The Millennial Obsession with Harry Potter

It’s a curious case – Millenials, particularly in the “literary” and “writing” (I use those terms as ironically as possible) community are constantly referencing Harry Potter, particularly when it comes to some of the basic parts of the moral play, such as Lord Voldemort, who represents whatever current-year evil they happen to be personally obsessed with (usually just orange man bad).

Why? Why so much obsession with a children’s book series, to the point where people put their Hogwarts house in their twitter bio? Yes, you are so Gryffindor, Miss Keyboard Warrior!

Here’s my basic explanation:

  1. Mythological vacuum
  2. Social reinforcement

Mythological vacuum

Potter fans of this sort tend to have grown up in what I call a Mythological Vacuum, that is, they were raised in a house of little or no religion and went to public schools that actively repressed or subverted the cultural myths that America used to propagate (for more, read this).

Myths are more than stories. They are stories that contain both events and meaning built into one package. Stories of George Washington are mythological as are stories of King David. One of them is a cultural myth, the other a religious one, but they both contain meaning and definitions for the group. Myths are NOT religions, but religions often rely on myths for part of their identity and dogma.

When you are raised missing these myths, which provide self-identity and a directive for personal action, you end up with a vacuum that will get filled with things that are either inappropriate or are themselves derived from myths you aren’t aware of – thus the rise of the “pop cult” that obsesses over franchises and physical objects rather than spiritual and moral growth.

So what we see is that many millennials have used the stories of popular theater to supplement their own lack of mythological identity. In a way, Kevin Smith wasn’t that far off about the stories of Captain America inspiring faith, because for a whole generation of people who never experienced religious education the stories in the bible are the same as the stories that are on screen imitating the moral plays of the bible.

There’s nothing wrong with Harry Potter’s moral play or most of its moral messages. Evil Lord Voldemort is a classic villain, seeking power over others for its own rewards. Inefficient and corrupt bureaucratic governments frequently stand in the way of the good, which is another theme of the books, as Harry and co. have to constantly skirt or ignore the rules of their society to fight evil. There’s an ironic presentation of racial superiority: Voldemort who considers wizards better than muggles, while the wizards that oppose him are generally okay with enslaving elves.

The problem is assuming that these moral plays, which are part of a fictional universe for young readers, have some significant allegorical parallel in the real world.

Religious texts, by contrast, point toward universal moral principles. Saul’s failure as king, for example, should not be thought of as some guide to identifying bad rulers in the here and now, but about the moral directives that Saul ignored and how we, as individuals, go about living properly. We’ve had thousands of years of filtering and church doctrine that guides the interpretation of the bible toward that end.

Donald Trump is not Voldemort and he is not Saul.

What the Potter-obsessor is missing is the religious component of the myth on the one hand and the identity-messaging of the myth on the other. Thus, they start to play like they are part of the myth without understanding that it is not myth at all.

Social Reinforcement

As to the question – Why Harry Potter?

The answer is – because it is popular. Millennials (and as much so my generation, Gen Y) grew up with humor that made heavy use of “pop culture references” – little bits of parody and small, often humorless, hints towards other intellectual properties that were pervasive in shows like The Simpsons.

Indeed, I remember many conversations growing up being exclusively based around referencing pop garbage.

Harry Potter, something insanely popular, is also something that is very easy to reference and have others get the reference. It’s the same reason I reference Star Wars in lots of my videos on writing – everyone has seen it, so if Star Wars uses a technique, most people can easily see what I’m talking about.

Over time, this distills the conversation into the most common references, and the most popular properties will win.

Part of reference culture (not just “reference humor”) as a function of the pop-cult is the identifying nature of it: here’s a reference, if you “get it” then you are one of us. This plays back into the nature of myth as being relevant to a people, but in this case, the “people” are an artificial collective, not real at all. Thus we get what Brian Niemeier calls the Pop Cult.

What’s really funny about this sense of “Self” and “Other” is that, much like Star Wars, there is really nothing exclusive about reading and enjoying Harry Potter. It’s one of the most popular franchises of all time – there is literally nothing nerdy about reading the books, just as there is nothing nerdy about going to see a Star Wars movie.

So yes, they should definitely READ ANOTHER BOOK, but at the same time, they won’t get the social reinforcement for referencing good literature that not everyone has read, so they will remain a strange inversion of a Christian Zealot, constantly drawing parallels in real life to a fictional universe that was actually built on the mythological traditions they have ignored or never been exposed to, and was constructed using literary techniques that have been used countless times before by other authors.

EDIT: I wanted to add one more point. The exiling of JK Rowling from her own fan-base because she refuses to say that men are women has other religious parallels (particularly in the Protestant traditions), namely the idea that the text can stand without the authority who created it. In essence, they make Harry Potter a kind of bible whose authorship is irrelevant.

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14 Comments

  1. “He that depends
    Upon your favours swims with fins of lead
    And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust Ye?
    With every minute you do change a mind,
    And call him noble that was now your hate,
    Him vile that was your garland.” – Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. It’s actually comforting to read those lines. That while this tide of malaise and irreverence might seem like some new, irresistable force, Shakespeare’s works reveal he was familiar enough with such a mindset. The tide will turn! My best wishes to you and your family, David.

  2. Well put. Best wishes to you and your folks!

  3. HP is also part of a deep seated, repressed desire for magic. Millennials were born into a world of sharp-edged, hypercritical rationality, lacking in not only mythology but mysticism. Unlike us GenX and GenY’ers who had real-world sources of identity, the Millennial’s quintessential iPhone drove home the fact of their utter ordinariness. They are obsessed with the series b/c the central premise is that certain children are special, they are pulled out of their muggle world at age 11 into a world of magic and adventure. It’s less a quest for something to believe in and more the expression of a deep desire to be special that they cannot voice in any other way.

    • It’s big on escapism, it hits all the notes in the right way, and definitely why some people get stuck on it – it’s an escape.

      • Definitely a good point about escapism. Maybe that mixed with the mythological aspects of good vs evil make it so popular. I read & enjoyed The Magicians (morally grey Harry Potter with College) but it doesn’t seem to have reached the same level of cultural significance.

    • Glad I clicked on to read

  4. The whole JK Rowling thing is interesting and kinda disturbing in the sense of how a rabid part of the fanbase decides to cast aside the creator because they so want the story to be their own- same thing happened with George Lucas and Star Wars. Few things are worse for Art than this imo.

  5. Excellent post. Insightful.

  6. One of the things that stood out to me about Harry Potter over the years was, beyond those who read it or watched the movies as kids, most of the fans I’ve met have been women. I don’t know why that is, but it’s different from Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, which seem to lean more male (though I’ve met more women who like those than men who like Harry Potter).

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