I found an extremely interesting book the other day: Harry Potter and the Millennials: Research Methods and the Politics of the Muggle Generation, by Anthony Gierzynski and Kathryn Eddy (Baltimore: John Hopkins University, 2013). Gierzynski is a political science prof at the University of Vermont, and he did a study with some twelve hundred or so American college students to determine whether the Harry Potter books and movies had an influence on the politics and attitudes of the Millennials, the generation born between 1982 and 2002 who has grown up with and alongside the Harry Potter characters. The short version? Yes, they did.
Gierzynski has informally dubbed it “The Harry Potter Factor“. Harry Potter fans (and he carefully defines what he means by that term) are more likely “to be more accepting of those who are different, to be more politically tolerant, to be more supportive of equality, to be less authoritarian, to be more opposed to the use of violence and torture, to be less cynical, and to evince a higher level of political efficacy. They are also more liberal, with a more negative view of the Bush years, and … they are more likely to have voted for Barack Obama for president” (6) (apparently a whopping two-thirds of the Millennials voted for Obama in the 2008 election). Gierzynski makes the point that one’s political opinions are most strongly formed during the teen years, years which for the Millennials were strongly characterised by a pervasive cultural Harry Potter mania. Between 1997 (the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) and 2011 (the last movie), everyone was talking about The Boy Who Lived and his stories. Kids who grew up during those years would more than likely have found themselves among peers who read or watched Harry Potter and were fans, would have been encouraged to read the books by teachers or parents, and would have encountered the boy wizard around every corner.
Now, of course, the HP stories are fiction, not political treatises or textbooks. But fiction, Gierzynski says, has a tremendous influence on how we think, how we see the world. “When we become immersed in a story, we are moved to emulate the characteristics of the heroes and reject those of the villains. When we become immersed, we truly experience all that the fictional world offers and take to heart the lessons that our heroes learn” (78). So think about it: a kid in their teens, their most politically malleable phase, reads and watches a story in which the only people who kill with impunity and use torture to achieve their ends are utter villains, and where the hero is known for refusing to hurt or kill others even when those others are evil. Then you put the question to this kid: “Would you regard the use of torture against people suspected of involvement in terrorism as acceptable or unacceptable?” (that’s question #32 on Gierzynski’s questionnaire, p. 92). Are the answers any surprise? Only 20.06% of HP fans said “acceptable”, vs. 30.8% of the non-fans. That’s a big deal, statistically speaking.
And that’s just one of the lessons in Harry Potter. Some of the others, as identified by Gierzynski, are the importance of tolerance, equality, diversity and acceptance, the corruption of government, and the evils of authoritarian attitudes (Voldemort and his hordes are the ultimate in authoritarian thinking, and one of the most evil characters in the series is Dolores Umbridge – “Don’t make any changes, keep those who are different from us suppressed as much as you can, always follow the rules, and never, never say anything that disagrees with the official opinion.”). And according to the result of Gierzynski’s study, Harry Potter fans learned their lesson.
The study came out last year, in spring of 2013, but there is a website, harrypotterandthemillennials.net, where you can still participate. As Gierzynski points out, there are still so many other questions to answer: for example, if Harry Potter had such a phenomenal influence on the Millennials, what did Star Wars do for Generation X? Casablanca for the war generation? Or, for another example put right here and now by Yours Truly, what did The Wizard of Oz do for the Boomer generation who watched it every year on TV – in between their reading of the Narnia books? What is our fiction doing for our attitudes?