Look, I wasn’t going to write this as I’m not sure that anyone but me sees this as a big issue, but after seeing the trailer for the new JK Rowling movie ‘Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them’, my ire rose again and I could restrain myself no longer.
What is it that’s got my goat, you may ask? Plain and simply, it’s the term ‘Muggle’.
In the trailer, it appears as if the protagonist is trying to smuggle a live creature through Customs in a suitcase, because he’s the hero, right? He flips a switch on the case, a little ‘Muggle-worthy’ sign pops up, and the thick, grumpy Customs inspector is fooled when he opens it to see merely clothes, rather than a dangerous magical creature that could possibly cause chaos or bring weird diseases into his country. Hurrah!
I know what you’re thinking; “Aww, you silly Viking, it’s just a word that describes non-magical folk. It’s not derogatory, it’s meant in an affectionate way!”
Is it, though?
According to JK Rowling, the word ‘Muggle’ is derived from the word ‘mug’ (British slang for a gullible person) with the extra syllable added to the end to make it sound more “cuddly”, suggesting both foolishness and loveability. And the Harry Potter Wiki states:
“The term ‘Muggle’ is widely used in the wizarding world, and, while it could be considered derogatory, generally is not intended to be offensive; in fact, it is often used affectionately.”
And this is where I call bollocks.
Lets’ take those two statements – it’s meant affectionately, and it’s supposed to sound loveable and cuddly – and apply them to the Muggle characters in the Harry Potter world.
The most prominent Muggles are, of course, the Dursleys. Harry’s only living relatives are portrayed as abusive, uncaring and mean, constantly shouting at him, treating him like a slave and forcing him to live in the cupboard under the stairs until he was eleven years old. So do you feel affectionate towards them, or want to give them all a big old smoochy cuddle? Hardly!
In fact, in the Harry Potter series of movies, Muggles are routinely portrayed as rather thick, often grumpy and generally unlikeable, such as the guard on the Kings Cross platform, or the Muggle caretaker killed by Voldemort in ‘Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire”. While Arthur Weasley seems to have some affection towards Muggles, describing them as ‘ingenious’, we’re never really shown their good side, and they’re often seen more as a hindrance. For example, in ‘Harry Potter & The Sorceror’s Stone’ Molly Weasley grumbles “It’s the same year after year, always packed with Muggles of course,” a sentiment which would have made Voldemort proud, had he heard it.
“But Ragnhild,” I hear you cry, “What about Hermione’s Muggle parents? They were nice!”
Yes, they were. And that’s why they only have fleeting, non-speaking roles in the movies.
But maybe I’m being a bit harsh here. Perhaps the characters just don’t understand that creating and using a name to describe a group of people could be considered derogative, and it’s all just harmless everyday language to them?
Well, no, because the minute Hermione gets called a Mudblood, all fucking hell breaks loose. She describes it as a ‘really foul name for someone who is Muggle-born’, and even resorts to physical violence by punching Malfoy on the nose when he uses it against her, an act she’s subsequently congratulated and praised for.
So it seems to be that wizards are quite happy to slur anyone outside their world, but get the right royal hump when they’re slurred by a member of their own community? Hmm, I sense a bit of a double standard.
You can tell me that I’m taking this way too seriously, that it’s only a silly word used in a work of fiction, and you’d be right. But the fact of the matter is that ‘Muggle’ has progressed beyond the books, and has slipped unnoticed into our own vocabulary.
In 2003, it was officially entered into the Oxford Dictionary with this definition:
And Wikipedia states that:
“The word muggle, or muggles, is now used in various contexts in which its meaning is similar to the sense in which it appears in the Harry Potter book series. Generally speaking, it is used by members of a group to describe those outside the group, comparable to civilian as used by military personnel.”
And really, is this okay?
If you look around the interwebs, there are various Muggle mentions that aren’t particularly favourable.
This BBC page about geocaching, for example, includes the quote:
“His only worry today is being spotted by a non-geocacher or muggle.
Muggles do not understand: “They haven’t found the magic yet,” says Solomon.”
This clothing website has this confusing Christmas jumper offering, obviously meant as a joke because, ha ha, it’s the season of goodwill so I’m going to…insult you? Or is it saying you’re a Muggle because you don’t believe in Christmas? It’s a mystery:
And The Economist published this article stating:
“Fernando is what some call a Muggle: a Welsh speaker with zero Welsh blood”
Pretty sure that actually makes him more of a Mudblood, but what the hell, Mudblood isn’t in the dictionary yet!
And to me, this is the root of problem. JK Rowling has, perhaps inadvertently, set a standard whereby it’s now perfectly fine to label people, with the caveat that it’s ‘just for fun’ and not meant in a derogatory sense. But no matter how you look at it, of course it’s derogatory. Would you be happy if someone referred to you as a Muggle because you lack skills or aren’t part of a particular group?
For me, Kevin Murphy at RiffTrax summed it up with one quote, following Hagrid’s explanation to Harry of what constitutes a Muggle. Kevin says:
“You see Harry, when a group of people is different it helps to come up with a funny-sounding word, or slur, to describe them.”
And that’s it in a nut-shell.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go and see what all the non-Viking folk are up to before I start ranting about the term ‘Squib’!