Harry Potter: the anti-geek
With all the excitement over the last Harry Potter movie coming out, I thought it would be a fun time to float a thought I've had about the book that often seems to surprise people when I mention it. Even recently I was talking with some folks who were plowing through the books and enjoying them, and when one of them characterized Harry as "nerdy", I had to take issue.
"Harry isn't a nerd," I said, "Harry is a jock." I mean, Harry has an existential crisis that gives him some depth, but social outcast and/or geek he's not. The opposite, in fact.
I realized then that the "band of misfits" theme has so much power over the American imagination (maybe not the British, which could explain Rowling's choices) that people just sort of shove Harry and his friends into that mold, and then rely on a handful of rationalizations for it—Harry wears glasses, Hermione is a bookworm, Ron is a redhead—in order for that theory to make sense. We're used to the X-Men or Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Scooby Gang, so much so that we don't see that Harry's trajectory is the inverse of Buffy's. Buffy is a former cheerleader whose magic powers actually make her a geek and an outcast. Harry is a nobody-special who finds out that he's special, and becomes not just the star athlete and hero of his school, but an actual celebrity. Sure, there's ups and downs, but his trajectory is away from being the outcast and towards being the homecoming king. Which may not be as emotionally satisfying as "my greatness makes me an outcast", but is probably more realistic. In his world, being a badass is appreciated and he's realistically rewarded in his society for it.
I'd argue that not only is Harry a jock character, but his friends also do not fit the traditional "band of misfits" mode. Let's look at the evidence:
*Harry is the star of his Quidditch team, and basically is the equivalent in English football to a star striker, and in American football to the quarterback.
*Harry's girlfriend is not only a star athlete as well, but is clearly the most popular and beautiful girl in school, with all the boys fawning over her. It's a feminist touch that Rowling didn't make her the wizarding version of a cheerleader, but that's what makes the books so perfect for the modern era. Rowling gets that girls can be popular in their high schools without being merely support for the boys.
*Which brings me to Hermione. Hermione is the best piece of evidence for the "band of misfits" theory, but she still doesn't rise to the level of a true geek character. Oh sure, she gets taunted for being Muggle-born and is the smart girl who annoys the other kids. But while I'd say she's a tad nerdy at the beginning of the books, she evolves into one of the popular kids at Hogwarts. She becomes very beautiful, is good friends with the most famous young man in their world, and she dates a famous Quidditch player. Seriously, at one point she's basically a high school kid dating the equivalent of a young Cristiano Ronaldo. I think it's cool that Rowling is acknowledging that the culture is making room for girls that are both accomplished and still popular. And that's what Hermione is; no true outcast character would actually date one of the most famous athletes in the world.
*Harry and Ron, on the other hand, are more stereotypical privileged young men who only put forward a C effort in school because they know they can coast into adulthood on their families' reputation.
*By the way, Harry's parents are wealthy, handsome people. If anything, Harry's father is more of a cocky son of a bitch who coasts on charm and privilege. Harry's mom is the homecoming queen who is nice to the geeks, a type that isn't as familiar in pop culture as the "mean girl" type, but is still a type. Harry is portrayed as a chip off the block.
*The most genuinely nerdy character is Severus Snape, which becomes even more clear in the flashbacks where Snape hates James Potter for his easy charm with the ladies, especially Lily, who Snape loves. Snape is shown as being tortured by the popular kids when he's young. As an adult, he and Harry don't like each other, and it's a continuation of the nerd-jock animus that both of them feel.
*Let's face it; if "The Social Network" took place at Hogwarts, Mark Zuckerberg would be in Slytherin and the Winklevoss twins would be in Gryffindor. Case closed.
It's worth pondering if Harry Potter is so much more popular than many other series that have similar settings and themes because the books avoid the "band of misfits" structure. "Band of misfits" is a trope that has great appeal to the traditionally geeky fantasy audiences, but Harry is accessible to people who have no relationship to that trope or what it feels like to be a misfit.