Sexualized Saturdays: James Potter, Rape Culture, and Unhealthy Relationships

I’ve never been a big fan of James Potter’s character. Part of that, I’m sure, is colored by my love for Severus Snape, so I’ve always thought of myself as a little biased when it comes to this issue. It also doesn’t help that the fandom as a whole seems to be split down the middle when it comes to both James and Severus—I can’t find many people online who either passionately hate or passionately love both of them. A lot of fans tend to hate one and love the other, as if they have to choose a side for some reason.

The_MaraudersI’ll admit that I’m also guilty of this. Snape is my favorite character, and after reading the fifth book, for the longest time, I loathed James Potter. However, in recent years, as I’ve come to terms with the more problematic aspects of Snape’s character, I got to thinking that I should give James another chance. Unfortunately, even then, something about James still struck me the wrong way. Despite being a widely popular character among fans, we don’t know all that much about James outside what we are told by other characters—it’s hard to say whether or not he was even a good person—and what we do know about him is that for much of his life he valued ideals that reinforced toxic masculinity.

James Potter has a lot of likable traits to go along with the things about him I hate. To start, we know that he’s more than capable of kindness, compassion, and empathy. The way he treats Lupin—accepting him as a friend, becoming an animagus for him, and later in life supporting him financially—tells me that James Potter is, deep down, at least a semi-decent person. He joins the Order of the Phoenix and fights in a war against a power-corrupt wizard hellbent on killing Muggle-borns, because despite being a privileged pureblood, he doesn’t believe in pureblood supremacy, and he also gives his life trying to save his wife and child.

Unfortunately, the good things he does do not excuse the bad. One of the few times we see James Potter, he sexually assaults someone and uses that assault to coerce a girl he likes to go out with him.

We don’t know a whole lot about James’s childhood outside his relationship to the other Marauders, but we do know that he was a bully. Potentially as a result of an incredibly pampered upbringing, James was rather arrogant and boastful at Hogwarts, and we know that he used to hex other students just because he could. On the Hogwarts Express,  James meets Lily and Snape and begins an antagonistic relationship with the latter.

It’s in James’s fifth year during O.W.L.S. that we really get to see what kind of person he used to be. After taking a test, he and Sirius corner Snape, and they hex him multiple times. At one point they fill Snape’s mouth with bubbles, choking him, and then using the Levicorpus spell, James levitates him into the air and exposes his underwear to the whole school. James even threatens to remove his underwear and expose him further, and the scene ends before we find out if James followed through on that threat. I’ve seen a lot of people defend James’s actions here, and the level of rape apologia astounds me. Other fans have pointed out, in James’s defense, that James is only fifteen at the time, that Snape is the one who invented the spell in the first place, that Snape is hardly an innocent person, and that James eventually grew out of being a bully. I’ve also seen people claim this cannot be sexual assault because James is not sexually attracted to Snape.

Still not sure why he wasn't expelled.

Still not sure why he wasn’t expelled.

However, those things don’t change what James did. Fifteen might be a young age, but it is more than old enough to know better, and Snape’s actions, whether or good or bad, do not excuse James’s. Snape may have invented the spell, but that doesn’t change the fact that James used it to sexually assault someone. And no, James lacking attraction to Snape doesn’t make this less of a sexual assault. James’s own personal desires have no impact on the fact that he forcefully exposed another person against that person’s will. Making matters worse, James also attempted to coerce Lily into going out with him at the same time. When Lily stands up to James and demands that he leave Snape alone, James responds that he will, but only on the condition that Lily date him.

“You think you’re funny,” [Lily] said coldly. “But you’re just an arrogant, bullying toerag, Potter. Leave him alone.”

“I will if you go out with me, Evans,” James said quickly. “Go on… Go out with me, and I’ll never lay a wand on old Snivelly again.”

Order of the Phoenix, pg. 647

When Lily still refuses and continues demanding that James stop what he’s doing, James then “earnestly” says, “Ah, Evans, don’t make me hex you.” The entire conversation is unnerving on a number of levels. In this scene, James is displaying abuser characteristics—not only is he taking joy from causing someone else pain and humiliation, he’s attempting to manipulate and coerce his love interest, as well as blame her for his potentially hurting her. James says that one of the reasons he attacked Snape is because Snape “exists”, but we also know that he doesn’t like Snape due to his friendship with Lily, the object of James’s affections. This is controlling and jealous behavior typical of toxic masculinity, and when Snape insults Lily by calling her a Mudblood, James takes it upon himself to act chivalrous and threatens Snape if he doesn’t apologize, despite what Lily says or wants.

Unfortunately, other than this scene, just about every account we get about James is from a biased source. Snape tells us that he’s an absolutely horrible person, while Remus and Sirius talk about him from a completely opposite view. Whether or not James continued being a horrible person is left entirely up to the reader’s interpretation.

Many fans extrapolate that James must have matured over time. After all, we know that the year following the assault, James eventually saved Snape’s life. We also know that he marries Lily, and it’s hard to imagine that Lily would have started a relationship with him had James still been bullying and hexing people. All the same, though, it’s just as easy to extrapolate that James never grew up and continued doing horrible things. We find out from Remus and Sirius that Lily only started dating James after James stopped hexing other people, but that “other people” doesn’t include Snape. James continued targeting him unbeknownst to Lily—Remus and Sirius tell us that after James stopped hexing people, Snape was still a “special case”, and that Lily didn’t know about it because James didn’t “jinx him in front of her”. Furthermore, we also don’t know the reason why James saved Snape’s life during their sixth year. Was it because he didn’t want Remus to go to Azkaban? Because he genuinely didn’t want Snape to die? Because he finally realized that Sirius had gone too far? Was it a mixture of all three of these things, or some other reason entirely?

According to Pottermore, when Lily took James to meet Petunia and Vernon, his actions at the time caused Lily to break down crying, which is not a sign of a healthy relationship. In James’s defense here, I think it’s also possible and more than likely that Petunia’s and Vernon’s actions also contributed to Lily’s breakdown—but that still doesn’t excuse his own actions. James was amused by Vernon, and it showed: he bragged all about his racing broom and gold fortune. His desire to show off here is yet another display of James’s ego getting the best of him.

This actor is not twenty-one.

This actor is not twenty-one.

I do think it’s entirely possible that James did become a better person before he died, but I also think it’s important to point out that he died at the age of twenty-one, which is not that old. Very few people reach the age of twenty-one having grown out of all their teenage immaturity. When I was twenty-one, I was much more mature than my fifteen-year-old self and was able to reflect back on a lot of the bad things I had done, but most certainly, not enough time had passed to really distance myself from those things, and I believe the same has to have been true for James. Furthermore, the things James did are by far much worse and significantly more immature and self-centered that most other fifteen-year-olds. This is also why I personally find his character problematic and really uncomfortable to talk about at times, and I tend to distance myself from reblogging things on Tumblr about him and the other Marauders having oh-so-wacky fun at Hogwarts.

As a character, I don’t think James is bad. I think he’s really important and very easily could have been layered and fleshed out more. James Potter’s character teaches us a valuable lesson on perception and the people we look up to not being who they seem. While James could have become a better person, he could have just as easily not have and continued to emotionally abuse Lily and victimize others. I think that if J.K. Rowling wanted us to know for sure whether or not James truly got better as a person, she should have included more in the writing to show that. She should have included more scenes of James maturing and subverting toxic masculinity ideals. As it is though, we only have a handful of biased accounts to go by.

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12 thoughts on “Sexualized Saturdays: James Potter, Rape Culture, and Unhealthy Relationships

  1. The particular scene that is the most problematic has always interested me in terms of what it reveals about one of my favorite characters, Remus Lupin. Of the Marauders, he’s the only one who doesn’t seem to get in on the terrorizing (or, at very least, not as much), and he remains relatively aloof during it. He could have tried to stop it, sure, but at least he wasn’t as directly involved as the others. I suspect that’s why, in Prisoner of Azkaban, Snape and Lupin have an at-least sourly cordial (!?!) relationship, and why Snape helps him out with potions to ease his lycanthropic difficulties, etc.

  2. Um, yeah. After this scene, I had a hard time believing how he could have deserved someone like Lily, or that Lily never held that part of their teen hood against James even when they fell in love. You’d think James and Severus would be at each other’s throats equally but we only ever saw an example of how James was the bully to him, not the latter. So ya can’t fault Snape for treating Harry as he does, though you can’t credit him for growing past it either.

    • I do totally hardcore fault Snape for how he treats Harry–since not only is Harry a child, he’s also not James. As he looks exactly like James, I don’t blame Snape for having a hard time handling his own emotional trauma, since Harry is a reminder of all that, but I definitely think Snape should have reigned himself in more. The way he treats the all the students, not just Harry, is downright abusive.

    • I suspect JK Rowling went too far in writing James as a horrific abuser — an abuser of one’s peers at schools is what a bully is — in order to explain why Snape is so awful toward Harry and other Gryffindors, not to excuse or justify but so that we are satisfied that Snape isn’t “just that way” “for no reason”. I think she also wanted to show that the people we idolize aren’t always perfect, and that many of the adults in Harry Potter’s world are severely flawed – Snape is forever stuck in the past, and everyone who praises James for his heroics when protecting his son and “defeating Voldemort” may be conveniently forgetting bad stuff too, not to mention people like McGonagall and Hagrid and Mrs. Figg allowing Harry to be raised in a horrifically abusive environment… etc. Anyway I think JK Rowling had one thing in mind.

      The thing is, we got to know and love Remus and Sirius, and fanfiction creates lovable versions of the entire “Marauders” era, because there are so many “What ifs” that are fascinating to explore there. Because if Sirius and Remus, ultimately, become such good people and they were legitimately friends with James, how bad could James really be? Most of us don’t relate to having a friend who is a horrible abusive person but whom we still praise decades later. Fanfiction takes on a mind of its own when it comes to deciding who James really was, and part of the fun of fandom is “fixing” canon, or finding a way to yes, excuse horrible acts a character did in order to justify it with the rest of what we want to accept. Edward only stalks Bella in an abusive way in Twilight because he’s a vampire and things are different for vampires than for human men. This or that is okay in this or that universe because all of the rules are different. Hexes aren’t seen as the same as actual real physical assault because Hexes aren’t a real thing in our everyday lives, and maybe just everything is exaggerated in the Harry Potter universe. Also, given such limited scenes about James, it’s easy for vast numbers of people to not re-read them often enough and to have read many thousands of words more fanfiction about James than words in the actual story, which skews our perceptions of James’ characterization.

      I grew up reading the Harry Potter books, and I wasn’t determinedly pitting James vs. Snape against each other in my head, I didn’t really care that much about either character, even if I did read meta (no fanfiction, just meta) after the 6th book and feel sure Snape was “good” all along and hadn’t betrayed Dumbledore. I ended up being “right”, but also learning years later that maybe him loving Lily all along, that fan theory being proven right, didn’t actually make him “good” in the end, didn’t actually justify anything.

      I stumbled upon James/Lily & Marauders fanfiction as my first forray into Harry Potter fanfiction too. I was reading Gilmore Girls fanfiction, not in the HP Fanfic world at all, but one of my favorite authors also wrote for James/Lily and James/Sirius/Remus(/maybe a little Peter), and I got sucked in to their lovable versions of the characters. It skewed my views to be more pro-James and more anti-Snape, especially if Lily had to choose between the two. Because we saw more proof of all that was wrong with Snape throughout all 7 books, of how he hadn’t properly matured. And with James, so much was left up to our imaginations.

      • A lot of the problematic elements of Hogwartz life seem to stem from conventions in British childrens’ fantasy literature. Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis’s boarding schools were also portrayed as abusive environments. (Dahl’s accounts were particularly horrific)
        In general, many of the problematic issues in Harry Potter were partially because of certain “whimsical” elements that were included in the early books for atmosphere, but then as the audience grew up with the books, their place in the world-building, and the exploration of their implications when taken seriously, revealed how little sense those elements make outside of a whimsical fantasy setting.

        (Note that this doesn’t excuse the problems. Part of the point of critiquing is to question why these traditional fantasy elements are portrayed as such, their spiky bits hand-waved away, or how they grew out of systemic inequalities. But I do think it should be noted how much of the original Harry Potter premises, like his childhood with the Dursleys, or Snape as the unfair professor, comes from a greater context than just Rowling.)

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  5. I think you make a good point and actually I do believe Snape was the better person. His treatment of Harry certainly can’t be ignored, but Ron tells Harry (Ron was told by Fred and George) that Snape favours the Slytherins. Hermione is treated quite badly by Snape as well, simply because she knows a lot.
    Added to that, I feel that Snape was a good deatheater

  6. I’m on the other side here: I like James and hate Snape.

    Firstly, why I don’t like Snape: I don’t think that James being horrible to him justifies anything Snape has done. He’s an interesting character for sure, but not a good one, at least for me. I could go on on all the bad things he’s done, but I’m sure you know.

    Now, I know we don’t know much about James, so it’s difficult to really say anything about him, but I think that from what we do know it’s safe to say he was a good person after all – you called it “semi-decent” here, but I’m sure he was more than that.

    However, I don’t have any apology for how he bahaved towards Snape in his fifth year, he really was horrible. Where I want to defend him though, are the other two points you made here – mocking Vernon and still hexing Snape even after he stopped to do so to other people. So, bragging about his broom was a reaction to Vernon’s patronizing question about his car – and to be honest, I think that’s hilarious. I know it made Lily upset, but after knowing what kind of people Vernon and Petunia Dursley were, I really can’t blame James for behaving this way. As for hexing Snape, Lupin specifically said that Snape didn’t miss an opportunity to hex James, so James could hardly leave it be, could he? At least in the later years, it wasn’t just one-sided bullying.

    I really wish Rowling gave us more information about James so we didn’t have to presume this much, but I hope that if she did, it would confirm my thoughts about him, and that he really wasn’t bad person.

    (I’m sure there are many grammatical mistakes in my comment, so sorry about that, I’m not a native speaker.)

  7. The one thing that bugs me is that everyone gets the “rescue” and the “worst memory” scenes back to front.
    Go back and check the book, when James tortured Snape he’d already “saved” Snape from Lupin, that was months prior to this, so he clearly didn’t mature after his act of “heroism”.
    It gives a lot of weight to Snape’s claim that James was only saving the Marauders and wasn’t helping Snape at all.

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