I’ve lost count of the number of articles on the student demos that start like this: Where did the passion come from? Why are students – schoolchildren – teenagers – taking to the streets in their thousands to protest, all of a sudden? Isn’t this the apathetic generation who doesn’t care about anything?
Frankly – no, no it’s not. I don’t think it ever has been. But the popular media has told itself, and the rest of us, a very sad story about young people that isn’t entirely true, and it’s not a surprise to see the mainstream media startled by a sudden, vocal proof that one of their favourite narratives just doesn’t work.
The mainstream media delights in telling stories about terrifying, terrible youth. Soaring youth crime and inner-city gangs. The fattest teenager in Britain. Pregnant at 13. Asbos. Yobs are taking over the streets. 12-year-olds encouraged to have sex early. Drug-infested schools. And yes, these are cherry-picked, but it’s easy to find dozens, hundreds, thousands of stories like this, many with the same or similar headlines. It’s much harder to find positive stories on youth that feed into such well-known narratives – a good news story about young people is framed as an anomaly, proof that our Asbo-ridden drug-taking pregnant yobbish terrible youth is not quite as broken as we all, of course, thought.
Sure, the media reports prodigies too – and then delights in their downfall. And when a child star fails to fall, there are gleeful attempts to toss them down – vile upskirt photos of Emma Watson on the front page of the Star; jeering at the temerity of Daniel Radcliffe to appear naked on stage. Positive, uplifting role models for our teenagers, that we rip apart for sport. For newsprint.
But for thousands of young people the stories just don’t hold true. They aren’t pregnant at 15, or drinking on street corners, or morbidly obese, or on heroin, or committing knife crimes. They’re just trying to grow up. And for those children – the ones we see marching on the streets now – there’s another story that resonates much more strongly with their lives.
So let’s talk about Hogwarts, Harry Potter and the Idealised Transition Into Adulthood. Let’s talk about the series of books that has defined a generation’s relationship to its school days, to its society, even to itself. The teenagers on these demos are far more likely to have read Harry Potter than any newspaper, at all – not only because the books speak to them but because the media speaks about, of and for them instead, and not in a very pleasant way.
Harry Potter offers an escape. It offers a world where Broken Britain barely intrudes at all, and the realities of everyday life – broken homes, morbid obesity (Dudley), vicious child abuse – are left behind Harry as soon as he enters Hogwarts – as soon as he enters education. And within those walls is a world where bullying is rife and problematic, sure, but teenage pregnancy, drugs, alcohol, knife crime, all the myriad vices that the Daily Mail ensures us are endemic in today’s teenage culture – they simply don’t exist. Here’s a story that helps middle-class kids make sense of themselves without telling them they’re failures. Harry Potter is even a pioneering ground for participatory media – it’s not such a huge leap from fanfic and forum roleplay to the sorts of joined-up stories and easy control of narrative that pervades the UCL occupation.
Most importantly, let’s talk about the Deathly Hallows, the final book in the series, where education (in the form of Hogwarts itself) has finally come under such strenuous and sustained attack that our heroes decide to go rogue. Throughout the whole series politicians are weak, easy to manipulate, refusing to listen to children until it’s too late. They appoint Dolores Umbridge. They fail to notice the return of Voldemort. They fail to act decisively. They fail.
And throughout the series the children’s appeals to authority fail, but hard work and persistence and simply Being Right is enough to prevail in the end. Until the end, when, in a world without Dumbledore’s kindly smile to smooth over the cracks, the teenage heroes – sixth-formers, let’s not forget – must take on the assembled weight of the entire political system to try to prevent that system from destroying itself. For the sake of education, they fight, and they die.
Stories – especially popular, populist, wildly successful books, especially fairy tales and moral tales like this one – are a culture telling stories to allay its fears, to resolve the conflicts it fears will shatter it in two, to make sure there is a happy ending after all. They are like dreams, in that they enable the body conscious to process difficult events, working them into a pattern, a narrative that makes sense and which they can survive. David Cameron is Voldemort. Nick Clegg is shaping up to be Professor Quirrell, but he’s also got a shot at being Snape – in tomorrow’s vote on education cuts and university fees we’re all expecting him to kill Dumbledore, and only time will tell whether he’ll be redeemed by his later actions.
The media and popular politics paints teenagers as bad guys, as problems, as passive blanks or as villains. Harry Potter paints them as our saviours – our righteous, furious, glorious saviours who will do what’s right, even if it looks wrong to us, because it’s what’s necessary. Even if it’s violent. Even if it gets them into trouble. Because the world will be a better place in the end.
Why on earth are we surprised when they take to the streets?