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Harry Potter’s overused symbology to comment on political news

On February 28th, Polish street artist Kawu posted on his Instagram profile a mural he made in Poznań, a city in western Poland. It depicts Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as Harry Potter and Russian President Vladimir Putin as his antagonist, Voldemort. The image has been successful on social networks, arousing different reactions: next to those who have found the parallel between the two heads of state and the characters of JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter saga of children’s novels, there are those who have criticized for the superficiality with which it treats a complex and tragic conflict, reducing it to a banal struggle between good and evil.

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A post shared by Kawu (@kawuart)

In recent years, in fact, the Harry Potter series has often been used to comment on political news, so much so that it has inspired a meme that has returned to circulate, especially on Twitter, in these days: “Read another book”, or “read another book “. According to the site Know Your Meme, which has been cataloging and analyzing viral content of this type for years, “Read another book” is a phrase with which “people who use the Harry Potter series are criticized to compare real events to those in books. “.

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A post shared by Kawu (@kawuart)

The history of the meme has unclear and documented origins, as often happens with this type of content. Its popularity increased with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America, when many people proposed comparisons between some Harry Potter scenes and US politics to try to explain, and explain themselves, what was going on. One of the first uses of this interpretative mechanism dates back to 12 November 2016, just three days after Trump’s victory, when the British journalist Luke Bailey published on Twitter a collage of articles, posts and tweets on the subject, all characterized by the comparison between the politics and Harry Potter, asking their authors to “read another book, any other book”, complaining about the poverty and banality of the comparison.

READ ANOTHER BOOK. Literally any other book. Preferably some history but I’d take anything at this point. pic.twitter.com/NIKaSvvqi9

– Luke Bailey (@imbadatlife) November 12, 2016

Among the material Bailey collected was a photo showing President Barack Obama’s staff members watching President-elect Trump visit the White House for the first time. The image was flanked by a scene from the movie Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, in which the students of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft find themselves in front of Voldemort himself as he enters the building. The parallel between the school of magic and the residence of the president of the United States had already been proposed on the day of Trump’s victory, when actress Kate Hackett commented on the news recalling that “Hogwarts also fell to Voldemort”.

According to this interpretation, the White House had been “conquered” by dark powers, just like Hogwarts in Rowling’s books. Some stylistic choices of the Trump administration (such as the official portrait chosen by the president, serious and grim, or the discussed Christmas decorations of the then first lady Melania Trump) contributed to the spread of this type of comparison. At the end of that year, Esquire went so far as to publish an article titled “Donald Trump is not Voldemort. Donald Trump is real “, who criticized the” stupid nostalgia “underlying the parallelism.

Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 US presidential elections seemed to have ended this phase of the meme: Harry Potter fans had freed their Hogwarts, Voldemort had been defeated. However, the war in Ukraine has given new life to the genre: this time, according to some, the dark wizard would be Putin while the Ukrainian president Zelensky, a symbol of the country’s resistance, is compared to Harry Potter. Kawu’s cited work, for example, portrays the Ukrainian president with the main characteristics of the protagonist of the series: round glasses and a scar on his forehead (in this case it is in the shape of a Z, the letter that is painted on Russian military vehicles , because in the story it is inflicted on Harry Potter by his enemy).

The fictional characters of the fantasy series are used as archetypes of political conflict even outside the United States and since before Trump. According to Anthony Gierzynski, professor of political science at the University of Vermont and author of an essay on the political and cultural influence of the series (Harry Potter and the Millennials: Research Methods and the Politics of the Muggle Generation), the character of Voldemort had already been used in 2011 as a political benchmark for right-wing figures like Rick Perry and Dick Cheney.

Voldemort’s transformation from Trump to Putin has been accompanied by another change in recent years. Starting in 2019, the year the Avengers: Endgame movie was released, Marvel’s superheroes have been used more and more often in a way similar to that reserved for Harry Potter. An example is the photomontage of “Captain Ukraine”, which represents Captain America with the face of Zelensky. Even during the 2020 US election campaign, an Endgame scene was used to comment on the clash between Biden, the Democrats and Donald Trump, amassing 35.5 million views on Twitter.

In December 2019 it was the official account of the fundraising committee (PAC) in support of Donald Trump that shared a short video in which the former president played the supervillain of the movie Thanos, saying he was “inevitable”. The latter was however a rather anomalous case, in which the Marvel antagonist was used as a positive symbol of power and victory.

House Democrats can push their sham impeachment all they want.

President Trump’s re-election is 𝗶𝗻𝗲𝘃𝗶𝘁𝗮𝗯𝗹𝗲. pic.twitter.com/O7o02S26nS

– Trump War Room (@TrumpWarRoom) December 10, 2019

The recent success of the Marvel saga also coincided with a profound crisis in the relationship between a part of Harry Potter fans and author Rowling, who starting in 2020 began receiving extensive allegations of transphobia for posting several controversial tweets about the issues of gender identity and biological sex, then listing in a post on his blog the “five reasons to be concerned about the new trans activism”. These positions of Rowling have disappointed some of the most progressive fans of the series, giving new energy to those who have long criticized those who used Harry Potter to interpret reality, without ever “reading another book”.

BREAKING: President Trump had pardoned Thanos. pic.twitter.com/JNXzvJzpuT

– Mark Ruffalo (@MarkRuffalo) January 20, 2021

To confirm how much the Harry Potter universe is in some way linked to the global political discourse, the critical reactions towards Rowling have been exploited by Putin himself. On March 25, during an intervention on the situation in Ukraine, the Russian president attacked the “cancel culture”, accusing the West of wanting to “cancel” Russia just as he has already done with “the author of published children’s books around the world, only because it does not meet their needs regarding gender rights “.