One doesn’t read doctoral dissertations for pleasure, I’m sorry to say, but I have very much enjoyed reading Linda Wight’s Talking about Men: Conversations about Masculinities in Recent ‘Gender-bending’ Science Fiction (2009, She had the very good idea of taking a selection of winners and nominees to the James Tiptree Jr., a prize awarded to SF with a progressive gender issues stance, and consider to what extent these texts were actually forward-thinking. The results are mixed.

At any rate, what interested me very much is that Linda Wight based her thesis on the idea that plenty of SF (and fantasy) is still focused on the ‘warrior narrative’ for masculinity, whereas in real-life the avant-garde, anti-patriarchal narrative is the one she called ‘civil’ and I have started calling ‘civic.’

I emailed Linda to check whether the label ‘civil narrative’ was hers. It seems it is. She kindly explained to me that she drew extensively from Ellen Jordan and Angela Cowan’s “Warrior Narratives in the Kindergarten Classroom: Renegotiating the Social Contract?” (Men’s Lives, Michael S. Kimmel & Michael A. Messner, eds. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998. 127-40). Paraphrasing her own explanation, it seems that the authors described how in kindergarten the ‘warrior ideal’ all little boys enjoy in games and fiction, is being replaced by a “masculinity of rationality and responsibility.” Linda mixed this with Carol Pateman’s ideas regarding fratriarchy as the actual basis of patriarchy and she came up with the ‘civil narrative of masculinity.’

Last week I discussed with my class the nature of Harry Potter’s heroism and why they dislike so much the final duel with Voldemort as (SPOILERS AHEAD!!) Harry does not use ‘Avada Kedrava’ to kill his arch-villain but very cleverly uses ‘Expelliarmus’ to have Voldemort, essentially, terminate himself. I argued, persuasively I hope!!, that although Harry is naturally inclined towards the ‘civil narrative,’ Voldemort’s rabid emergence and Dumbledore’s interested grooming (argh!) force him to take up the ‘warrior narrative’ if only until the threat is over.

He, thus, becomes proficient at duelling (I had to explain how important this pathetic practice had been in the past for men), the rules of which he happens to understand much better than the quite stupid Voldemort. Once the duel to end all duels takes place, Harry, as the epilogue shows, is happy to return for good to the ‘civil narrative’ and become the kind of hero Rowling loves best: a loving, caring family man. ‘Petty bourgeois’, yes, indeed, but thank god for that in a world of Hitlers, Stalins… and Putins.

I’m sure the ‘warrior types’ our there are disappointed –an Austrian student kindly explained to me that in his homeland many young men regard Harry a bit of a ‘douchebag’. Even my students (men and women) are a bit disappointed that Harry did NOT kill Voldemort. I am myself, however, quite happy that the ‘civil narrative’ dominated.

I don’t like quoting dictionaries very much, but I do need the Oxford Dictionary to show how ‘civil’ and ‘civic’ overlap and intersect. ‘Civil’ refers to citizens, as opposed to ‘military’ or ‘ecclesiastic’ (you get the oxymoron ‘civil war’ from that, also ‘civil law’). ‘Civil’, interestingly, also means ‘courteous and polite’, which goes very well with my pet idea that gentlemanliness should be brought back. ‘Civic’ connects more closely with the ‘city or town’, both its administration and the citizens’ duties and activities. ‘Civil’ and ‘civic’ refer, then, jointly, to active, non-warriorlike citizenship.

Back to Harry. I’ll argue that Rowling is to be praised for defending ‘civil’ over ‘warring’ masculinity. Yet, she falls short of defending ‘civic’ masculinity. Harry, poor thing, is too young to carry this immense weight on his shoulders. Yet a truly ‘civic’ man would have arrested Voldemort and demanded from the Ministry of Magic a complete upheaval of its very dubious justice system to guarantee just punishment for Voldemort. My students told me that a living Voldemort would escape Azkaban, start the Death Eaters again, etc, etc. Fair enough.

I just think we need that story in which the hero (and now I understand why Rowling thought of a boy, not a girl) undermines the patriarchal warrior narrative from the inside to replace it with a masculine narrative based on civic duty, that is to say, on the defence of justice on behalf of the community. That Harry has to accept becoming a killer (even though technically he’s never one) is a sad comment on his (and ours) society’s inability to trust justice –acknowledging here that justice in the world of wizards and witches is only marginally better than Voldemort’s injustice.

Thanks Linda!

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