Celebrating the Lessons of Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone turned 20 recently. It’s hard to imagine that  I was 10 when the first book came out! I didn’t read any of the books until I was in college, almost a decade later. My parents thought they were evil, filled with demonic energy, and a sure-fire path to the corruption of my soul.

They were…not wrong from their perspective, I suppose.

The books changed my life. I see it as a change for the better; they probably see it as exactly what they would have expected.

There were so many lessons I learned from Harry’s adventures. In honor of the birthday of the series, I wanted to share some of them with you this week in celebration of this incredible series.

Harry Potter taught me that standing up to injustice is something that anyone can do, even an ordinary school child who isn’t that talented and doesn’t quite fit in. From Harry to Ron to Neville, there was a consistent theme of “ordinary” people (as ordinary as wizards get among other wizards) doing extraordinarily brave things that have both small and large effects on the lives of others. These books are a consistent reminder that I matter—that my actions (or inactions) matter.

Harry Potter taught me that it’s possible to find a loving family through the relationships built with friends. He didn’t have a loving family. He technically lived with his uncle and aunt, an orphan grieving the parents he never knew. Even though my parents weren’t dead, I too had to go through a period of mourning the archetypal, good parents that I didn’t have.

Yet, the books provided more than a glimpse into the pain that can accompany something you never knew. In contrast to his biological guardians who try to control Harry because they can’t manage their own anxiety about his gifts, Harry and his friends and mentors display friendships that are close but not fused—that are supportive but not smothering. He models building a chosen family based on love rather than biology.

Harry Potter taught me to give people a chance. Whether it was Dumbledore’s insistence on trying to save Draco from going down the path of his father or the development of Neville from a bumbling annoyance into one of the most important people in the defeat of Voldemort, these books illustrate how people are not defined by their family history, awkward childhoods, or odd beliefs (Hi Luna!).

They are defined “by their choices” as Dumbledore so eloquently puts it. We each have the influence of our genetics, environment, and desires…but we do not have fates mapped out for us over which we have no control. Rather, our fates emerge out of our choices, and there is always the opportunity to choose differently, e.g. Regulus Black.

Harry Potter taught me that sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t necessarily mean obeying the rules. This is one of the most important lessons throughout the books, and can be seen in different ways.

On the one hand, there are times when genuinely good people are in power, and the rules are there for a seemingly good reason. But Harry still understands that sometimes he needs to break the rules in order to do what is truly right. In this way, Harry modeled advanced moral reasoning and critical thinking, something I wasn’t really exposed to in any other way within the cult.

But then there are times when people are abusing their power even though they might be occupying a position that has previously been “good” (i.e. Dolores Umbridge at Hogwarts or Voldemort after he corrupts the Ministry of Magic), and Harry, along with many others, understands that it is imperative to resist that power, demonstrating in a different way that blind obedience isn’t the highest good. The Order of the Phoenix, in particular, was responsible for planting the seeds of rebellion that eventually led me out of the cult, sprouting into my current commitment to justice and activism today.

On the other hand, Harry Potter also taught me that you have to be prepared to accept the consequences of your actions. Not every time he went against the rules or advice of his elders did it turn out well. He has to live with the knowledge that he led his godfather to his death because he failed to heed warnings that Voldemort might try to manipulate him.

He also doesn’t always use his power for good. He nearly murders Draco by shouting out an unknown curse in anger, and he attempts the cruciatus curse on Bellatrix out of rageful grief.

Part of his coming of age is working through the consequences of his choices and learning that he is neither invincible nor infallible. He has to learn that he needs others to temper his impulsivity and help him learn to compensate for where he is vulnerable. He also has to guard against becoming like those he fights against. What good is it to defeat Voldemort if he becomes as bad as Voldemort?

I’ll go ahead and wrap up now because this post is already getting long. These are just a handful of the lessons I learned from this remarkable collection of books. They guide me in some way every day, whether in my relationships, my activism, or my professional life.

I’m curious now, in what ways has the Harry Potter series influenced you?


Seven Life Lessons Disney Movies Taught Me

[Note: a friend informed me that Thumbelina wasn’t actually done by Disney but by Don Bluth. I’m leaving it in because I feel like most animated movies of this style tend to get the same attitude, even if they’re not strictly Disney]

Disney’s Frozen is getting a ton of attention right now, and as with almost every single one of their other movies, the critics are having a field day. I’m counting down to how long it takes someone to find “sex” written in the frost dust coming from Elsa’s hands in “Let it Go.” The song has already been accused of promoting a gay agenda, despite the fact that it has more to do with being alone than with any hint of romance. And of course, even though Disney has made huge strides in offering up a more diverse version of the princess fairy tale, there are those who think Frozen is a failure because it wasn’t quite perfect enough.

I laugh whenever the critics come out to play. It tickles me to try to find all the secret subliminal messages people claim are hidden in movies and amuses me only slightly less to hear the never-ending complaints about the horrible morals, standards, and overall role models Disney princesses present. I get it–when you’re watching a kid’s movie, it’s easy to find fault with all the little elements that suddenly seem so loud, and when your fixated on something like sex, you see it everywhere, regardless of whether it’s actually there. Disney is hardly the worst offender as far as unhealthy media goes, but  you wouldn’t know that with the way the love-to-haters talk. The problem with taking easy shots at Disney is that, by refusing to acknowledge where there is good as well as bad, it makes even the legitimate concerns seem petty.

It’s not that Disney doesn’t have concerning elements. It’s true that the movies tend to present an unrealistic view of love, making a wedding or kiss the grand closing more often than not. It’s also true that they seem to be stuck in one Princess body-type and that sometimes they sexualize stories that don’t need it (ahem, Pocahontas). However, I have always found Disney movies to hold more empowering and inspiring messages than either the conservative or liberal critics want to admit. Here are just a few of the lessons I got from Disney as a child and as an adult:

Dreams are worth pursuing

A dream is a wish your heart makes
When you’re fast asleep.
In dreams you can lose your heartache;
Whatever you wish for, you keep. –Cinderella

From Cinderella to the Princess and the Frog, pursuing one’s dreams is one of the consistent themes in most Disney movies. It’s easy to get distracted by the fact that, for many of the princesses, their dream is to find love, but then again, I don’t necessarily think love is such a horrible dream—it’s just presented a bit myopically most of the time.

That being said, the dream songs always make me cry because they remind me that no matter where you are in life—poor, sheltered, outcast, revered, confused, cursed, or just plain bored—you are allowed to define your own desires for your life and to pursue them to the best of your ability.

Tiana surveying the building for her restaurant, from The Princess and the Frog. 2009

Tiana surveying the building for her restaurant, from The Princess and the Frog. 2009

You are your own best guide

If the choosing gets confusing,
Maybe it’s the map you’re using.
You don’t need a chart to guide you.
Close your eyes and look inside you! –Jacquimo in Thumbelina

I love that Disney characters rely on their intuition and heart to guide them.  They may not always make the right choices, but they own their own decisions and stand up for what they believe is right. They are faced with some pretty tough choices, juggling the desires of their families with their own internal needs and beliefs. That’s pretty damn mature, even when they screw things up royally.

Mulan discovered to be a girl impersonating a boy, from Mulan 1998

Mulan discovered to be a girl impersonating a boy, from Mulan 1998

Marrying for the wrong reasons isn’t worth it

How dare you, all of you! Standing around deciding my future?! I am not a prize to be won! –Jasmine in Aladdin

For all the criticism that Disney receives about teaching girls that marriage is the goal of every story, I’ve never heard anyone praise Disney for the way they consistently discourage marriage for wealth, to please family, or to fulfill duty. Their princesses may get married in the end, but they often start out refusing to get married to someone they don’t love. Let’s celebrate that Elsa and Merida don’t even need love interests at the end of their stories, but let’s also give a shout out to Aurora, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Belle, and Mulan for taking a stand against being pressured into marriage.

Jasmine holding the scraps of a suitors clothing.  Aladdin

Jasmine holding the scraps of a suitors clothing, from Aladdin 1992

Love transcends societal lines

New and a bit alarming
Who’d have ever thought that this could be?
True that he’s no prince charming
But there’s something in him that I simply didn’t see. –Belle from Beauty and the Beast

Robin Hood and Maid Marion, Belle and the Beast, Ariel and Eric, Jasmine and Aladdin, Cinderella and Charming, Pocahontas and John Smith, Tod and Copper, Tarzan and Jane, Quazimodo and Esmerelda…what do they all have in common? Their connection to each other overcame their societal “stations.” So many of the stories that Disney writes are stories of forbidden connections, and one of their consistently admirable themes is that love has the power to overcome prejudice and cultural obstacles. Note, not all of these are even about romances. Some of them are friendships.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1996

The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1996

Being different doesn’t make you bad

Thumbelina: I must be the only little person in the world. I wish I were big
Mother: Oh, no, Thumbelina. No. Don’t ever wish to be anything but what you are.–From Thumbelina 

Yes, Disney does tend to reinforce stereotypical beauty standards with most of their protagonists, but I think they also have a pretty good track record of affirming that difference doesn’t make you bad. Elsa is definitely my favorite misunderstood “villain” at the moment, but the Beat is also a great example of a character who was assumed by everyone to be evil because he was so different but who turned out to be far more civilized than the other people who were “normal.”  Let’s not forget Dumbo, Pinocchio, Quasimodo, Thumbelina, and Lilo who all struggled with feeling different.

Who is the real monster in Beauty and the Beast? 1991

Who is the real monster in Beauty and the Beast? 1991

You are more than your body

You’ll have your looks, your pretty face.
And don’t underestimate the importance of body language, ha! –Ursula from The Little Mermaid

Let’s face it, Eric didn’t fall in love with Ariel’s body. Despite the fact that Ursula tried to convince Ariel that all she needed was her looks, it was her voice, not her body, that Eric had fallen for. And Ursula didn’t entrap him with her beauty; she entrapped him by impersonating Ariel singing.

Ariel's voice trapped in Ursula's necklace from The Little Mermaid 1989

Ariel’s voice trapped in Ursula’s necklace from The Little Mermaid 1989

Your family doesn’t get to define you

Mother knows best
Listen to your mother
It’s a scary world out there. –Mother Gothel in Rapunzel 

There’s a pretty consistent family model that comes out in many Disney movies—the overbearing, often abusive parent/step-parent who tries to hold the protagonist back and force her into conformity with rules (or just outright kill her). Perhaps the reason that I don’t find the love themes as problematic as some is because I see the lack of love the protagonists have in their home lives. From Cinderella being forced into slavery to her family to Rapunzel being isolated from the rest of the world, these girls are often dealing with unloving, dysfunctional situations, yet they refuse to allow their home lives to determine what love or freedom should look like. To me, it’s less a story of a character falling in love with someone she has barely met as it is a story about a character realizing that love is possible for her and that she can get out of the horrible place she’s been confined to her whole life.

Can you really blame Cinderella for wanting to marry a man she had danced with once when she was a slave to her stepmother? Cinderella 1950

Can you really blame Cinderella for wanting to marry a man she had danced with only once when she was a slave to her stepmother? Cinderella 1950

It’s become almost fashionable to hate Disney. I’ve been told my whole life that I should hate Disney, for liberal and conservative reasons. Although I agree with some of the concerns that others have shared, for the most part I think that people see what they want to see in Disney movies. Sometimes the criticisms start before anyone has even had a chance to consider what is being criticized. Disney is an easy target for those who want an “other” to blame for the corruption of children, but here is at least one child who learned independence and resilience from watching them over and over.