115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

But I Am the Chosen One: Millennial Identity and the Visible Ideologies of Potter

Matthew Meier, University of Southern California

This paper examines how the language and imagery of Harry Potter has permeated the vernacular of the Millennial generation. In presenting a narrative universe that so deftly reflected the values and characteristics of its generational audience, Rowling provided Millennials with a visual and narrative framework for engaging ideologies within and beyond the text, including forms of activism and fan participation facilitated by the emergence of new digital platforms.

Proposal: 

Since the publication of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone twenty years ago, J.K. Rowling’s canonical tale of the Boy Who Lived has transcended its status as the best-selling book series of all time. The language and iconography of Harry Potter have become engrained within our cultural vernacular, especially for the Millennial generation that grew up alongside the series’ titular hero. This paper will examine how, in presenting a narrative universe that so deftly reflected the values and characteristics of its generational audience, Rowling provided Millennials with a visual and narrative framework for engaging ideologies within and beyond the text—the Hogwarts houses, for example, have become as familiar and meaningful symbols of ideological identity as one’s political or religious affiliations, particularly for a generation that is far less likely to identify with either of the latter (Pew Research 2014). Drawing from various studies surrounding generational theory as well as empirical research and polling, we quickly find how these themes of generational identity are directly reflected within the narrative of the Potter series itself, while also helping to inform the various forms of fan participation and engagement that emerged from and around Rowling’s cannon. Furthermore, the emergence and exponential growth of new digital media platforms offered unprecedented outlets for exploring the themes and ideologies both consciously and unconsciously embedded within Rowling’s ever-expanding Potterverse as what John Fiske would call a polysemic popular text, stoking Millennial desire and ability to engage the text and apply its values to their own lives.

 

One notable example of this is what Henry Jenkins describes as “cultural acupuncture,” a form of fan activism that applies fictional content to real–world concerns as a means of organizing action. The Harry Potter Alliance, for example, is a global network that relies on the iconography of the Potter series to identify ideological positioning behind their political movements, such as in their ongoing battle with the Dark Lord Waldemart. Although not structured around a formal organization like HPA, the 2016 presidential election saw countless examples of cultural acupuncture in the use of Voldemort as an ideological motif for Trump’s discriminatory rhetoric, a comparison that has persisted throughout his presidency. In fact, a recent study from the University of Pennsylvania (Diana Muntz, 2016) demonstrated a direct correlation between reading Harry Potter and one’s likelihood to vote against Donald Trump, even more so than other controlled variables such as party affiliation and specific ideological stances (e.g. immigration, abortion).

 

Even beyond forms of activism, the ways that Millennials have adopted the language and imagery of the series so deeply within their everyday lives has engendered a unique hybrid of fan culture and secular worship around the wizarding canon. This is best exemplified by the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, in which two chaplains from Harvard Divinity School explore every chapter of the seven-book series (they have only completed the first three thus far) through themes ranging from love to heartbreak to grace, implementing reading practices from various religions. In doing so, the hosts rely on imagery from the books as emblematic of contemporary ideologies and conflicts: they explore the invisibility cloak as a symbol of white privilege, discuss gentrification through the context of de-gnoming, and examine the failings of our criminal justice system through the allegory of Sirius Black. This is a common practice of all religions—using the iconography of a sacred text to discuss contemporary concerns. Particularly as a notably secular generation, it’s no surprise that Millennials have turned to the Boy Who Lived as their generational scripture, replacing the Holy Cross with the Deathly Hallows as their visible symbol of worship.