The Sorting Hat has run off with the Scarf of Sexual Preference, so we’re just going to put everyone who looks like a good guy into Gryffindor and everyone who looks like a bad guy into Slytherin.
–A Very Potter Musical Act I
I admit it—even though I’m not a self-described Harry Potter fanatic, it did capture my heart when I was younger and yes, I did create a self-indulgent fantastical scenario in my head and a little bit on paper where my friends and I went to study at Hogwarts. Frankly, I wouldn’t have lasted a day among the moving staircases and giant spiders (then again, having lived in Australia, maybe I’d just take such things in stride), but it was still fun. There was, of course, the big, crucial question of what house I’d end up in, as there somehow often is when it comes to fantastical or sci-fi series aimed at young people. I grabbed at straws and decided I was bookish and got good grades so I stuck myself in Ravenclaw.
Thinking about it now, I value my sense of loyalty over my smarts, so I’d be more of a Hufflepuff person, but they always kind of seemed like The Other Ones among the much more majestic houses, even when they did give us the occasional major character. Their emblem is a badger, for heaven’s sake. Lion? Badger? Weigh it up. Hell, even a snake is cooler, and those are the bad guys. Well, technically if you’re in Slytherin all it means is that your dominant trait is your cunning, but that’s the trouble with putting characters into groups, isn’t it? We come to associate them and their ilk with certain connotations.
To be fair, Slytherin also favours pureblooded wizards, so by extension they’re also all a bunch of racists. That can’t be true for every member of the house, though. What if you’re a cunning, self-serving little dude who’s also smart and brave? Would the Sorting Hat freeze up? Surely there have been Divergent style Hogwarts students who haven’t fit neatly into one house because they have more than one outgoing attribute, or students that have wanted to transfer halfway through because their personality changes and develops as they mature into young adults? Shock and horror, YA characters not fitting into boxes. Usually it’s cause for revolution, but not always, but either way it’s an interesting trend to look at in media aimed at young-uns.
Having the boxes is fun, yeah—it gives the readers another level of engagement, as I mentioned before, wondering which one they or their favourite characters from other works would fit into. Quiz websites would have gone out of business if it weren’t for people wanting to know which Hogwarts house/Panem district/Divergent class they belong to. There are a million and one ways people have come up with to examine this, even using psychological profiling techniques like Myers Briggs personality test acronyms to hypothetically sort people. But again, what if you can’t or don’t want to be boxed? You’re infringing on the system.
Divergent’s example, where the heroine freaks out and poses a threat to the segregation system because she has more than one dominant personality trait, is meant to spark a revolution that takes the system down and point out that it’s stupid. Well, while I don’t want to nitpick series I haven’t read, it seems that a fight like that was a long time coming, because a system like that doesn’t necessarily make functional sense. There are plenty of examples of dystopian or evilly-run segregated systems in fiction that need to be overthrown to prove how crappy they are and that people should be free and together, but they don’t have to be based on personality tests or the like.
The Wind Singer books, as well as getting freaky with their religious motifs later on, had a segregated system in place based on a family’s accumulative test scores. If they got high enough, they could move up to better living conditions, with the highest ranking in the centre of the ring-shaped city dressed in pure white. Thus it equates obsession with academic scores, even from infancy, with snobbery and elitism, which is an interesting thing to condemn story-wise. Even the tiered academy in Kill La Kill uses a system like this, with students’ performance leading to them not only being handed superpowers if they do good or schmooze up, but affecting where their family lives in the town and encouraging estrangement and snobbery between Star classes.
The same thing applies in The Hunger Games, even—with the twelve districts separate from each other and ruled by fear, each providing a different commodity to the Capitol, the people are divided based on basic traits such as where they work, and encouraged to fight and hate each other. That, again, is proved to be a ridiculous and oppressive system and is taken down. So many box-putting stories, so little time. It’s worth pointing out that even when the Tributes unite, it’s still kind of established that the ‘Career’ districts closest to the Capitol only send murderous assholes to the Games, consistently. I’m sure other members of their home states are lovely, but the only ones we see in the narrative try to brutally and joyfully kill Our Heroes, and that somewhat puts a dampener on that whole ‘we are one’ message.
Maybe it’s not always conscious, but having factions of a story represented by different groups, especially when those groups are based on personality types, race or living class, can lead to some rough generalisation. All of Slythetin slithered out when it came to crunch time at the Battle of Hogwarts, which kind of damns everyone with that kind of personality and shifts the Sorting Hat’s method to “if they’re a selfish asshole, put them in green” and thus subtextually says “if they’re in green, they’re a selfish asshole”. The high-scoring people in The Wind Singer were all pretty awful, as were the people who enforced the system, which kind of leads to a prejudice against those that do well. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with painting victims of an oppressive system as the underdogs, but it does help to show some humanity in other people in it as well, to demonstrate that individuals are responsible for their own behaviour and having certain morals or being a certain way doesn’t stem solely from being part of a certain group.
One series that bang-on gets this right is Avatar: The Last Airbender, which again has spawned a whole generation of quiz site users wanting to know through various means what kind of Bending they would be good at. Part of it is personality, part of it is culture—either way, despite opening with “everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked”, the show does a pretty good job of taking apart their own setup that Fire Nation = Evil. By the third season, Our Heroes are in the Fire Nation and discovering rapidly that the people there are just ordinary human beings like them, just as capable of being crushed and misled under the hard and fiery thumb of their overlord as the other nations, in the same way the other nations are just as capable of being awful to their people, and the heroes themselves of being morally wrong at times.
Basically, it makes great strides in removing the generalisation it sets up and makes it more about individuals within a group than the group itself. There are bad firebenders and good firebenders. There are compassionate, wonderful waterbenders and awful, hurtful waterbenders. It removes any stigma that might be attached to the elemental groups, and in the process also avoids making it an issue of race. Which is a good message to send to kids in any war narrative: the Fire Nation isn’t evil, the power-hungry people leading it just do horrible things.
Because that’s what these young-people-aimed stories are kind of allegorising, or could be anyway: they’re setting kids up for a world that’s divided into groups, and those groups face generalisations and prejudice from each other all the time as well as oppression from above, and that is not necessarily right or good. The grouping system provides a world pattern kids and teenagers (and adults, hell) can recognise, and then points out why it’s unfair.
Except for Hogwarts. I don’t think the housing system is ever called-out as one of segregation or a potentially harmful thing, it’s just kind of there as a fun element at the start and occasionally causing controversy by sorting members of big evil magical families into Gryffindor to prove that you can never be a good guy in Slytherin. Hmm. Interesting.
Anyway, I still say I’d rather be a Hufflepuff, sidelined as they are (and with the awkward implication that loyalty is not as awesome as courage or cunning)—going with the generalisation, they’d all be pretty chill, friendly people, and we’d be right next to the kitchens, and since we are The Other Guys, we won’t have to get in the way of any of Harry’s adventures. I can imagine it’s a lot more relaxing than Gryffindor.