The Harry Potter Cultural Phenomenon
A phenomenon is:
1. a fact, occurrence, or circumstance observed or observable
According to the definitions provided for the word ‘phenomenon’, I am quite certain that this is the proper word to describe Harry Potter and the fervor created by the wizarding franchise. J.K. Rowling did more than create a story when she penned the Harry Potter books, she created a world so rich and engaging and characters so relatable, that it was inevitable that more would come out of her work that a children’s story. Instead, Harry Potter’s world has become our world, and our’s his.
A Remarkable, Extraordinary, Observable Occurrence
Many, many books are published every day, but how does one become as successful as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with children and adults alike? This occurrence does not happen often, especially when the subject is a children’s story. When I was first exposed to the first book in 1998, I remember watching news reports about how the book was going to change everything in regards to reading and literature for children, showing lines of people at books stores waiting to get their copies. Low and behold, this prediction was correct! There was something about Harry Potter that was able to connect with people and bring reading into vogue, a tall order considering the tech obsessed world into which it was released. Bookstores were selling out, the releases of each new book became huge events, and anyone who did not read the books was out of the loop. Prior to the release of the books, many people, children and adults alike, would not have considered themselves to be ‘readers’, but after being brought into the magical world of Harry Potter, many people like myself, found themselves being brought back to the written word.
One of the reasons for the success of Harry Potter, in my opinion, is the way that it is written. Many children’s books before Harry Potter were very “sanitized”, written to appeal to the innocence of childhood. Harry Potter, on the other hand, has a bit of an edge, allowing for students to experience a tension and thrill not found in many children’s literature books. There is true emotion, not knowing whether Harry and his comrades will be successful in their quests and perilous journeys. Additionally, the Harry Potter books are very smart. Rowling included miniscule, seemingly unimportant details that proved to be vital later in the story, such as the reference to Hagrid’s desire for a dragon early in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. This detail turned out to be extremely important later since it was this detail that led to uncovering the secret of how to get past Fluffy, the three headed dog guarding the Sorcerer’s Stone. This attention to detail respects the intelligence of children and challenges them to think more deeply about stories than many others that had been available at the time.
Another reason for the success of the book is the relatability of the characters. Everyone who reads the books has a character to which they can relate. Are you a goody two shoes? You can put yourself in Hermione’s shoes. Your family struggles to get by? Ron it is! Harry, though, is the most relatable of all the characters. He relates to the stereotypical “nerd”, wearing his broken glasses and baggy clothes. He embodies the dream of many who wish to have a secret life that they are waiting to discover. What child doesn’t envision him or herself as a long lost member of royalty? Harry can relate with kids from rough home situations in his living arrangement with the Dursleys. The most relatable element for me, as a reader, is the connection with orphaned children. Although not an orphan myself, I lost my father in 1998 and was left with a Dursley-like caretaker. This was the same year that I read the story, providing a level of empathy felt for the character and a connection that was important for me as a grieving teen. In reading the books, I was able to escape in much the same way Harry escaped his life with the Dursleys.
Even the story itself, although a fantasy, is very relatable and realistic. Harry’s muggle life in particular is very realistic. Children know that life is not fair or perfect, so they can empathize with the injustices felt by Harry. Rowling’s description of this world of muggles is relatable to the readers, but it is the realism found in her descriptions of Hogwarts that makes the story truly come alive for readers. In her descriptions, Rowling does not shy away from the outlandish or unbelievable ideas. Rather, she embraces them and describes them in such clarity that the ideas presented become plausible. Readers feel like they are at Hogwarts, making a real in their own imaginations.
Technology as a Culture Shifting Tool
The biggest influence on the Harry Potter phenomenon is film. Without the films, it is likely that Pottermania would have been limited only to readers of the books. With the addition of the films, more people were exposed to Harry Potter, creating a larger pool of people to spend money of the related merchandise. Outside of just the films as stories, the actors and music have also become huge parts of our culture. Emma Watson, for one, became known for her portrayal as Hermione in the films. Her influence, however, is not limited to just the Harry Potter universe. Rather, she famously attended Brown University, has become a fashion icon, and role model for many girls, showing that you can be fashionable, classy, AND smart. In a culture that glamourizes the clueless female archetype, seen in popular shows such as Jersey Shore and all of the Kardashian projects, Emma Watson broke the mold and showed girls that there is more to a woman than just looks.
The popularity of the books is due, at least in part, to the technologically advanced time in which we live. People were able to discuss the book, movie, and culture of the Harry Potter world like never before. With the advent of digital communication, fans are able to create their own websites showcasing their love for the franchise, buy and sell almost anything they could want related to Harry Potter, learn the ins and outs of the casts’ lives, and even be a part of the Harry Potter world through the online website, Pottermore. This connectivity provided by technology gave a sense of ownership to the fans, leading to a devout and enthusiastic following.
On a grander scale, beyond just Harry Potter, there has been a shift in attitudes toward “geeks” by the general populace since the release of the books. Perhaps it is incidental, since the internet and technology were gaining in popularity at the same time as the books, but over the past decade or so the “geek” or “nerd” label has lost some of its stigma. Instead of the isolation felt by nerds of previous generations, modern day nerds are able to network and communicate with others like themselves, possibly helping to build confidence and self-esteem that was problematic in the pre-internet era. Harry Potter himself is the epitome of the stereotypical nerd, complete with taped, broken glasses, and scrawny build. This popularization of nerd culture is evidenced by shows like The Big Bang Theory and the resurgence of franchises such as Star Trek.
Where the Book Fits In
The Harry Potter phenomenon began, obviously, with the books. The books, however, can sometimes be overshadowed by the sheer volume of merchandising surrounding the franchise. From movies to clothing, home accessories to food, official postage stamps (I saw them today at the post office) to toys and games; it is easy to see how the heart of the franchise, the books, can get lots in the shuffle. I believe, however, that it is the books that keep the franchise grounded and attribute to the continued success of Harry Potter, even though the series is now over. New readers are discovering the books and falling in love with Rowling’s tale of magic, mystery, and adventure, fueling the continuing marketability of the franchise.
This success of Harry Potter has led to a boom in young adult literature, specifically fantasy texts, including popular series such as The Hunger Games trilogy, Twilight, the Maze Runner books, the Percy Jackson books, and the Divergent series. It also brought forth a resurgence in classic texts, such as the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. Rowling was able to prove not only that young readers were capable of enjoying smart literature, but that they craved it. This new interest in reading is not confined to just young readers; many adults have been drawn into many young adult books because the high quality stories and smart writing. The franchise has also proved that films based on young adult books can be extremely lucrative and successful. Without the successful crossover from book to film achieved by Harry Potter, I am doubtful that movies like Twilight, The Hunger Games, or Percy Jackson would have been made, let alone been as successful as they were.
As a teacher, the culture of reading is evident in today’s classrooms. Growing up, I cannot ever remember discussing books with my friends. Even in school we did not really discuss books that we had read. As an elementary student in the early 1990’s, this was not that long ago. Now, however, it is not uncommon for me to hear students discussing certain books they are reading or have just finished. I provide time in class for students to discuss books, but what fascinates me is the fact that I catch students talking about books outside of class. The fact that students are voluntarily discussing books without being prompted is a noticeable sign of the shift in reading attitudes in children.
The Economy of a Cultural Phenomenon
The more I learn and think about Harry Potter as a cultural phenomenon, the more I realize how truly commercial our society is. It is neither the publishers nor the merchandisers that cause such a phenomenon. It is the consumers that drive the fanaticism; it is a simple matter of supply and demand. As consumers purchase goods, the demand increases, causing the franchises to produce more goods to keep up with consumer demands. John Pennington also argues that, “Phenomena such as the Harry Potter books are driven by commodity consumption.” Without consumers buying into the phenomenon, it would not exist.
In Joel Taxel’s article about children’s literature, the idea of “Fast Capitalism” is addressed in regards to the industry of publishing. Rather than allowing time for the writing process, fast capitalism pushes for a more regimented system of getting books from the minds of authors to the hands of their readers. As Taxel put it, children’s literature has become a “circuit of production, circulation, and consumption”. The artistry is lost, instead turning literature into a commodity to be bought and sold, rather than art to be enjoyed and savored. When this happens, the value of the text shifts from intrinsic to external. The story does not matter anymore. What matters is the amount of money to be made from sales of the book, possible films, and merchandising. This also hurts new authors since publishers are less likely to take risks on an unknown writer. Publishers would rather put their resources towards authors with successful track records.
Problems of Cultural Phenomena
While there are many positives that have come from Pottermania, such as the renewed interest in reading for enjoyment, there are also negatives. One such problem is the overwhelming effort by publishers and film makers to create the next phenomenon. Creating such a phenomenon is extremely lucrative, so it is understandable that others would like to find similar success and cash in. This can be seen in successful franchises such as Twilight and The Hunger Games. Like Harry Potter, fans have the technology at their fingertips to fuel their obsessions and access to any merchandise they can imagine. While this is good for a capitalist economy like ours, it begins to turn the focus from the literature to the accessories, a dangerous route that can lead to subpart stories. Why spend your time on the story when the screenplay and merchandise will earn far more money?
While some authors may lose motivation to create quality literature due to the merchandising aspects, many others feel the pressure of publishers to create stories with a quick turnaround time. This lack of time presents a challenge as this can lead to shoddier work. Authors are artists and work in very different ways and at different rates, so to expect that all authors can perform under such constraints is unfair. By limiting production to authors with quick turnaround times, many more laborious authors may be shut out from the industry.
Another concern is that beautifully written stories can lose their value as quality literature in the wake of the commercialization brought on by such a cultural phenomenon. As stated in the article by Philip Nel, “separate the books from the marketing.” In doing so, we can recognize a text for its merits, rather than all of the exterior distractions. This devaluation of the text can be troublesome for authors, including J.K. Rowling, who was very protective of her characters and her work. She was adamant that her characters were not to be pitchmen, for example, insisting that none of her characters would be seen drinking a Coca-Cola as a means of product placement.
Cultural Phenomena: Good or Bad?
While it would appear that there are a lot of negative aspects to a cultural phenomenon like Harry Potter, such as the devaluation of quality literature, increased pressure on authors, and more difficultly for new authors trying to get published, not to mention the increased commercialization driven by consumers, there are also several positives that perhaps negate or possibly even outweigh the negatives. The first positive being the fact that phenomena like this provide shared cultural experiences, giving people common ground with others. In a world so divided, any means of bringing people together cannot be overlooked. In terms of the Harry Potter phenomenon in particular, it was shown that film adaptations of children’s books can be well made and wildly successful, in this case leading to the success of many other adaptations. Finally, the most important and hopefully lasting effect of this cultural phenomenon is the impact on reading in our culture. Not only has Harry Potter convinced more children to think reading is cool, but it has also gotten their parents hooked on reading. In transforming our culture into one that not only can read, but enjoys reading, the Harry Potter phenomenon has provided our society with gift that not even the greatest of planners could concoct. A phenomenon is by definition is an extraordinary occurrence. It is something that just happens. No one planned for Harry Potter to change the world, but he did. Despite the commercialization and media frenzy, Harry Potter gave us, as a society, one of the greatest gifts possible, that is an internal and deeply felt love of reading.
Edie, this is a wonderful paper. You do a great job of looking at the complexities of creating a cultural phenomenon--the good things (reading) as well as the bad (commecialism). Nicely done.
I'm Edie - wife, mom, teacher, instructional designer, home renovator,
and lover of nature, travel, technology, and vintage campers!