Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Sorting Hat Is a Jerk


I've posted before summarizing, briefly, why Harry Potter is terrible.  Essentially, it is this: she took a kids-book fairytale world and slowly moved it in to the realm of adult speculative fiction.  Plot elements that existed for no other reason than to entertain and light up the imagination now were expected to conform to some kind of sense, so some kind of sensical explanation was fabricated post-hoc, and those explanations fail to explain.  Partly they fail because the explanations don't really make sense if looked at, but they primarily fail because characters in earlier books behave as though they are entirely unaware of the way that their own universe is supposed to work.

Total Jerk
Let's look at one of the more iconic characters in Harry Potter, the Sorting Hat, which (who?) is charged with sorting first years in to their respective houses.

Either the Sorting Hat is objectively bad at its job, or the Sorting Hat is an actively malicious and evil entity bent on destroying the wizarding world.

In the first books, the Sorting Hat is a magical object meant to drive home the point that, yes, the school is magic and magic works.  It's cool.  The Sorting Hat is (obviously) a hat, but it's a magic hat, and it has the power to speak directly to its wearer.  It can speak because it has a kind of sapient intelligence, which also allows it to make decisions.  The Hat is charged with determining which students go to which house, though it is also inexplicably capable of producing a magic sword.  To be honest, I never really understood the Hat's powers, but it's a magic hat.

So the Hat is charged with dividing students up according to their strengths.  Here's what it does:
- All the people who are good and kind go to Gryffindor
- All the people who are evil and cruel go to Slytherin
- All the other people... whatever.

Okay, so actually Ravenclaw is for the really smart and intelligent students, and Hufflepuff is for the students who are hard workers and dedicated to a certain discipline.

Imagine for a moment, if you can, that we live in a world where people are racist and bigoted and hate others just for who their parents were.  Imagine living in a culture where about half of the people thought some race or another were inherently inferior and contemptible by virtue of their ancestry.  Imagine you were in charge of placing them in houses in a boarding school -- the single most important contributor in who they will associate with -- and imagine that one of these houses was founded by a famous racist idealist.  Would you choose to lump all the racists and all the jerks together into the single house founded by the famous racist?

No.  That is a terrible, stupid idea.  Having a school with a special wing to cater to racist sensibilities is the worst pedagogy I can think of.

Since a quarter of your incoming class is racist and cruel and the other quarter is kind and courageous (apparently that's the sorting criteria), you should try to spread the racists and the heroes out as evenly as possible.  Putting all the heroes in one house limits their ability to inspire and lead their peers, while putting all the racists in one house insulates their prejudice and lets it blossom.

Now, in the first few books, the reason for the sorting is simple: you need bad guys and good guys.  There needs to be more at stake in the Quidditch Cup than just stupid house rivalry.  And the reason the other houses are Potemkin villages is because real boarding schools have four houses (so they have to exist) but you only need two houses to have a good/evil paradigm (so you can effectively pretend that they don't exist).

But as the tone of the books tries to become more serious and realistic, we find that Slytherin has effectively been set up as a Deatheater Recruitment Center.

And who set it up that way?  The Sorting Hat.  The stupid jerk Sorting Hat.

Not even as smart as an incompetent hat
For instance, Crabbe and Goyle are repeatedly described as fat and stupid toadies of Draco.  But why are they toadies of Draco?  Because they live in the same room as Draco!  What if they had been placed in Gryffindor, instead, where they were surrounded by good influences?  For that matter, what if Draco had been placed in Gryffindor, and had gotten to know -- really know -- poor people like Ron Weasley and muggle-borns like Hermione, instead of being in a house with a proud history of prejudice that was packed full of like-minded bigots?  In another universe, where people have the ability of critical thought, the good influence of people like Harry might have eventually persuaded Draco from his natively-taught cruelty, or at least helped to subdue it.

And it isn't like the people at Hogwarts don't realize this.  They comment on it constantly.  The association of Voldemort and House Slytherin goes unquestioned.  Mark me if I'm wrong, but don't the teachers acknowledge that every Deatheater has come from Slytherin?  And maybe it's not every Deatheater that's from Slytherin, like maybe there's one unnamed token Gryffindor in the mix, but it's pretty much every Deatheater comes from Slytherin.  They knew Slytherin produced jerkwad bigoted wizards before Voldemort, they knew it after Voldemort, and they knew it before he came back from the dead.  It's rock solid.  Whatever they are doing in the sorting process for Slytherin, it is helping to produce fertile ground for genocidal maniac murderers who do not value human life if it is not from pure wizard blood.

Why don't they stop it?  Why don't they say, "I'm sorry Mr. Hat, but we aren't just going to put all the racists together any more"?  Why are they so beholden to the objectively terrible sorting arrangement provided by the Sorting Hat?

And there you have it, once again.  The development of a kids-book plot device of clear good guys and bad guys gets taken in to a more serious, adult setting and causes the characters of the story to fail to understand their own universe.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great post, I like it!
I totally agree, Hogwarts is just perpetuating the discriminatory social dynamics of the wizarding world. The sorting hat is an idiot, so are the staff, the Ministry of Magic, etc.

D.B. said...

I always figured that the Sorting Hat was just really, really old, and had been originally enchanted by the Four Founders. Each of them (save maybe Hufflepuff) was *explicitly* interested in recruiting an idealogically homogeneous army of followers. This then dictated the political divisions in Wizarding society for a thousand years, but only recently (in the 20th century Muggle Reckoning) did it produce anyone who posed a serious threat to that society. Overturning a poisonous social institution with that kind of historical inertia is very hard to do, especially if the worst group of also happen to be the ones with all the money...

RosieP said...

Since a quarter of your incoming class is racist and cruel and the other quarter is kind and courageous (apparently that's the sorting criteria), you should try to spread the racists and the heroes out as evenly as possible. Putting all the heroes in one house limits their ability to inspire and lead their peers, while putting all the racists in one house insulates their prejudice and lets it blossom.


Considering that many non-Slytherin characters have expressed bigotry in one form or the other, I don't see why those who were in Slytherin are the only ones who should be labeled as "racist".


Ariana Lynch said...

The author does mention that. It's not that racists don't exist outsode of Slytherin, its that the majority of them do, and that almost every Slytherin is racist.

Ariana Lynch said...

The author does mention that. It's not that racists don't exist outsode of Slytherin, its that the majority of them do, and that almost every Slytherin is racist.

Anonymous said...

>And maybe it's not every Deatheater that's from Slytherin, like maybe there's one unnamed token Gryffindor in the mix

Did you mean: Peter Pettigrew?

Lonely Drifter said...

Thank you, I was going to make this exact comment