in need. It is inconceivable that our beloved YA heroes could have any moral stance different from ours. How could they? We took our stances from them.
Whether it intends it or not, fiction has always been the moral compass of the culture it addresses: Don’t follow werewolves into the woods, don’t take apples from strangers, don’t fall in love with flying boys who refuse to grow up. This burden of influence falls particularly upon the head of YA fiction. In order to captivate the minds of young readers, YA prose is straightforward and descriptive. Unlike more structurally complex works of fiction that experiment with hypotaxis and structure, the emphasis of the YA novel is on plot. And it works. These tomes have transformed entire generations into Hermione Grangers and Violet Baudelaires.
Such an immersion obviously reduces the barrier between work and recipient. Entertainment industries have made millions by exploiting the undivided attention of audiences to sell them products. It is safe to say, however, that Harry Potter books aren’t trying to sell us a Diet Pepsi. What Harry and Katniss sell us is something else.
Harry and Katniss both achieved fame and wealth overnight. While Katniss had to be followed around by flying cameras, Harry had to put up with Rita Skeeter’s “journalism” and his inherited fame/infamy. What unified the world saviors the most however, and what unifies their readers with them, is the similarity of our enemies.
Voldemort was a fascist. He projected his insecurities on muggle-borns. While Harry sacrifices his own life, Voldemort kills to preserve his. Where Harry forgives, Voldemort punishes. Through this stark contrast of ideals, Rowling paints a picture: there are two worlds. There is a world of Harries and a world of Voldemorts. There is a world of Gilderoy Lockharts, Dolores Umbridges, and dementors and it is not unlike the world of Donald Trumps, Kim Davises, and ISIS.
In Deathly Hallows, Dumbledore presents Harry with a choice: Harry could give up and join the headmaster in King’s Cross paradise, or he could return to Hogwarts and fight. Rowling offers us a similar choice. Fight or flight. But Harry is an idol and subsequently, the choice Rowling offers ceases to be a choice at all. When we exhale relief for Harry’s “All was well”, we realize without doubt that Harry is who we want to be. King’s Cross could wait.
Katniss’s rebellion against Snow is similar to that of the oppressed everywhere. She wants “to make them accountable” she says. Her fictional speech is contemporary. It has been resounding across the world, during a decade that has witnessed the collapse of dictator regimes, and sparked rebellion in the Middle East, Ferguson, and Ukraine…
Her fight with Snow is ours. He is our Assad and our ISIS. He is the policeman who shoots an unarmed black kid, and the rapist who justifies his crime with sexist discourse.
In 2014, Thailand revolted against a coup d’état. As a symbol, the protesters adopted Suzan Collin’s mockingjay salute of rebellion. Extending three middle fingers in the air, they mimicked the citizens of Panem, and, much like in Panem, the gesture got outlawed.
The villains of contemporary YA fiction aren’t as fictional as we’d like them to be. In an interview for Times Magazine, Rowling says “If you're choosing to write about evil, you really do have a moral obligation to show what it means.”
Harry Potter offers a comprehensive image of what Rowling thinks evil means today: evil is intolerance. It is fascism and being “rude to house-elves.” It is the fragmentation of one’s soul for glory, and institutionalized bullying through educational decrees.
When Collins tells us that “the evil thing is inside, not out”, she is referring to our villains: Depression, anxiety, inadequacy, the scrutiny of the public. Such are the evils of our modern world. Whether they are peacekeepers or dementors or a bourgeoisie who watches war with indifference, the villains of Katniss and Harry’s world are just ours with a theatrical twist.
These evils are universal, yes, but manifested in contemporary ways that are more specific to our times. In Alice in Wonderland, Louis Carol’s heroine did have to confront a tyrant, but she didn’t have to defeat propaganda. Dementors would have been less relevant in the days of Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, but women’s voices were more relevant in his.
Today’s women face different challenges. Katniss does defy her traditional gender role and yet her love triangle still presents itself as a much more pivotal plot point that Harry’s “Ginny or Cho”. The Maze Runner features a single female character in the maze, while Narnia’s antagonist is a demonized mother figure. Nevertheless, each of these series attempts to present its own take on diversity and tolerance and what it means to be good.
In a world where public discourse and collective consciousness remain cluttered with terms like “terrorism” and “depression”, we find ourselves adhering to subconscious moral principles. We find ourselves taking sides without meaning to. We defy “Magic is Might” with “Black Lives Matter”. We remember “The Odds Are Never In Our Favor” whenever despots criticize “Love Wins”, and we hashtag Molly Weasley’s “Not my daughter, you bitch” with #YesAllWomen. We don’t need lightning scars or mockingjay pins to remember whose side we’re on. We already know.