JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

In their fan art, fans interpret Harry Potter in many different ways. Here, two examples of fan art suggest a sexualized version of Harry Potter that does not fit with the film as “family” entertainment.16

Deliberately ambiguous, this fan art image invites us to interpret the situation. It does not tame fantasy. This encouraging of imaginative freedom is one reason to abandon realism as a goal of film animation.

In June, 2003, when the new Harry Potter book was released, the story made national news....

In Oak Park, a large middle class Chicago suburb, Borders sponsored a day of parties, events, and readings....

Books were warehoused until a specific time of release....

... all across the United States.

Young fans and their parents stood in long lines...

... and dressed in Potter garb for the event...

... Here a young fellow dressed as Harry makes the nightly news...

... Inside were parties and readings, here in an upscale bookstore....

... and here in a more modest bookstore, an employee dressed as a wizard does a few tricks.

 

Fan culture

How then are we to understand the enthusiasm that the film generated as a “magical” phenomenon that both adults and children were flocking to pay money to see? Part of the answer lies in the film’s marketing and self-promotion as fantasy. The other part lies in our desire to see magic, particularly in children’s culture. The film attracted crowds in the first days of its release as a result of two years of marketing. Also the events of September 11th and the Afghanistan war made fantasy desirable perhaps as a way to forget and forget but also to find hope.

The film also provided a venue for parents and children to come together and share a cultural experience. There was generally an atmosphere of happy expectation around the film screenings making the film into more of a family event or a collective experience. The photo opportunities outside the cinema contributed to this sense of the film as a community event.

Large numbers of the audience, both children and adults, knew the book before going to the movie. Thus, watching the film became an active exercise as they compared the film to the book or in the very least, followed the book through the course of the film. In our highly industrialized culture, this foreknowledge approximates folklore in that we bring to these mass produced stories our own versions and interact actively with them. Children spoke back at the film, predicting its narrative, and staying around to discuss the film.

Despite the film’s limited imagination about Hogwarts as a private British elite school, the children I talked to had a more active understanding of it. They discussed it as a place which had different adult “muggles” from the teachers and administrators they encountered in their own schools. Hogwarts presents an appealing possibility of growing up with other children, living a life of learning and curiosity with adults who are wise and filled with character and magic tricks up their sleeves.

Children did not entirely “buy into” the film, especially its selling of Harry Potter as a commodity, but they inserted themselves into the story imaginatively. For that reason, shelves filled with Harry Potter merchandise had to be cleared out. There are only so many Harry Potter objects a child would want to buy. Moreover, commodified fantasy is short lived. Differentiated only by look and style, it fosters repetitive and minimal content, easily replaced by another more spectacular object whose release is based on the planned obsolescence of the former. Just two months after the film’s release, the shelves in the local Wal-Mart and Barnes and Nobles had been cleared of any Harry Potter merchandise. What remained had been dumped on the clearance shelves. The film had come and gone with video release planned for May and a sequel the following year. How can the audience be responsible for what it sees, when even its ability to watch is constrained by marketing strategies?

Even more revealing of the restrictions on mass marketed fantasy was the bitter battle launched by AOL-Warner against fan websites. AOL Warner issued letters of warning to Harry Potter fans, most of them teens and preteens, asking them to stop using the Harry Potter name. The first such letter was sent in December 2000 to fifteen-year old, Claire Field, asking her to take the domain name HarryPotterGuide.co.uk off her site. That letter ended with the threat:

If we do not hear from you by 15 December 2000 we shall put this matter directly into the hands of our solicitors.[14]

In response fans set up sites with wonderfully appropriate names like www.potterwar.org.uk. Other fans similarly threatened by Warner Brothers contacted them. These included, Catherine Chang, a fifteen years old from Singapore who had already relinquished rights to her domain name, www.thehpn.com ; Sung Yoo, a twelve years old who was threatened for his site www.HarryPotterFAQ.com; and thirteen year olds Ross McCaw and Peter Walker, regarding their site, www.HarryPotter-world.com.

Another site held by the Defense Against the Dark Arts (DADA) www.dprohpet.com/dada/ called for a boycott of Potter merchandize except for the books. They demanded that Warner Brothers pay reparations by making substantial donations to UNICEF and giving premiere tickets to fans they had threatened, in order to really, “show how sorry they feel.” In the face of the bad publicity Warner Brothers withdrew their threats of lawsuits in March 2001. Nevertheless, the battle with corporate control over ideas is not yet won. As www.potterwar.org.uk summarized the withdrawal of legal action against fans is not a victory but victor(-ish). Warner Brothers did not return the domains they had taken. More importantly, Harry Potter policing and resistance is only one battle in what promise to be a continuous war between corporations and fans.

The battle over Harry Potter’s name clearly indicates the limits of fantasy when branded by media corporations. Just as branding was originally a practice where owners stamped cows with their names to mark them as private property, corporations are now engaged in claiming our imaginations. If it were true that we get the films we want, then why this contest over how we interpret these films? That the battle over our imaginations is not yet won is clear by the contradictory relations media corporations have with fans. On the one hand, fans do these corporations’ work, buying their products and thus creating profits. On the other hand, when fans begin to create alternatives, they threaten the iron grip these corporations seek to retain over their brands. The true nature of the relation between media corporations and audiences in revealed when the former’s control is threatened. Then no longer posing as democrats who make what audiences want, these corporations transform into powerful policing agents.

In their letter to fans Warner Brothers stated:

We are concerned that your domain name registration is likely to cause consumer confusion and dilution of the intellectual property rights.[15]

Fantasy, in this view, clearly had one and only one purpose, its translation into consumer behavior. The Defense Against the Dark Arts quite aptly characterized the threat this kind of marketing poses to our imagination:

There are dark forces afoot, darker even than He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, because these dark forces are daring to take away something so basic, so human, that it’s close to murder. They are taking away our freedom of speech, our freedom to express our thoughts, feelings and ideas, and they are taking away the fun of a magical book. www.dprophet.com/dada/manifesto.html
In attempting to colonize children’s imaginations corporations reveal a fundamental truth about capitalism: They will leave no aspect of human life unturned in the search for profits. Ordinary people’s desire to find magic in children’s culture, which got us into theaters in the first place, speaks of our need to find an alternative, even utopian imagination. That we think we would find it in children’s culture speaks of a lingering social conception that childhood is distinctly different from adulthood. We hope that from the site of childhood, we can critique the inequities and injustices of this world and imagine a different one. However, aggressive marketing to children to bring them into the market as consumers blurs that boundary.

AOL-Warner Brothers’ battle with fans reveals that victory over the human imagination is not easily won. Bringing children into the market as consumers can also politicize them against the market. We, parents and older friends, can either wring our hands at how corporations have taken our children’s socialization away from us, turning us into facilitators who must buy market produced commodities to keep our kids momentarily from adulthood. But in the long run, they will turn into adults who experience the anxiety, addiction, low self-esteem, and isolation so familiar to us from being consumers.

Or we can collaborate with our children in resisting the branding of our imaginations. We can collaborate with them to reject the most fantastic market-produced myth of all: That is the myth of choice, that it is we who determine the products we get in the market.


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