A couple of months ago, fandom got some major coverage by National Public Radio, in a positive way. In a story on NPR’s Morning Edition, Neda Ulaby described Harry Potter fans as engaged, educated, and active citizens. These fans were members of the Harry Potter Alliance, a nonprofit activist group that seeks to engage in social justice in the real world by using parallels from the Harry Potter books.
In the news story, Ulaby interviewed Kate Looby, the Operations Director for the Harry Potter Alliance, who explained that before she got involved with the Harry Potter Alliance, she was “pretty apathetic.” After joining the nonprofit and becoming their Director of Operations, Looby said “I would say now I consider myself to be a full-fledged activist.” Ulaby’s story of how Harry Potter fans were becoming activists demonstrates how surprising it is for most people that fans are not loners, hiding away from the world, but rather are productive and rational- and can create real political change.
For a fandom organization composed mostly of adolescents and young adults to see themselves as activists is pretty surprising. Harry Potter fandom is considered a leisure time activity, something silly, though enjoyable. Adolescents are supposed to be apathetic about current events and critical issues, uninformed, much less engaged. For Looby at least, fandom is playing an important role in her process of recognizing herself as an active citizen and engaged activist.
The Harry Potter Alliance’s rhetoric has invited Looby and thousands of others to begin to see themselves as more than fans using media for themselves, and consider themselves engaged citizens. Fandom and social movement rhetoric are coming together. For people who are concerned with political action, the important question is how a nonprofit can use Harry Potter enthusiasm to spur adolescents into action, where high school civic teachers cannot.
Political theorist John Dewey, philosopher Fredric Jameson, and sociologist Doug McAdam all note that people need grounding in order to act meaningful in the world. For Harry Potter fans, the Harry Potter story provides that grounding. It provides fans with a touch-point, worldview, or philosophy that allows them to take political and social action.
The Harry Potter text operates politically for fans in two ways. First, the Harry Potter text anchors fans as it guides fans and gives them ways of acting in the world. The Harry Potter Alliance asks fans to compare themselves to Harry and to ask themselves what Dumbledore would have done. Since Hermione fought for House Elf rights, then Harry Potter fans should fight for fair trade. If Voldemort killed mudbloods, then Harry Potter fans should value diversity. The Harry Potter Alliance certainly plays a key role in guiding such interpretations by highlighting some aspects of the Harry Potter story (like Dumbledore’s sexuality), organizing particular kinds of alliances (with liberal, social justice groups), and by guiding fans in determining the real world equivalent of House Elf rights.
Second, the Harry Potter text works as a strong anchor, drawing on an intense dedication to the text. The Harry Potter Alliance capitalizes on fans’ already intense identification with the Harry Potter text and translates that to an intense identification with social activism. While apathy about the environment may be easy, apathy about house elf rights for Harry Potter fans is more difficult to maintain.
For young adults who feel like political discussions are irrelevant and distant, Harry Potter offers a way to connect. Maybe political world views like liberalism and conservativism aren’t our only choices anymore. Sarah Palin better move over. Harry Potter just arrived.