This is an exercise in using Stuart Hall’s approach to media texts. Useful for both the old and new Media A level courses.
How do audiences position themselves through preferred, negotiated and oppositional readings of a media product (or products)?
Media Product: The Wizarding World of J.K. Rowling (The Harry Potter film franchise). 2001 – present.
The preferred reading of the film franchise sees the central character as a hero-figure, who overcomes childhood trauma and abuse, to become the saviour of the fantasy world of magic (and also save the non-magical, “muggle” world of the viewer). In the films the preferred reading presents the audience with clear good (in the form of Harry and his friends) and evil (in the form of Voldemort and his associates – such as the Malfoy family). In order for people to do good emphasis is placed on friendship and conviction over bureaucracy and blind obedience. The benign, if opaque, guidance of Dumbledore is a model of mentorship. British, middle-class and white (with an emphasis on pre-1950s design elements) becomes the normal in the films.
Negotiated readings of the film include seeing the movie franchise as a set of encoded metaphors. Harry’s talents are unknown to him at the start and he struggles until they are recognised and he is given a chance develop them. Considering the way Rowling’s texts appeal to particular geek fandoms this could reflect ideas about outsider status such as nerd-related interests, academic prowess or even sexuality (Harry does come out of a closet in the first episode). The negotiated readings therefore see the forces arranged against Harry as allegories of real-world power. One such is Dolores Umbridge, the bureaucratic politician who becomes temporary headmistress of Hogwarts. She is later revealed to be part of Voldemort’s army as the grand narrative of the franchise expands. As a result, she helps manifest distrust of petty individuals in the real world.
Oppositional readings could note that despite J.K. Rowling’s left-wing leanings and her assertions that the stories have a liberal basis “The Wizarding World” is quite reactionary. The world is divided up into different groups in fixed ways (magical/muggle for example and different houses at school are chosen by a talking hat with which there is no process of appeal). This means that it obeys the same logic as racism where mixing of groups is regarded as problematic (“mud-blood” – a term regarding mixed heritage is banded about as an insult). This magical-apartheid is overseen by the sinisterly Orwellian “Ministry of Magic”, complete with totalitarian secret police imagery. The only major muggle character is Hermione Granger who has to wipe her parent’s memories of her existence and leave home forever in order to take her rightful position in the narrative. The films also privilege ideas about class. Harry is only accepted at Hogwarts due to the status of his dead parents and is continually told that he is special and has a great future, which undermines both meritocratic and equality ideals (where excellence is rewarded and all are capable of excelling). The use of the British public boarding-school as a model for Hogwarts makes upper-middle class life the ideal; with parent-child relationships presented as unhelpful. They are either evil (Lucius poisons his son’s mind) or ineffectual (the bumbling Weasley parents). Boarding school and orphan status allows Harry to flourish. Overall the film franchise is much more backward-looking than would be acceptable in a non-fantasy media construction.
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