Only as strong as we are united: Fandom’s place in activism

A message can exist even if it was never intended. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Macaluso on Flickr)

Robert Beiler

Staff Writer

“Harry Potter” is a phenomenon that shows no sign of going away. It’s also spawned a generation of politically active youth, and that’s not a bad thing.

In March 2017, Alex Nichols wrote a piece for The Outline that railed liberals who use “Harry Potter” (and other assorted pop culture) as part of their political dialog.

His thesis can be gathered from the sub-headline: “A cursory knowledge of pop culture will never be useful as a political tool.”

Taken at face value, this makes sense. If your only political engagement comes in the forms of meme and references, you’re adding more to the noise than to the dialog.

But the article goes a bit further than this, to indicate that works like the “Harry Potter” series cannot contribute to a meaningful view of politics.

“The ‘Harry Potter’ series is minimally political,” Nichols writes, “at least in the sense liberals want it to be.” I’m lead to believe that we read two different series.

Now, I come from the John Green school of thought about interpreting works. Authorial intent doesn’t matter.

“The book does not exist for the benefit of the author, the book exists for the exists for the benefit of you,” Green states in his Crash Course English Literature program on YouTube, “If we as readers can have a bigger, and richer experience with the world, as a result of reading a symbol, and that symbol wasn’t intended by the author, we still win!”

Nichols puts some of the blame on series author J.K. Rowling, that by putting her political opinions out in the world through social media, that this somehow retroactively made the series more political to people.

The piece meanders from there, going on to blame the “Buzzfeedification of the internet” as dumbing things down.

Now I could take this as a difference of opinion if the author didn’t also seem to revel in the backlash to the article.

“I’m being quote retweeted by angry nerds,” Nichols’ tweeted to one responder. As though being angry or a nerd or an angry nerd is a bad thing. I tweeted back at the time that angry nerds are better than apathetic nerds and I still stand by that statement.

The quintessential point that stands in favor of this is the Harry Potter Alliance.

The HPA is a non-profit that was founded in 2005 with the express purpose of channeling fan’s passion into activism and social change.

“The Harry Potter Alliance is kind of like a Dumbledore’s army for the real world,” the HPA Communications Director Jackson Bird told me in an interview.

“We use ‘Harry Potter’ and other popular culture to mobilize fans toward social action,” Bird said. “We do that by drawing parallels from the stories as well as using the intrinsic enthusiasm and creativity and organizing power of fan communities to effect real change.”

Bird has been affiliated with the HPA for seven years and started as a volunteer video editor. Throughout college he would remain involved and after graduating four years ago he took on his current role. He’s very optimistic about the HPA’s connection between pop culture and activism.

“When you talk about fan activism a lot of times historically that meant things like fans coming together to protest the cancellation of a TV show or the death of a character,” he said.“What we’re actually doing is rising around things in our world so whether that’s economic inequality or immigration reform or the rights of LGBTQIA people. We’re just sort of using our commonality of our love for ‘Harry Potter’ or whatever pop culture reference it is at the time to kind of come together and effect change as a group.”

The alliance touts many success stories on their website. This includes a four-year campaign to make sure HP licensed chocolate products come from companies that use Fair Trade practices as well as the organization’s fundraiser to send aid to Haiti after their 2010 earthquake.

The HPA worked with multiple fan communities to raise over $123,000 in a two-week period. This money was used to send five airplanes of medical supplies to the devastated island nation.

Harry Potter Alliance
The Harry Potter Alliance is one organization that uses fan energy to push social and political change.

Bird has seen fan-based activism trivialized before.

“They say ’you should just care about this thing on its own, you shouldn’t have to use fiction as an entry point,’” Bird recalls. “But I think that is ignoring how many people grow up in very privileged or sheltered bubbles not being exposed to very important issues.”

Bird also hopes that anyone they reach moves past this entry point to continue as activists and politically involved people.

He views “Harry Potter” as a unique place in fiction for young people due to the presence of more adult themes. Themes like prejudice, discrimination, and corruption in media and government.

“There is just so much to be able to pull from that to get inspired on these issues in our world,” Bird said. “Because we do reach so many younger people, and so many first-time activists, we also use it a tool to start discussions on various social issues for people who might not have come face to face with these issues before.”

So yes, there may be fair-weather fans whose activism could be construed as shallow. But these people may also be at the beginning of their journey.

The connection between arts and life is potent. As I wrote in my connection between Rick and Morty with existentialism, pop culture is a lens through which we can better understand our world and each other.

Rejecting Harry Potter or any series that people connect to so fervently only serves to downplay the important role that art plays in politics.