The least believable part of the Harry Potter franchise isn’t the flying broomsticks, or the spells and potions, or even the fantastic beasts (wherever they are found). It isn’t even that people can disappear through a barrier in the middle of the busiest railway station in one of the world’s most populous cities without anyone noticing. These are all part of the rich fantasy world JK Rowling has created, a world we accept with a willing suspension of disbelief.
The most unbelievable thing about Harry Potter isn’t that he’s a wizard; it’s that he is assertive. Orphaned at the age of fifteen months, and consequently raised by his only living relatives, the dysfunctional Dursleys, Harry endured a childhood of severe psychological, emotional, and physical abuse: forced to live in the cupboard under the stairs, bullied constantly by his cousin, coerced into domestic servitude, and subjected to an endless litany of ill-treatment in an atmosphere designed to suppress any individuality or sense of self-worth.
And yet, the youngster we see in the book first book and its film adaptation has a surprisingly assertive and vibrant personality, able to stand up for himself and insist upon his rights. He makes friends easily, and has no problem asking questions of adults when things are unclear; several times throughout the series he practices intelligent disobedience, calling out bad behavior on the part of his teachers and other authority figures.
This vital skill should be taught to all children, of course, but an abused child is not taught self-respect, let alone self-protection. We could assume that Rowling, who had a close and supportive relationship with her own mother, was not able to portray the character of an abused child. However, Rowling shows that she has no problem doing so: in the sixth book, we see a slice of life belonging to Merope Gaunt, a young woman who cowers in the presence of her brutal brother and father, clearly displaying every sign of someone who has lived with abuse from infancy, frozen into learned helplessness and unable to assert herself.
We can even see the aftereffects of abuse in Harry’s schoolfriend Neville Longbottom, whose family, doubting he possessed magical powers, devalued his life enough to allow an uncle to throw him out of a window (he only survived because he had enough magical power to save himself instinctually). When we first see this young wizard, he is timid and easily cowed, a stark contrast to his self-assured and confident friend, Harry Potter, who comes from an even more abusive home, but who has learned self-respect.
So where, if not at home, did Harry learn this self-respect? Although an easy (and enticing) answer would be that Harry, blessed with his mother’s parting protective spell of Love, was able to realize his own self-worth, it is much more probable that there was someone in this young wizard’s life who taught him this valuable lesson, long before he even heard of the wizarding world and his exalted place in it. In order for Harry to be the confident, assertive, and above all, self-respecting youngster we see entering school, he must have had someone in his life who, early on, taught him the valuable lesson that his opinions mattered, that he mattered, and that he could stand up for himself when necessary.
Although he might have been given this instruction by some kindly teacher at school, there is a more probable mentor already in his life: none other than minor character Arabella Figg, cat-crazy neighbor to the Dursleys, who knows of Harry’s origins and abilities, due to her own connection with the magical world. Moreover, as a “squib”, a non-magical person born to magical parents, she has personal experience of the second-class status bestowed upon those who are “different”.
This woman, with her flat full of felines and stale cake, is often asked to take care of Harry in his younger years. Although Harry doesn’t enjoy his visits with her, finding her tedious, he does feel safe in her home, free from the emotional and physical brutality of his relatives. She alone treats him with respect, subtly teaching him through example that he is worthy of love and kindness.
Children learn what they live, and too many children are not given the basic tools they need to resist undue influence – the most powerful tool being simple self-respect: the sense of self-worth. Although anyone can be seduced into a high-control group or abusive relationship, the path of the predator is much easier with those who never learned how to stick up for themselves. To create a world free from undue influence, all of us, even those of us who are not parents, should remember to “be there” for the children in our lives, as Arabella Figg was for Harry, and bestow upon them the precious gift of self-respect.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Is there another popular culture fandom you’d like to see us discuss through the lens of undue influence? We’d love to hear from you!