Pottermania: Capitalist Eye-Candy Viewed Through a Neo-Marxist Lens
“Beware: Capitalist-Consumerism poses a danger to our Socialist ideals,” the Soviet-propaganda papers such as Pravdaand Izvestyahad proclaimed since the harrowing days of the Cold War. But by the early 1990s, the evergreen motto of the USSR, “We have everything,” had been supplanted for a new post-communist mantra: “Everything can be bought for money.” The hard currency shops in the USSR that exclusively catered to foreign visitors had finally lifted the iron curtain for their own citizens. Arbat Irish House, one of Moscow’s first Western-style grocery stores, became a local Disneyland. On a frosty winter’s morning in the early 1990s, as my mother and I walked into the supermarket on Novy Arbat Avenue (the former showpiece of Soviet design located in downtown Moscow), I was surprised to see a vast store jammed with shoppers, the majority of whom, due to astronomical price tags, were strolling along with empty carts and curious eyes.
“You can look but you can’t touch. It’s our new capitalist eye-candy — a make-believe,” my mother explained. But none of these bizarre words (other than a brief mention of “candy” that momentarily sparked my attention) made sense to my nine-year-old self, until she clarified: “This is Disney for Soviets.”
Although the shelves were no longer empty, the term consumerism continued to sound tantalizingly exotic to our post-communist ears. A distant capitalist illusion implied by formerly banned Western commodities, aspirations, and ideals served my generation as a colorful escape from the mundane reality, providing us with a faint glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
Capitalism, along with a novel concept of mass-consumerism, was readily accepted as the answer to our nation’s decades-long prayer for a democratic Russia. In our collective pursuit of the American dream, we swapped the worn-out socialist system for a glossy capitalist alternative, thus unknowingly replacing one ideological “ism” for another. Little did we realize at the time that these “isms” are potentially capable of producing side-effects of their own, including consumerist “-manias” that can boast uncanny resemblance to societal repercussions experienced under Soviet mass-authoritarianism.
In “Pottermania: Good, Clean Fun or Cultural Hegemony?” Tammy Turner-Vorbeck employs the viewpoint of one of the ultimate critics of Capitalism, Karl Marx, setting forth the Marxist-Socialist belief that Capitalism is the exploitative evil that deprives the individual of the right to introduce alternative ideas through its idealogical control system. She attempts to analyze a global capitalist phenomenon of Pottermania that has taken the world (including the former USSR) by storm through a Neo-Marxist lens. As part of her tri-fold project, the author incorporates theories of Neo-Marxism and Capitalism into her academic analysis seen through a “maternal” lens vividly reflected in her subjectively-driven point of view.
Turner-Vorbeck starts off by delving into the fetishism of commodities and the commodification of childhood, while exploring the parental struggle to cultivate children’s resistance to popular consumerism through literary criticism and media literacy. The author demonstrates how Western capitalist corporations have effectively managed to manipulate children through this Time Warner-funded phenomenon, which has successfully replaced the fantasyland previously “sold” by Disney. She argues that marketing tricks are meant to “carefully orchestrate manipulation of identity and desires in order to produce the obedient child shoppers of today and the consummate consumers of the future” (p. 330). Turner-Vorbeck is, therefore, implying that these marketing machines have gradually transformed children into obedient robots that are submissively giving into the cleverly executed promotional logos and mantras, and as a result, are becoming increasingly effected by and dependent on them.
While expressing a sentiment of sociocultural relevance not merely as a scholar but also as a mother with a clear maternal project, Turner-Vorbeck explicitly laments (among other lingering side-effects of Capitalism) the lack of cultural literacy and sociocultural freedom of her neo-consumerist child. Halfway through her analysis, we discover that at the heart of her maternal project lies the author’s own neo-consumerist daughter. This third-grader, as we learn from her concerned mother, has been directly affected by the manipulative and self-serving narrative of spectacular capitalism promoted by the mega-conglomerate behind Harry Potter.
Turner-Vorbeck vividly recounts her daughter’s first introduction to Harry Potter: “She sat down to read the book with the images from the advertising, the commercials, the movie, and the product spin-offs all swirling around in her mind, creating even more anticipation. She then emerged within 30 minutes from her bedroom to announce to her parents that the book was nothing like she expected” (p. 337). The author goes on to openly label Pottermania as a mass-marketed “manufactured cultural product” that, aside from “exercising control over the fading imagination of children” also represents the product’s “infringement upon and control over the objects of child culture” (p. 336).
One could speculate about the nature of these vaguely referenced “objects” of childhood, but it is not clear whether the manufactured objects of “cultural product” are entirely separate from the “objects of child culture” that she is lamenting. It is possible to view the two interchangeably, as a modern-day offspring inevitably comes into the world as a ready-made consumerist of a variety of objects of cultural product, whether it be toys, books, water bottles, strollers or other essentials of every child’s daily life.
Viewed through a contrasting lens of a post-Soviet mother in a Western-style supermarket, Turner-Vorbeck’s proposed Capitalist “infringement upon and control over the objects of child culture” is an equally problematic issue in the post-communist climate, whereby the mother considers her deprived child to be a direct victim of the “infringement” and “control” of the Neo-Marxist world that bans that, which Turner-Vorbeck is hinting at being tempted to ban for her own daughter. Is this a clear example that grass is, indeed, greener on the other side?
Although Turner-Vorbeck primarily structures her argument as a direct criticism of capitalist-driven consumerism, she is equally vocal about the relevance of the issue that can be expanded across a variety of current products in the marketplace. She proceeds to denounce all forms of consumerist “isms” that produce “mass-manias” manufactured by present-day capitalist conglomerates, by no means limited to the books and merchandize of Harry Potter.
As history has effectively demonstrated, a variety of “isms” (whether it be Marxism, Socialism, or Capitalism) that try to encapsulate ideologies, shape social attitude measurements, and offer society an illusion of a well-defined identity may pose a problem, regardless of the political domain these beliefs originally stem from. The very essence of an “ism” entails a slightly negative connotation that can automatically be associated with absolute “authoritarian” power control, thus placing any society at odds with standard norms promoted by the given ideological system.
The failed Marxist/anti-consumerist system of the Soviet regime serves as a relatively recent historical example of the fact that such authoritarian approach can potentially produce hierarchical discrimination and result in deprivation of both children and adults. Inevitably, my mother’s words—“You can look but you can’t touch”—spring to mind. It was the desire for the forbidden that fueled my curiosity about the very objects which my mother told me I wasn’t allowed to touch, thus resulting in my deeply-rooted longing for the forbidden Americanisms of the Capitalist world.
Turner-Vorbeck quotes Henry Giroux’s book Stealing Innocence, where the latterwarns that consumerism is the only type of “citizenship that adult society offers to children,” which in turn can hold “significant implications” not only for the complex relationship between children and adults, but can also play a vital role in the formation of the “future of our society as a whole” (Giroux, 2000, p. 19; qtd in T. Turner-Vorbeck, p. 333). Regrettably, Turner-Vorbeck leaves the reader guessing as to what these “significant implications” may be, but we can speculate that what Giroux is referring to are the potential implications of producing a generation that is largely driven and heavily motivated by consumerism, surpassing all other components of existence that have the potential to pale next to this governing “citizenship.”
In effectively identifying and explicitly demonstrating the problem—consumerism that stems from, what Turner-Vorbeck perceives to be, the evil system of capitalism—she skillfully attempts to plant the ultimate seed of fear in the psyche of her reader. However, the author does not follow through with clearly defined directions as to how our modern society and today’s parents in particular are meant to act when faced with the issue. Instead, she poses a seemingly rhetorical question, “As adults, the parents, teachers, guardians, and neighbors of our children, we have a responsibility to be aware of this phenomenon, but what can be done about it?” (p. 337). Alas, the author leaves her reader in limbo. We are, as it turns out, left to our own devices to make sense of this freshly-opened can of worms without a definitive solution or guidance.
If the reader is to interpret the essay as a mere expression of the author’s disapproval, condemning the movement and negative implications of Pottermania, we may be misled to assume that the sole purpose of the piece is to point the finger at evil marketing strategies of the phenomenon. Contrary to one’s initial impression, Tammy Turner-Vorbeck’s “Pottermania: Good, Clean Fun or Cultural Hegemony?” is not meant to propose a solution. Her “maternal” mission, as the reader eventually discovers, is strictly limited to raising awareness about an undeniably relevant issue that goes beyond the realm of ramifications of a seemingly innocuous book character (p. 339).
But to what extent are we simply meant to be passively aware of the fear of these “isms” implanted by Turner-Vorbeck, without being offered, if not a solution, at the very least a universal call for specific action? If abstinence is the answer, the opposite end of the capitalist “stick” (as seen through the turbulent history of one such anti-consumerist nation, the USSR), may well be a partial — if not complete — mass-deprivation. While reading “Pottermania” through a Neo-Marxist lens, the reader wonders whether the author is actively encouraging our society to follow down the path of anti-consumerism, and therefore pursue Marxism. But does abandoning one “ism” in exchange for another offer a healthy solution to the problem?
The Soviet mother of a post-Soviet child would argue that pursuing the path of the former communist country’s mass-deprivation in the name of mass-equality and rebellion against the “evil” Western Capitalist world is not the answer. On the contrary, this Neo-Marxist spin could produce further deterioration of the existing problem on a deeper level in a potentially irreversible way. The end result could be “You can’t look and you can’t touch,” as there would be little, if anything, left to admire even as mere eye-candy.
Upon close reading of the essay, it becomes apparent that whether we analyze Pottermania as an offspring of the Capitalist haven or utilize the Neo-Marxist perspectives to dissect the communist approach of mass-deprival, underneath it all, we are likely to unveil an issue more complex than Harry Potter and the marketing media giant behind the global phenomenon. Could it be our society’s deeply-rooted dependence on philosophical “isms” that often times results in a collective consumerist “-mania” as an organizing system that inevitably bonds and ultimately (albeit indirectly) corrupts the society?
Turner-Vorbeck, Tammy. (2003). Pottermania: Good, clean fun or cultural hegemony? In E.E.Heilman (Ed.), Harry Potter’s world: Multidisciplinary critical perspectives (pp. 13–24). New York: Routledge Falmer.