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?