To Sort or Not to Sort: The Wisdom of Hufflepuff

Poor Hufflepuff. You are truly the least appreciated of the Hogwarts houses. The ambitious go to Slytherin, the wise go to Ravenclaw, the brave go to Gryffindor, and Hufflepuff gets the leftovers.

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The Sorting Hat’s song from The Order of the Phoenix seems to say as much:

Said Slytherin, “We’ll teach just those
Whose ancestry’s purest.”
Said Ravenclaw, “We’ll teach those whose
I
ntelligence is surest”
Said Gryffindor, “We’ll teach all those
With brave deeds to their name.”
Said Hufflepuff, “I’ll teach the lot
And treat them just the same.”

On the surface, it seems that Helga Hufflepuff got stuck with the students that nobody else wanted. But if we read on, we see that Hufflepuff was actually the wisest of the four founders. The Sorting Hat continues:

So Hogwarts worked in harmony
for several happy years,
but then discord crept among us
feeding on our faults and fears.
The Houses that, like pillars four
had once held up our school
now turned upon each other and
divided, sought to rule.
And for a while it seemed the school
must meet an early end.
what with dueling and with fighting
and the clash of friend on friend.
And at last there came a morning
when old Slytherin departed
and though the fighting then died out
he left us quite downhearted.
And never since the founders four
were whittled down to three
have the Houses been united
as they once were meant to be.

I propose that Hufflepuff didn’t “teach the lot and treat them just the same” because she got stuck with the leftovers; she did this because placing greater value on certain characteristics and separating these people into different groups was antithetical to her character. “Take the lot and treat them just the same” is the value that is at the core of every Hufflepuff’s character. Just as Slytherins are driven by ambition, Gryffindors by courage, and Ravenclaws by intelligence, Hufflepuffs are driven by justice, equality, and inclusivity. In a word, Hufflepuffs are driven by the most powerful magic in the world: love.

Love can’t conceive of closing the door to anyone, but instead welcomes everyone in and “treats them just the same.” If you ask me, if it had been up to Hufflepuff, Hogwarts would not have been divided into houses at all, and the conflict between Gryffindor and Slytherin, and all the historical fallout of their rift, could have been avoided.

The Sorting Hat itself acknowledges the wisdom of Hufflepuff:

And now the Sorting Hat is here
and you all know the score:
I sort you into Houses
because that is what I’m for.
But this year I’ll go further,
l
isten closely to my song:
though condemned I am to split you
still I worry that it’s wrong,
though I must fulfill my duty
and must quarter every year
still I wonder whether sorting
may not bring the end I fear.
Oh, know the perils, read the signs,
the warning history shows,
for our Hogwarts is in danger
from external, deadly foes
and we must unite inside her
or we’ll crumble from within
I have told you, I have warned you…
l
et the Sorting now begin.

In one of my classes this year, we took the Enneagram personality assessment.  Like the Sorting Hat, the Enneagram classifies you into a certain personality type, but takes your self-assessment into account as well.

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I ended up as a Type 5, also called “The Investigator.” These types are focused on gathering knowledge and wisdom. (Classic Ravenclaw). Some of my friends were Type 8, or “The Protector.”  They are natural leaders who are driven by a desire to protect the weak and fight injustice. (Gryffindors for sure). Others were Type 3, “The Performer.” These types are very driven to succeed in life, and to project an image of success to the world. (Hey there, Slytherin). Type 9, “The Mediator,” is good at connecting with others and desires peace and harmony. (What’s up, Hufflepuff).

The idea behind our class taking this assessment was to get an insight into one another’s personality types and communication styles, so that we can better understand each other’s weaknesses and learn from each other’s strengths. However, what the activity turned out to provide was a simple and systematic way for the class to stereotype each other and write each other off. Fives rolled their eyes at the impulsiveness of the Eights. Eights were appalled by the opportunistic attitudes of the Threes. Threes admonished the Nines to stop letting people walk all over them. Rather than creating an opportunity for greater understanding among the class, the Enneagram assessment gave us a ready-made system of division, and we hopped right on.

I don’t mean to trash the Enneagram; it’s one of the more open-ended personality tests out there, and can be a useful tool for self-reflection and self-improvement. But my class is one example of the way that categorizing people into “types” creates division rather than harmony. It’s important to acknowledge diversity, but in order to draw strength from diversity, we have to get mixed up in communities of people who are different from us.  I think Helga Hufflepuff understood that.

The true greatness of the Hufflepuff spirit is celebrated in this Wizard Wrock classic, “The House of Awesome Theme Song,” by The Whomping Willows. Check it out. Regardless of our differences and our House loyalties, we’re all members of the House of Awesome.

Kamala Khan: Phil Coulson 2014

The two biggest publishing houses in comics, Marvel and DC, have been under a lot of scrutiny in the past few years for how their titles portray women, people of color, and LGBT characters, as well as how many creators they employ who are women, people of color, or LGBT. It started a sort of Race to Diversity in some readers’ eyes, and many thought that “good storytelling” was being compromised for the sake of “unnecessary” or “arbitrary” diversity.

It hasn’t been easy for either Marvel or DC to make and keep the changes that would bring their comics into the year 2014 as far as demographics are concerned – but Marvel seems to be doing a much better job. In many ways I think that’s because Marvel excels at telling stories about how super-heroes affect non-powered humans. The more your stories are about the “average person” the more you’re able to invest in discussing what “average” actually means.

Last month saw the release of Ms. Marvel #1. “Ms. Marvel” was the former super-hero name of Carol Danvers, a lesser-known Avenger known now as “Captain Marvel.” (Trivia: Captain Marvel was previously a DC title featuring the character now known as Shazam until Marvel recently re-acquired the rights.) But in the past year, Carol Danvers has been to deep-space and back with the rest of the extended Avengers team in the Infinity storyline (which is well worth the read, if you haven’t gotten around to it yet).

Anyway, part of including the stories of non-powered humans is telling the stories of fictional fans of the super-hero teams. The Avengers, being the most well-known group, naturally attract a lot of fans. The kind of fans that write fan-fics and blog about their favorite heroes. The kind of fans who act out pretend super-battles in their house while their family roles their eyes. The kind of fans who collect vintage trading cards of with their favorite heroes on them.

Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) was the film that pushed the super-hero movie genre fully into the mainstream of entertainment as the third highest grossing film of all time. One of the most memorable scenes in that entire film was the fanboyish fawning that Phil Coulson does over his hero, Captain America. He asks him to sign his vintage collectible cards. Fans took to Phil Coulson right away. Marvel’s newest sensation. He was one of us, a non-powered hero that was prone to hero-worship himself — awkwardly embarrassing himself on a quinjet full of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and superhumans when he tried to explain to Steve Rogers that there were collectible cards with his face on them.

Back to 2014, a new face of comic super-fandom has arrived: Kamala Khan, the star of Ms. Marvel #1.

Kamala is a quirky, nerdy, teenage Avengers superfan. She wears a sweatshirt with Carol Danvers’ trademark lightning-strike logo, she writes fan-fiction comics, and she even talks to an imaginary Carol about how much she’d like to be her! She’s also Muslim, a very under-represented demographic in pop culture.

The dramatic conclusion to Kamala’s fan fiction…

Well, for anyone who loved Coulson before his debut in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tv show, you might have a new fictional best friend. What most of us loved about Coulson was that he was charming in his awkward hero worship, but he was also competent, dangerous, and loyal. Kamala, in this first issue of Ms. Marvel is shown to be awkward, charming, and loyal, and the teaser at the end of the issue indicates she’s going to be competent and dangerous – like any good hero should be. The difference between Coulson and Khan is that where Coulson is a middle-aged white man, Khan is a teenaged, brown-skinned, Muslim girl.

If we take a moment to look back into comics history, Peter Parker was so important  in his time because the original Spider-Man comics tackled not only with street crime and super-villainy, but what it meant to be a contemporary teenager. The X-Men were trying to live the dual life of young Americans whose identities would make them outcasts – a very real feeling for many people, even today.

It represents a lot that Marvel’s newest, most relatable character is a Muslim teenage girl. I hope that Kamala will be for comic fans of all identities what Peter Parker was for previous generations of awkward teens – escapism with a dose of what’s real to them. Nobody has to imagine what it’s like to be a teenager, or even what it’s like to feel like you don’t quite fit in. We’ve all been there. For Kamala Khan, her religious identity and nerdy fandom set her on the fringes of her social scene; for others it might be sexual orientation, gender, age, or skin color. But seeing heroes with whom we can identify coping with “real” problems at the same time as they’re saving the world is the kind of cathartic pop art that, historically, brought comics into their own.

Everybody knows that feel. Well… Except for the boot thing I guess.

Ms. Marvel is in the rising tide of new characters and ideas that will make comics (my favorite pop culture art medium), and all the greatness that’s a part of them, available to people that aren’t white dudes and want to occasionally read a story about someone like them.

Does TV have to go to prison to give women their own lives?

Most people* who’ve seen “Orange is the New Black” are thrilled with it—the Netflix-only series even got renewed for a second season before the first was released on the site in July.

Based on the memoirs of Piper Kerman, a Smith College alumna who served 13 months in the women’s prison in Danbury, CT, the show’s main character is Piper Chapman, a similar-but-not-carbon-copy of the real Piper, who serves the same sentence in a fictional Litchfield prison.

There are many reasons the show has gained such avid fans: stellar performances, references to the Kinsey Scale, “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan at the helm, the awkward return of “American Pie” star Jason Biggs to something that’s actually popular.

Top among the reasons for its overwhelmingly positive reception is the way that the show uses a white woman (which is pretty typical on tv) as a kind of bridge that exposes viewers to other women’s stories—fully fleshed-out, 3 dimensional stories, at that.

WASP-y Piper Chapman, despite being the “Main Character,” is less interesting and less sympathetic than the women around her, which include (in numbers and heterogeneity virtually unprecedented on television thus far): women of color, poor women, elderly women, queer women, trans*women, and women without her prestigious collegiate degree.

These women rarely make appearances in mainstream culture, so an entire show centered around their lives is brand-spankin’ new to viewers.

However, beyond all these great reasons is one reason I haven’t seen pop up in any articles:

It’s the only show on television that passes the Bechdel Test almost 100% of the time.

Are you familiar with the Bechdel test?

Here’s the definition:

  1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man

Now, there are plenty of other shows with lots of female characters – even main characters. Shows like “Scandal” and “Once Upon a Time” and “Girls”.

(I actually haven’t seen “Scandal”, but it was referenced as a rebuttal to that “I Hate Strong Female Characters” article that was floating around a few weeks ago, so I want to open the floor for fans to make its case).

But despite the fact that (for example) “Girls” literally has 4 women as its main characters, most scenes don’t pass the Bechdel Test.

Now, not every scene needs to pass the test for something to be worth watching.

But when it’s rare for most shows or movies to have even one scene that earns it a passing mark, I think the antidote should be something stronger than, “a show that passes it kind of often.”

Just because a show has a qualifying scene doesn’t mean the show is the best it can be, and media is totally on board with the whole feminism thing. I’d argue that a show like “Orange is the New Black” (where nearly every scene qualifies) is much more of a true standard toward which scenes and characters should be aspiring—the Bechdel Test is really just the bare minimum threshold.

Even in shows that have female leads and pass the Bechdel test frequently, there’s a lot left unexplored.

For example, when the women on “Girls” aren’t talking about men, they’re usually still talking about how better to live up to some societal standard or another—how to act at their jobs, what to wear, what their parents expect of them, yadda yadda.

“Orange is the New Black” is different.

In OitNB, the women don’t have an external society whose expectations they have to live up to.

They’ve been removed from traditional society, and placed inside prison society, whose rules are completely different.

And in the prison setting, a new society is built from scratch—by the women themselves.

Of course, the (mostly male) guards have rules they enforce, but those lie only on the surface of prison society, just like the laws in our country are only a fraction of the influences we operate under in the non-prison world.

So when we watch OitNB’s Piper, Taystee, Pennsatucky, Big Boo, Poussey, et al go about their lives inside the prison, it’s a rare opportunity for viewers.

The women’s interactions are calculated exclusively to satisfy their own desires, aspirations, and agendas. They are not performing for the Male Gaze (in fact, it’s all from women’s perspectives). They are no longer conforming to standards anyone else created. They are “free” to create a society that exists only to support themselves, not to keep them down in relation to another, more privileged group.

And the show itself is free to give them the screentime to do this.

Though the women have literally less freedom than female characters in most shows or film, by removing traditional societal rules from the playing field, “Orange is the New Black” gives its female characters fewer limits and more room to portray a wide swath of women and interpersonal dynamics than any other show.

The time the show gets to spend—and the characters & actresses get to spend—purely on women’s stories can now take up almost the entirety of the show, instead of being restricted to just one or two scenes.

That’s progress. That’s what I think the Bechdel test is really trying to achieve.

But isn’t it kinda messed up that, in order to set female characters free from these boundaries, TV had to put ‘em in prison?

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*Of course, as with anything that’s gaining near-universal acclaim, there are dissenters. There’s even someone who thinks it’s today’s modern Slave Narrative. (But, really, when even Jezebel commenters think you’re overreacting—and you haven’t even watched the whole series—your argument may not be water-tight).