Sex and Harry Potter

[Alyssa Rosenberg]

Enough with the seriousness.  I've been meaning for a while to complain about James Parker's piece in the July/August Atlantic about the problem of keeping the Harry Potter movies fresh as filmmakers tackle the later books and deal with their characters' development into sexually mature adults (Caveat: I really like Parker's work in general.  The piece about Spongebob is delightful and insane.).  And now that early reviews are calling the new movie "sexy," I've got my excuse.  Parker's piece, titled "Sex and the Single Wizard," spends about only half its words talking about adolescence and relationships, and fails to mention the actual source of the problem: that J.K. Rowling, for all that she's created a compelling universe, is really awful at writing about adult sexual and romantic relationships.

I suppose I should warn that thar be spoilers ahead, if you care, so let's go after the jump:

First, in Rowling's universe, everyone ends up with their first real love, and I mean everyone.  The idealized relationship is, of course, Lily and James Potter, who fall for each other at Hogwarts.  Ron Weasley's parents never seem to have dated anyone else.  Harry ends up with Ginny, and Ron ends up with Hermoine.  Even the folks who don't get together with their first loves never end up with anyone else.  Snape carries a torch for Lily that ends up governing his entire life.  Post the release of Deathly Hallows, Rowling announced that she's always conceived of Dumbledore as gay, and that dark wizard Grindlewald was the love of his life, who he's never quite moved on from.  Light flirtations are permissible, sure, but Harry and Cho barely get started, Ron hooks up with Lavender Brown, Hermione has her thing with Viktor Krum, which seems to fade quite comfortably into friendship.  There is not a single example in the entire series of a serious relationship that does not end in marriage or life-long devotion.

Second, Rowling never gives readers a single detailed description of an adult sexual relationship.  The Weasleys seem entirely preoccupied by their children--and they sure had a lot of them, but the process that produced those kids seems, um, long in the past.  When Mrs. Weasley finally steps out as a hardcore, badass witch (and utters the only serious profanity in the series) in her duel against Bellatrix Lestrange, her concern is her children, not her husband.  The Potters are dead, and so idealized.  Harry and company stay with Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacour when they're newlyweds, but there's no description of their married life.  Lupin and Tonks' marriage is almost entirely out of the picture, and Lupin seems basically disgusted by his decision to marry, a deep, almost anti-sexual revulsion.  And the epilogue to Deathly Hallows, in itself a serious narrative mistake, skips the characters ahead, past their years as young couples, to show them as sedate, infinitely wise, etc. parents.

There's a lot of pseudo-sexual stuff with magic, and certainly intimations of budding sexuality along the line.  But even when she goes there, Rowling seems hesitant.  The kiss that Ron and Hermione share during the Battle of Hogwarts is supposed to be their first, which seems, um, surprisingly chaste for kids who have been living together and on the run.  Hogwarts doesn't appear to offer a sex ed class, which I guess makes sense because no one appears to be having sex.  It's a really weird false note in a series full of deeply recognized characters.  I understand the urge: Rowling was writing books for children, and I'm glad my little brother was able to read and enjoy the series all the way through.  But the problem with capturing adolescent sexuality in the Harry Potter movies doesn't lie with the various filmmakers who have been assigned the task.  Ultimately, the problem is J.K. Rowling.