November 21, 2010

A Muggle No More

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I tend to shun pop culture, at least initially. As I have mentioned before, I shunned Girl Talk, the iPod, and The Jersey Shore. The pop culture phenomenon that I shunned the longest and the hardest, however, was Harry Potter.We always had all the books in my house — my younger sister read each of them not just once, but often up to three times, and then still went back and re-read her favorite parts again and again. Then my dad started reading the books, and the two of them would go around calling my mom and I “muggles.” This was difficult to bare, but I persisted in my endeavor to show the world that I, unlike the fools around me, would … well, I’m not really sure what I was trying to prove, but whatever it was, I was adamant about proving it.It was not long before my family was sick of putting up with my obnoxious mutterings aimed at Harry and subjected me to listening to the first book on tape during long car rides. Embarrassingly enough, we hardly had to get to Harry’s discovery of his grim past and who he truly was before I was undeniably hooked. I kept trying to prove whatever it was I was proving half-heartedly by refusing to actually read the books, so I listened to the next three stories on tape before forfeiting the whole thing entirely to actually read the fifth.While I have accepted and embraced many cultural entities of entertainment after initially snubbing them, it is only Harry Potter that I not only accepted, but grew to truly love. Most would agree that there has to be something about Harry Potter that is, for lack of a better word, special. But what is it about J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world that places it in a realm so different than that of Lord of the Rings, Twilight or The Chronicles of Narnia?Due to my incredibly quick change of feelings towards the story, I’ve thought about what it is that makes it special a great deal over the years. The best theory I have come up with is that in Harry Potter, Rowling has created a world that is both extremely different from our own and extremely similar at the same time. Though I know many of my friends would cringe at yet another example of my Freud-loving ways, I assert that Harry Potter is essentially one big defense mechanism. The Harry Potter series presents us with a world in which magic wands make objects fly and images in picture frames move and talk. Yet at the same time, Harry Potter and his friends struggle with everyday problems such as difficult authority figures (think Professor Umbridge) and fights with friends, as well as more all-encompassing issues such as what it is to love, how to deal with grief, and what it means to lose one’s innocence. The wizards also fight for peace against Voldemort, a character who is at once reminiscent of Hitler, Stalin and the modern terrorists we fear today.We can easily laugh at and sympathize with the characters’ daily troubles. We are usually aware of our identification with Harry, for instance, when he struggles to ask his first crush, Cho Chang, to the dance, or with Hermione when she is frustrated that there are not enough hours in the day to get everything done (though in the wizarding world there is of course an easy solution to this — turn back time, duh). It is our identification with the characters due to more difficult issues, though, such as Harry’s difficulty with mourning loved ones or Hermione’s sadness over what she perceives as unrequited love, of which we may be more unaware. By witnessing Harry and his friends struggle through basic human problems, we unconsciously solve, or even just feel better about, our own problems.Defense mechanisms are usually so subtle, so commonplace, that we do not realize when we are using one. But they help us cope. Reading or watching or even listening to Harry Potter is so subtlety cathartic because the problems the characters face are disguised by a magical, incredibly unpredictable world that is the stuff of our dreams, not our reality. What we don’t realize, though, is that when stripped down to the basic elements, the world of Harry Potter is essentially identical to our own. Leave it to an Arts columnist psychology major to discuss the supposed psychological benefits of Harry Potter. I do believe, though, that Harry is an path into our psyches, a way for us to deal with our anxieties when we are not even aware of what it is that we find so wonderful about this fictional, four-eyed, skinny boy. I like that the Harry Potter movies are always released around this time of year because Harry helps keep us grounded by reminding us to be thankful for what is truly important in our lives. This is why I am saving the recent movie to see with my family over Thanksgiving break. I’m hoping that after this column, they will finally stop calling me a muggle.

Original Author: Suzanne Baumgarten