Tag Archives: pop culture rants

The Fire Nation and the problem of Slytherin

*Spoilers below the cut for Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. Also for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but come on, it was a cultural phenomenon and you’ve had seven years to catch up. Whereas at the time of posting the Korra finale has been out for less than a week.*

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What do they teach in those Muggle Studies classes?

This is sort of a follow-up to my earlier post on wizards’ lack of interest in Muggle technology, but here I want to talk more about the social angle. Wizards failing to take advantage of Muggle innovations is just a symptom of the larger trend of wizards completely isolating themselves from Muggle society.

Honestly, this trend gets creepier the more I think about it, because we’re told that “pureblood” wizards are an increasingly rare minority. The majority of wizards are Muggleborns or half-bloods (or quarter-bloods, or some other fraction). This majority will only become more predominant over time, as pureblood families either marry into Muggle lineages or die of inbreeding. And yet wizarding society, Muggleborns, half-bloods, and all, seems to exist in near-total isolation from Muggle society. I think this is one reason that pureblood snobbery is allowed to persist. Modern, enlightened wizards understand that racism against Muggles is wrong, but they aren’t interested in getting to know any flesh-and-blood Muggles.

Granted, we don’t get to see how a Muggleborn wizard might live as an adult, and I wonder if there are any who cultivate Muggle friends, follow Muggle news, or stay abreast of Muggle advances in technology. If there are, where are they hiding? The wizarding world as a whole is so ignorant about Muggles that compared to his peers, Arthur Weasley qualifies as unusually well-informed. Do non-pureblood wizards keep in touch with their Muggle relatives at all? Surely even just seeing them at holidays and family reunions would result in some cultural osmosis.

Come to think of it, how do half-blood wizards even happen? When do wizards and witches have any kind of social interaction with Muggles, let alone get to know one well enough to get married and have a child? Some half-bloods, like Harry, have one parent who’s a Muggleborn witch or wizard, but there are certainly canon cases of wizards marrying Muggles–Seamus Finnegan’s parents, for example.

You know what else never gets addressed? What happens to magical Muggleborn kids who turn down Hogwarts. Mostly this goes unanswered because we don’t see any examples of this actually happening–well, of course we don’t, almost by definition. A kid who didn’t attend Hogwarts would never have crossed Harry’s radar. But remember Justin Finch-Fletchley? He was down for Eton, and came within a hair of going there instead of Hogwarts. What if he had made a different choice? I suppose young witches and wizards can’t be left to wander about totally untrained, but I can’t see Albus “our choices mean more than our abilities” Dumbledore forcing someone to attend Hogwarts against their will. Now there’s a spinoff story I’d like to see. “Untrained Wizards: Where Are They Now?”

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Computer science for wizards

This tumblr post makes an interesting point about wizard elitism and the over-reliance on magic in the Harry Potter world, and what I wonder is why none of the Muggleborn students have done anything about it. Many wizards, like Harry and Hermione, spend their childhood years as Muggles, but as adults they all assimilate into wizarding society and abandon Muggle innovations. Sure, magic interferes with electronics, which eliminates a lot of Muggle technology. But wizards are so isolated from the modern world that they still use quills. Seriously, why hasn’t some Muggleborn kid brought a pack of ballpoint pens to school?

And, honestly, I think there must be a way around the problem with electronics. I remember reading Rick Cook’s Wizard’s Bane, in which a computer programmer is transported into a magical world and revolutionizes magic by inventing a compiler for spells. If wizards in the Potterverse made the effort (and knew how computers worked, which I grant you they mostly don’t), they could do something similar. Once they had invented a way of building logic gates using magic instead of transistors, they could pretty much construct a computer from the bits up.

I wonder if Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality will ever get around to that.

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Homework: watch these 55 films. Hand in by your 13th birthday.

Hopefully not all of what I post here is going to be commentary on something I read in Entertainment Weekly, but that’s what it is today. Specifically, on their list of movies your child must see before turning 13.

Now, I will admit that sometimes I’m the person who goes “You haven’t seen/read/played it? I must fix this.” But it’s unnecessarily prescriptive to assemble a list and assign it to everyone as cultural homework. I’m judging the list by its stated purpose:

This isn’t a list of the 55 “best” kids movies, nor a compendium of hidden gems. Rather, it’s a survival-guide syllabus of films that we all need to know to be able to speak the same pop-cultural language, listed in order by when they might be best introduced.

So this isn’t just a list of “good movies you might like to show your kid”; this is meant to be a list of movies that are fundamental to the pop culture conversation. Movies you must make sure that your child has seen on pain of… being a bad parent, presumably.

Is it really required that there be a canon of films everyone in society has to watch? This isn’t meant to disparage any of the films on the list, many of which are classics, but with a list that long, most people are bound to have missed a few. I went through and counted: of the 55 movies on the list, there are 21 that I’ve seen versus 26 that I haven’t. (Plus 8 more that I’m not sure about, or have seen parts of without watching from beginning to end.) That doesn’t make me deprived, uncultured, or unfit to discuss pop culture. And if it turns out that I’m missing something, it’s not too late to watch the ones I haven’t seen yet.

Which is the other issue: what’s this about “before they turn 13”? Is after age 13 too late? I’m relatively young, and I can still count 10 movies on the list that hadn’t been released when I was 13. Anyone older than me is screwed. Heck, The Lego Movie is on the list, which means there are 13-year-olds now who couldn’t possibly have seen all these movies before their 13th birthday.

(Side note: I’ll try not to quibble about the specific contents of the list, because no two people are ever going to agree on which films are “essential” and which aren’t. And I’ve heard good things about The Lego Movie. But it only came out five months ago. Can we agree that it might take slightly longer than that to determine if it’s going to stand the test of time?)

If a kid doesn’t see all these movies before turning 13… so what? If it’s really important, they can catch up later. There’s even a certain joy in those moments when you get to introduce someone to something they’ve been missing. (“You haven’t seen Mean Girls? Fire up the projector, we are watching it right now.“)

More importantly, it’s OK if they’re just never interested. Individual tastes will vary. There are plenty of movies among the 26 I’ve missed that I’d like to see, but there are also some that I can’t be bothered to care about. Life’s too short and there are too many other movies out there to make time for ones I’m just not interested in. As the site name suggests: I read (and watch) as inclination leads me.

Anyway, regarding the inherent problems of this sort of list, John Finnemore explains it much more wittily than I could.

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Actually, I’d like to know what was in those Martin Miggs comics.

One of the reasons I started this blog is to have a place to post when I go off on a pop culture rant, so here’s the one that occurred to me today.

Harry Potter was possibly the first piece of pop culture I was ever really obsessed with. I suspect that’s true of many people of my age, the kids who literally grew up along with Harry. So I still very much love those books, but these days I also enjoy (lovingly) picking them apart a little. I’m not the first person to point out the gaping holes in the Hogwarts curriculum, and as a game developer, it’s obvious to me that the game of Quidditch has never been properly balanced since the introduction of the Golden Snitch. But the aspect that I was thinking about today is how little evidence we see of wizard pop culture.

I’d have to go back and reread the books to confirm this, but it seems to me that we hear very little about fiction produced by and for wizards in-universe. The Tales of Beedle the Bard gives us some traditional children’s stories from the magical community, and in Ron’s bedroom we get a glimpse of a stack of comic books (“The Adventures of Martin Miggs, the Mad Muggle”). But if there’s a fiction section in the Hogwarts library or Flourish and Blotts, we don’t get to see it. There’s certainly a wizard publishing industry, and some nonfiction books that might qualify as pleasure reading, but aren’t there any novels? Short stories? Poetry?

Some of this comes back to the wizarding educational system. Children who go to Hogwarts have at best received a primary school education in a Muggle classroom; many children from magical families seem to be homeschooled. In the best-case scenario, everyone enters Hogwarts at about a fifth-grade reading level, give or take individual variations. And there they stop. Hogwarts offers no instruction in grammar, spelling, vocabulary, creative writing, essay construction, or literary analysis, and you can forget about being assigned to read fiction. (Unless you count “nonfiction” works that are actually a pack of lies, such as Lockhart’s memoirs and whatever the Carrows assigned.) It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: children aren’t exposed to literature, so they’re not inspired to grow up to write fiction, so there are no great works of literature for the next generation to read. Heck, forget great works of literature; there aren’t even any dime novels, pulps, or guilty-pleasure beach reads. Or if there are, they’ve somehow escaped Harry’s notice completely. Given the general wizarding ignorance of Muggle ways, we can safely assume that there’s little to no exposure to Muggle literature.

So much for written fiction. What about other media? We do hear about wizarding popular music, from such artists as Celestina Warbeck, the Weird Sisters, and the Hobgoblins. While we don’t get a good look at Ron’s Martin Miggs comics, they imply the existence of comic book writers, artists, and publishers. We can only guess what those artists might do if they didn’t find work drawing comics, because there’s no mention of museums or art galleries. Presumably they make ends meet by working in advertising or illustrating stories in The Quibbler.

Coming back to the educational system again, Hogwarts has a total lack of classes, or even extracurriculars, in the arts. But there’s hope elsewhere. The only reference in canon to post-secondary education for wizards comes from a footnote in The Tales of Beedle the Bard. Dumbledore notes that Professor Beery, mentioned in the context of a disastrous pantomime production of one of Beedle’s tales, went on to teach at WADA, the Wizarding Academy for Dramatic Arts. So right there, we know that there is a pool of wizard actors. The logical next question is, where do those actors look for employment? Is there a wizarding West End where they can perform live? We know that there are potions that can make photographs move, but disappointingly, no one seems to have tried it on video film. If wizards did have cinemas, surely there would be one in Hogsmeade that students would flock to on their weekends off.

The possibility that really interests me is wizard audio drama. We already know that wizards use radios and have their own radio stations. Radio plays have fallen out of fashion in America (though podcasts are bringing the format back), but they’re still alive and well in the UK. If there’s a pool of wizard actors and no television or films, maybe they’re finding work on the radio.

Finally, coming back to my own field, are there any wizarding game developers? I’m inclined to say no. The lack of electronics means digital games are right out, and for tabletop games, wizards seem to stick to traditional favorites like wizard chess, Gobstones, and Exploding Snap. And while there are at least two joke shops, where are the toy stores? That absence is harder to explain as something that simply escaped Harry’s attention; I can’t imagine eleven-year-old Harry, who probably made do with Dudley’s hand-me-downs when he had any toys at all, completely failing to notice a toy store in Diagon Alley. Maybe there’s an owl order catalog for toys and games. After all, someone has to manufacture chess sets and Gobstones and Exploding Snap decks.

So maybe the state of pop culture in the wizarding world isn’t as dire as it seems at first blush, but it’s still pretty sparse. Even if wizard novels, plays, and radio dramas exist, we don’t get to see anyone consuming them, and therefore we can only guess at their contents. Pop culture in Muggle society says a lot about what we value, what we fear, and what we dream about, even if we can’t explain why vampire romances or zombie apocalypse tales happen to resonate with so many people. For that matter, reams of essays have been written on what the popularity of Harry Potter says about us as a culture. By depriving the reader of the cultural artifacts of the wizarding world, Rowling missed a fascinating opportunity to flesh out wizarding society and explore what makes it tick.

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