Weekly Archive
August 25, 2002 - August 31, 2002

RE: Fred and George: The Bullies You Do Know

My goodness!

I get busy for a couple of days, and when I come back, what do I find?

Um. Well. It's really difficult for me even to know how to approach this now, honestly, because I get the distinct impression that my original argument was, er, not very well understood. To say the least.

That's my own fault, of course, but it does make it quite difficult for me to know how now to respond to what has been posted on this thread, as the vast majority of the arguments strike me as rather tangential, if not completely irrelevant, to the issue I was hoping to discuss.

However. I will try.

First off, it seems to me that there is a rather severe discrepancy between my own understanding and that of the rest of the list when it comes to the questions of both what bullying is and what traits typically characterize those who engage in it.

Many of the operative definitions of bullying that others have either stated outright or implied in their responses on this thread are ones that I have never seen or heard of before. Anywhere. And while some of them seem reasonable enough to me, others, I must say, strike me as simply bizarre.

Elsewhere, people seem to be in possession of a very different (and indeed, in many cases diametrically opposed!) conception of what bullies are like -- what characterizes them, what traits they typically exhibit, and so forth.

Because the question of "what bullies are like" was absolutely essential to my original argument, this is an enormous problem.

So. First off, a bit of clarification. What is bullying? What is "bullying behavior?" And what are bullies typically like? What traits typically characterize those who engage in bullying?


The definitions of "bullying" with which I am most familiar are those which derive in one way or another from the definition used by the Norwegian Dan Olweus, whose research into the dynamics of schoolyard bullying has formed the basis for nearly all of the work done in this field in both Scandinavian and English-speaking countries over the course of the past thirty years.

The Oregon Youth Violence Project, for example, uses the below definition when trying to evaluate whether or not conflict between students consitutes bullying:

A social, verbal or physical action is "bullying" if it fit the below criteria:

-- is it behavior that could be reasonably assumed by a person of the instigator(s)' age, intellect, and experience to cause pain, discomfort, humiliation or embarrassment to the victim?
-- has it happened more than once?
-- has the instigator persisted in the behavior even after the victim has demonstrated that s/he resents this behavior or is bothered by it?
-- is there a real or perceived power imbalance between the victim and the instigator(s), is the victim incapable of retaliating effectively in kind, or is the victim unusually and specifically vulnerable in the arena targetted by the behavior?

If the answer to all four of these questions is "yes," then bullying is taking place.

This is a rather standard definition. Some variation or another of the above is used by nearly all professionals in the field of bullying prevention across Scandinavia, as well as in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the UK. I am unfamiliar with the definitions used in other places.

Although this is a clinical definition, it matches my own layman's experience of what bullying is and what it entails perfectly. Indeed, I find it so intuitive that it honestly hadn't even occurred to me that it might not match up with the understandings of others on this list. My bad, apparently.

So. According to this definition, have we seen the twins engage in bullying in canon?

I would say that their treatment of Percy definitely qualifies as bullying. However, I register the objections that some people have raised on the grounds that special considerations must apply when considering the question of bullying between siblings. This is very true, and in fact, materials designed to help educators and other concerned adults to help prevent childhood bullying often have an entire chapter devoted to the question of bullying between siblings. Nonetheless, bullying can and does happen between siblings, and in the case of Percy and the twins, I think that it definitely is happening by the time of GoF. This is a complicated issue, though, and it's one that I have a LOT of thoughts about, so I'd like to return to it in another post, if that's all right with everyone.

So outside of the family unit, have we seen the twins engage in bullying?

No. I would say that we have not. We have seen isolated incidents that hint at bullying, but since one of the criteria for "bullying" is that the behavior be repetitive and persistent, one cannot positively identify bullying on the basis of such isolated incidents, no matter how suggestive they may be.

One can, however, draw certain assumptions about character and inclination from isolated incidents, particularly when there are a number of these incidents in the canon and very little evidence to contradict them.

This was the basis of my original argument: the twins behave like bullies. They act like bullies. They engage in bullying behavior, and they also exhibit nearly every one of the character traits that researcheres over the past forty years have identified as typical of people who bully. Therefore it is very difficult for me as a reader not to assume that, even if we do not see enough of their interactions with students outside of their in-group to form a definitive diagnosis, nonetheless they very likely are indeed bullies.

This argument, however, depends on a certain understanding of what constitutes bullying behavior, as well as one of what bullies are typically like.

So what is "bullying behavior?"


"Bullying behavior" is behavior consistent with any one of the criteria listed in the above definition of bullying. In other words, although we cannot say for sure that bullying is taking place until all four of the criteria have been met, action that fulfills any one of the four should be considered a "red flag." It is behavior consistent with that of bullies, and it therefore ought to alert the witness to the possibility that bullying may be taking place, or that the person responsible for the behavior is at serious risk for becoming a bully.

Bullying behavior would therefore include: targetting the weak or the vulnerable; disregard for signs of distress or protest on the part of a victim; any persistent and repetitive instigation of actions which might reasonably be assumed to cause pain, discomfort or humiliation to others; insensitivity to the emotional condition of other people.

The twins exhibit all of these behaviors. If they are not actually bullying anyone outside of their family—which they may well not be—they nonetheless do exhibit all of the behavioral symptoms of those prone to bullying. They may or may not technically be "bullies." But do they engage in "bullying behavior?"

Oh, yes. No question. That they most certainly do.


Here is where we seem to have run into the most profound difference of opinion.

This is unfortunate indeed, as the understanding of what bullies are like was absolutely central to my original argument.

There's been an enormous amount of research done on this subject over the past thirty years. Olweus' findings are commercially available. There's a nice overview of this research in Adair article from the New Zealand "Children Issues," v. 3 no. 1, 1999, which is available from the Children's Issues Centre of the University of Otago. Alternatively, the recently published (if rather insultingly and misleadingly titled) _Your Child: Bully or Victim?_ by Peter Sheras is a good layman's overview, as is the somewhat older _Bullies & Victims,_ by Fried and Fried. Both of these books are currently in print.

Research into the psychological profiles of bullies in both Scandinavian and English-speaking countries has found that cross-culturally they exhibit the following traits:

-- physically strong and/or coordinated
-- socially popular
-- assertive with both peers and adults
-- high levels of physical courage
-- very high levels of self-esteem
-- impulsive
-- feel little or no sympathy for victims (lack remorse)
-- positive attitudes towards violence
-- low levels of empathy
-- difficulty recognizing or understanding their own and others' emotions
-- competitive
-- lack self-reflection
-- resistant to compromise

("Empathy," in this context, refers to the ability to project oneself into the situation of someone very different from oneself and then to imagine how that person might feel or think. People with "low levels of empathy" find this a difficult imaginative exercise.)

Eron et al at the University of Chicago, who have conducted a thirty year longitudinal study of schoolyard bullies and victims, also claim that bullies show a much higher tendency than other children towards dualistic thinking, and specifically towards thinking in terms of self-other dichotomies: us vs. them, in-group vs. out-group, etc.

David Elkind of Harvard, whose findings confirm this, suggests that it may be this tendency which accounts for bullies' low empathy levels: they do not, he suggests, ascribe to "outsiders" quite the same human status they do to those they consider to be "like them," and they therefore not only find it difficult to identify with outsiders, but also resist attaching any real credence to their emotional responses, thus leading them to be able to make claims like "oh, it wasn't really bothering him," even when their victim has in fact loudly and repeatedly objected to mistreatment or even been reduced to tears.

Eron and Elkind's findings are hardly as universal as all of the ones listed above, though, and Elkind's theory is by no means anywhere near universally accepted within the field.

Apologies for this rather long digression, but I really felt that it was necessary, as so many of the objections to my claim that the twins are bullies seemed based in a completely different understanding of what traits are characteristic of bullies in the first place.


Now, back to the topic at hand.

In my original message, I posited that Fred and George are characterized quite clearly in the text as bullies.

They are popular, charismatic, athletic and self-confident, loyal to those they have designated members of their in-group, disdainful and hostile to those outside of that magic circle, poor at recognizing when their behavior is harming others, insensitive to others' feelings, lacking in any apparent self-reflexion, and prone to targetting the vulnerable and the weak without remorse.

I pointed out places in the canon that had conspired to create this impression in my mind, places where we see hints to this aspect of their character, hints which strongly suggest to me that the twins do indeed engage in bullying, even if we have never actually seen firm evidence of this in the canon.

I pointed out that while the Twins are indeed helpful to Harry, we have yet to see them be in the least bit pleasant to any student outside of House Gryffindor. Indeed, every single one of their interactions with an "out-group" student that we have yet seen in canon has been disdainful, mocking, unfriendly, or in some other way aggressive. This holds true not only for their interactions with the members of House Slytherin, but also for their interaction with Cedric Diggory, of House Hufflepuff. This is behavior characteristic of bullies, who tend (according to Eron and Enkind) to think in terms of "us vs. them," and to deny outsiders the same considerations that they afford to those within their own circle.

Not only is their behavior towards people outside of their group hostile; their manner of speaking about those people is both disdainful and dismissive. This was my point in bringing up Draco and the dementor on the train. My point there was not to claim that the twins ought to go out of their way to be "nice" to Draco. (Who would want to go out of their way to be nice to Draco? He's horrid!) Rather, it was that the particular tenor of their disdain is utterly consistent with the way in which bullies think and speak about people outside of their in-group. (It is also, I might point out, very similar to the sneering tone with which Sirius Black always speaks of Severus Snape -- a character touch which has led more than one reader to deduce that Sirius himself might have been a bit of a bully back in his schooldays).

I also pointed out that the twins—large, strong, and self-assured teenaged boys—have on more than one occasion been shown targetting boys much younger than themselves for mockery. They do not seem to have much of a sense of noblesse oblige. They do not balk at attacking people much younger or less powerful than they are, nor do they seem to see anything wrong with this behavior. This too is characteristic of people who bully others.

When we do see the twins applying their "mischief" to an authority figure at Hogwarts, they have selected as their target the most vulnerable professor in the entire school, a man who is (as far as the twins know) in a state of magically-induced shell-shock. Knowing this about him, they nonetheless choose to throw snowballs at the back of his head from a hidden location. Bullies tend to hone in on other people's vulnerabilities. Even Harry, who is friendly with the twins, is aware of this aspect of their character: he fears to reveal vulnerability to them, for fear that they will exploit it in a way that he will find painful.

In both the canon and the semi-canon of the schoolbooks, the twins are shown to exhibit a marked callousness towards animals. This applies not only to "wild" magical animals, like the salamander, but also towards their own brother's pets. They have already killed (or perhaps merely "lost") one of Ron's pets, and they dismiss his grief over the assumed death of Scabbers as insignificant and rather foolish. Callousness and lack of empathy are characteristic traits of those who bully others.

In their harassment of their siblings, the twins seem to lack insight into the harm caused by their actions. The damaging effects of their behavior on their little sister Ginny must be pointed out to them before they are capable of appreciating that they are causing her injury. They similarly are either incapable of seeing the damage that their continued harassment of Percy is causing, or simply disinterested in it. If their treatment of Percy is not, in fact, malicious, then they must be turning a willfully blind eye to its effects on both his behavior and his emotional condition. This, too, is typical of bullies, who often lack both insight into their own motivations and attentiveness to the suffering of others.

On the one occasion where the twins are called upon to display adult behavior—in the train at the end of GoF—they fail the test. They do not show much inclination to take on the mantle of adulthood. This immaturity is typical of bullies, whose lives tend to take a sharp downturn at the age of seventeen or eighteen, when they are forced to join the adult world, a world in which their manner of interacting with others does not reap at all the same rewards as it does in the school environment. People who were bullies as children are five times as likely (in the US) to develop a criminal record later in life than are children who did not bully others in school. Indeed, in GoF, we see the twins contemplate blackmail—a criminal activity rather above and beyond the level of childish pranks—when they find themselves frustrated by the adult world.

Now for me, as a reader, all of these factors combine to create a certain impression of the twins. Namely, that they are bullies. They look like bullies, they act like bullies, they speak like bullies, they react to things in the same way that bullies typically do. In fact, the only way in which they are not written as bullies is that JKR has not actually shown us the twins bullying anyone.

Then, she has not shown us very much of their interactions with the student body outside of House Gryffindor at all. For behavior to be technically bullying, it must happen repeatedly, and we have not been shown nearly enough of the twins' interactions with the rest of the school to know whether or not this has happened.

I think, however, that all of the signs are there. If the twins are, in fact, not bullying students at Hogwarts, then they have done a remarkable job of showing every last sign of being bullies without...yet...quite...becoming such. They certainly fit the personality profile. They certainly exhibit bullying behaviors. They certainly are depicted as stereotypical bullies.

In this respect, I tend to feel that the twins reflect a basic fact of life: you never perceive the Bully You Know as a bully at all, no matter how obviously he might fit the profile, because you are conditioned to take heed of the signs only when they appear in someone who doesn't like you, and who therefore seems likely to direct his hostility against you and yours. My Brave Defender is your Big Mean Bully. My Big Mean Bully is your All-round Nice Guy.

Clearly, though, my reading of the twins, idiosyncratic. To say the least. However, I must say that many of the objections to my reading strike me as a little bit difficult to understand. They seem to revolve on some very different ideas about bullies and bullying than the ones which I possess. I'll try to address a few of them here.

1) It's only bullying if it is motivated by malice.

Hmmm. A tricky issue, this.

See, some definitions of bullying do indeed include malice, the "intent to harm," as one of the requisite criteria. Others include it as only one of many the possible criteria on a "if five of the seven of these are true" type list. And then there are others which omit it altogether.

You can make a case for malice as a requisite criterion for bullying, yes. I think, though, that there are very good reasons for omitting it as such.

One of these reasons is simply that there are in fact many reasons that a child might choose to bully another child, and that many of these reasons often take precedence over the desire to do harm. A child might choose to bully, for example, primarily to ensure her own social popularity, or because she is afraid that if she isn't perceived by other children as a bully, then she might herself become the next victim. These motivations often supercede the desire to do harm. But does that make the bullying any less bullying? I don't think that it does.

Another reason for discounting motive as a relevant factor here is that intent is impossible to prove. Bullies themselves very rarely explain their actions in terms of having wanted to hurt someone. Instead, they usually fall back on the old stand-bys: "he deserved it," "she was asking for it," "it didn't really hurt him," "it was all in fun," "can't she take a joke?" and so forth. Sometimes, when called upon to account for their actions, bullies will say that they just did it because they were bored, or because they thought that it would be funny. "Because it was funny" is not necessarily the same thing as malice. It could reflect simple callousness. But again, bullying is no less bullying just because its perpetrator is merely callous and insensitive, rather than malevolent or sadistic.

This relates to the psychological characteristics of bullies, of course. Bullies tend, as a class, to be exceptionally poor at understanding their own emotions and motivations. They not only lack insight into other people's feelings, but also into their own. They are not self-critical about their behavior. So another problem with insisting on "intent to cause harm" as a proof of bullying is not only that it is impossible to prove malice, but also that even if malice were the primary reason for a bully's behavior, he would still likely to deny this not only to you, but also even to himself.

I firmly believe, for example, that the twins' behavior towards Percy in the third and fourth books of the series is indeed quite evidently intended to cause him harm. If asked, however, I am equally sure that the twins themselves would attempt to rationalize it by claiming that they are trying to "help" Percy by their continual harassment. Similarly, I don't think that they'd be likely to show any great insight into the significance of the fact that they consistently target Percy on the exact same grounds for which Percy is praised or rewarded by their parents, or that every time Arthur or Molly give a sign of approval to Percy, retaliation from the twins is quick to follow. As readers, we can recognize these patterns and interpret them, but the twins do not recognize them, and likely would not acknowledge them even if confronted with them. Relying on the word of the aggressors as to their real motivations is really only of value if the aggressors are exceptionally self-reflexive, self-critical, and honest with themselves. Very few of us can claim to be all of those things—I certainly can't—and bullies as a class tend to be even less so than most.

Bullies also tend to be insensitive to other people's emotions. They are not skilled at anticipating others reactions, and they lack impulse control. This is a dangerous combination, because it does make it quite possible for people to cause tremendous harm to others without really "meaning to." That doesn't mean that they aren't bullies. They are still bullying, so long as they ought to have known that their behavior would be harmful. In fact, one of the reasons that so many countries funnel so much money into bullying prevention programs for their schools is really not so much to protect the victims as it is to teach bullies to behave themselves. Bullies don't tend to fare very well in later life. They all too often wind up in prison. This could just be because they're malicious, of course, but to some extent, it may also reflect a profound failure of the sort of people who bully to comprehend the ramifications of their actions. People like that need to be taught to anticipate how their behavior affects others, as well as how to control their desires to engage in hurtful behavior, not only for the protection of their victims, but also for their own protection.

The main reason, though, to leave aside the question of intent when evaluating bullying behavior is that to take intent under consideration privileges the experience of the bully over that of the victim. Cindy touched on this issue here, when she wrote:

I have to wonder whether the conduct of the twins is every bit as hurtful to those on the receiving end as Draco's taunts about the Weasleys' poverty.

Well, yes. That's just it. Whether or not behavior is "bullying" depends on whether or not it is bothering the victim, and that's not a question that it is the aggressor's job to answer. Draco Malfoy, for example, cannot get off the Bully Hook by claiming that taunting Muggle-borns isn't really bullying because those Mudbloods aren't fully human and therefore don't really feel pain the way we purebloods do. That is indeed one of the classic justifications of bullies. But it's a poor justification. An adolescent boy of normal intellect really ought to know that taunting causes distress to other human beings regardless of their heritage. That is knowledge that someone of his age and experience "can be reasonably assumed" to possess. Furthermore, the reactions of those he has taunted show that his actions cause them pain. His actions therefore constitute bullying, no matter what he might self-report as his true intent or degree of intended malice.

Similarly, in GoF the twins ought to know that their pranks cause Percy distress. They are old enough and bright enough to understand that continual harassment bothers and upsets people. They have had ample opportunity to observe that Percy is distressed by their actions, that they have a marked and negative effect on his ability to cope, and that they are causing him harm. He protests and he objects; he complains to his parents; he locks himself in his room. He is not capable of retaliating in kind -- indeed, he does not retaliate in any way at all. He is rendered vulnerable by virtue of having no real allies among his siblings, as well as by virtue of being under unusual stress due to having just started his adult life. And yet the twins do not desist. To my mind, this constitutes bullying. The twins' claim (or the claims of their apologists) that they "mean no harm," or that they are "only trying to help him" is not a relevant factor here, because in fact, they ought to be capable of recognizing that they are doing harm, and that their actions are not helping him in the least. Yet, they still do not desist. This makes their behavior "bullying."

Turning a blind eye to the actual (as opposed to the intended) outcome of your actions does not make you not a bully. Indeed, this sort of behavior is absolutely typical of bullies.

2. Bullies suffer from low self-esteem.

Abigail wrote:

A bully, to my mind, is a power freak. A person who feels the need to humiliate and terrify others in order to feel powerful. This behaviour usually stems from low self esteem...

It's very comforting to think that bullies must suffer from low self-esteem, but I'm afraid to say that it's a myth. Study after study has shown that bullies actually have much higher levels of self-esteem than other children do. It is one of the distinguishing characteristics of children who bully others.

(There is a type of bully, often known as the "victim bully," who typically does suffer from low self-esteem. Victim-bullies ::coughSnapecough:: only account for a small percentage of bullies overall, though.)

That Fred and George do not seem to suffer from self-esteem problems does not mean that they can't be bullies. On the contrary, it helps to support my impression that they very well might be.

3. Bullies Aren't Callous

Abigail wrote:

At their best, Fred and George are being playful and high-spirited, and are unaware of the fact that they might be causing pain to others. At their worse, they are almost unbearably callous.

Actually, being "unbearably callous" is a very common trait found in bullies. Lack of sensitivity to others' emotions is one of the classic characteristics of bullies.

Again, this doesn't necessarily mean that the twins are bullies—you can be insensitive and still not be a bully—but it does mean that they match the profile.

4. If your intention is to change someone's behavior, then it isn't really bullying.

Darrin wrote:

Inter-sibling rivalries are normal and this is Fred and George's way of dealing with "perfect Percy", who is obnoxious.

Actually, "because he was getting on my nerves" is a very common reason for bullies to give when called upon to account for their actions. It's also a defense that adults often find highly sympathetic, because the sad fact of the matter is that many children who are the victims of bullying really are irritating, annoying, rude, or in some other way socially obnoxious. In the literature, children who match this description are referred to as "provocative victims" -- which is really just psych-speak for "those kids who are just begging for it."

What makes bullying maladaptive behavior, however, is that fact that it does not address the problem of social irritation in an acceptable or an effective manner. Not only is it intrinsically damaging; it also doesn't solve the problem of social friction. In fact, it usually just makes the problem much worse.

Intervention for bullies is often designed to focus on precisely this problem. If someone's behavior is irritating you, there are a number of useful ways to go about trying to get them to stop. Bullying is not one of them. It is maladaptive behavior, and it often reflects distorted thinking.

We see this in the canon, I think, with Percy and the twins. The more the twins tease and harass Percy, the more pompous and stuffy he becomes, because pomposity and strutting is Percy's way of dealing with stress. The twins, however, are incapable of recognizing this fact. Their "way of dealing" with Percy is therefore inherently counter-productive, and their inability to realize this fact is extremely typical of children who bully others in real life.

5. It's only bullying if physical assault takes place or is threatened.

Darrin wrote:

There is no evidence they have physically harmed Percy, or even seriously attempted to.

Bullying does not have to involve physical assault or physical threat. Verbal bullying (teasing, insults) is by far the most common type of bullying.

Fred and George don't have to beat people up to be bullies.

6. All Children Are Bullies.

No. All children may be nasty little rotters with the capacity to bully, but they aren't all bullies. Most kids take part in a spot of bullying at some point in their lives, but that doesn't make them "bullies." Bullies are the kids who regularly instigate or take the lead in bullying behavior.

Abigail wrote:

Am I the only person who is flashing on an early episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which Xander is possessed by a hyena spirit and begins acting quite cruelly?


Oh, I just loved that episode, in spite of its cheese factor and its "spotted it a mile off" plot resolution!

But one thing to keep in mind about Giles' line there, Abigail, is that for once, he was actually wrong. Even before they got possessed by the hyena spirits, those kids really weren't just your average normal sixteen year old students. They were the class bullies, and all of the other kids knew that they were the class bullies. Giles just didn't get that, because he didn't share the students' understanding of how the school's pecking order worked.

Of course, I do take your point that the plots of early Buffy generally are rather blatant metaphors for real life high school horrors: in this case, one of your non-bully friends suddenly deciding to hang with the bullies, and then being mean to you in order to cement his new social status. But I think that there's a very big difference between "sometimes a student will decide to become a bully, and it's really scary and awful when that happens -- just like he's been possessed overnight by some evil spirit" and "all kids are bullies." I mean, I see a very big difference there.

Draco is a bully. Dudley is a bully. Harry has the capacity to be a bully -- but he is not one. The verdict is still out on Fred and George, but much about their canonical depiction strongly suggests to me that they are indeed bullies.

7. Bullies can't themselves be the victim of bullying.

Yes, they can be. In fact, they very often are. An important component in bullying is the power discrepancy between the bully and the victim. A kid who has the strength and size advantage to bully other children his own age can then be the victim of bullying when he relates to children older, stronger, or more powerful than himself.

Darrin wrote:

And forgive me, but I have a hard time shedding a tear when a bully like Dudley...gets it from a bigger bully.

That is what is happening.

Yup. That's exactly what's happening, Darrin. I quite agree with you. Dudley is getting it from bigger bullies: namely, the twins.

Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

8. Teasing between siblings isn't bullying.

Yes, it can be. Teasing between siblings crosses the line into "bullying" when one of the siblings has repeatedly registered protests against the teasing, can not or does not retaliate in kind, and is obviously suffering on account of it -- and yet the teasing continues. That is bullying, even when it happens within the family.

Christy (who I am sure would never take things as far with her siblings as Fred and George have taken things with Percy by the beginning of GoF) wrote:

I think it is safe to say that we can discount any pranks on Percy as "proof" of the twins being bullies. . . .I constantly pull pranks and spout wisecracks at my sisters. This is simply the dynamics of the modern family.

Yes, it is...up to a certain point. But by GoF, I think that things have gone way beyond that point. It seems clear to me that the Weasley family dynamic is in a good deal of trouble in GoF. Percy has become so deeply alienated from the rest of his family that he has chosen to transfer his filial loyalties onto his employer Crouch -- a man who doesn't even know his name.

Indeed, when speculating about Percy's role in future canon, readers regularly phrase the issue as "will Percy side with Fudge or with his family?" rather than as "will Percy side with Dumbledore or with Fudge?" which might, one would think, be the rather more logical way to frame the question. We don't frame it that way, though, and I think that there is a reason that we don't. Percy's struggle throughout the series has always been one between his allegiance to his family and his allegiance to his extra-familial relationships (his prefect friends, the staff of Hogwarts, Penny, Crouch and the Ministry). I think that as readers, we are so often concerned about Percy precisely because we sense that the Weasley family dynamic has gone sour -- that it is no longer the benevolant or harmless or even beneficial dynamic that it used to be.

Nicole (who really must never worry about disagreeing with me; after all, given the ban on "me toos," if we never disagreed then we would never get a chance to interact with each other!) wrote:

I really think that this is perfectly normal sibling rivalry.

It struck me that way in PS/SS, certainly. The twins' teasing of Percy seemed very loving and good-natured to me there. I love the Christmas sweater scene and always have. It's touching and funny and sweet.

But by the time we reach GoF, it seems very different to me. It doesn't seem "normal" at all to me anymore. The family dynamic in GoF comes across to me as very ugly, rancorous, and very damaging.

This is subject matter for a post all its own, though, and I do plan to write one, as soon as I can get around to it. For now, though, let me just say that I really don't see the twins' interactions with Percy in GoF as normal or acceptable at all. By GoF, I think that it is bullying.

9. Bullies Are Cowards

Darrin wrote:

A bully is a coward deep down. . . . .F&G aren't cowards.

Sometimes they're only cowards very deep down.

Bullies are cowardly, in that they pick on people weaker than themselves, but they often exhibit cowardice in no other arena. A high degree of physical courage is in fact one of the traits that consistently emerges as one shared by bullies in psychological studies.

That Fred and George are brave does not mean that they can't be bullies. Many bullies are brave in every wayother than in their habit of singling out the weak and the vulnerable for abuse.

10. There can be only one bully in any given school at one time -- and Draco is Hogwarts' bully.

This, at any rate, seems to be the argument that Darrin has proposed for why Fred and George cannot be bullies. I can't say that I really understand this argument at all. Schools, even small schools, almost always have more than one bully among the student body.

Then, I didn't understand a very similar argument when it popped up on the Hagrid thread a while back either. There, the argument seemed to be that Hagrid couldn't be a bad teacher, because Snape is a bad teacher.

I didn't understand that one either, really. If Snape's teaching style is flawed, then how does that make Hagrid a good teacher? If Draco is a bully, then how does that make it impossible for Fred and George to be bullies?

There can be (and usually is) more than one bully in a school at a time. More's the pity.

10. Whether or not it's bullying depends on the moral standing of the victim.

I have no idea where this notion comes from. I have never seen a definition of bullying anywhere that takes the moral virtue or lack thereof of the victim into consideration. Relative power to bully? Yes. Degree of vulnerability? Yes. Ability to retaliate effectively in kind? Yes. Repetition of dynamic over time? Yes.

Moral standing? I don't see that as ever relevant to the question of whether or not bullying is taking place.

11. All bullies are racists.

No, of course they aren't. You can be a bully without being a racist.

Again, I have no notion where this one came from, although I get the impression that it derived from a faulty syllogism, one that went something along the lines of "Draco is a bully. Draco is a racist. Therefore, all bullies are racists," and then concluded with the assertion that in order to argue that Fred and George are bullies, one would therefore first have to prove that they are racists.


It's, er, a bit difficult for me to know how to address this, actually. See, I'm just not very good with arguments like this. Whenever I read them, they tend to make me feel just a bit like one of those computers in the cheesy old science fiction movies -- the ones that explode if you hand them a paradox to parse.




::sparks begin to fly::

But I gather that there actually has been some dispute over whether or not this is actually a logical fallacy. So I suppose that I'll try to address that issue.

Only once, though. Only once.

Okay. The best that I can really come up with here is to suggest that when one is in some doubt about the logic of a series of statements, it can sometimes help to replace the relevant variables with others that have less emotional resonance and about which the truth is in fact known -- and then to check to see if it still makes sense.

So, for example, as a substitution for the syllogism above, we might try:

"Elkins is a woman.
"Elkins is an American.
"Therefore, all women are Americans.

"In order to prove that Pip is a woman, therefore, you will first have to prove that Pip is an American."

I think that we can all agree that this doesn't really make any sense -- and that Pip, moreover, might greatly resent it if we tried to prove her American citizenship. (And if she expressed that resentment more than once, and yet we still persisted, we would be engaged in bullying behavior. ::apologetic grin at Pip::)

So I'm afraid that I still don't understand the argument. That Draco is a racist has no bearing on the question of whether or not Fred and George are bullies.

12. Bullies are Unpopular.

No. They usually aren't.

Bullies usually enjoy a higher than average degree of social popularity up until their late teenaged years, when they start to lose their cache. It has been hypothesized that this happens in part because as children mature to become adults, they become both more idealistic and more empathic, and therefore stop finding the sort of behavior that bullies exhibit nearly so amusing or as appealing as they did when they were younger.

This tendency might also account for the discrepancy that has been raised on a different thread between how children and adults might differ in their readings of the canon.

HF wrote:

I guess one way to look at it is this: Why haven't Fred and George been left with their heads in a toilet somewhere? I mean, they are bigger than the younger kids, but certainly not bigger than the seventh-years. If their pranks are so intolerable to people, one would think the law of the playground would have stopped it.

You must have grown up on a remarkably just playground! ;-)

Bullies are almost always more popular than their victims. That is why they usually manage to get away with their behavior right up until the point at which some adult or other external authority steps in to make them stop.

If F&G were mean, nasty, and generally undesirable characters given to bullying and harassing the weak, I don't think anyone in Gryffindor would have stood for it.

But they do! The times that we have actually seen Fred and George harassing the weak, everyone thinks that it's funny. Harry isn't outraged by Fred and George feeding the toffee to Dudley. No one at the Gryffindor table objects to them hissing at the Sorting Ceremony. Nobody objects to their throwing snowballs at Professor Quirrell. Everyone's having a blast with them while they send that salamander zooming around the common room. And Harry and Ron snicker right along with the twins when they persecute the stressed-out, on the edge, and exceptionally vulnerable Percy of GoF.

Richelle summed it up really well right here.


Well, my opinion on Fred and George may not amount to much, but I just find them down right likeable. They're rude to people, sure. But they usually deserve it! They're mean sometimes. Often even. But 9 times out of 10 they're mischeviousness is aimed at something we'd really like to see happen anyway.

Yup. That's precisely how bullies get away with it. They select as their victims the people they believe that no one will bother to defend.


Additionally, wouldn't it go against the grain to have people of said description in Gryffindor, as "daring, nerve, and chivalry" is their major descriptor?

Aw, come on. The Gryffs are good kids on the whole, but they're hardly saints, are they? The Trio and Neville get ostracized by their housemates for losing all of those points in PS/SS. I don't get the impression that Lavender and Parvati are always perfectly sweet and kind to Hermione, either. And let's not even get into the infamous Prank. ("Down, boy!")

Every group of kids has its bullies. I don't really think that the Gryffindors are so absolutely perfect as to warrant an exception to this general rule.


That tells me that their personal charisma and the fact that people realize it's just a joke, all in fun, no harm done, are working in their favor.

Yup. Bullies are usually charismatic, and they are usually popular, and the other members of their in-group usually do think that they are funny and harmless and nice. It's the people outside of their in-group who would beg to differ.

One of the problems with bullying in the schools is that even the adults in authority often favor the bullies. Jenny touched on this here, when she wrote:

They are in Gryffindor, they are excellent athletes, they are confident and they are nice to Harry. Is that why so many people think they are funny and why people are so quick to excuse them?

That's usually the way it works.

But not always.

Jenny of Ravenclaw wrote:

As a teacher, I have zero tolerance for bullying in my classroom.

::smiles and raises glass to Jenny::

And that is how you put a stop to it.

50 points to Ravenclaw.

—-- Elkins

Posted August 25, 2002 at 9:43 pm
Topics: ,
Plain text version


RE: Twins, Toons, Humor and Instinct

Abigail wrote:

I remain convinced that it just doesn't matter whether F&G are bullies, because we were never meant to analyze their actions as deeply as we do.

I'm sorry that you're not enjoying the discussion, Abigail, but really, I think it obvious that the issue does indeed matter to quite a number of people. After all, if no one considered the question of any interest, significance or relevance, then the thread would likely have died out long ago, don't you think?

As for why it matters...well, we've had debates here in the past over whether or not Sirius Black suffers from PTSD. Now, what does that matter? Isn't it rather a silly discussion, when it comes right down to it? After all, the wizarding world has probably never even heard of PTSD. Sirius is not playing with a full deck in PoA—that much is clear—so why not just leave it at that? Who really cares whether he does or does not fulfill the clinical criteria of a very specific real world personality dysfunction?

Well, lots of people do. Many people find that topic an interesting one because it speaks to a question of character, and questions of character happen to be of great interest to a good number of people on this list. We've also had discussions over whether or not Peter Pettigrew possesses physical (as opposed to moral) courage, whether or not Lupin is non-compliant, whether Hermione is gifted or merely driven, whether or not Ron and the twins are every bit as ambitious as Percy, whether Snape suffers from survivor's guilt, who was kissing Florence behind the greenhouses, and so forth. When these questions of character determine (as they often do with Snape, for example) how a character might behave himself when he is not in Harry's (and therefore the reader's) range of perception, then people often find them even more interesting -- perhaps in part because we realize that we'll likely never get to find out for sure.

I am sorry that such character discussions bore you, but honestly, there's really very little that I can do about that. There are other threads, and if none of the topics currently on offer interests you, then you are always free to start one of your own.

I would like, though, to ask why you feel that my belief that the twins are canonically depicted as bullies is symptomatic of such a great depth of analysis. A lot of people have expressed similar objections on this thread, and I've been having some real trouble understanding it. What makes my reasons for believing that they act like bullies any more "deeply analyzed" than other people's reasons for believing that they do not act like bullies?

This came up in your response to the very first message that I wrote on this thread, too. I stated that I didn't much care for the twins and that I thought they were bullies, and you wrote:

You know, I've had the feeling for a long time that, as a group, we tend to over-analize the Harry Potter books - at least past a certain point.

Since you've now reiterated this claim, I'd like to ask you about it, because I must say that I'm finding it very difficult to understand. In what way is saying, "I don't like the twins at all. I think they're bullies" over-analyzing the text?

After all, how much analysis does it really take to form a gestalt impression of a couple of fictional characters? I wasn't aware that doing this was analysis at all, really. I tend to think of it as just, well, reading.

Don't we all like or dislike certain minor characters due, in large part, to our impressions of the sort of people that they are -- impressions that we receive due to what we see them saying and doing in the text? If called upon to explain our reasons for feeling, say, that Percy is pompous, or that Ginny is shy, couldn't any of us do that by citing canon?

That's what I've done on this thread. I posted once saying "I don't like 'em. I think they're bullies." And then I posted again to provide some clarification, as well as some clinical definitions, because an awful lot of people jumped in to contest my claim that the twins act like bullies. Since it seems quite clear to me that they are indeed depicted as rather stereotypical bullies, and since I thought that my arguments had been misunderstood, I posted a clarification. But until now, that has been the full extent of my participation in this discussion. Yet both times you have talked about "over-analysis," it has been in response to me in particular.

So that does make me feel compelled to ask: in what way do you feel that I have been engaged in such terribly deep analysis? Many people over the course of the history of this list have discussed their feelings about the twins. So what makes it "over-analyzing" when I do it?

The obvious explanation that leaps to mind, of course, is that people just plain don't like what I have to say, and that they therefore feel compelled to dismiss it as irrelevant because in that way they hope they can make me stop saying it. But surely that can't really be the case, can it? That would imply that people find my reading somehow threatening. How on earth could a simple observation about the behavior of a couple of minor characters in a work of fiction be so tremendously upsetting to a group of mature adults?

Abigail wrote:

Fred and George Weasly, as the chief suppliers of comic relief in the books, tend to be responsible for most of these actions, but I find it hard to believe that we are meant to read any insight from this into their character.

But a good deal of the rest of your message was then taken up with explaining, in quite a lot of detail, exactly what you think about Fred and George! You speculated as to their motivations, and you analyzed their relationship with Percy, their feelings towards Cedric, and their feelings towards Draco Malfoy.

So where did all of that come from, if it didn't come from their behavior as observed in the canon? You didn't just make it all up out of thin air, did you?

No, of course not. I rather imagine that what you did was to extrapolate it from the gestalt impression that you have received of the character of the twins from the sum of all of their canonical appearances over the course of four novels -- very many of which are indeed, as you yourself have pointed out, written as comedy.

Which is precisely what I did. So I'm having a hard time understanding in what way my interpretation is "over-analyzing," while your own (I assume) is not. What makes your reading less analytical than mine?

What is bothering me a bit here, I think, is what I am perceiving as a decided tendency for people to believe that their own readings are somehow more genuine—more honest, more spontaneous, more natural, more unself-conscious, more authorially sanctioned, more canonically supported—than those of people who happen to have reached different conclusions from precisely the same canonical evidence, or than those of people who happen to have had somewhat different emotional responses to the same things.

Surely we all realize that different readers do respond differently to the canon! If they didn't, then this list would be a very boring place indeed. So why must people assume that any deviation in response must be symptomatic of someone having "thought too hard" about it? Why does the assumption seem to be: "My response is spontaneous and emotional and natural. Your response is forced and ratiocinated and over-intellectualized?"

Take humour, for example.

Abigail wrote:

With almost no exception, the humor in the Harry Potter books tends to be broad and on the slapstick side. . . . [involving] actions which, if one looks too carefully into them, are actually quite rude and insensitive, but when you don't think of them too much are very funny.

Well, but surely you can see that this is highly subjective? You may find those scenes very funny "when you don't think of them too much," but by no means everyone shares your response. In fact, wasn't that where we first came in? With Jenny describing her mother's instinctive reaction to the Toffee scene?

I didn't get the impression that Jenny's mother mulled it over before she decided that the twins' behavior there had been cruel and insensitive. She didn't need to ponder it to feel that way, surely. From the way that Jenny described it, I had received the impression that it had been her initial instinctive response, just like laughter was your initial instinctive response.

Nor, it would seem, is it even all that unusual an instinctive response. Debbie and Eileen both reacted negatively to the scene as well. So, for that matter, did I. It didn't make me laugh the first time that I read it. It made me cringe. But a cringe is every bit as natural and spontaneous a response as a laugh, is it not?

When people don't laugh at a joke, I don't generally assume that it is because they have "looked too carefully into them," because there's just not enough time for that, is there, when you hear a joke? You hear the joke, and then you either laugh or you don't laugh. When people don't laugh, I always just figure that it must be because they didn't find that type of humor funny.

Eileen wrote:

The ton-tongue-toffee made me feel sick, just really sick. I couldn't laugh at all. And that was an instinctive reading, as instinctive as any hearty guffaw at the "hilarious" situation.

Yes, precisely. And that's an incredibly visceral response, isn't it? To feel physically sick? There's nothing at all analytical about a sense of nausea. Nausea is about as instinctive as it gets.

Forcing yourself to laugh when you don't find something funny, now. That would be "over-analyzing."

Humour is a notoriously subjective phenomenon. Sometimes JKR's sense of humor matches up with mine, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the laughs work for me, and sometimes they fall flat. I suspect that everyone has pretty much that same experience, although which types of jokes work and which don't varies from person to person.

But why would the question of whether or not the reader starts yukking it up the instant that the authorial LAUGH sign lights up be relevant to the question of whether or not we think that the twins are depicted as bullies?

Surely the claim here is not that if the readers find it funny, then it can't really be bullying behavior? Surely not. I can't see how that would make sense. I mean, I personally find Crouch Jr.'s behavior throughout GoF incredibly amusing. Yet I don't claim that this means that he isn't really sadistic. I find Voldemort pretty funny in the graveyard, too. But I don't claim that this makes Voldemort a nice fellow. And not only do I find Draco's exasperated and sneering running commentary on Hagrid's classes quite entertaining as a reader, I also suspect that I would appreciate it a great deal as a by-stander. I mean, if I were a student stuck in that awful class, feeding bits of lettuce to the flobberworms, then I would love listening to Draco voice all of the same things that I would be thinking about what a total waste of time it was. But I still think that Draco's a mean little snob (not to mention a bully), and that Hagrid would be well within his rights and his authority to discipline him for mouthing off in class like that.

So I'm not quite sure how the question of whether or not something strikes the reader as funny really relates to anything much other than...well, than to whether or not the reader happens to like or dislike certain types of humour.

One argument, if I'm understanding this correctly, is that we cannot really deduce anything about a character's personality from a scene that is written comedically -- or perhaps this is only true if the scene is written as very broad comedy. Dicentra has suggested, for example, that so long as the characters involved in a scene are "Toons," then we are meant to read the characters' actual behavior in that scene as in no way significant to their actual character.

This, too, is very difficult for me to understand. After all, a great deal of the series is written as rather broad comedy. The Dursleys are Roald Dahl grotesques, and their treatment of Harry is ridiculously over-the-top -- and yet we still persist in reading them as abusive guardians, and Harry himself as someone who has suffered from an abusive upbringing. The ferret-bouncing scene is a piece of slapstick comeuppance humor -- and yet we still read it (in retrospect) as a telling piece of characterization for Crouch Jr. The Fat Lady is not only figuratively but even literally two- dimensional -- and yet we still view the slashing of her portrait as evidence that Sirius Black is angry, violent, impulsive and dangerous. Lockhart is a cartoonish buffoon -- and yet when he threatens to leave innocent children to die, it still chills the blood. All Magic Dishwashers notwithstanding, many people do read Voldemort in the graveyard as Toon Evil Overlord posturing before all of his Toon Worthless Minions -- yet they still feel comfortable drawing certain conclusions about Voldemort's character from his behavior in that scene. JKR consistently depicts Pettigrew's fear in a rather cartoonishly overdone manner -- and yet we still view the question of what is to become of him in the Shrieking Shack as absolutely vital to the spiritual condition of the other characters involved. And swaggering little Draco Malfoy and his two silent henchmen are pretty toonish themselves -- yet we read them as bullies.

Why should the twins alone be exempted from this dynamic?

Even if one argues that they are themselves "Toons," don't the toonish scenes then just depict them as toonish bullies? The TTT scene, for example, is definitely cartoonish. It is not in the least bit realistic. It's completely exaggerated, totally over the top, with Dudley backed against the wall and clutching his backside and whimpering, and then Fred and George coming into the living room and catching sight of him there, and immediately flashing a pair of "evil grins."

The entire sequence is exaggerated for comedic effect, sure, and both Dudley and the twins are definitely written as pure Toon in that scene.

They are written as Toon Victim and Toon Bullies.

I don't see how the fact that the entire scene is written as a cartoon changes at all the nature of what is actually being depicted. If anything, I would say that far from negating that depiction, the scene's exaggerated, iconic, and archetypical qualities reinforce it.

Dicentra wrote:

I think that reading HP without taking into account that some characters are Toons ends up distorting the story.

I think that it would distort the story even more if we were to assume that only the realistically portrayed scenes have any real significance or can be assumed to convey anything about character.

For one thing, if the "Toonish" scenes have no meaning that relates to the rest of the text, then what on earth are they for? I really don't think that the story works very well if we discount all of the toonish bits as irrelevant comic interludes, included for no other purpose but to give us all a nice laugh before we move on to the rest of the story. If that were really the case, then I don't think that the books would really be very, well, good.

Part of what does make the books so good, IMO, is that the narrative succeeds in sliding across such a very wide spectrum of "toonishness," yet still keep the characterization and the thematic focus relatively consistent no matter where on that spectrum any given scene happens to fall.

Take the immediate aftermath of TTT, for example. We've just had Toon Bullies and their prank on Toon Victim, complete with Toon Dahlesque Dursleys screaming and throwing vases at Toon Well-Meaning-But-Ineffectual Dad, who keeps trying to make things better while only succeeding in making them worse. It's very broad, over the top humor, down to flying vases and all of the shrieking. It's a Toon scene, to be sure.

Then, immediately thereafter, we have Arthur Weasley coming home and berating his sons for having engaged in an action that could quite reasonably be construed as "Muggle baiting" -- and then Fred responding with an indignation that I've always read as sincerely startled. The twins were Muggle baiting, whether they realized it or not, and I've always read Fred's indignation as proof that they hadn't consciously realized what their behavior really constituted. It's an important scene too, IMO, because it will soon be followed by the Muggle Baiting at the QWC, in which plenty of wizards other than the Death Eaters themselves join. The aftermath of TTT is in some sense a prelude not only to the QWC, but also to the Penseive sequences much later on. It's one of the earliest hints of the moral darkening of the series as a whole.

TTT is pure Toon, but its aftermath is not. The scene shifts "genres" there, so to speak. Yet the characters are the same characters, and the event being referred to is the same event as the one that was written as pure Toon. Frankly, I don't think that the sequence holds together at all—it just doesn't make any narrative sense—if you don't recognize that what the twins did in the Toonish sequence really is significant, that it really does serve as a legitimate expression of their character, that it really matters. It happened. It signified. It counted.

Much of the series works in just this way, IMO. If you discount the toonish stuff, then the other stuff starts not making any sense. I just don't see how the story can hold together at all if you try to read the things that are cartoonish depicted as "not really counting," or as not relevant, or as in some other way divorced from the rest of the series.

For one thing, you don't enjoy the jokes.

I don't think that enjoying jokes is really dependent on viewing the behavior of the characters as insignificant or lacking in ramification. I can get a good giggle out of Pettigrew's "I was a good pet" line in Shrieking Shack while still recognizing what is going on in that scene as fundamentally quite serious.

For another, it adds dimension to characters where none exists--mostly negative dimensions--so you don't enjoy the characters.

Mmmm. Well, you know, Dicey, I really do take some exception to this notion that I'm the one who has been adding negative dimension "where none exists" to the twins here. I wasn't the one who wrote them with bullying traits. JKR was. If that dimension to their character really didn't exist, then do you honestly think that people would have become so hot and bothered by my bringing it up?

Oh, no. I really don't think so. This debate as I've read it has mainly been one in which people have been arguing over what to call that negative dimension, or trying to excuse it, or trying to discount it, or pointing out all of the more positive dimensions which they feel mitigate it. But adding dimension "where none exists?" Oh, no. I don't think that's what's really been going on here at all.

What I'm beginning to think is really going on here, actually, is that some people just don't feel that they would still be able to enjoy the twins as characters, or to find their scenes funny, or to feel personal reader affection for them anymore if they were to acknowledge out loud that the twins exhibit classic bullying behavior patterns.

But I just don't know what to do about that, honestly. I really don't. I don't get it at all. Why must characters be perfect to be liked? Why must people feel compelled to defend an action morally just because they thought that it was funny? Can't we acknowledge that actions can still be funny even if they are not good actions? After all, sometimes things that are downright evil can be funny (especially to me, as I have a very black sense of humour). Can't people still enjoy characters even if they have been portrayed with some negative dimensions?

It is mystifying to me.


Posted August 27, 2002 at 10:38 pm
Topics: , , ,
Plain text version


RE: Why I Dislike The Twins

I commented that "everyone else" likes the twins, and Debbie leapt into the fray, crying:

No! No! Everyone else doesn't like the Twins. I don't like the Twins. I do not like them playing jokes. I do not like them hissing folks. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere.

::appreciative grin::

I do not like them making mock. I do not like them picking lock. I do not like their gambling fix. I do not like their Toffee tricks. I do not like Canary Creams. I do not like their business schemes. I just don't like that Forge and Gred. I do not like them, Elfun Deb!

::smile slowly fades::

Uh, yeah. Well, okay, so that last bit didn't really rhyme. It's, uh...

<Elkins thinks for a moment, then reaches deep down to access her Inner Eustace Scrubb.>

It's assonance.

Really, though. Why don't we like the twins?

Debbie wrote:

I'm probably being a bit Snapelike about this, as in RL I have a tendency to wish for people who flaunt the rules for laughs, and gain enormous popularity for doing so, to be taken down a notch or two. But the Twins are mean...

Yeah, I think they're mean, too. And although I don't share Debbie's feelings about rule-breaking, it really does bother me a lot when people (or fictional characters, for that matter) gain popularity primarily through their habit of abusing others.

But at the same time, you know, Snape is mean and abusive -- and yet I feel a great deal of affection for Snape. So it's hardly the case that meanness is, in and of itself, enough to make me dislike a character. Neither is bullying: Snape is a bully. I feel far more moral disapproval for treachery and murder than for teasing, and yet I still feel a lot more instinctive sympathy for Pettigrew than I do for the twins. And sometimes, trickery in the canon just thrills me. I just love the way Crouch Jr. manages to pull the wool over everyone's eyes all the way through GoF. On rereading, I was all but cheering him on -- and little Barty was, well, just plain evil. Yet, I truly did like him.

So why on earth should it bug me so much when the twins get away with things, or when they trick people, or when they are unkind to others? Why the heck do I dislike them so very much?

Some time ago—quite a long time ago now, in fact—I wrote a post in which I asked people what precisely they meant when they said that they "liked" a character. I came to the conclusion that there are a number of different things that people can mean by that. Sometimes, we mean that we simply enjoy reading about them. Sometimes we mean that we appreciate the narrative function that they fulfill. We can like characters because we identify with them—they remind us of ourselves—or because we associate them with other people we have known and loved. Or, we can like them because we think that we would probably enjoy their company in real life.

One of the things that I hoped to point out in that message was that often, when we talk about "liking" or "disliking" a character, we are actually evaluating them by the same criteria that we apply to real people in real life -- and that if moral virtue is among those criteria at all, it is usually pretty far down on the list.

The message number was 34058. This is an excerpt:

This interests me in part because so much of the discussion here seems to center on the use of canonical citation to evaluate the HP characters on moral grounds. Evidence is presented to support or condemn characters ethically, or philosophically, or even spiritually.

I strongly suspect, though, that more often than not what is really at issue is simple personal affection. We like some characters and dislike others in very much the same way, and for very much the same reasons, that we like or dislike real people; and as in real life, our reasons rarely have all that much to do with moral virtue.

People generally don't choose their friends based on a strict weighing of their moral flaws against their strengths of character. (Surely we all know virtuous people whom we just can't stand to be around?) Attachments are far more often, it seems to me, formed on the basis of things like sense of humour, and temperamental compatability, and shared interests, and even shared dislikes than they are on any strict accounting of moral virtues.

What worries me, I think, is that I suspect that all too often, we form our judgements about the characters based on these sorts of factors first, and only then go searching for evidence of their moral wrongdoings, or their hidden virtues. It's only human, I suppose: we readily forgive the people we like for precisely the same behavior that we roundly condemn in the people we loathe; my friend's Endearing Little Foible is my enemy's Horrible Great Sin.

That was January, and I see that at the time it was "worrying" me.

It's worrying me a bit again here now, actually.

See, Jenny's original question was this: "The twins are really mean. So why do we like them so much? Or do we?"

My response was: "Well, I don't like them. Not only are they mean, I also think they're bullies."

But that wasn't really answering the question, was it? After all, just because someone is a bully doesn't mean that he is at all unlikeable (indeed, most bullies are quite popular, and you don't achieve popularity by being unlikeable). Just because someone is a bully doesn't mean that he lacks redeeming qualities. Just because someone is a bully doesn't mean that one "shouldn't" like him.

HF and Catherine both shared their experience with real life Twin analogues by way of explaining why they feel such great personal affection for the twins. While Catherine's twins were not bullies, HF's RL Fred-or-George, she grudgingly conceded, was rather. She concluded, however, by writing:

But I find that I can't dismiss good qualities wholly in favor of the bad.

No. And there is absolutely no reason why you should.

I'm a little bit worried here, actually, that by arguing so strenuously for my reading of the twins as the Bullies You Know, I may have given the impression that I don't believe that people ought to like people (real or fictional) with bullying tendencies, far less identify with them personally; or that I think that just because someone bullies, that makes them inherently evil or rotten or deserving of nothing but being shunned by all decent folk.

That is not really my belief, and so it bothers me to think that I might have given that impression.

Nor was it ever really my intention to persuade other people not to like the twins. I was most dismayed, for example, to read this, from Jo Serenadust:

In fact, when I finished it, I found that even I had come to like the twins a little less. This was dismaying, since I'm very fond of Fred and George as I am of all the Weasleys, so I decided after reading all the back and forth arguements, to go back to the books to see if I've missed some subtle undertones to the twins antics.

And my feelings of unease were exacerbated when I saw that HF had signed off with:

—who politely acknowledges the power and validity of Elkins' argument, but who will nonetheless remain unconverted and persist in liking F&G.

Oh, dear me.

No. You know, I really wasn't trying to convert people to disliking F&G (although I would like to convince others that they behave like bullies, because I really do think it quite painfully obvious that they do). But that isn't the same thing as wanting to convince people to dislike them.

The question of why different readers like or dislike certain characters is one that absolutely fascinates me, and so I suppose that also I wanted to see if I could put my finger on my own reasons for feeling about them the way that I do.

But these are separate issues, and unfortunately, I did conflate them. Now I'm really wishing that I hadn't, not only because it has muddied the discussion, but also because it wasn't even all that honest. The fact that I believe the twins to be bullies does have quite a bit of bearing on my feeling such a strong personal dislike for them, yes. But it is not the only reason that I dislike them, nor do I even know if I believe that it is the most important reason. After all, I do feel affection for other canon characters who bully. I even feel affection for some characters who are downright wicked.

So leaving out the twins' bullying behavior altogether for now, why else do I dislike them so much? What sorts of things can lead a reader to feel such a strong dislike for a fictional character?

Well. We might want to consider our own personal experience with people who resemble those characters in real life. Fiction relies on the reader's ability to sense patterns, to fill in the gaps in the text with their own understanding of human nature -- understanding derived from real life observations. We know what a character is "like" not only from what the text tells us, but also from extrapolation from what the text shows us. We derive our impressions of character in part by generalizing from type.

Do the twins remind us of anyone?

HF, to whom I misattributed a quote, wrote:

HF DID NOT, but someone else did, write...


Oh, man. I'm really sorry about that, HF. You see what happens when you try to cut and paste from a gazillion posts?

<Elkins shakes her head in disgust. She reaches into a pocket, draws out a ruler, hands it to HF, and then extends one hand, palm up. She looks away, wincing slightly>

Go on, then.


I think I can safely say I'd be the last person to trust in the parity of older schoolkids to keep the balance of playground power. Partly, that's because I was the kid who hung upside down on the monkey bars until she got a good buzz on from the blood rushing to her head.

Oh, hey, yeah, I remember you! I always wondered how you could do that for so long without being sick all over the macadam.

I was that kid who was always sitting right up against the wall of the school, where the teachers could keep an eye on me, reading my book and only occasionally looking up to glare out over the crowds and entertain myself with Columbinish fantasies of bloody vengeance.

Except right after it had rained, of course. Then I became the kid running around trying to rescue all of the stranded worms from the pavement and put them safely in the grass before Fred and George could organize all of the other kids into a "worm-stomping party."


I can pretend to know HF, because I remember the kid who was always hanging upside down from the monkey bars.

I feel that I know the twins, because I remember the kids who resembled them.

I didn't like them much.


[HF's real life Twins]

And if that's too personal a statement to make in an otherwise psychosocial debate... the heck with it. So be it.

Yes. So be it. I don't really see how we can speak honestly about our reasons for liking or disliking certain characters without occasionally bringing up their real life analogues. When characters remind us strongly of people we have known in real life, that has an enormous impact on how we view them. To refuse to acknowledge that fact just constrains the discussion, IMO.

Needless to say, I had my own twins. They lived up the street from me, and were quite a few years older. Not that that ever held them back. They were downright mean, they were, and yet strangely, they had this reputation as kind, good-hearted, chivalrous protectors of the weak. They were indeed very nice to their younger brother and his friends, and to the other kids that they liked. In fact, they even did mentoring work with disadvantaged children! What a pair of saints! But how they treated younger kids they didn't like? ::shudder:: It was impossible to get anyone to take complaints about them seriously, of course. Everyone knew, you see, that they were such good guys. Jokers sometimes, yes. But harmless. No harm in 'em. Hearts of gold, they had. Honest.

One of my closest childhood friends also had two younger brothers who remind me far too much of the twins (or should I say, vice versa?). They were just as merciless as could be, and they made his life one great big ball of agonized stress, until he finally escaped them by leaving home.

The twins also remind me a good deal of my third grade teacher. Boy, did everyone love him! Except for the three or four kids he regularly reduced to tears in the classroom, that is. But you know, those were just the priggish humorless kids, the ones who couldn't take a joke. Their loss. I'm sure that he was just trying to teach them to lighten up. ::snort:: Yeah. Sure. Right. It's a funny thing, though, see, because I was certainly a priggish and humorless child, and yet I was virtually impossible to reduce to tears -- or, for that matter, to force any response out of at all. I would just stare at him blankly until he looked away. Now surely, if anyone needed to be taught to "lighten up," it would have been me, don't you think? And yet I noticed that after a while, he stopped dealing with me at all. He just kept teasing the kids who would get visibly upset. Yup. Funny how that works. But I'm sure that he had their best interests at heart.

And then there was a summer camp counsellor who didn't actually bully the kids in his care, but who did in a whole host of ways encourage bullying among them. Since he was officially the authority figure, I really didn't appreciate that. And he was a lot like the twins too. So much fun! So well-liked!

So yes. The Fred and George analogues that I have known in real life certainly do contribute to my feelings of profound dislike for the characters. No question about it.

What else can contribute to a subjective feeling of dislike for a character?

Well, dislike of the narrative function that they serve is another really big one, I'd say. Oliver Wood, for example, is a bit of a flat-liner for me, not due to anything intrinsic to the character, but more because the Quidditch subplots don't interest me all that much, and that is the milieu in which he appears. I have no strong emotions one way or the other about the Quidditch scenes. Therefore, I have no strong emotions one way or the other about Oliver Wood.

I simply loathe comeuppance humor, though. I always have, ever since earliest childhood. I can tolerate it now that I am an adult, but as a child, I detested it so profoundly that I was truly incapable of enjoying any form of fiction that utilized comeuppance humor. I would never have been able to read these books when I was a child.

I don't hate it that much anymore, but it is still by far my least favorite aspect of these books, and the twins, as many have pointed out here, are often used as the author's agents of the books' slapstick comeuppance humor sequences. That is one (although unlike Abigail, I do not believe that it is the only one) of their narrative functions within the text.

So that contributes to my sense of dislike for them as well. I don't like their narrative function; therefore, I do not like them.

Sometimes readers just have plain old preferences in personality, preferences that influence their tastes both in real life companions and in fictional characters.

I, for example, always prefer the sensitive and the neurotic to the callous and the Tough. I prefer the twisted to the straight, the sly to the straightforward, and the Edgy to the blunt.

So this influences my tastes in characters as well. Even the downright Evil characters can inspire fondness in me if they happen to possess the personality traits that I favor. I love Crouch Jr., for example, who is as malicious as they come. He is sadistic, but that is a type of cruelty that at least requires a certain degree of sensitivity and cleverness and insight, all of which are traits that I like.

Brutishness, on the other hand, I find utterly distasteful. It leaves me feeling cold and unsympathetic; I find it so completely charmless that, as weird and irrational as this may sound, the slightest hint of it in a character can instill in me feelings of profound dislike that even the most flagrant displays of sensitive viciousness are powerless to inspire. This is not so much a matter of morality as it is one of aesthetics.

The twins aren't very witty. When they are mean to people, they are mean in blunt, direct ways. Their practical jokes are well-crafted, but they don't strike me as really all that clever. I mean, sweets that make you turn into an animal, or that make your tongue swell up? Dressing up and jumping out to go "boo!" at people? Wands that go all floppy? They're all just rubber chicken gags, really, aren't they? And as for their verbal humor...

Eileen (with whom I really do sometimes disagree, you know. Honest, I do. We don't see eye to eye on the Crouch family!) gave a perfect example of their verbal humor here, in message #43155:

"It's because of you, Perce," said George seriously. "And there'll be little flags on the bonnets, with HB on them - "

"-for Humungous Bighead," said Fred.

Everyone except Percy and Mrs. Weasey snorted into their puddings."

Oh yes, Percy really was just asking for that one, wasn't he? So remarkably witty too.

<Elkins snorts into her own pudding>

Yeah, that was pretty much my reader reaction as well. I rolled my eyes and thought: "Oh yes. How terribly clever."

Eileen quoth:

"Then Fred said abruptly, "I've told you before, Ron, keep your nose out if you like the shape it is."

And again, yes. That's nice, isn't it? Nasty, brutish, and short.

This is a place where aesthetics and morality collide. Brutishness is a type of aggression that I find particularly unsympathetic. I therefore may well judge it far more harshly than I judge sadism.

Sometimes we like or dislike characters based on whether we think that we would enjoy their company in real life. What determines our taste in casual companions is rarely ethics. It is sense of humor, shared interests, shared dislikes.

Obviously, the twins' sense of humor does nothing for me. Nor do I suspect that they would care very much for my own. They seem to believe that Percy is humorless, for example, while I see a good deal of dry wit in many of Percy's lines. I therefore suspect that they would think me humorless as well -- and vice versa.

We don't share interests. The twins are interested in...well, let's see. Quidditch. Practical jokes. Gag items. And, uh, well, that's about it, really. All of those topics bore me. What sorts of topics bore the twins? Well, Percy tries to talk about the WW's safety regulations, and they make fun of him for it. They think that he's being boring. Now me, I would much rather talk about that sort of thing than about sports. In fact, it always rather irks me when Percy's monologues on the legal ins and outs of the WW get shut down, because I want to hear them. So there's not much common ground there. We don't share interests, we don't share likes, we don't share dislikes.

That contributes to my lack of affection for them too, surely. It's hard for me to avoid the suspicion that we would not like each other much in real life, and that in turn makes it hard for me to avoid the suspicion that they'd probably be very aggressive towards me, because as far as I can tell, the twins seem to believe that simply not liking someone is grounds for abuse. They don't just ignore people who annoy them. They actually go after them. They think that it's okay to harass people just because they have a personality that they find obnoxious. That's why they tease Percy. So that makes it hard for me to like them as well. I figure they'd probably be going after me if I lived in their reality.

And then, finally, there is a meta-textual phenomenon that probably has more to do with the depths of my feelings of dislike for these characters than any other factor.

You see, the thing about charismatic bullies that makes them so incredibly infuriating is that nobody will ever believe that they are bullies. Everyone except for their victims (and maybe the one or two by-standers who have caught onto them) thinks that they are the nicest guys imaginable.

Now, I had always assumed that everyone more or less read the twins the same way that I did. Certainly all of my housemates read the twins as bullies. All of my friends read the twins as bullies. My husband was never bullied as a child, and yet even he immediately identified the twins as bullies. He identified them with his own brother, in fact, whom he absolutely adores (as do I), but who was a bully as a child—albeit one of those terribly useful Bullies You Do Know—did I mention that my husband was never bullied? Yup. One man's bully is another man's bodyguard. ;-)

I mean, I just figured that everyone read the twins as bullies. In the post-GoF evaluation within my circle, when the subject would turn to the twins, the conversation would always go pretty much along the lines of: "Oh, I know, those horrible great big bullies, aren't they just awful? And they're really getting worse, too."

So I was absolutely shocked—shocked and indeed more than a little disturbed—when I first discovered that in fact, outside of my immediate circle, these characters are wildly popular. It came as a very nasty revelation, and it led me to dislike them even more, because it had the effect of actually replicating the charismatic bully dynamic, only now on the reader level, rather than on the character level. Not only doesn't Harry realize that the twins are bullies, and not only doesn't Dumbledore realize that the twins are bullies -- but even the readers don't realize that they are bullies! They actually think that they're funny! They actually think that they're cute! They actually think that they're nice! And they actually think that Percy is asking for it!

Yes. Well, that's a dynamic that touches on quite a few hot buttons, and quite a few raw nerves as well. It does have the effect of making me feel a great deal more hostility towards the twins than I ever did before I encountered the fandom -- because oh, don't you see? Don't you see what's happening? They're getting away with it. They're getting away with it yet AGAIN!

Debbie wrote:

Well, the Twins are not lacking in charisma.

<Elkins, thin-lipped, nods grimly>

No. No, they most certainly are not.

So even aside from their bullying, that's why I don't like the twins.

But this raises another issue. Is it even considered okay to talk about ones reasons for feeling dislike for characters on this list? Is it okay to wish ill upon them? Is there some language short of profanity that is unacceptably vituperative to direct towards fictional characters in this forum?

Some people have taken some umbrage with my tone on this thread. Both Pippin and Catherine registered objections to my use of the word "cads" to describe the twins. Someone else (sorry, can't remember who) protested my choice of vocabulary overall.

Too harsh. Too insulting. Not nice.

Um. Well, as someone who tends myself to sympathize and identify with and "like" extremely unpopular characters (and as the founding member of S.Y.C.O.P.H.A.N.T.S.), this accusation interests me very much because honestly, in comparison with the pure ranting and raving abuse that some of my favorite characters regularly receive on this list, words like "cad..." Well, words like that strike me as downright friendly, to tell you the truth.

So I do find myself wondering if my own tendency to identify with terribly unpopular characters may have desensitized me somewhat to how other people feel when they see verbal abuse hurled at some of their own. You see, I've grown used to that. I've had to get used to it. I've even had the experience of declaring that I identify with a character, only to have the very next reply first quote my statement of personal identification, and then follow it up with a stream of vituperative language. That has happened to me more than once.

I always figured that this was okay. A little bit insensitive perhaps, but still well within the bounds of okay. After all, when people do this they are abusing the character, right? Not me. So while it might have been nice for the people who have done this to have prefaced their screaming rant with some statement along the lines of "yes, Elkins, but I'm sure that you're not a..." before they just started venting, I never really considered it obligatory. I just took it as read that they were exempting me, in spite of my points of identification with these characters, from their abuse.

But now I am beginning to wonder if perhaps this real/fictional distinction isn't quite as clear as I had thought that it was.

HF, for example (who might want to rest assured that—in my experience, at any rate—most people really don't grow more vindictive and spiteful as they grow older), wrote:

I find it difficult to understand how you can so eloquently argue against F&G based on their mean-spirited thuggishness and then conclude a post that seems toned in such a way as to echo that mean-spiritedness condemned earlier.


Heh. Oh, that was nothing. Debbie once, I seem to recall, spoke with understated yet undeniable relish about the possibility that the twins' cooperation with DEs in future canon might be coerced in part by someone shoving their own Ton-Tongue Toffees down their throats. Gave me a real chuckle, that did.

But forget the twins. You want to talk about mean-spririted, check out some of the fates that people on this list have wished on Pettigrew in the past! Man! Some people around here have some pretty twisted imaginations, I can tell you.

All I said, in comparison, was that the thought of the twins Getting What's Coming To Them makes me smirk. Just like so many readers smirk—or even laugh out loud—when Dudley or Draco get what's coming to them. Is that the same as what the twins do?

No, see. It isn't. Because there is a very big difference between wishing ill upon a fictional character, and taking hostile action against a real person.

It comes down to the difference that HF described here:

I personally find it strange that I'm going to bat for the twins, mostly because if I knew them in real life I probably wouldn't be able to stand them. I would wish long, agonizing deaths and unspeakable torments for them in their afterlives, and place curses on their firstborn children. . . .Now however, I find myself reacting... well, in a maliciously juvenile sort of way, much like Harry. Maybe it's because F&G are very safely on the printed page, whereas I am not, I don't know.

I think that's it, really. Although, um, kind of in reverse. ;-)

See, from my perspective, Fred and George are just fictional people on a page. That means that I can feel free to hate them to my heart's content: to think ill of them, to wish all manner of evils upon them, to snigger at their misfortunes and fervently hope for their bloody demise. Because they are fictional, I can wish all sorts of things upon them that I would never be able to wish as purely or as intensely or as comfortably upon someone I knew actually to be real.

From the twins' perspective, though (and yes, I do realize that this is, on the face of it, a rather absurd notion), people like Percy and Dudley and Quirrell and little Malcolm Baddock are real people. They occupy the same degree of reality. They live in the same fictional space. So the twins' attitudes towards the other canon characters strike me as significant in a way that listmembers' attitudes towards those same characters really just don't.

You'll notice, for example, that I have never once insinuated that Jenny, say, is callous or thuggish or vindictive or mean-spirited just because she happened to find the Ton-Tongue Toffee scene funny. Jenny isn't any of those things. She's just someone who took cathartic pleasure in the "just desserts" slapstick humor of that particular scene. I didn't happen to share that reaction, but I don't think that makes me a better or a more compassionate person than Jenny at all. It just means that as readers, we have very different instinctive reactions to certain types of scenes.

Similarly, I don't hold it against listmembers if they snicker at Draco getting ferret-bounced, or if they're hoping to see Snape hideously tortured before the series ends, or if they feel furious at even the notion that Draco might be redeemed in canon (thus avoiding the fate that they feel he so richly deserves), or if they want Pettigrew to die really hard. Indeed, people on this list express violent and bloody desires toward the canon characters all the time -- Draco, the Dursleys, Voldemort, and especially Wormtail come in for a lot of that treatment.

In fact, I seem to remember people planning some kind of barbecue a month or so back, in which everyone was joking around about burning books, and hanging people in effigy, and things of that nature. I gather that this had something to do with readers not liking Draco Malfoy, probably because they think of him as a future member of an organization that is kin to the Nazi party, or to the Klan.

You know, organizations that do Bad Things. Bad Things like burning books and forming lynch mobs.


Hey. Whatever. It's okay by me. I know that none of you people are really book-burners, or the sort of people who form lynch mobs. I feel fairly well convinced that nobody here (well...very few, anyway) would really enjoy watching someone killed or horribly tortured. Not in real life. It's all just in fun, isn't it? These are fictional characters. As far as I'm concerned, serving as an outlet for those sorts of emotions is a big part of what fictional characters are for.

I do find it interesting, though, that when I express my dislike of the twins, or when Jenny admits that she just can't stand Hagrid, people do tend to object in ways that they simply don't when others articulate similar feelings about Draco or the Dursleys or Pettigrew or Rita Skeeter or Fudge, or even really harmless characters, like Lavender and Parvati. It's okay not to like certain characters. It's okay to verbally abuse certain characters. It's okay to joke about fantasizing about the death and even torture of some characters -- a few of them characters with whom I happen to sympathize a great deal.

But, boy! You really do have to watch your step when you talk about characters who happen to be popular, don't you? Jenny disses Hagrid, or I call the twins great big bullies, and suddenly all manner of strange accusations are coming out of the woodwork. Accusations of misreading the text. Accusations of distorting the story. Accusations of "over-analyzing." Accusations of engaging in "unconscionable" behavior. One or two "I don't want to hear your unpopular views, so why don't you just shut up already?" posts. And a couple of straight-out ad hominem attacks.

Yup. I'd say that people really are held to different standards when it comes to their discussions of popular characters than they are when it comes to their discussions of unpopular characters.

The relevance of this observation to the entire question of the character of the twins themselves, as well as to the question of whether or not their aggressive behavior towards a few of the less popular characters in the canon can be said to constitute "bullying behavior," is one that I will leave as an intellectual exercise for the astute reader.


Posted August 27, 2002 at 11:11 pm
Topics: , ,
Plain text version


RE: Bully!Sirius, "Coach" Twins, Snape's Grudge, and Stoned!Harry

People were astonished that I thought the twins behaved like bullies, and so I provided a list of the traits that researchers in the field have found over the years to typify people who bully in school.

Irene read it, blinked, and then said:

Is it just me, or did anyone else at this point felt compelled to say "Hello, Sirius Black!" ?

Oh, excellent. A new topic! Ish.

Yes. It does describe Sirius rather well, I think, and I do believe that this is one of the main reasons that so many readers do jump to that conclusion that Sirius must have been a "popular bully" back in his schooldays. I touched briefly on this in that same post, actually, when while talking about the twins' dismissive manner of speaking of those they have designated outsiders, I tossed off as a quick parenthetical aside:

(It is also, I might point out, very similar to the sneering tone with which Sirius Black always speaks of Severus Snape -- a character touch which has led more than one reader to deduce that Sirius himself might have been a bit of a bully back in his schooldays).

Indeed, I think that it is difficult for many people to read Sirius' sneers about "slimy, oily, greasy-haired" Snape in GoF, for example, and not see it as a quite recognizable depiction of the popular charismatic bully, all grown up and still utterly lacking in any particular sympathy for his adolescent victim. His derisive snort and sneering of "it served him right" in the Shrieking Shack also contributes to this impression, I think, as does his allowing Snape's head to bang on the ceiling as they make their way out of the shack. By then, of course, Sirius has perfectly valid reasons to be feeling more than a mite bit peevish about Snape—I'd feel pretty darned cranky too if someone had gloated to me about handing me over to the dementors to be Kissed and wouldn't even listen to the proof of my innocence—but all the same, I do think that these character touches combine to suggest a certain lack of maturity and perspective, as well as a weak balk instinct—a refusal to respect others' vulnerabilities—all of which are traits strongly associated with those inclined to bullying. It is revelatory behavior in much the same way that the twins' stepping on Malfoy et al at the end of GoF is revelatory behavior, IMO, and I do think that it serves to suggest certain things about Sirius' inclinations and tendencies, about his character.


I read the whole huge thread on bullies in one go, and it helped me to answer a question that bothered me for a long time: why it seems widely accepted opinion among Snapefans that Sirius was a "popular bully" when canon gives us nothing to support that?

Hmmm. Well, I'm also one of those Snapefans who definitely received the impression that Snape was hassled by James' group of friends, and particularly by Sirius, back in the day (we few, we happy few...), and I think that the extent to which Sirius matches the classic bully profile very likely does have much to do with the popularity of that reading. I don't know if I'd say that there is nothing to support this reading in the canon, though.

::waits for groans and jeers to die down::

No, no, seriously. A while back, Dicentra accused those who came by this reading of suffering from "fanfic contamination," and I have to say that this did strike me as a rather odd accusation, maybe just because I've read all the wrong fanfic. Most of what I've read has not gone particularly far in portraying the Marauders as Snape's boyhood tormentors.

No, I'd say that those who felt, while reading the books, that Sirius was a charismatic bully in school and Snape a creepy outcast are suffering far less from "fanfic contamination" than they are from "real life contamination." And from "genre convention contamination." And from "comedic trope contamination." Not to mention from...well, from what I guess we might just call "canon contamination." *g*

Sirius does fit the personality profile of those who bully in school. Snape, on the other hand, struck me even from the very first book as a classic victim-bully. Most of the direct canonical support that one can cite to defend this reading comes from PoA and GoF, but I have to say that I found it an instinctive reading of the character long before PoA. I was reading Snape as the grown-up incarnation of the creepy unpopular kid from the start. PoA merely confirmed that reading for me.

Genre conventions came strongly into play there, as did comedic trope. The nasty vindictive sarcastic schoolteacher who everyone knows just had to have been unpopular as a child is one of the classic comic figures of the school story. Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, usually quite sympathetic to the "unpopular," has made use of it in its depiction of the reverted-to-teenagerhood Principal Snyder. It's a classic.

(I'd also like to suggest here, BTW, the possibility that the use of this type as a "figure of fun"—ie, a target of aggressive humor—may well be slightly more common, as well as more socially acceptable, in the UK than in the US. Here in the US, having been "unpopular" as a child often carries with it a certain cache of moral virtue. "Popular" can be a bit of a bad word in some circles in the US, I think, because we tend to assume that all schoolboy targets are ipso facto innocent victims. I don't know, though, if this is necessarily as common an assumption in the UK. When I was living in Wales, for example, I frequently heard "you really weren't very popular in school, were you?" used as a snarky but light-hearted way of indicating to someone that their behavior had become obnoxious. So there may well be some cultural differences that come into play when it comes to our emotional responses to textual indications that Good Guys like James and Sirius used to pick on Snape quite a lot -- very much, in fact, as I suspect there may be some trans-Atlantic issues that come into play when we talk about the twins.)

Snape really does fit this comic type, I think, as well as matching up rather closely, IMO, to our real world understanding of unpopular students who grow up to take out all of their adolescent frustrations on the world at large. And you don't have to look all that deeply into the text to find evidence of who Snape himself likely perceived as his childhood tormentor, do you? Whom does he hate? Whose athletic prowess makes him absolutely snarl? Whose child does he go out of his way to victimize?

I do think that it's a fairly instinctive reading of PS/SS, and PoA merely confirms the reader's suspicions. It not only gives us the pr*nk, it also gives us Sirius Black and the Marauder's Map. And it also, as Irene points out, gives us a direct and authorially suggested parallelism between James and Sirius and the twins.

Irene wrote:

And after some soul-searching I think it's a projection of Fred and George pair to James and Sirius. As was established, it is possible to make a solid case of the twins being popular bullies based on the canon (solid case does not mean the prosecution is necessarily going to win it, mind). Is there some basis to establish similarity between the two pairs? Several characters comment on how the twins remind them about James and Sirius: McGonagall, Madame Rosmerta and Hagrid, if I'm not mistaken. So it is possible the canon works on some subconscious level and makes Sirius "guilty by association".


Yes. The text does go out of its way to lead us to draw that generational parallel, I think, not only through the comments of McGonagall, Rosmerta and Hagrid, but also (and I think perhaps even more powerfully) through the Marauder's Map, which serves as a physical and tangible link between generations: both the literal generations of Father James and Son Harry, and also the "school generations" of soon-to-be-leaving-school twins and soon-to-be-upperclassman Harry. "Noble men," Fred says of MWPP, "working tirelessly to help a new generation of law-breakers."

The twins' bestowal of the map upon Harry is not merely a gift. It is a legacy. "We bequeath it to you," George says, and he is only half-joking. With the conferral of the map come certain rights and responsibilities above and beyond that of simple mischief-making. It is not only to be used for selfish purposes. Later on in the series, the twins will borrow it back from Harry briefly in order to provide the supplies for a party for Gryffindor House as a whole. This is the twins' social function, their self-perceived duty, and the Map is an essential tool in fulfilling that function. By "bequeathing" it to Harry, they have effectively declared him as their heir apparent. When they are gone, bucking up the morale of the House in this fashion will be Harry's job.

Tabouli has written of the twins' role "coaches," whose job is to lead the House, in part, through bolstering the Gryffindors' morale. Abigail also touched on this aspect of the twins' role, when she wrote about the scene at the end of GoF, in which Harry exhorts the twins to serve a similar function for the WW as a whole. In this respect, Harry's bestowal of his prize winnings onto the twins parallels the bequeathment of the Marauder's Map. Just as the twins are the defenders of Gryffindor House, so Harry is the defender of the Wizarding World; just as the twins inspire and moralize members of their House through their activities, so Harry inspires and moralizes the WW by simple virtue of his continued survival. Just as the twins have appointed Harry to step into their shoes as they leave school, so Harry then appoints the twins to serve his function in the adult world while he himself is prevented from doing so fully by virtue of still being a schoolboy.

So the Map is a legacy item. It is not merely a useful device, but also a symbol. It represents a specific social function. With its conferral come duties and obligations. It is passed down across the generations. It bridges the gap between the twins and Harry. It bridges the gap between Harry and his father. And in doing all of that, I think that it also links Sirius and James with Fred and George in a very powerful way.

The Map's explicit function is to serve as an aid to "Magical Mischief-Makers." Its implicit function is to serve as a tool to those who help to bolster the morale of the House. But what else does the Map do?

As though an invisible hand was writing upon it, words appeared on the smooth surface of the map.

'Mr Moony presents his compliments to Professor Snape, and begs him to keep his abnormally large nose out of other people's business'

Snape froze. Harry stared, dumbstruck, at the message. But the map didn't stop there. More writing was appearing beneath the first.

'Mr Prongs agrees with Mr Moony, and would like to add that Professor Snape is an ugly git'

It would have been very funny if the situation hadn't been so serious. And there was more...

'Mr Padfoot would like to register his astonishment that an idiot like that ever became a Professor.'

Harry closed his eyes in horror. When he'd opened them, the map had had its last word.

'Mr Wormtail bids Professor Snape good day, and advises him to wash his hair, the slimeball.'

An implicit part of the social function that the map represents is the targetting of the designated enemy for mockery and abuse.

Small wonder that Snape "freezes!" I think that it is safe to assume that this unpleasant little encounter with the map is serving as a most unwelcome revisitation of the past for him, just as his journey to the Shrieking Shack later on in the book will have nightmare overtones of a revisitation of the night of the infamous pr*ank.

The Map does not seem to be a Riddle's Diary. It does not chat with Harry. It does not, for example, allow him to have virtual conversations with a kind of ghost of his father as a teenager. It does not seem anywhere close to fully sentient. It does occasionally show signs of self-awareness—as when it reveals to Harry the secret of getting past the statue—but it would seem to do so only when this is a necessary adjunct to its actual function.

So the implication to my mind is that insulting Snape is in some sense a part of the Map's function. It is part and parcel of the social role which the Map represents, the same social role that the Twins have occupied within House Gryffindor: they defend and build up the morale of "us" in part by levelling their aggression against designated members of "them."

This is what the Map does. It is what the twins do. I find it very difficult to imagine that it was not something that James and Sirius used to do as well.

Certainly, I personally find it simply impossible to read this scene without coming to the conclusion that the map's little zingers are in fact precisely the sort of verbal abuse with which James and his friends used to taunt Snape back in their schooldays. The Map's insults are fundamentally childish. They are schoolboy insults: "abnormally large nose," "ugly git," "idiot," "slimeball," "advises him to wash his hair."

They are also precisely the sort of insults that get levelled against creepy unpopular kids by their socially superior adversaries. The focus on physical detail is particularly suggestive of this dynamic. We know that Snape is not, and has never been, an attractive fellow. Sirius, on the other hand, was "handsome," handsome enough that even a thirteen-year-old boy can identify him as such from a photograph. Sirius and James were popular not only with the student body, but also with their teachers and other adults. Hagrid, Rosmerta, Flitwick and McGonagall all speak of their schoolboy incarnations with undeniable fondness, and in Rosmerta and McGonagall's lines, I detect hints of attraction as well. James and Sirius would seem to have been attractive to women. We have never seen any sign of Snape exercising an equal romantic appeal, or for that matter, any romantic appeal. (Er, well, within the canon, that is.) Nor have we seen any signs that he was at all well-liked by his teachers or other adults. Indeed, Snape's indignation, even some twenty years after the fact, over the outcome of the prank strongly suggests that from his perspective, at any rate, there had been strong bias in play.

So yes. I do think that it is quite strongly suggested by the canon that Snape was often taunted by James and his friends back in their schooldays, as well as that they held the upper hand in terms of social popularity. Everything about the Map's insults speaks to me of just such a dynamic.

In fact, I see this dynamic as rather central to the endgame of PoA, and I believe that it is precisely to establish it firmly in the reader's mind that JKR included the encounter with the Map in the same chapter that also first hints at the prank -- the chapter that is entitled "Snape's Grudge."

The chapter title is significant, IMO. Grudge-holding is indeed Snape's great hamartia, but one does not generally refer to someone as "holding a grudge" if they did not have an at least somewhat legitimate cause for grievance in the first place. Snape has a sense of grievance that he is just not letting go; that he is not letting it go is a problem, but that he should ever have developed it in the first place is not; and I think that the encounter with the Map is written into this scene not merely to serve a comedic function, but also to lead the reader to this understanding. What is eating away at Snape is not mere envy, and it is not mere malice. It is a sense of thwarted justice, and one that derives from rather more than the fact that Sirius Black once tried to feed him to a werewolf, that nobody was ever expelled for this, and that Snape himself wound up with an utterly unwanted debt (whether "official" life-debt or debt of honor) to a hated rival as a result. The prank may have been the most blatant and egregious manifestation of what Snape is holding a grudge over, but it is hardly the entire story, and I think that the encounter with the Map—and what it implies about Snape's past relationship with attractive, popular, athletic, brilliant Sirius and James—is there to show us a bit more of the story. It serves to define somewhat more clearly the social context in which the prank took place. Like Sirius' sneering, it compells us to read the prank not as an isolated incident, but as a reflection of an entire social dynamic, one that is fundamentally a dynamic of injustice. Without that understanding, the parallelism between Snape and Sirius in the Shrieking Shack (and beyond!) loses a great deal of its raw power and impact, IMO, as does the entire endgame of PoA.

There are strong parallels between Snape's encounter with the Map and the prank itself, parallels which will later be extended to encompass the entire endgame of PoA -- and I again, I think that these are essential for establishing in the reader's mind the full nature and extent of Snape's sense of grievance. The language with which Snape tries to read the map is to my mind highly suggestive. "Reveal your secrets," he commands it. Sirius will describe him later as always "sneaking around" after James and his gang, trying to get them in trouble. Snape is trying to force the map to reveal its secrets in the first place in order to prove that Harry has been "out of bounds," in violation of the school rules. As a teenager, he tried to learn the secrets of MWPP in similar hopes of proving them out of bounds, and by doing so to get them in trouble with the authorities. And of course, in the endgame of PoA, Snape makes his way to the Shrieking Shack one last time, his use of the invisibility cloak once more placing his behavior firmly into the Slytherinesque category of "sneaking," hoping to apprehend Remus and Sirius, whom he believes to be dangerous criminals, and hand them over to the authorities for justice.

And he gets trounced, each and every time. He does not learn the secrets of the Marauder's Map. Instead, the Map insults him. He does learn Lupin's secret, but only at the terrible cost of being saddled with a debt to James. And at the end of PoA, he winds up first knocked unconscious, then foiled in his attempts to ensure that Black finally gets punished for his crimes, and finally dismissed as a raving lunatic by the Minister of Magic himself.

Who was it who made the comment that history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes?

Poor Severus just can't catch a break, can he, and JKR plays that fact for pathos as well as for laughs, I'd say. I do think that we are meant to read a certain degree of pathos into this portrayal of Snape as the constant voyeur: a hostile outsider, yes, but always an outsider trying to look in. I also think that the reader is meant to sympathize a great deal with Snape when he finally Just Plain Snaps at the end of PoA, even while also laughing at him. Certainly I've always found that sequence just plain heart-breaking, even while I also take enjoyment in its (deeply malicious!) humour.

(Wasn't it you, Irene, who once cited end of PoA as just plain killer in terms of Snape sympathy? I seem to remember wanting to slip a "me too" at the end of a sig sometime to you for that one, but then somehow never quite managed to get around to it.)

So in short [pause for everyone to laugh derisively], I certainly do think that there are a number of things in the text which support a reading of Sirius as a bully. I also think that this is partially a reflection of the series' thematic approach to questions of power, justice, vengeance and mercy.

Sirius may be depicted as a bullying type, but the text emphasizes quite strongly that James himself was not, in that he did respect vulnerability, he did know when things were going too far, and he had a very well-developed balk instinct. This aspect of his persona is absolutely pounded home to us in PoA, I'd say. James went after Snape and saved him from the potentially lethal effects of the Prank. Pettigrew claims that James would have shown him mercy. Harry (on the basis of no real evidence, mind) concurs; he cites James as his role model in prevailing upon Sirius and Remus to spare Peter's life. And when at the end of the novel, Harry's patronus takes the form of James' animagus form, when he is told that he truly is his father's son, we as readers are inclined to believe that indeed mercy, the balk instinct, the willingness to overlook even genuine grievance in the face of another's profound weakness, must have been one of James' primary characteristics.

By emphasizing these aspects of James' character, while also providing us with evidence that Sirius himself lacks those traits, I think that the text is drawing an important distinction between the traditional values of House Gryffindor and the WW's warrior culture, which while admittedly useful are also inherently ethically flawed, and the values which are being set forth as the truly heroic alternatives: those which are capable both of transcending the usual dynamics of conflict and strife, and of effecting the spiritual transformation of man. Sirius and the twins (who "take care" to step on Malfoy et al in the train at the end of GoF) represent the former. James and Harry (who takes care to step over them) stand in for the latter, as does Lily, whose self-sacrifice served to circumvent the normative zero-sum equation of conflict in the WW.

Here we touch on TBAY's Stoned!Harry: Harry as the living embodiment of the Philosopher's Stone, as an agent of spiritual renewal and transcendence. By intervening in the Shrieking Shack, Harry is not really saving Pettigrew at all. (If Pettigrew is to be saved, which I rather suspect that he is, then that will come later; right now, the poor devil is just about as lost as they come.) Harry may be setting the groundwork for Pettigrew's later development, but he is not saving him. He is saving Sirius (and also Remus), just as James once saved Sirius and Remus by intervening in the prank, and just as Harry and James will soon symbolically unite to save Sirius from the dementors. By intervening to insist upon the recognition of a higher moral code than "he deserves it," Harry is acting as an agent of transformative and redemptive moral change, one which can serve to heal both the wounds of injustice and the wounds of the past. There is no direct confrontation with Voldemort in PoA in part, I believe, because Harry's role as savior in PoA is absolutely not defined in terms of his ability to overcome his antagonists in any direct fashion. Rather, it is defined in terms of his ability to inspire spiritual transformation in others and in doing so, to begin to correct some of the problems of power with which the series is so intimately concerned.


who was unsurprised that there was a gleam in Dumbledore's eye


RE: Twins, Toons, Humor and Instinct

Dicentra wrote:

First, let me preface this with some clarifications. I wrote my initial "Toon" analysis of the twins waaaaay back last Friday [43083]. Two hundred messages later, it seems that some people [both who agree and disagree with me] have inadvertently misread what I was saying and have assumed I meant things I didn't mean. I'll take the responsibility for that: a good essay shouldn't be so easy to misread, and obviously I didn't craft it well enough.

No, Dicentra. Your essay was beautifully crafted, and the fault was my own. It had been a while, and I think that I must have improperly conflated a statement of Abigail's with your own intent. This was the statement that I had been remembering:

Fred and George Weasly, as the chief suppliers of comic relief in the books, tend to be responsible for most of these actions, but I find it hard to believe that we are meant to read any insight from this into their character.

I had been responding in large part to that sentiment. But as Amy pointed out, that had not in fact been your argument, and I do apologize for misrepresenting your views. I'd also like to thank you for extending to me the benefit of the doubt conveyed by that word "inadvertently." I appreciate that a great deal, as I honestly hadn't meant to go jousting after straw men in that message, and I'm glad for the opportunity to correct my error.

The core of the "Toon" argument is not that the cartoonish scenes are somehow apart from the rest of the text. It is rather that the twins engage in behavior that has the form of bullying, but not the substance. It's mock violence instead of real violence.

Okay. I think that I see your point, which if I'm understanding it correctly is that whether or not something really constitutes "violence" is determined by its actual effect. The substance of violence is harm. So an action is only a "violent act" if it causes harm. If it does not cause harm, then no violence has really been committed.

Since cartoon violence doesn't really do any harm—Toons just pick themselves right up again and go on their merry way—therefore the actions themselves cannot properly be described as violent acts. The perpetrators of said actions are therefore not really committing violence, and so it is inappropriate to ascribe to them a label ("bully," for example) which implies that they have caused harm. Is that right?

I suppose that there are two reasons that I can't myself adopt this approach. The first reason is one that you yourself touch on here:

The twins themselves, however, aren't the ones who decided to make it mock violence--JKR did.

Yes, precisely. I suppose that it is largely because of that that I still feel that the labels are appropriate. From the perspective of the Toons, their actions are still "real" because they share the same reality as all of the other Toons. So a Toon bully, for example, can still be called a bully, even though he is a Toon, because he is still engaging in bullying behavior. It just means that he is a "Toon bully."

Elmer Fudd, for example, is a Toon, and he is also a hunter. The fact that he is incapable of actually catching or killing or harming Bugs Bunny—or any other animal, for that matter—in any permanent or meaningful fashion does not, to my way of thinking, really make him any less of a hunter. It just means that he is a Toon hunter, rather than a real one.

The second reason that I have some trouble with this approach is the one that I touched upon in my last message: namely, that the "Toonishness" of the characters in the books often varies from scene to scene, and that actions taken at one level of cartoonishness can sometimes have ramifications that emerge later on at a different level. So it's hard for me to imagine, for example, how I would be able to read the scene between Arthur and the kids in the aftermath of TTT, if I didn't accept the Dursleys' terror as real, and the twins' actions as therefore constituting Muggle-baiting.

On this topic, Amy wrote:

The Ton-Tongue Toffee skates along the border of Muggle-baiting, yes (since their Muggle victim is more terrified by it than a wizard one would be), even though I agree with Elkins that they were not cognizant of this at the time. I love her point that it is on the light end of an increasingly dark progression of wizard-on-Muggle violence portrayed in GF (not in the Pensieve, though; in chapter 27. There is nothing about attacks on Muggles in the Pensieve).

Oops. Didn't make myself clear there, I guess. I'm glad you liked that reading, Amy, but I think that it's actually yours. In fact, I think I may like it better than my own. So, uh, well done! ;^>

When I wrote about TTT presaging both QWC and Pensieve, I actually didn't mean to be referring to wizard-on-muggle violence. I was referring to the phenomenon of normal regular people, "goodies," behaving in ways that the text portrays as wicked, yet without any apparent recognition of the fact that that is what they are actually doing. I tend to view the increased incidence of this phenomenon as one of the signs of the series' growing moral complexity, and I laud it.

All of the people who join the Muggle-baiting parade at the QWC, for example, cannot possibly be Death Eaters. There are too many of them for that, and their numbers grow as the scene progresses. They're not criminals or evil-doers or anything of the sort. They're just regular old witches and wizards who had been drinking a bit too much and got caught up in the mood of the mob, and they don't seem to have any real self-awareness of the fact that they are doing something strikingly wicked. Similarly, the crowd in the Pensieve, screaming and hissing and jeering at the sentencing, are presumably all decent people. They're supposedly on the side of "good." But they have been carried away by emotion, and it has led them to behave in a manner that is described quite chillingly. Their behavior comes across as very nearly diabolic -- and yet we understand that they are ordinary people, people who could live next door to you.

TTT presages those scenes, to my mind, because the twins are "good guys." They're Harry's allies. They're Harry's friends. They are not racists, and they object when their father accuses them of having been Muggle-baiting. But they were Muggle-baiting. They're characters who aren't "baddies," doing a thing that the text condemns in no uncertain terms as a signifier of "badguyness."

That was my reading of TTT in the context of the novel as a whole, at any rate. But it sort of falls apart for me if I try to deny the reality of the Dursleys' fear. It makes Arthur deluded—it means that he is wrong about what just happened at the Dursley residence—and that really just doesn't work for me at all.

Dicey suggested:

As for Arthur and Molly's reaction to the episode, they don't see the Dursleys as Toons. They see them as ordinary muggles, and they see the twins' behavior as muggle-baiting, regardless of whether Dudley can be hurt or not.

But if the twins can perceive that the Dursleys are Toons, then why can't Arthur and Molly? And if the twins can't perceive that the Durlseys are Toons, then what possible bearing does the fact that the Dursleys are Toons have on the question of what the twins' behavior reveals about their character?


Posted August 29, 2002 at 7:38 am
Topics: , , ,
Plain text version


RE: Toon Talk

Cindy quoted:

Dicentra (about the distinction between which characters' injuries are funny and which are not)...

Oh, wait!

Wait, wait, wait. Is that what this conversation is really about? It's about when a fictional character getting hurt is FUNNY?

Oh, but hold up, now. Just hold up. Surely humor is subjective, isn't it? There are a lot of different types of humor that involve people getting hurt or injured, and all of them follow different rules. So is this really something that we want to be arguing over? Surely we're not saying that some types of humor are morally superior to others, are we?

It almost looks to me as if this is becoming a debate about whether or not people ought to find certain things funny, and I don't know if I'm at all comfortable with that. Humour is pretty instinctive, isn't it? And it is hardly ever "moral."

I've just gone back and read Dicey's original Toon post, and I think that perhaps we need to draw a distinction here between two completely different things:

(a) when it makes sense to consider a fictional character's behavior a reflection of his character

(b) when it is morally acceptable to laugh at something you read in a book

My own answers to these two questions are as follows:

(a) always

(b) always


Posted August 29, 2002 at 8:00 am
Topics: , ,
Plain text version


RE: Why I Dislike The Twins/Toon Talk

I asked:

Is there some language short of profanity that is unacceptably vituperative to direct towards fictional characters in this forum?

HF replied:

Well, one would certainly hope so :-)


Oh, sorry. I guess I was just hoping for a different response. You see, I like vituperative language.

But only when it's directed against fictional people. So tell me, then, is "cad" okay?

I had thought that Pippin had objected to my use of the word "cad," but she corrected me:

IIRC, I objected to the word "bullies".

Oh, was that it, Pippin? I'm sorry. The part of my post that you had snipped was the part in which I referred to them as "thuggish cads," so I'd assumed that "cads" was the word you were objecting to, possibly in part because that was the word with which Catherine had taken issue.

"Cads" is much more suitable, IMO, if you are looking for a derogatory term for the Terrible Two.

Yes, I think so as well. Certainly it is more justified than "thuggish." ;-)

Really, I don't know if I even consider "cads" all that derogatory. I tend to think of the word as rather endearingly archaic. Charming, even. If someone called me a 'cad,' I can't imagine feeling injured. I rather suspect that I'd smile.

They do put Percy at his wits' end, but unlike Elkins's friend, Percy has not been driven away from his home, nor is there any indication that he'd prefer to live elsewhere.

Well, I think that he should live elsewhere. I think that it would do him good to get away from the clan for a while. But you are right in that I don't see any sign that Percy himself has ever considered this a possibility. We never, for example, are given the slightest indication that the family is dependent upon his income, or anything like that, and given how often the Weasley financial situation is alluded to in GoF, I rather suspect that we would have, if we were meant to understand this to be the case. So probably Percy really could move out of the Burrow, if he were so inclined.

Except perhaps at the Office. But I took that as more an indication of incipient workaholism than Twinavoidance. He seems to be just as obsessed with his job after the Twins go back to school.

True. It's tricky, that, though, because his workaholism does seem to me to be in large part a symptom of his growing feelings of alienation from his family. His devotion to Crouch is filial in nature, and the beginning of GoF is where we first see Percy in conflict not only with his siblings, but also with his parents. So there does seem to be a good deal of displacement going on there, IMO.

In this respect, I tend to read Percy in GoF as a (far more harmless!) double to Barty Junior, whose response to a schism with his family is similarly to seek a substitute father figure in Voldemort. Pippin has written some truly fantastic stuff in the past about the series' focus on the missing mother figure (which the ban on 'me toos' and 'oooh, neat!'s has previously prevented me from praising). In GoF, with its motif of parricide, its thematic emphasis on individuation and volition, and its focus on the trials of male adolescence, I perceive a much stronger emphasis on the role of the absent or otherwise disappointing father.

But of course, that can't all be placed at the Twins' door, by any means. It's the entire family dynamic that I see as a spiritually eroding influence on Percy, and the twins are just one manifestation (if a particularly abrasive one) of that dynamic.

I admit that the twins can be pretty obnoxious, but I resist calling them bullies, because if they are bullies, then what do we call Draco, Dudley and Snape?

Er...bullies? ;-)

Really, I think that much of the problem in this entire discussion has been one of definitions: clinical vs colloquial, for example. It's also been muddied by the conflation of "bully" with "evil," not to mention with "I think they act like bullies" with "I don't like 'em" -- which was my own fault.

As Shaun points out in his post, the Twins may be bullies in some technical sense, but they aren't bullies of the same order as DDS, and they require a different kind of intervention, which, in fact, they usually get.

I agree that they are a different animal from Draco, who in turn is himself a very different type of bully than Snape. Draco has a monstrously high self-esteem and suffers from a thwarted sense of entitlement. I don't really think that Snape's got the same issues at all. For that matter, I dare say that Crabbe and Goyle probably have completely different issues all their own, too. Although I doubt somehow that we'll ever get to hear about them. ;-)

It would be a pretty lame anti-bully intervention program that cracked down on F&G and let Draco and Snape get away with everything...which is, of course, exactly what's happening. *g*

Heh. Well, it wouldn't be a very interesting discussion if we talked about all the ways in which Draco is shown acting like a bully in the canon, would it? I mean, who on earth would bother to dissent?

<waits with bated breath for the "Draco is NOT a bully!" contingent to come out of the woodwork>

Besides. If they did, then how on earth would they frame their argument?

HF wrote:

I think it's habitual in any discussion of polarized views for the individual in the minority, or, as the case may be in some instances, the silent majority, to possess the burden of proof.

"Over-analyzing." "Over-intellectualizing." "Reading too much into the text." "Speaking too stridently."

Typically, the minority has had to approach their argument with far more delicacy and tact than one of the majority would, or risk being labeled a disturber of the peace

"Non-canonical." "Misreading." "Distorting the story." "Speaking from emotional bias."

Yes. Well. You see the difficulty here, I trust.

Nope. If I were someone who didn't think that "bully" was an appropriate term to describe Draco Malfoy, I'd be feeling pretty leery of speaking up after the way that this debate evolved. And that's a pity, really, because I, for one, would very much have liked to hear their reasoning.

Cindy wrote:

This discussion of the twins is not the first time criticism of a character has touched off controvery on the list, BTW. . . . . For instance, I adore Moody, and the first time someone pointed out that Real Moody behaves like a Rogue Cop, I felt a bit defensive.

::shifts uneasily in seat::

Yes. Well, er, that was me too, wasn't it?

Heh. Sorry. I don't do this sort of thing on purpose, you know. Honestly, I don't.

But at least I don't go around bashing Hagrid. I mean, that's just plain mean. ;-)


I wonder if it is because people feel threatened somehow, perhaps for the same reason that people might feel threatened when the twins' behavior is questioned. Maybe they found Hagrid's alcohol abuse and general irresponsibility cute or endearing, and my remarks are making them question their affection for Hagrid? I still don't know.

I don't know either. I still don't get it. As it happens, I still find Hagrid's tippling and irresponsibility kind of cute and endearing, myself. But the things that you and Jenny have written about him here in the past have indeed led me to realize that there is a darker side to his irresponsibility, one that I just honestly had never considered before I read your posts. It has occurred to me, for example, that if I were a parent, I might well feel very differently about Hagrid's drinking and poor judgement, especially his lack of caution with dangerous animals.

Similarly, Amanda's posts explaining why, as a parent, she absolutely would not have wanted Lupin to remain as a staff member at any school attended by a child of hers were real eye-openers for me. I'd just never really thought about the issue from that perspective before. I had written it off as "discrimination," and left it at that. But of course, it isn't really all that simple, is it? Lupin really is a threat, and his forgetfulness when it comes to his Wolfsbane Potion really does suggest that he may indeed have a few non-compliance issues that make him even less someone a concerned parent would want around their children.

So have those discussions changed my reading of the text? Oh, yeah. They sure have. And Lupin is one of my favorite characters, too, so of course it was a bit of a wrench to concede that those nasty parents who would have wanted him to be fired really did have a valid point.

But I like it when that happens. After all, if I didn't want to expose myself to other people's readings of the books, then why on earth would I be here?


I imagine that some people don't welcome having their reading experience changed in this way. I can understand that.

I guess I'm having some difficulty understanding that. Isn't that what this forum is for?

I'm also still struggling to understand why being led to revise their interpretation of the twins' character might actually lead people to try to alter their sense of humour. That's sort of creeping me out, to be perfectly honest with you. Why on earth would anyone try to do that?

Cindy, for example, wrote:

Elkins, Eileen, Debbie and a few others have indicated that the twins' behavior never struck them as funny. . . . . As you all may know from my posts on this thread, I agree with them that some of the twins' behavior is bullying behavior.

But I have to admit that I didn't always view it that way. Nope, not me. I found the Ton Tongue Toffee thing hilarious the first time I read it.

But can't it be both? Why can't it be bullying behavior and be hilarious?

I guess that I'm just not seeing how these two issues get conflated. Someone's behavior can be perfectly loathsome, yet still strike you as funny.

Snape's behavior, for example, is definitely bullying. It's just awful, IMO, the way that he treats his students. That "I see no difference" line in GoF, for example, I thought was just dreadful. What a terrible thing to say to an adolescent girl! Poor Hermione!

But you know, I did find it funny.

Nor, I would add, do I feel the slightest bit of guilt over having found it funny. In real life, of course, I would. If I were a witness to such an event in real life, then I would certainly endeavor to show no signs of amusement, no matter how amusingly vicious I found the line to be, both out of consideration for the student's feelings and to avoid encouraging such behavior in the teacher. But while reading a work of fiction?

Nah. It just doesn't bother me. When I grin at Snape's meaner comments, it's not because I condone his behavior. It's just 'cause I think they're funny. I feel no guilt over this. No one is harmed in the slightest by my laughing.

Eloise wrote:

I can see why others interpret them as bullies, yet I still find them amusing.

But, but, but...but couldn't you still find them amusing even if you did interpret them as bullies?

See, this is the thing that I just don't understand, perhaps because my own sense of humour is extraordinarily dark. It's just never occurred to me that finding a comedic scene funny implies any moral approval of the behavior being depicted in said scene. I mean, good heavens! What does it say about me, then, that I snicker at Voldemort and his Death Eaters in the graveyard scene? I see nothing in the least bit moral or upright about anyone's behavior in that sequence. But I sure do find it funny.

Cindy explained it thus:

Imagine that someone tells a racist joke, and you laugh. Then someone else points out that they think the joke was racist and therefore not funny.

Personally, I would feel defensive and embarrassed.

Oh, dear. Yes. I suppose that I would as well.

In that case, then perhaps this was my fault again. Did I imply that the reason that I don't find TTT funny is because it's a comedic depiction of bullying?

No. That is why it makes me cringe, but it's not why I fail to find it funny. I can easily cringe at something while still finding it funny. I do that all the time. In fact, my favorite type of humour is the type that makes you cringe and laugh at the same time.

No, what makes TTT unfunny is that it is slapstick. It's Dicey's "Danger Averted" comedy. It is cartoonish, and that's precisely why it's not funny. Cartoon slapstick has just never amused me in the slightest. I find it exceptionally tedious and irritating. (I've never been able to stand Warner Brothers cartoons either, as it happens.) But that has nothing to do with what is being depicted in the scene. It has everything to do with the nature of the depiction.

So I don't really think that the "the joke is racist and therefore not funny" analogy holds up very well here. If the TTT scene had been written as black humour, rather than as cartoonish slapstick, then I likely would have found it very funny indeed. But that's a matter of comedic preference. It's a question of aesthetics, not of ethics.

Yet this whole humour issue really seems to be upsetting people, and I'm still trying to understand the reasons for that. Let me try this as a proposal, just to see if it resonates with people.

Dicey has identified a type of slapstick which takes as its operative principle: "Only if the victim isn't realistically enough depicted for us to take his pain too seriously is it funny."

Could it be, perhaps, that there is a related form of humour, one which takes as its operative principle: "Only if the aggressor is morally clean is it funny?"

In other words, is it true that for some people the morality or ethics of the characters really does have direct bearing on whether or not they find a scene that involves violence amusing? Is THAT why people were conflating the issues of whether the twins are funny and whether their behavior is bullying?

I hadn't realized that there were people who held that view of humour. In my conception of comedy, the moral positioning of the actors doesn't really have very much to do with whether or not something is funny (although the moral positioning of the author sometimes can: a dark comedy about the Klan, for example, I really would consider funny or not in large part based on what I perceived the author's attitude on the subject to be).

Immoral actions can be (and very often are) portrayed in a humorous light. Very many forms of comedy involve some form of harm or discomfiture. Nor is "Danger Averted" comedy the only type of humour out there. Sometimes things are funny not because no harm is done, but because in fact a great deal of harm is being done.

So I think that we might want to be careful about saying that it's not okay to laugh at certain things when we see them depicted in fiction. If we were to declare all forms of comedy which involve people being unkind each other or people getting hurt off-limits, then that really wouldn't leave us with very much to laugh at, would it?

But surely the question of humour is a different one from the question of characterization, isn't it? That Voldemort's actions are occasionally played for very dark humour doesn't make him any less of a sadist. That Snape's verbal abuse is often quite funny doesn't make him any less of a bully. That the Dursleys' locking Harry in the cupboard beneath the stairs or feeding him on nothing but watery soup is a comedic depiction of child abuse doesn't make the Dursleys admirable models of good parenting.

What the characters' behavior reveals about them is a completely different issue than that of whether or not we find them funny.

Then, perhaps I am merely oversensitive on this subject because, uh, well, because see, I actually do find it kind of funny when Voldemort tortures Wormtail. Not the Cruciatus, no. That wasn't particularly funny. But the fact that he'd been threatening to feed the poor wretch to Nagini?

Er...well, uh, yeah. See, that really is funny. It's funny, see, because Pettigrew is a rat animagus. He's rodent-like by nature, and he's spent far too many years of his life in his rodent form. And so Voldemort threatening to feed him to a big snake is funny. It's funny because someone who is at heart a rat can be reasonably expected to have some rather strongly phobic feelings about snakes. It's funny because the precise nature of the threat is so very appropriate. It's funny because the nature of a rodent's feelings about snakes relates in a direct fashion to Wormtail's own ridiculously untenable moral position in regard to Voldemort. It's funny because as readers, we realize that it had to have been an idle threat, and yet Wormtail himself does not seem to have had the presence of mind to have reached this same conclusion. And it's funny because Voldemort himself seems so devestatingly aware of all of these factors.

It is funny. It's just not slapstick. It's black humour instead, which is a different form of sadistic comedy, and one that follows a completely different set of narrative rules.

Am I really supposed to feel guilty for appreciating that form of humour? Because I have to say that I just plain don't.

Cindy wrote:

I'm having trouble seeing the link between whether a character is fleshed out and our willingness to look the other way when they do something wrong or mean-spirited or whether the pain they suffer ought to trouble us.

Well, again, I think that we want to draw a distinction between something being funny and something being morally condoned. That I can get a smile out of Voldemort's sadism doesn't make him any less of a sadist. That I can see humour in Wormtail's situation doesn't mean that he isn't really suffering. That there is black humour written into that scene doesn't mitigate anyone's flaws or change anyone's nature. And the fact that I can find things like that funny doesn't mean that I don't recognize wrongs as wrongs, or pain as pain.

Voldemort really is cruel, and Wormtail really is suffering.

And it's funny.

What I suppose that I don't get is why people feel that they can't continue to find scenes like TTT funny just because they've decided that the twins are acting like bullies. What happens to make it suddenly "unfunny" if you come to believe that?



RE: Dirty!Harry and Stoned!Harry

I wrote:

By intervening to insist upon the recognition of a higher moral code than "he deserves it," Harry is acting as an agent of transformative and redemptive moral change, one which can serve to heal both the wounds of injustice and the wounds of the past.

Dicentra replied:

As true as all this is, it seems so incongruous that Harry was on the verge of killing Sirius only an hour or so earlier.

Ah. But he didn't, now, did he? Once he was actually armed and therefore could do real damage, he balked.

Harry doesn't blast Sirius the instant that he gets his wand back. He stands there looking down at him. He argues with him. He tries to justify what he is about to do not only to himself, but to Sirius. He tries to explain his actions. He rejects Sirius' excuses. He talks about what it was like hearing his mother's last pleas. He repeats the base accusation ("You did that") more than once.

What he does not do, however, is actually take action.

Even before Crookshanks intervenes, thus raising the stakes significantly, Harry is hesitating. He talks and he talks, trying to psych himself up to commit the act, but he never quite manages it. He hesitates. He balks at killing an unresisting and unarmed man.

Jim wrote:

You're touching on something extraordinary about Harry: We've seen over and over how he's the "man of action," whose instincts (with preparation from Hermione) lead him right and save him time and time again; and his unwavering moral compass. He just can't be bad, it seems.

Oh, he can be bad. Just not when it really counts. ;-)

Yes. It is a bit frustrating, that, as it raises so many unsettling questions about "choice," but I really do think that instinct comes into play here. Harry isn't perfect by any means, but he does often seem to have heroic instincts. They lead him to do things like stepping in to intervene on Neville's behalf at the flying lesson in the first book. They lead him to speak up in Hermione's defense at their very first potions class. They lead him to do things like offering to share the Triwizard prize with Cedric. ::pained wince::

In this case, they lead him to balk at killing in vengeance someone who is unarmed and defenseless, and posing no immediate threat.


His impulse to kill Sirius was pure hatred and vengeance, not at all different from Sirius's desire to kill Pettigrew.

Exactly the same, I'd say.

And yet he balks.

So what changed? What persuaded Harry within that short time to recognize this higher moral code?

Well, I don't know that it's all that short a time, really. I'd say that actually, Harry is dealing with the question of "deserts" throughout the entire novel. It comes up over and over again: in his interactions with Aunt Marge and Vernon, in his conversation with Lupin. It's a central thematic concept in PoA.

So he's really been working on it all year, in a way. By the time he hits the Shack, I'd say that he's already made a start on rejecting the moral code of vengeance. He does balk rather than killing Sirius, after all. He attacks Sirius out of fury when he is unarmed, and when Sirius seems to be an active threat. But when he has a wand in his hand, and Sirius is doing nothing but lying there on his back staring up at him?

Nope. He balks.


Posted August 31, 2002 at 5:56 pm
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