How do the Character Descriptions in ‘Harry Potter’ Hold Up 20 Years Later?
Re-reading the beginning of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I’m surprised by how much I sympathize with the Dursleys. I don’t particularly like them in the general sense, but considering the scene where the Weasleys come to pick up Harry from their perspective, and Dudley’s perspective in particular, it becomes incredibly difficult to imagine a world in which they weren’t deeply skeptical and suspicious of magic. Magic, for the Dursleys, is scary and destructive, and for Dudley, in particular, has enacted much violence upon his body.
It is no secret that I have been a long-time fan of the Harry Potter series, as something that I have held near and dear to my heart for a long time, and at certain points in my life it has filled the religious and spiritual void that I felt within myself. And yet, as much as I often treat the series as a sacred text, there are a great many failings, and nowhere do I feel that is more clear than in the vicious attacks that are made against those who do not fit into the conventional molds of body image. The narration of the text uses the description of the body as a weapon, and a proxy for how we are meant to feel about a given character.
This is not uncommon in storytelling, and not unique to Harry Potter. The common narrative that society tells us is that pretty people are good and ugly people are bad, and society also tends to have pretty strict and nasty ways of describing who fits into either of those categories. The Harry Potter series is one in which there are very few characters where their race is explicitly stated, which is good because it means that there is room for interpretation. But one thing that is often explicitly stated in the text is when a character is being described negatively, they are given a value judgment based on their appearance and how they achieved that appearance. And nowhere is that more clear than with Dudley Dursley.
From the moment that we are introduced to Dudley, we are given the impression that he is a misbehaving child — the first word his says is either “shan’t” or “won’t” depending on your edition and he is described as “kicking and screaming for sweets.” He’s called a “beach ball” and a “pig in a wig.” Again and again the reader is hit over the head with the fact that Dudley — who is bad — is fat, while Harry — who is good — is skinny. Dudley is spoiled and petulant, and yes, he’s a bit of a horrible kid, but also he has really horrible parents. Dumbledore is not wrong in book six when he says that Vernon and Petunia have done a disservice to Dudley in treating him the way that they have. But Dudley is also mistreated by wizards. Hagrid gives Dudley a pig’s tail — was intending to turn him into a pig completely — and knows that he cannot reverse that. He never does reverse it, and by telling Harry not to tell anyone (protecting his own interests since Hagrid is not supposed to use magic) Hagrid dooms Dudley to needing to get the tail surgically removed by Muggle means, which was no doubt expensive, humiliating, and painful.
The ton-tongue toffee incident, which is what prompted me to ruminate on all this again, I found to be just so cruel. Because Dudley is on this incredibly forced and restrictive diet, being taunted by Harry — who is not following it at all — and is basically going cold turkey on all the foods he has normally had. His whole worldview has shifted when his version of normal (although it was anything but) changed. He’s not actually starving, but he probably feels like it, because it is such an abrupt shift in his eating habits. And here are the first sweets he has seen in probably months, and they cause this physically and psychologically painful incident.
Then, only a year later Dudley has the experience with the dementor, a monster that almost sucked out his soul. This is often remarked upon as the turning point, where Dudley starts to evaluate his actions and change his ways. And yet this change is due to a real violence by magic, and as a whole magic has not been kind to Dudley. Nonetheless, at the start of the seventh book he was able to make an effort to reach out to Harry. The problem is that it’s framed as though Dudley only gets to make this transformation into a better person once he has matured enough to start getting into a “better” physical shape. Once he takes up boxing, and becomes athletic, his bulk is attributed to muscle rather than fat. Only then is he allowed to be something akin to a better person.
All over the Harry Potter canon we see unpleasant people described as being ugly. Pansy pug-faced Parkinson. Umbridge the toad. These are the people we are clearly supposed to dislike, and these traits are not assigned to antagonists as a way to set them apart. But the way it works with fatness is a bit different, because for all that Vernon and Dudley are called out for their weight, the characters we are supposed to like, even if they share a somewhat similar physical shape, don’t get this treatment. Neville, for example, is simply called a “round-faced boy.” But the actors who play Neville and Dudley looked so similar to each other when I watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time at age five that I got confused and thought Dudley had somehow ended up at Hogwarts. And Mrs. Weasley is described as being “plump.” Ludo Bagman, who is a character we are meant to both dislike and sympathize with, is described in middling terms.
“He had the look of a powerfully built man gone slightly to seed; the robes were stretched tightly across a large belly he surely had not had in the days when he had played Quidditch for England. His nose was squashed (probably broken by a stray Bludger, Harry thought), but his round blue eyes, short blond hair and rosy complexion made him look like a very overgrown schoolboy.” — Chapter Seven ‘Bagman and Crouch.’
These small moments in the way characters are introduced make the characters memorable, but they are also slightly insidious, and not at all kind when the narrator doesn’t want to be.
All told, fitting the conventional mold is not a universally bad thing, but the way this is portrayed is problematic because the way in which certain characters but not others are shamed for their weight/appearance seems to promote the idea that being treated with respect regarding one’s body is a privilege that can be revoked in response to bad behavior, rather than the basic human right that it should be. This falls into a pattern of privilege where some privileges, like how Dudley is spoiled by Vernon and Petunia, are things that no one should have, whereas the privilege of being afforded basic respect regardless of one’s body type is a privilege that everyone should have.
There are also many slights against people who are perceived as thinner too. Petunia, for example, is often contrasted against Vernon as being quite thin. In their first introduction, they are compared as having “hardly any neck” and “nearly twice the usual amount of neck” respectively. The critique of Petunia’s size is on the opposite side of the spectrum, but it’s there, and it shows that the body-shaming in the series is across all body types, and in particular, directly correlated with a character’s likeability.
I’m not capable of cancelling in its entirety something so fundamental to my worldview as the Harry Potter series. But the more often I return to the text as an adult, the more flaws I find. In a way, that is almost a good thing, because in finding the parts of Harry Potter that don’t hold up to scrutiny, I am able to hold a mirror to the ways society as a whole does not hold up to scrutiny. At the same time, I can’t say that in good faith, because Harry Potter is a book series targeted at children, who can through the lens of these books (as well as the rest of society’s pressures) internalize the idea that it’s OK to make value judgments about someone based on their body, which is simply not true. We must imagine people complexly. And I guess that means we have to imagine books complexly too.
Header image via Wizarding World