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You may have read the Harry Potter series a thousand times, but did you notice the overlooked rape victim in it? A look at why the series promotes rape culture.
JK Rowling told us a beautiful tale through the Harry Potter books that still warms many of our hearts every time we reread it. Some of us even grew up with the books, longing for that letter from Hogwarts that most certainly got lost when the owl was bringing it.
The series dealt with many topics like racism, friendship, death, both emotional and physical pain, etc. with amazing sensitivity. But one subject that it does not get right is rape. In fact, most of us don’t even notice that a rape occurred in the series.
Before we get into that, however, let me give the people who haven’t read or watched Harry Potter a quick summary of the story. Potterheads, please forgive me for simplifying it so much.
The basic storyline is that of the good guy, i.e., Harry Potter, defeating the bad guy, i.e., Voldemort. And there is a lot of magic involved. For future reference, non-magical folk are referred to as muggles within the Harry Potter universe and female and male magical people are called witches and wizards respectively. The term ‘pure-blood’ is used to refer to witches or wizards who have no Muggles or Muggle-borns (witches or wizards who have two non-magical parents) as parents or grandparents. With that, let’s get into what the issue actually is.
Here’s what the Harry Potter wiki has to say on love potions:
“Love potions are brews which cause the drinker to become infatuated or obsessed with the person who gave it to them. Love potions are considered to be powerful and highly dangerous.”
These brews leave the person who drank them extremely vulnerable to sexual harassment and sexual assault because they are willing to do anything for the person they are ‘in love’ with.
Yet, the series often treats love potions as jokes. Case in point, Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, a joke shop, sells love potions! And the shop is run by two of the most popular characters in the series. We are obviously not meant to think they are evil for selling what are essentially date rape drugs.
Another example can clearly be seen in the following clip:
In this clip, Ron is clearly completely ‘in love’ with Romilda Vane and would have definitely consented to kiss her or do more despite not really feeling anything for her when not under the influence of the love potion.
This shows how a love potion can make you vulnerable to sexual harassment. Yet, the whole thing is treated very funnily, even the title of the video proves that the scene was meant to provide comic relief. In the book (sixth book Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) too, the scene is treated in a very similar manner, as a joke.
Here is another clip of a scene that did not happen in the books, but it still shows that love potions are not taken seriously:
According to Wikipedia, “date rape drug, also referred to as a predator drug, is any drug that is an incapacitating agent which, when administered to another person, incapacitates the person and renders them vulnerable to a drug facilitated sexual assault (DFSA), including rape.”
Now, this is exactly what a love potion does – it literally lets you control a person and renders them vulnerable to sexual harassment and sexual assault. Next, I’ll talk about a specific case in which a love potion is used as a date rape drug and rape actually does occur.
The basic storyline of Voldemort’s (the villain) parents is that Merope Gaunt was a pure-blood witch who fell ‘in love’ with a muggle called Tom Riddle who was already engaged to someone else. She gave him a love potion to make him ‘love’ and marry her. She later got pregnant with his child – Tom Riddle Junior, i.e., Voldemort – and decided to stop giving him the love potion in the hope that he would have truly fallen in love with her. But that didn’t happen because as soon as she stopped, he decided to leave the pregnant Merope and go back home.
To get an idea of what the general narratives about Tom Riddle Senior and Merope Gaunt are, let’s first take a look at their wiki pages. (Potterheads, I know, I know – this is for those who don’t know the story!)
Merope is described as having a defeated and listless persona. At the very beginning of the article, we are told that she was abused by her father and brother. The whole article reads in a way that we just end up feeling sorry for her. We are told of her obsessive love for Tom and how she bewitched and married him and later became pregnant with his child. But nowhere is the word ‘rape’ used; however she did rape him, that’s how she became pregnant.
The Wikipedia definition of rape is the following (and I think we can all agree on it):
“Rape is a type of sexual assault usually involving sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual penetration carried out against a person without that person’s consent. The act may be carried out by physical force, coercion, abuse of authority, or against a person who is incapable of giving valid consent, such as one who is unconscious, incapacitated, has an intellectual disability or is below the legal age of consent.”
Clearly, Merope had sex with Tom Riddle when he was incapacitated and essentially unconscious – he was incapable of giving valid consent. Yet, when one reads about it in the book, one mostly feels sympathy towards her and hatred towards Tom Riddle Senior for leaving her.
What is very interesting about the wiki on Merope is her list of magical abilities and skills – love is listed as one of her skills, and it says, “Merope was one of the few members of her family who could feel true and unconditional love, as displayed by her love for Tom Riddle Snr, a Muggle man, despite her family’s traditional beliefs about Muggles.” She went against her family’s disgust towards Muggles and the article expects us to feel good about her for that reason. That’s like asking us to feel good that an upper-caste person raped a lower-caste person because they weren’t discriminating based on caste. Of course, the article also says her obsessive love was wrong as was giving him a love potion, but the overall feeling is pity for her.
In contrast, the wiki on Tom Riddle Senior states within the first few sentences that he was snobbish and rude. The article describes what happened to him but not with much empathy towards his situation.
If you aren’t convinced that this is how it’s meant to be read, then I ask you to look at the official website for Harry Potter – Pottermore.
It has an entire article called The Sad History of Merope Gaunt. As the name suggests, the whole article tries to make you sympathise with Merope. Strangely (or not so strangely), there is no such article on Tom Riddle Senior.
The article on Merope has one particularly disturbing quote, “Her dying wish that the baby should resemble his father was granted. She couldn’t have known that the second Tom Riddle would go on to inherit his father’s callousness, too.” Callous, because he decided to leave his rapist? Who wouldn’t?
Even in the books, Dumbledore sympathises with Merope but nobody sympathises with Tom Riddle Senior. According to the novels, the only problem with the whole issue was that Merope failed to understand the nature of ‘true love’. The complete monstrosity displayed by Merope is never emphasised. Harry himself compares using a love potion to using the Imperius curse – an Unforgivable Curse that is used to control people. Yet, love potions are never deemed unforgivable seemingly because they involve ‘love’.
Thus, Merope Gaunt comes across as a pitiable figure who was weak-willed and made a few mistakes, and Tom Riddle Senior comes across as a horrible, snobbish man who abandoned his family. This is especially problematic, because it has absolutely no sympathy for the rape victim partly because he is a man and we can never imagine men being raped by women. But men can be raped by women.
Here are some quotes from a user on Rape Survivors Support Forum (CureZone):
“This has a little twist, because I’m a small girl, about 5’2 and he has a little muscular build and is 6 ft. I know it’s a little unusual to think a small girl can overtake a big guy, but I can’t help but feel I raped my boyfriend a year ago.”
“I’d also like to add that my boyfriend is a pretty sensitive guy despite his size. He has never laid a finger on anyone or used his strength to overpower weaker people. I guess you can say he’s a gentle giant. He detests hurting me in anyway, no matter how small. That may be the reason why I was able to overtake him.”
“He got really frustrated and was able to push me off. I sat at the end of the bed, making him feel guilty by saying, “Am I ugly right now? Do you not like me anymore?” He automatically felt bad for me and told me that he loved me and everything but just wanted to sleep. I climbed on top of him again. This time I really had to wrestle him because he started fighting back. I somehow got his pants off and forced him to penetrate me by sitting on him.”
The idea that only men can rape women comes from the idea that women are always weaker than men and therefore, is sexist and a setback to feminism.
The above example shows that rape does not always happen like the stereotypical idea we have in our heads – a man or a bunch of men dragging a woman down a dark alley and assaulting her. Rape is often far more insidious like in the above case. Even when women get raped, it does not necessarily involve a lot of physical violence. There are other ways; in Harry Potter, it’s love potions, in the real world it can range from date rape drugs to emotional manipulation to abuse of authority.
That’s why it’s important to challenge our own beliefs about what rape is because no one ever deserves to get raped. No matter who they are and how it happens.
Header image is a still from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
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