Thinking About Harry Potter, Disability, and Cultural Studies

CW: mention of child abuse/neglect

For another class (an English class at Smith about witches, witchcraft, and witch hunts), I was assigned Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as reading.  In revisiting that text at this point in my life, I realized there could be enormous potential in a disability studies reading of the Harry Potter series.  Specifically, I am thinking about trauma.  (And I will focus mostly only the protagonist’s traumas, even though there are many other characters whose experiences could offer interesting insights).

There is no denying that Harry Potter goes through and lives with a lot of trauma throughout his life.  Yet none of it is really recognized as trauma in the books (or if it is, the only way Harry is shown dealing with it is suppressing his emotions and persevere despite all odds; a lovely intersection of toxic masculinity and ableist ideology).  Harry’s status as person reduced to sleeping under the stairs in the Dursley house is somehow romanticized as quirky, ie: Harry gets his Hogwarts letters addressed to him as “the Cupboard Under the Stairs.”  But Harry’s forced occupation of that storage space is an element of the horrible abuse inflicted upon him by the Dursleys.  It is also not cute or pleasing to know that Harry’s future school (and the people who placed him in the Dursley’s home in the first place) are aware of the abuse that  happens and do nothing about it.  So, I ask myself: what would be different if Harry Potter was written with mind to disability, trauma, and abuse, rather than brushing them off.

If Harry’s traumas and subsequent experiences of the affect of trauma were recognized diegetically, then I imagine that the very plot of later Harry Potter installments would cease to become possibilities at some point.  Ie: care-givers for Harry would not ever allow him to live with the Dursleys again; Dumbledore would stop asking/ expecting Harry to do dangerous, anxiety-inducing things at the risk of facing violent people; the Tri-Wizard tournament simply would not exist (or would have existed but been cancelled for the well-being of all involved).

Imagine: a Harry Potter who has his traumas recognized and validated as traumas by people around him.  A Harry Potter who comes to understand himself as disabled. What would happen?  What would happen if this world-renowned series boasted a protagonist who was disabled?  Would the Harry Potter series have had its wide-reaching scope and influence if it was written with mind to trauma and disability? How might my childhood had been different if I was exposed to texts in which the answer to every problem was not just to persevere, but sometimes to have limitations and to recognize them?  The possibilities are powerful.  I somewhat long to write fanfiction that incorporates a disability studies  lens, as I think the results could be wonderful.


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