Pop culture has a weird relationship with poverty. You’d think that geek culture would be pretty good at portraying poverty; we’re seeing more and more strides towards inclusivity and greater representation of all people from all backgrounds. Yet socio-economic issues are heavily charged with politics, and our political beliefs shape the way we perceive reality. They shape the kinds of pop culture media we create, and as David Wong’s recent Cracked article explains, popular culture doesn’t seem to believe that actual, real-world poverty really exists, just a sort of nebulous feeling of being poor while occupying the middle class, and actual financial consequences of a character’s actions aren’t ever really addressed. Most of the time, shows don’t even acknowledge any of the consequences of property damage, let alone address the financial ones. We’re happy when the superhero defeats the monster, but who’s going to pick up the tab now that the city looks like it’s been bombed?
This real lack of proper representation of what it means to live in poverty in our media is at least partially responsible for many political biases against the poor, especially among young people. To put it generally, the influence of pop culture makes younger people more likely to embrace the idea that the poor just need to work harder in order to be not poor, because being not poor is the ultimate goal.
Now, there are a lot of tangled, complex issues when it comes to poverty and its portrayal in geek culture. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot recently, all because of a specific example I came across and previously wrote about. So to show you what I’m talking about, I’m going to show you how that example both supports and fights negative perceptions of poverty in geek culture. Who am I talking about? The Weasley family from the Harry Potter series.
The Weasley family is clearly considered poor by many members of wizarding high society. Many old wizarding “pureblood” families are supposed to be independently wealthy, simply because they’ve been around for a really long time. Pureblood families are the nobility of the wizarding world; the Weasleys are the family with a title but no assets. While other pureblood families treat them with a range of outright contempt (the Malfoys) or are politely cordial (the Crouches), it’s clear that they really don’t fit in with wizarding nobility at all. The family home is a small house quite literally held together by magic. Arthur and Molly have seven children, while all the other pureblood families seem to stop at three, at most. In the first book, Draco Malfoy exclaims, “All Weasleys have red hair, freckles, and more children than they can afford.” Draco’s nasty attitude aptly describes the implications that responsible parenting necessarily means having only as many children as will allow you to maintain an affluent lifestyle, that poor people have nothing better to do with their time than to pop out more babies, and that poor people are too stupid to use birth control. Arthur works at a necessary but minor office in the government, and Molly is a stay at home mom. Arthur’s job isn’t glamorous, but it dovetails nicely with his passion for Muggle artifacts. Molly is an expert homemaker, both frugal and a skilled cook. She buys nearly everything the family needs second-hand, and is able to make sure no one goes hungry.
But we have to remember that the Weasleys are only considered poor by their social peers. Ron spends much of the series trying to overcome his insecurities, some of which come from growing up in a family that other people think is poor. Ron can’t have nice new things whenever he wants them… but only the rich live that luxurious lifestyle. If you take what it means to live in poverty in pretty much any other context, whether or not the Weasleys would actually be living in poverty becomes doubtful. Absolute poverty is a measure of poverty consistent between countries, where people live on anywhere between $1.25 and $2.50 (U.S. dollars) a day. Those who live in this kind of poverty lack very basic human needs, like food, shelter, sanitation, etc. Relative poverty, on the other hand, is dependent on one’s social context. Across all lines, those who live in poverty disproportionately feel the effects of not having enough access to proper food, shelter, education, and a violence-free community.
Food insecurity, when someone doesn’t know where or when they’re going to get their next meal (or enough to eat), is a huge issue for those living in poverty. But it’s never, ever an issue for the Weasleys. When Ron gets on the Hogwarts Express for the first time in the first book, he tells Harry how much he hates the sandwiches his mom packed him, because she never remembers that he doesn’t like corned beef (she does remember in his third year). And yet, in the final book, while the Golden Trio are on
their magical camping trip the hunt for Horcruxes, Ron is the one who has the biggest problem with going hungry, because he’s never had to miss a meal in his life. We’re left to infer that the Weasleys always had enough to eat, that they never had a problem with getting a nice variety of nutritious food.
The Weasley family home is in the nice, beautiful countryside, and while it may be cluttered, it’s very clean and organized. It’s small, but there is enough space for everyone. They never have to worry about any kind of violence or break-ins (at least, not any more than any other wizarding family during a war). Compare this to the Gaunt family home in the sixth book. This pureblood wizarding family lives in a tiny, dirty shack, and Merope Gaunt lives in constant fear of her father’s and brother’s violent outbursts. It’s the antithesis to the Weasley home.
However they manage it, Arthur and Molly are able to send all of their children to school. None are forced to drop out and find a job to help support the family. When Fred and George decide to drop out of school to run their own business, their parents are initially against it. When the twins prove to be wildly successful businessmen, the only canonical mentions of them using any of their profits for the family are in the form of really nice Christmas presents. Ron makes do with a spellotaped wand during his second year, but that’s because he doesn’t ask his parents for a new one. The Weasley parents clearly make sure that the education of their children is one of their top priorities (if not the top priority).
Whether or not the readers are supposed to believe the Weasley family is poor is unclear. They don’t seem to suffer many of the effects of poverty in a significant way, at least through Harry’s perspective. A good argument could be made that they still suffer from relative poverty, because compared to their social peers, they don’t have much money at all. So what happens when a family that doesn’t have as much money as their peers finally comes into some? The question forces us to face many of our own ideas about what it means to be poor and what should be done about poverty.
In the beginning of the third book, Harry learns that the Weasleys won the Daily Prophet Grand Prize Galleon draw, and spend almost all the money on a trip to Egypt. A lot of people in the fandom didn’t see the logic in that decision. Why would the family, which suffers from some kind of income inequality, blow all that money on a trip instead of saving it or investing it? Wouldn’t it have been a smarter decision to help them improve their situation? That certainly would have been more responsible… right? Wouldn’t it have helped them put seven kids through school?
I can appreciate the (usually) charitable attitude behind these questions. Isn’t Hogwarts expensive? It might be—we never find out one way or another if Hogwarts charges tuition, and Harry certainly never has to worry about it because he’s a trust fund baby. We do know there’s a charitable fund for students who can’t afford to go, and that those using it often have to get their supplies second-hand. But I don’t think it makes much sense for the Weasleys to spend that money on school, even if they do get help from the charitable fund.
First, there were only 700 galleons in the prize drawing. If we assume the conversion rate is, as J.K. Rowling has said, about 5 pounds per galleon, that’s 3500 pounds, or using today’s conversion rate of 1.54 US dollars to the pound, about $5,386. That’s not a lot of money, but that’s enough money for a frugal wizarding family to go to visit their son in Egypt. Round trip plane tickets for London to Cairo are about $600, so assuming seven people (Charlie is in Romania and likely meets up with them there, and Bill’s already there) that’s $4200. That’s still $1186 for lodging, food, and a wand for Ron. Second, the family might be staying with Bill, who makes a decent salary working as a curse breaker for Gringotts, as well as receiving a cut of whatever treasure he “liberates” from the tombs. But the family probably isn’t spending $4200 on airfare, because they’re wizards. They have other means of travel, like the Floo Network or a Portkey. We don’t know how much these cost, but it’s possible that they’re free with Arthur’s government connections. Bill gives them a tour of the tombs himself, so that doesn’t necessarily cost anything. Molly is a genius when it comes to making food stretch, so those costs are down. So some frugal wizards could reasonably make a trip to Egypt work on that money.
Furthermore, a trip to Egypt is actually the most sensible option for the Weasley family. This family has probably never been on a real vacation in their lives. The prize money is a windfall, and they treat it like a windfall. They go on a trip that lets them visit their son (whom they rarely get to see) and lets him show them what he does for a living. It’s certainly educational, experiencing another culture and learning about ancient wizarding history. Molly probably had the family budget all planned out to a T, and with five kids in school at Hogwarts it’s not likely $5000 would really make that much of a difference. Yes, the Weasleys won the lottery, but it’s not like it was $100,000 or $50,000 or even $10,000. It’s not enough to make a long-term difference in their financial situation, so they decide to use it in a way that’s in line with their most important values: family and their children’s education.
Beyond actually doing the math, we have to remember this situation’s context in the story. The windfall comes during the summer before Harry’s third year at Hogwarts. What did he and Ron just spend the last few days of their second year doing? Rescuing Ginny Weasley from Tom Riddle’s clutches in the Chamber of Secrets. This family nearly lost their youngest child, and for people who put such a premium on family, why wouldn’t they want to spend some quality time together making some memories that would last a lifetime? No one could say that they don’t deserve it.
Even though the Weasleys may or may not be actually living in poverty, that many characters think that they do, and many readers think so too, is key. The fact that so many people think the Weasleys are poor is a double-edged sword. On one hand, a poor Weasley family helps people understand that family and love are more important than money and status. The Weasleys’ decision to go to Egypt instead of investing their lottery winnings stands as a strong argument against the idea that poor people need to do everything they can to improve their financial situation, at all costs. Affluency doesn’t have to be the most important thing in life. They’re also positive example of a large family, something generally lacking in most of our media today. They show us that you don’t have to be wealthy to be happy, and in our over-saturated consumerist society, buying things second-hand is okay. On the other hand, a poor Weasley family obscures many of the real issues faced by those living in poverty, such as food insecurity, safety, and choosing between staying in school or supporting your family. We need more accurate portrayals of poverty in our culture, and geek culture is a great place to start. It’s only when we start seeing and understanding the realities of poverty that we’ll be able to start having better conversations about all the things we can do to alleviate the problem of poverty in our world.