Book review

Playing Harry Potter: Essays and interviews on fandom and performance, edited by Lisa S. Brenner

Abigail De Kosnik

University of California, Berkeley, California, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Cosplay; Digital performance; Fan performance; Fan studies; Performance studies; Performance theory; Quidditch; Role-playing games

De Kosnik, Abigail. 2016. Playing Harry Potter: Essays and Interviews on Fandom and Performance, edited by Lisa S. Brenner [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 22.

Lisa S. Brenner, editor. Playing Harry Potter: Essays and interviews on fandom and performance. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015, paperback, $29.95 (238p) ISBN 978-0-7864-9657-0, e-book $14.43 (5374 KB) ISBN 978-1-4766-2136-4, ASIN B012E9G0R6.

[1] The contributors to Playing Harry Potter do fan scholars a valuable service by documenting a wide range of fan performance styles and genres that have emerged from the highly productive Harry Potter fandom. Some chapters offer detailed descriptions and theoretical analyses, some present authors' first-person accounts, and some offer authors' interviews with performers. The detailed renderings of a diversity of off-line and online fannish creativity makes this volume a rich resource for fan studies scholars, especially those who situate their work within the field of performance studies and/or engage deeply with performance theory.

[2] One mode of fan performance is costume play, known as cosplay, and this book represents cosplayers and cosplaying practices thoroughly. Lisa S. Brenner's chapter "Do Clothes Make the Man?" considers the significance of gender bending in cosplay; it includes an interview with Droxy Yaxley, who is perhaps best known for cosplaying Snape to great acclaim at fan conventions. Yaxley gives a costumer's perspective on the importance of theater makeup, how one decides on which character to play, and what her experience has been playing male characters in the Harry Potter fandom. Yaxley's comments on how she assumes male privilege when she is enacting Snape comprise one of the most memorable sections of the book. Costumes and other theatrical devices, such as props, also play a prominent role in other chapters, such as Stevi Costa's essay "Accio Burlesque! Performing Potter Fandom through 'Nerdlesque,'" and Sandy Peterson's "Talismans as Performative Devices of Resistance for Harry Potter Fans." Costa and Peterson both foreground what Peterson calls fans' "embodied knowledge" (133) and the ways in which fan performers resist the authority of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, as well as social norms and conventions, through their specially staged physical actions. Both authors also frame Harry Potter fans' performances not as merely critical but rather as productive and generative—empowering for both the performers and their audience members.

[3] Playing Harry Potter does not limit its definition of fan performance to cosplay and its variants. Sport now constitutes an important corner of Harry Potter fandom: the number of active quidditch teams has increased exponentially since 2005, when a group of Middlebury College students invented a version of the game that can be played by athletes who remain on the ground rather than flying through the air. This volume dedicates two chapters to the growing popularity of quidditch: Suzanne Delle's interview with quidditch player Emily Anne Gibson, and Jennifer E. Popple's essay "Embracing the Magic: Muggle Quidditch and the Transformation of Gender Equality from Fantasy to Reality." Both Delle and Popple discuss the rule, which has been integral to muggle quidditch since the Middlebury students founded it, in "Title 9¾," which calls for gender equality and inclusivity on every quidditch team and game: at least two players on the quidditch field must identify with a different gender than at least two other players, and gender is not synonymous with sex. (Title 9¾ simultaneously puns on the number of the King's Cross Station platform in London at which Hogwarts students board the school train, and Title IX, the 1964 US legislation that bans discrimination on the basis of sex in all areas of education, including school sports.) Quidditch organizers' striving to build gender equality into their sport is one of the ways that Harry Potter fans have worked to, as Delle notes, "recreate the values described in that fictional world" of Rowling's books and the Warner Bros. films (83) —but interestingly, Gibson (Delle's interviewee) sheds light on the fact that many quidditch enthusiasts do not feel a strong allegiance to the Harry Potter fandom per se; many players are fans more of the sport than of the media texts, and in the eyes of some, the disassociation of quidditch from Harry Potter may be necessary to establish the sport's broad legitimacy.

[4] This collection contains two strong chapters on fans visiting and interacting with physical Harry Potter–themed spaces: Rachel Marie Gilbert's "A Potterhead's Progress: A Quest for Authenticity at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter" and Katherine Larsen's "(Re)Claiming Harry Potter Fan Pilgrimage Sites." Gilbert's piece combines an entertaining first-person account of her visit to the immensely popular Harry Potter theme park with an insightful argument that the site's "authenticity," by which Gilbert means both its official status and its use by fans as a means by which they can experience "a visceral connection…to the wizarding world" (25), is called into question when the sensibilities of capitalism and consumerism dominate fans' experience, overriding their feelings of immersion in the setlike reproduction of the Harry Potter universe. Larsen's essay points out that a number of real-world spaces that are meaningful to Harry Potter fans become awkward and impersonal when taken over by Warner Bros. (which produced and distributed the Harry Potter films). Larsen's examples illustrate that official sites do not always feel like authentic ones to fans. Gilbert and Larsen situate their work within performance studies by fruitfully referencing canonical theorists of that field, such as Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett and Erving Goffman. However, readers may wonder why previous seminal work on fan tourism, such as Roger C. Aden's Popular Stories and Promised Lands: Fan Cultures and Symbolic Pilgrimages (1999), is absent from their analyses. Perhaps the combination of fan studies with performance studies is still so rare and new that it is difficult for authors working at that intersection to take both fields' bodies of literature into account.

[5] One of the welcome ways that this volume advances the conversation between fan studies and performance studies is to position online fan activities as performances. In "Snape Written, Filmed, and Slashed," Vera Cuntz-Leng (who was a member of my research team when she visited UC Berkeley in 2014–15, and who was a coauthor on an article that my team published in the journal Convergence that year), uses performance theorist Erika Fischer-Lichte's concept of the autopoetic feedback loop to describe the interconnectedness of Rowling's version of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter novels, Alan Rickman's version of Snape in the Harry Potter films, and fan authors' versions of Snape in Harry Potter slash fics. In Cuntz-Leng's analysis, Rowling, Rickman, and fan fiction writers are all portrayers of Snape, and their portrayals inform one another's in a way that is similar (albeit more characterized by time shifting) to how theatrical actors and audiences constantly react to one another for the duration of a performance, thus cocreating the theatrical work.

[6] An additional lens that Playing Harry Potter applies to fan performance is that of the relevance of fannish performances to fans' experiences of the real world and to their everyday lives. In "Developing Community through Wizard Rock," Rob Yoho emphasizes that wizard rock—rock bands that write and perform original songs about characters and themes from the Harry Potter universe, which often diverge from the Harry Potter canon—is about more than playing with and transforming what editor Brenner calls "the Harry Potter master narrative" (18). Yoho argues that wizard rock uses "the performative platform for the airing of social commentary and political action," and he notes the "strong linkage between wizard rock and The Harry Potter Alliance" (222). The Harry Potter Alliance, and its tremendous successes in fund-raising for charities, campaigning for social justice and humanitarian causes, and other "fan-based acts of civic engagement" (207), is the subject of "We Are Book Eight" by Heather Elise Hamilton and John Michael Sefel. In "Discovering Your Inner Wizard," Sarah Lynne Bowman describes how Harry Potter role-playing games facilitate "a sort of inner alchemy" (87) for players, allowing them opportunities to develop certain aspects of their personality (leading them to become more brave or assertive, for example), refine their social skills, and attain greater academic success. And in "Teaching Harry Potter: Pedagogy as Play, Performance and Textual Poaching," Edmond Y. Chang details the innovative ways in which he uses Harry Potter to enhance students' academic achievement. Chang, a classroom teacher, has found Harry Potter to be an exemplary set of texts on which students can practice articulating "informed and critical readings and analysis" as well as discerning and debating larger questions of equity and inclusion—problems that concern all media productions, such as "who gets to be represented, who survives to be the hero, and whose stories get to be told" (172). The point made by all of these essays is that fan performances can be impactful, in tremendously positive ways, on individuals and collectives, and moreover, that fan performances can also benefit small and large nonfannish populations. While those who tend to take a suspicious or highly critical view of fandom may find such claims overly optimistic, fan scholars will welcome these arguments as counterweights to the prevailing popular discourse that aligns fandom with harmful levels of obsession, isolation, and separation from reality.

[7] Brenner, the collection's editor, is by her own admission not a fan studies scholar, and so the introduction does not explicitly position the anthology in relation to the large bodies of scholarship on fan studies and participatory cultures. However, the strength of the book lies in its case studies of specific genres of contemporary fan performance; in the authors' documentations of performers' motivations, strategies, and perspectives; and in the myriad of theoretical lenses put forward as tools for analyzing the social, cultural, and political meanings of embodied enactments by fans. These assets make the book mandatory reading for performance scholars with an interest in fandom, and for fan scholars invested in performance studies.