Thursday, October 10, 2013

Clichés Explained Part Three: Welcome to the Club.

I don’t know a single book nerd who hasn’t allotted him or herself to a Hogwarts house. Either through an online quiz or Pottermore or just sheer geek instinct, everyone I know seems to have decided where the Sorting Hat would send them. I’m a Ravenclaw, thanks to Pottermore, and I’m thrilled with that.
Why am I thrilled with that? To be honest, it’s a bit hard to explain beyond simple fangirl joy. I like the basic code of Ravenclaw with its focus on intelligence and there’s something weirdly heart-warming about the idea of belonging to that house. It’s that heart-warming feeling that I think drives people to connect to stories like Harry Potter and others which contain similar kinds of faction systems, even when they don’t make a whole lot of sense.

Once again, we have another post in our clichés series that diverts its focus to Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series. In a semi-dystopian Chicago, the city divides its citizens into 5 factions based on personality traits. In the first book, the heroine Tris originally belongs to Abnegation, the faction dedicated to selflessness, but after she discovers that her personality does not focus directly on one trait (seriously, that’s her special thing), she decides to join the Dauntless faction, where heroism and fearlessness is prized above all else.

The book’s ingenious marketing focused on the faction system and invited Facebook users to take tests to decide which faction they would belong to. It doesn’t matter that the entire concept of the factions makes little to no sense once you apply logic because the hook is there and it’s an undeniably appealing one.
For one, being sorted in such a manner, be it through your own choice or other means, creates an instant sense of community. There you have a pre-prepared group that caters to your needs and character, one full of like-minded people who stick together through a sense of loyalty. There’s a sense of understanding between members of the same groups. It just makes sense. We as human beings like the security and comfort that comes with communities. Even the most solitary of individuals can attest to the need for them, be it family, friends, colleagues, or those bound by common traits. We love fandoms because it’s a place where we feel like we belong.

With Harry Potter, the old school houses idea is taken to a further conclusion by the sorting as it essentially dictates the kind of person you will be and the perceptions people will have of you. Remember the final battle in Deathly Hallows? Basically every Slytherin is sent to the dungeon to stay out of the fight because of their house’s evil reputation (then again, if I were a Slytherin and my family were Slytherins and we’d spent generations being shunted by society and assumed to be evil, then this group comes along to befriend you and reassure you that it’s the world that has a problem, not you, I’d be miffed as well. I’d also want to sit out a battle where I could end up coming face to face with family, but that’s a tangent for another day.)

There’s another kind of security that comes with this kind of sorting, particularly of the magical kind where the person involved has no real say in the proceedings: it gives the audience an opportunity to judge. Stay away from the Slytherins because they’re all slimy racist dictator worshipping snobs, no exceptions. The Erudite faction is so obsessed with knowledge and intelligence, how evil! Granted, this is my two-dimensional summary and the authors did at least expand upon the stereotypes (haven’t read the “Divergent” sequel but people tell me “Insurgent” takes a big step away from the gross anti-intellectualism and violence fetishizing), but those generalisations still exist to some extent in canon. Wouldn’t it have made a huge difference to have even one or two Slytherins stand up and say “I’ll fight with you”? Even in the epilogue, Harry’s unfortunately named child frets over being sorted into Slytherin house – the evil reputation continues long after the death of Voldemort. Those kids still can’t catch a break!

The instant conflict created in the narrative by such divisions amongst the world’s citizens can be an excellent storytelling device. It can also be an incredibly lazy one. I come back to “Divergent” here because honestly, I have no idea how anyone can read that book, look at the factions and think “Sure, make sense”. Separating people based on one vague character trait, from selflessness to honesty to bravery? Leaving those who fail initiation into such a system to fester on the streets with no help whatsoever? Declaring that those who possess more than one of the five character traits to be dangerous divergent dissidents? And Chicago managed to survive with this system? It boggles my mind.

This is one of the big faults with the sorting system for me; it assumes that we as human beings are as simple as the authors decide we should be. Even the most two dimensional character doesn’t fit into such a small box. Tris, the book’s heroine, is pretty dull but to have her special ability be that she’s got more than one character trait is laughable. The fact that the factions system tests their citizens at a predetermined age after a lifetime of living in one faction, allots them to another and then lets them pick their own faction anyway makes no sense from either a storytelling point of view or the rules the book’s world has set out for itself. Never mind the fact that at 16, you have hardly decided what kind of person you’re going to be for the rest of your adolescence, much less the rest of your life. This also applies to Harry Potter, with sorting at 11, and don’t claim it’s excusable because “it’s magic”. Imagine being that age and being sorted into Slytherin, where the entire wizarding world now assumes that you’re a conniving worm with ties to magical terrorists and murderers. It would give you something of a complex, wouldn’t it?

What about those who are factionless? In what way does it make sense for a society seeking order to ignore those who do not pass their vague and nonsensical tests? The real story of that world is about those shoved to the fringes of society getting ready to lead a proper revolution.

Such elements are also tailor made for fandom. From the promotion of “Divergent” to the sorting of Pottermore, it practically opens the door for fans to group together. It’s an easy way to let a reader or viewer into your world in a relatable way.


I think this is a cliché that on its surface level is one of simple human needs. We don’t want to be alone, we don’t want to worry about being directionless in life. The security, the order, the warmth and the escapism of being in a Hogwarts house or a faction or any kind of group we allot ourselves to gives us comfort in a strange way. We know the owl’s never going to arrive and apologise for not turning up when we were 11, but it’s nice to dream. 

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