E here, with spoilers… and I know that’s possible to do, since my brother stubbornly refuses to read these books, the turkey. (M: Actually, I’ve read all seven books, thank you very much!)
There’s been minor fluff on the interwebs lately about Harry Potter and Sex. No, Daniel Radcliffe hasn’t been naked on stage again; there’ve just been a few early reviews of Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince which refer to the film as sexy. Couple that with the director’s previous statement that the film is all about hormones, and what any reader knows about the plot, and you’ve got a lot of folks wondering; how much sex IS there in the new Harry Potter movie, and is a sexed up Hogwarts a good or bad thing?
Chief among the wonderers is Alyssa Rosenberg of The Atlantic, herself inspired by a somewhat rambling piece written for The Atlantic by James Parker (whose head explodes at the thought of a co-ed boarding school). Entertainment Weekly, no doubt among others, responds with a precise and pithy web piece by Jean Bentley which cuts right to Alyssa’s most controversial contention:
“J.K. Rowling, for all that she’s created a compelling universe, is really awful at writing about adult sexual and romantic relationships.”
Actually, perhaps that’s not the kicker. Rosenberg later offers up this gem:
“Rowling never gives readers a single detailed description of an adult sexual relationship. ”
There are lots of intelligent responses to that article in the comments section, so I’ll try not to rise too strongly to that too obvious bait, which is almost – ALMOST – too daft to bother with. It’s a bit baffling even to have to say that Harry Potter is Children’s Literature, isn’t it? Rowling wasn’t aiming for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist; but she clearly has chosen to keep the series accessible to younger readers by skipping over some of the more, mmm, salacious aspects of adolescence. How can this come as a surprise?
It’s not as if there are no details about adult relationships. We see Fleur fawning over Bill, cutting up his food and feeding him from her own fork. We see Mrs Weasley misty eyed with romantic nostalgia, bursting with pride and with worry. We’re surprised by Tonks begging Lupin to give in to his love for her. But readers generally see what Harry sees. Harry’s not the acute observer of the human condition that Hermione or even Luna is. And for us to get that “single detailed description” of – well, which adult relationship would that be, exactly, and just how detailed? Because for us to know it, Harry’d pretty much have to see it. Does anyone want him to walk in on Mr and Mrs Weasley?
I know. You just threw up a little in your mouth. Me too.
(M: Could be worse, you could have said the Dursleys!)
Rosenberg is also a little weirded out that so many of the characters form life long romantic attachments as children. And no, that’s not particular realistic, either, but this doesn’t bother me for a few reasons. First, from a practical standpoint, the Wizarding community doesn’t exactly have the biggest dating pool. If you don’t marry someone you went to Hogwarts with, you’re stuck with a muggle, a foreign national, or at least an 8 years age difference. (C: It’s also wartime, and something about the threat of imminent death does historically seem to make people pair up.) In claiming that this is true of everyone, she also weasels a bit about what she considers a relationship – what about Ginny and Dean? Percy and Penny? – as well as making assumptions about people like the Weasleys which we have no way to verify. More importantly, however, we’re invested in these characters and their relationships; what sort of happy ending would it be to see Ron and Harry, 19 years later, with spouses we’d never heard of or randomly married to Pansy Parkinson? (Okay, I know there are people out there who’d like that a lot, but you know you’re not in the majority.) But finally, don’t children want to believe that they really will be BFFs – that their friendships and loves will last a lifetime? Didn’t you believe that fervently when you were a child? I did. Is it wish fulfillment? Sure. But it’s audience-appropriate.
It does seems to me, though, that Rosenberg brings up a couple issues which are less cut and dried, whether you think her post was set up deliberately to shock or is just sort of missing the point. Basically, she wants the books to grow fully as Harry and his friends grow. And I can understand that urge. If Rowling had written them that way, however, it would present an even graver challenge to her core audience than already exists. As a parent, I’m constantly wondering what ages are most appropriate to introduce my children to literature and film, both for comprehension level and for content. There’s so much that I love and can’t wait to share with them – but I do have to wait. My six year old son, for example, is a Star Wars fanatic, and my husband and I have so enjoyed sharing his pleasure in those films. He’s only seen the original triology, however; not merely because the more recent three films are vastly inferior, which they are, but because Anakin Skywalker’s journey into Darkness contains some really ugly moments that we just don’t feel like he needs to see. Especially since his four-year-old sister will want to watch with him. The Potter series poses similar problems; the charming, wonder-filled but formulaic first HP book won’t necessarily snare the ideal reader for the emotionally and theologically sophisticated seventh. I don’t know when I’ll introduce my kids to Harry, because the series does grown with him; they may be ready for the first book soon, or at least the first movie, but they’re not ready to go all the way through, and how do you stop that train once it’s left the station?
So can the books – children’s books, some of which feature adolescents – be true to adolescence without getting too detailed about sex? What’s really interesting about this to me (thought admittedly a bit tangential) is that the increasing level of violence doesn’t change the reading level of the books from Kiddie Lit to Young Adult fiction, but sex would. They’re not as graphic as, say, Kathy Reich’s Bones mysteries, but some pretty unpleasant stuff happens to a lot of characters, and that’s not counting the ones who end up dead. Fascinating, isn’t it, that sex is the forbidden fruit; that we can have murder, mutilation and rage but any whisper of sex is a bad, bad thing? Why is it that imaginary sex spoils innocence, but imaginary violence doesn’t? Puzzling, but culturally true.
So, fine. It WOULD be more realistic to read about Harry’s first wet dream and what he thinks about Romilda Vane’s rack. And I’m sure that if she chose to write that sort of fiction, Rowling would canvas the topic with her characteristic humor. I’m not sorry she didn’t, though. Let’s call them, perhaps, true for what they do. I would contend that they’re just as realistic as glossy, hypersexual teen fantasy series like Gossip Girl, if not considerably more so. Perhaps it seems odd to look for realism in the land of house elves and animated candy, but Harry ages pretty authentically in almost all respects, in his anger, his confusion, his puzzlement over whom to trust and how much. And there’s truth in his romantic feelings as well. Harry shivers when Ginny pulls a maggot out of his hair. (And no, not because of the maggot.) He fantasizes about being alone with her. To Rosenberg, the work is fundamentally flawed because we don’t know precisely what he’d like to do. I’d rather not be told.
A film is a different beast, however. A daydream on film needs a little more specificity. In the book, Harry spends a great deal of time ignoring girls who don’t interest him – and pining silently for the very taken Ginny Weasley. He can’t spend the film successfully hiding that longing. Something has to become a little more overt. And that’s the next real question; how will the visual translation of romantic and sexual relationships change the film version? Will the movie be true to the tone of the book? We’ll have to see. I hope it’s something they can do well. I have to admit, though, I’m more worried about the scene in the trailer where the Burrow seems to be exploding. I am reasonably certain that the excellent David Yates knows he’s not directing an episode of Skins. Given that Rowling has made the decision to keep her books accessible to younger readers, I can only assume that the film will be accessible to them, too. After all, kids are the producers’ bread and butter. Adults and teens who already love the stories will come. There’s no need to court potential audience members by ‘sexing up’ the movies, not when it would preclude so much of your core fans. (C: Unfortunately, even if the film was wildly inappropriate for its age group, millions of children would still be taken to see it. I hope the producers aren’t banking on that, but it’s true.) This is Harry Potter, for heaven’s sake, the publishing phenomena of the century. There’s only a need – at least as far as I’m concerned – to make the best possible movie. So I don’t think that the filmmakers will tart up the story until it’s not kid friendly. I’m hoping for just sexy enough.
And after all, smart films work on a lot of levels. Sexy doesn’t have to be graphic. Shrek is laden with innuendo which flies right over the heads of enthusiastic young viewers, and lands directly on their parents. Think of the smoldering passion conveyed in Casablanca as Rick and Ilsa dance in the Parisian jazz club. And then the next scene where they sit in her apartment, laughing, and she lounges in a robe? The wardrobe and the dissipation of tension tells a story without words for those who can see it. Darcy doesn’t have to kiss Elizabeth in the misty fields to make you catch your breath. And you know, there is that crack about wand work in Deathly Hallows. Sexy doesn’t have to mean Hogwarts: 90210. It can mean a boom box in the rain. Or, perhaps, an emotionally charged Quidditch victory party.
So in the end, I have this to say to you, gentle readers. I don’t think it’s possible to say that Rowling is bad at writing adult sexual relationships, because (as Rosenberg herself notes) she just doesn’t do it – because anything explicit is not appropriate to her primary audience. The series doesn’t focus on adult romantic relationships particularly, and that too makes sense; are kids really interested in their parents’ love lives? While we do see a sort of Romantic idealization of Harry’s parents love, who thinks he’d feel that way if they weren’t dead?
But there is an audience for a more adult Potterverse. While much has been made of Rowling’s ability to inspire the young to read, I don’t think enough has been made of her capacity to inspire those readers to write. And write they have, thousands of times over. If you want detailed Potter sex, go read the fan fiction. It’s easy to find. There’s an abundance of it, in every tone or permutation or slash or fetish you could wish, and some of it is even well written. (C: You’ve been reading Potter Porn? E, you shock me.) Rowling’s refusal to include sexual details in her books helped spawn an impossibly large creative outpouring. Read the fan fiction, or dream your own daydreams. Just don’t come crying to the internet claiming that Rowling did us all wrong. As another creative icon – one better known for writing about sex – says, all you need is your own imagination. Use it – that’s what it’s for.