Television doesn’t hold a monopoly over the term “media”, with one important branch of the term being media in print. Books are some of the oldest forms of media that there are, and they continue to influence our culture in the modern day.
Analyzing the most popular books can be telling; it can highlight the themes that society values. Yet analyzing the most popular printed content can also help in noticing the impact it has, and the ways it has contributed to shaping today’s society. One very popular example would be the Harry Potter book series. Being the most sold book series of all time (over 500 million copies sold worldwide), it is important to pay attention to content that is spread at such a large scale. Studies led by Loris Vezzali, a professor at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia have discovered something that some are calling the “Harry Potter effect”. His research revealed the significant impact that the popular Harry Potter children’s books had on young italians, and, more specifically, their worldview. A look into italian societal dynamics tells us that prejudice against immigrants is something unfortunately common.
This explains some of the opinions originally expressed by some child subjects of one 2014 study. The first research group of the study, made up of of 34 elementary school children, assessed each individual child so as to get a notion in regards to their opinions on immigrants. The 34 children then split into two groups, and began a six week long program. In this program, the two groups had separate meetings once a week. One group read Harry Potter passages that had direct correlation with experiences of prejudice. The other read excerpts from the same book series, but theirs dealt with unrelated topics.
After the passing of six weeks, the children were assessed once again on their attitudes towards immigrants, as well as how many Harry Potter books they had read and movies (from the same franchise) they had seen. This second assessment took place a week after the last reading session. It revealed a significant change in attitude among children who identified with the main character, after whom the book series is titled, Harry Potter.
The change, to be specific, affected the way in which the young subjects viewed immigrants. Their thoughts on the aforementioned marginalized community were a lot more positive after having read, and, most importantly, identified with Harry Potter. It is through seeing a bit of Harry in themselves, or vice versa, that these children reached greater levels of empathy. By looking up to a character that aligned himself with the magical oppressed communities within his fictional world, young readers learned to accept others in a similar way in their own lives.
To further explore the societal dynamics within the Harry Potter universe, this fictional world needs to be established. The series begins with an 11-year-old Harry Potter, an orphan boy who has been brought up by his Aunt and Uncle, Petunia and Vernon Dursley. Right from the start, these characters are meant to be disliked by the audience. They are mean and neglective, prioritizing the wants of their biological son, Dudley Dursley, over Harry’s needs. Harry and his cousin Dudley are the same age, but the similarities stop there. Harry is skinny, while Dudley is plump.
Harry is Brunette, and Dudley is Blond. But most importantly, Harry is familiar with loneliness and neglect, while Dudley has been handed everything he’s ever wanted. The Dudley character serves as a rough manifestation of what could’ve been if Harry’s Parents hadn’t died. And it is the general unfairness of the entire situation that creates empathy within the reader. For readers that grew up in a stable and loving home, this would be their first glimpse at the concept of a bad childhood. To these readers, turbulent family dynamics are alien, yet they align themselves with the main character. And it is at this point that the term “intergroup contact” comes in.
An “in-group” is a social circle to which someone belongs, the “us”. An “out-group”, on the other hand, is the “them”, it is the people which whom we don’t identify or associate ourselves with. And when these two “opposites” (for lack of better word) interact, it is intergroup contact.
Now let it be said that intergroup contact was not the only form by which the audience achieved greater empathy. This batch of studies also found the mere act of not identifying with the Dursleys (or any other villain) to be enough to stay loyal to Harry and his gang. This in itself is empathetic, to be on the side of someone you don’t necessarily relate to. But intergroup contact is important because it destroys the “us vs. them” narrative.
After introducing the reader to Harry’s home life and family, the next important point would be Harry’s visit to the zoo. Harry, who has had an inadequate bringing up on every level, has never visited the zoo, and his first time does not go as planned. Somehow, the glass separating a snake from the outside world disappears, and readers are led to believe that somehow, it is Harry’s unintentional doing. That Harry is not your average “nerd”. Harry is peculiar among the peculiar; he is stranger than the strange- and yet you still love him for it. Soon after, Harry turns 11 years old, and he is informed of the source of his peculiarity: Harry is a wizard. From this point on, the reader, along with the young protagonist, i introduced to the wizarding world.
Alongside Harry Potter they enter Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and accompany Harry while he makes magical friends and saves the wizarding world on his adventures. Yet this book series is not as simple as its core audience might lead some to believe. It introduces themes of oppression and discrimination within its world that mirror the real societal dynamics outside of it. One of Harry’s closest friends is Hermione Granger, a girl whose parents are non-magic, or “muggles”. More than once, Hermione is insulted because of her lineage, even being called a wizarding world slur: Mudblood. Purebloods would be those who come from a “pure” or all-wizard lineage, and, while Harry is a pureblood, that doesn’t stop him from defending and supporting Hermione over the course of the books.
This hostility toward muggle-born wizards mirrors the racism in the real world, and it is not something lost on kids. This is intergroup contact, where two wizards from vastly different backgrounds, with plights of their own, become best friends. Harry’s other best friend, Ronald Weasley, is from a low income background, completing a trio made up of: a muggle-born, a child abuse victim, and someone from a low-income background. A diverse set of main characters introduces young readers to people unlike themselves, and teaches them tolerance.
The Hogwarts student body seems to be ethnically diverse as well, though most minorities are secondary characters. Minorities would be better represented as some more core characters, but it’s a step in the right direction. The series’ main villain is Voldemort, an evil wizard that believes in blood purity and wants power and immortality. He has a cult-like following, named deatheaters, that share his views and do his bidding. Voldemort views muggles as inferior, and seeks to get rid of them.
He is willing to stoop to genocide. He is the wizarding world’s Hitler. He does not succeed, and dies in the final book, but his time alive causes intolerance and chaos within Harry’s world. Readers look up to Harry; they want to be like him. Voldemort, being Harry’s opponent, is the last thing they want to be.
And it is this intolerance for the intolerant that makes these books so very impactful.