The Harry Potter subtext debate

by Stephen Tall on July 26, 2007

There’s a fascinating debate raging among Lib Dem bloggers (where else?) regarding the seeming absence of gay characters in the Harry Potter books; and whether it matters a damn.

It was prompted by the Clowns to the Left of Me blog posting, ‘Why aren’t there any gay characters in Harry Potter?’ (I assume the question refers to the book, rather than to the character, or else I missed a scandalous passage.) This question was then somewhat unfairly scorned by the Norfolk Blogger, before being further analysed at Hunting for Witches.

Alex Wilcock has pointed out in a comment, correctly, that there is a gay character in the Harry Potter series: Remus Lupin is clearly portrayed as gay in the third book, Prisoner of Azkaban – which is why, at the end, he has to leave Hogwarts, when the school’s parents discover his secret.

The trait was picked up by the film adaptation in which David Thewlis’s Lupin is shown indulging his love of musicals. And if you think I’m over-exaggerating the homoerotic overtones, watch this, and you’ll see I’m not the only one:

So, why didn’t JK follow through this line of characterisation? Two possibilities occur:

(i) she was totally oblivious, and I (and others) have read way too much subtext; or

(ii) she (or her publisher) decided it was too risque for such a popular kids’ book.

There’s also another possibility. That Lupin is differentis clearly part of the book. However, there’s an uncomfortable analogy which JK may have decided, on reflection, she was better not pursuing: Lupin is ‘different’ because, against his wishes, he is turned into a werewolf having been preyed on by a predator. He then finds himself unable to control his own actions when he becomes a werewolf, and is a threat to others, even his closest friends. Indeed, he has to be confined when the moon is full. JK may have felt that drawing comparisons between Lupin’s latent homosexuality and his werewolf status would simply have re-inforced negative stereotypes. As it is, JK’s heart doesn’t really seem to be in it when she marries off Lupin and Tonks, a union which always appeared mis-matched.

This is even more reason if you consider the evil Fenric Greyback, another werewolf, who makes it his life’s mission deliberately to go round infecting healthy wizards to turn them into werewolves. (Greyback/Bareback, anyone?)

By the way, any female reader of Harry Potter would be far more likely to dwell on the lack of positive powerful female role models. There’s Hermione, but she’s a swot. Other than that, the major characters – Harry, Voldemort, Dumbledore and Snape – are all male. An argument can be made for McGonagall, but she is always Dumbledore’s deputy, his support, who defers to him. Mrs Weasley is the archetypal Mother Earth figure. And the two great wizard houses of Hogwarts founders are Gryffindor and Slytherin, again both male. Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff, the two female founders’ houses, are also-rans. The wizarding world, it seems, is just as male-dominated as the real world.

Who said these books were fantasy?

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11 comments

I compared the werewolfs to a discriminated ethnic minority, not to a discriminated sexual minority.

But I think that Luna Lovegood might have been a lesbian, though.

by Anonymous on July 26, 2007 at 11:10 am. Reply #

No poofs in Potter? Who cares! I’ll stick to ‘The Authority’ where we see ‘Apollo’ and ‘The Midnighter’ (comic’s first gay couple) regularly kicking the living crap out of the baddies! What fun!

by simon on July 26, 2007 at 11:36 am. Reply #

Poofs? How liberal, indeed.

by Anonymous on July 26, 2007 at 1:13 pm. Reply #

A really grown up assessment and analysis, and far more educated than me on the subject, as ever.

I could have put my arguments more lucidly, but given my tiredness, I failed.

The point I was trying to make is that every minority group can complain about something. Why has there been no black James Bond ? Why are there no Migrant workers in Coronations Street ? Why no asians in Emerdale ? Indeed, why are there no positive role models of people with country accents (West Country, East Anglia) in any TV dramas ?

We could all get angry, or in the case of someone on my blog get personally aggressive and call people names. But the point is that in a book which is a piece of fantasy, as in TV which is NOT a reality programme, it does not have to reflect society as a whole.

by Norfolk Blogger on July 26, 2007 at 1:28 pm. Reply #

Who decides which books get press (Harry Potter) and which get censored? After all, censorship is becoming America’s favorite past-time. The US gov’t (and their corporate friends), already detain protesters, ban books like “America Deceived” from Amazon and Wikipedia, shut down Imus and fire 21-year tenured, BYU physics professor Steven Jones because he proved explosives, thermite in particular, took down the WTC buildings. Free Speech forever (especially for books).
Last link (before Google Books caves to pressure and drops the title):
America Deceived (book)

by Anonymous on July 28, 2007 at 2:10 pm. Reply #

Isn’t there a Polish woman in the knicker sweat shop in Coronation Street? There was a story a few months ago when another migrant worker was killed falling down stairs. The management tried to cover up that she’d been working double shifts.

by Boxwatcher on July 29, 2007 at 10:35 am. Reply #

There’s also Sirius Black, who, it appears, may have, at one time at least, been in a relationship with Remus. Prisoner of Azkaban has quite a lot of subtext along with the repeated line “together?” “I think so” and in book five, during Snape’s worst Memory, Sirius is completely failing to notice the trail of girls staring at him in order to simply look at Remus reading.

Sirius is a daredevil, attention seeking and deeply loyal man, who, to quote Rowling “never bothered having a girlfriend” and was disowned from the Anicient and Most Noble House of Black for disgracing the family name… Hmmm…

There are some arguments that Remus’ Lycanthropy is an analogy for HIV, also (with Fenrir some sort of bareback paedophile), but i agree that Remus’ insistence at the end of Prsoner of Azkaban that the parents would want the children to be taught “by someone like me” do have deep echoes in homophobia.

I also agree that his Marriage to Tonks was sketched extremely thinly, and it’s interesting that we never see them both happy at the same time, and the sidelining of her character in the final book was deeply disappointing.

Could it be, that in Remus Lupin, we have one of the first, strong and deeply likeable Bisexual characters?

Maybe that’s too much to hope for…

by Lauren on July 31, 2007 at 2:03 pm. Reply #

I agree, that as a female reader I prefer to obsess over the lack of interesting female characters which aren’t all reduced to one stereotype. For example Hermione is often compared to Petunia Dursley or Mrs. Weasley, as though all women are alike.
However I too would have liked one two of the characters to be outed. Lupin for one, although that seems impossible now.

by Jesse on August 6, 2007 at 6:45 pm. Reply #

Coming to this late, I know, but I have to say that there is a very strong sexual tension between Harry and Draco Malfoy. I’m not saying they actually had a fumble in the Room of Requirement, but it is clear they both have a lot of repressed feelings for each other.

Harry’s ‘love’ of Ginny Weasley is also ambiguous at best – look at the way he not only ditches her at the end of book 6 but only seems to ever express his desire for her in idealised romantic terms. It’s never visceral. That may be a failing on the part of the author, but what is odd is the way he brushes past her after the finale in book 7, preferring the company of dead headmasters. What?!

Finally, there is that final scene, years later, when they bump into Malfoy at Kings Cross, replete with forlorn glances. The scenes of Hogsmeade station were filmed at the same station (Carnforth) as the one used for Brief Encounter. Do I have to paint you a picture?

by James Graham on August 24, 2007 at 9:43 am. Reply #

RT @nottsprofsteve: The Politics of Harry Potter: http://t.co/bUALVVEF >Oh, and of course gay subtext in Azkaban http://t.co/MpkRP4xZ

by Stephen Tall on February 21, 2012 at 3:49 pm. Reply #

RT @nottsprofsteve: The Politics of Harry Potter: http://t.co/bUALVVEF >Oh, and of course gay subtext in Azkaban http://t.co/MpkRP4xZ

by Steven Fielding on February 21, 2012 at 5:23 pm. Reply #

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