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'Harry Potter' Phenomenon Exposes a Nation of Dweebs

November 26, 2001|HANK STUEVER | THE WASHINGTON POST

"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" ka-chinged itself to $188 million in box-office receipts in 10 days, proving the entire nation to be officially, helplessly besotted.

Young and old--we all love Harry. All that magic! All that imagination!

Enough. Here is a warning flare that is long overdue:

America, your kids have become major dweebs.

This has to be said quickly, before the apparently also hotly anticipated movie version of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" comes out next month.

The crisis is rooted in a decade of geek ascendancy: We spent the 1990s worshiping the techno-barons--Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos. People went to fertility clinics and demanded nerd sperm--they wanted genuine seed from MIT engineers, Nobel-nominated scientists, concert pianists.

We told our children that it was best to be smart, kind, open-minded--and yes, that was a good thing. We encouraged their obsessions with dinosaurs, planetary physics, recycling, the trombone, mathletics, Achievement Camp. But it went too far. Is it any wonder that today, when kids come out so incredibly dorky, Harry Potter would be the 21st century version of cool?

First, let's not miss a chance to blame England. The empire strikes back: It's now perfectly OK to show up to school wearing round tape-fixed glasses and a wizard's cape, waving a wand and talking in a precocious British accent about Hogwarts and Muggles and Quidditch. And get this--you will not be pummeled at the first bell of recess. In fact, you'll be joined by the rest of your classmates. You will all run around the safety-tested jungle gym doing battle with imaginary trolls, pretending to fly on your broomsticks.

Where are the kids who are supposed to be beating up the kids who like Harry Potter? Where are the kids who don't like to read?

To review and watch the enthusiastic press coverage of the Harry Potter-izing of America, you would believe that author J.K. Rowling's books have saved us from nearly toppling into a pit of illiteracy.

Rather than simply being viewed as successful novels for children, the Harry Potter books are credited with getting children to read, welcomed into the curricula, fetishized at Halloween. The movie's premiere was seen as a perfect excuse to sign the kids out of school for the day

No one seems concerned that these kids are reading the same four Harry Potter books over and over and over, which can't last forever. Even Nancy Drew peters out when readers hit a certain age.

But back to the problem: What to do with a nation of little nerds running around with capes and wands? Is there a coolness shortage coming?

Yes. Kids who are this self-satisfied and fairy tale-obsessed cannot be good news for the future of angry art, biting comedy or radical politics.

Let's also not miss a chance to blame the baby boomers, who gave birth to Generation Harry.

Rowling's epic is just a metaphor for what happens when you are taken out of your humdrum, average environment and put into the "gifted" category; Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, after all is said and done, appears to be just another under-integrated private school in the suburbs.

Generation Harry consists of the babies who, still womb-bound, were played Chopin through Walkman headphones stretched across Mommy's belly. These are the kids whose nannies spoke French. They're told again and again that nobody is like them and, yet, that everyone is important.

They each identify with Harry. Hence a nation of behaved, oddly irritating children who all look and talk less like the punks of tomorrow and more like aspiring members of the youth orchestra, winners of the science fair.

What makes "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" so much more of a rare event to our culture than "Return of the Jedi" is that it's meant for smart kids. The movie's penultimate action sequence involves a giant chess match. It has a vocabulary that demands attentiveness to detail. It's boring.

It's huge.

Adults also like Harry Potter, which possibly undoes the last four decades of rebellion-based youth culture. America's dweeb offspring have grown up in households where the parents are desperate consumers of mass culture.

These are the households that propelled "The Beatles 1" to the top of the charts last year; they're raising four-eyed overachievers who preach Rowling's updated version of "All You Need Is Love."

Generation Harry has waved its wand at old concepts of elitism, popularity and unattainable sexiness and dispensed it in a cloud of smoke.

"But have you read the books?" adults keep imploring the cynical few.

Sorry. Much too busy trying to peel the Oprah sticker off my copy of "The Corrections." The next grown-up caught promoting Harry Potter to the rest of us better be ready to meet outside, after school, by the playground fence. Harry Potter is about a lot of things, and most of all he's about needing his butt kicked.

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