My. Poor. Head. It’s on theory overload. If I hear the words “patriarchy” and “culture industry” one more time I might just scream. Aaaaaagh! There, I’m done.
So, other than Gilbert & Gubar (the ones about patriarchy) I’ve been reading Jack Zipes. A lot. He’s the guy who talks about culture industry. First I read Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales, the 1979 version. I liked it so much, I bought me the 2002 (updated) version, and it’s got a chapter at the end about Harry Potter. Now, I’m afraid I disagree with Dr Zipes on Harry, but to make sure of that, I had to go back to the library and get the book where he goes far more indepth with that topic: Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. Yup, sure enough, I still disagree with him.
Well, to a point. What he says about the Harry Potter mania being a product of the culture industry, yes. Agreed. And there are things Zipes says about HP which I thought from the first moment I picked up the books, namely, that they’re really nothing special as far as kids’ fantasy goes. Diana Wynne Jones, for example, is easily as good a writer as J. K. Rowling, and the HP books are really very conventional. That’s Zipes’ main point, the conventionality, the reinforcing of common standards. He also says the books are sexist, which, much as I hate to admit it, I have to agree with. All the heroic deeds are done by men and/or boys; women are either stay-at-home mothers (Mrs Dursley, Mrs Weasley, presumably Mrs Malfoy) or, if they’re working women, unmarried (the Ministry of Magic witches, the professors at Hogwarts – mind you, in that case, so are their male colleagues. Standard 1950’s academic environment, methinks).
Where I disagree with Zipes is, among other things, on his pronouncement that the Harry Potter books are all the same, every last one of them. Same plot, each time, he says. But I can forgive Zipes for saying that, because at the point he delivered that crushing verdict, only four of the books had been written. He critiques the Harry Potter series from the exact middle of the series – yes, there are seven books, but in sheer volume of pages, the first four books together don’t make as many pages as the last three. It’s like critiquing Lord of the Rings from the middle of The Two Towers. Zipes makes a few other statements about the HP books which he couldn’t have made if he had written his essays seven years later, after the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. For example, he says that there aren’t any women on the evil side (that’s part of his point that women/girls are practically absent from the books). Well, with the fifth book Rowling created one of her most evil characters, Dolores Umbridge, not to mention Voldemort’s crazed fangirl, Bellatrix Lestrange – most definitely witches, not wizards. That’s just a minor point; along with this one, several other of his criticisms pertain to issues which are dealt with in later books, such as the rounding out of the characters which he feels is lacking. In the later books, Dumbledore, Harry’s father, Sirius Black, and even (or especially) Harry himself are no longer “perfect” – their flaws begin to show, and the struggles Harry has with that fact are some of the key points of the stories.
However, as I said, I can overlook Zipes’ critiques because he didn’t and couldn’t have known any different. I’d really like to know what he has to say about the HP stories now that the series is finished, but from the tone of those essays from 2000/2002 I wonder if he’s even bothered reading the remaining books. From the essay in Sticks and Stones, I get the feeling he’s only talking about HP because he’s been made to – he made one side comment about HP in another essay on a different topic, and journalists and the public jumped all over him, wanting to hear more about his opinion on the lightning-scar boy. So he gave it, just to have people like me get all miffed about it, even ten years later.
The thing is, I get miffed because I really like what Zipes has to say, for the most part. His folk tale theory makes heaps of sense, and his writing is interesting to boot – not hard to read, like some of the other theorists out there. He’s also extremely prolific – as I said, Breaking the Magic Spell first came out in 1979, and he’s still going strong, putting out a book every few years. I’m eagerly waiting for his latest, The Irresistable Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre – it’s in the mail. Along with Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book and Red Fairy Book, which I need for my final thesis. It’s tough having to buy fairy tale books, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do for your education, right?