What Recent Releases Share about Our Values

January 28, 2020 Porshéa Patterson-Hurst

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

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In early September 2019, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, along with the series-affiliated play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, announced nightly entertainment which included joining Death Eaters — the Nazi-like wizards controlled by Harry Potter’s nemesis, Voldemort — at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme parks and, as new marketing for the play, prominently featured the Dark Mark, the evil symbol branded onto Voldemort’s agents, in the middle of Times Square, NYC.

In case anyone has ever missed the similarities between the Dark Mark and the swastika, the allusion is clear.

But all this “dark marketing” must be in the air, for the recent release of the final chapter in the Skywalker saga also used promotional tactics, such as this Galaxy phone, that bade consumers to ‘pick a side’ in lead up to the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

As an avid fan of the Harry Potter books, I accept that darkness — and the antagonists who embody it — play a central role in mythic storytelling, but normalizing that darkness is deeply wrong and often traumatic. No words can fully express how devastating it is for me to see the imagery that has so often symbolized racism and hatred in one of my favorite franchises used as a low marketing ploy.

As a Black woman, this usage of the Dark Mark served to reinforce, once again, that what reminds some of their fears and terrorization signifies nothing more than a meaningless image for others.

Why are these prominent franchises centering terrorists in their new works? Are they trying to mirror current societal networks? Seeking consumption from those who identify with this ideology?

The cynic in me believes that the answer to the latter question is yes – there is vocal crowd of people, especially online, who love nothing more than to play devil’s advocate when weighing in on social issues or to deny the ways in which the U.S. has leaned towards fascism. This side is also willing to throw money at characters they identify with, like Star Wars’ Kylo Ren.  My more analytical side considers that what we’re seeing in these fantasy worlds are an exploration of reality as these are often the only places where plutocrats and their ilk are openly reviled.

If so, I sincerely hope that these explorations end in triumph over evil – we need it. What we also need is more centering of the ideals that the good side wants to see in real life, and sticking up for the people who are most oppressed rather than sympathizing with those who refuse to put others’ needs above their own short-sightedness.

What saddens me most about the tone these franchises have taken is the ways they shift the cultural references that help us observe our societal values. While I’ve never automatically lumped people who are into “dark arts” in Harry Potter as would-be Death Eaters – though most Death Eaters are purveyors of dark magic – the imagery the Wizarding World has recently promoted suggests that I should take a second look at the values of the franchise itself.

Is the property that once espoused fighting fascism with love now on the fence about its main fight?

Storytelling, and the representations of people within those stories, matter. Research on presenting shared values on multiple issues recommends that the shared identities that fans of cultural works, like TV shows and movies, are often effective places to have conversations on topics like immigration, poverty, and racial justice. It would be rather depressing to have these conversations under the guise of favoriting fascists.

Instead, I would like to see more fans join the resistance and push back against the darkness that’s being marketed to us.

While that black-on-black cell phone may meet your aesthetic tastes, consider spending your money on something that does not glorify tyranny. Reflect on the ways that your good fun – in fandom and everyday discourse – could harm others and avoid those actions.

Consider another science fiction/urban fantasy property doing well this year, Watchmen. HBO’s take on the 1980s comic book series not only successfully examined the role of white supremacy in a fictional world, but the series creator, Damon Lindelof, also testifies to this accomplishment happening because of inclusivity. Much can be learned from his process of gathering, listening, and sitting back as outlined in this Rolling Stone piece [spoiler alert for the series finale]. 

Being on the side of the good means a lot of self-awareness, but I promise, you’ll be infinitely more appreciated for your efforts and less likely to fall victim to a Dementor.