Fandom: Harry Potter
Spoilers: minor spoilers for all books but nothing plotty
Personal website: notquiteroyal.net
Wow. I think this may have been the hardest thing I've ever done in the fandom just in terms of the sheer scope of it all. Thanks so much to circe_tigana and Spren for giving me the opportunity to tackle this huge huge topic. I had a great time.
In writing this piece for idol_reflection—an apt name, that, for no character has ever more fully evolved into the definition of fandom idol than Draco Malfoy—I am going to focus on Draco Malfoy as he is presented in canon, and how this translates into fanon interpretation. I am indebted to marysiak’s Definitive HP Canon Characterisation Guide, which offered me quick and easy access to the direct quotes I needed. Thanks also to skelkins, patchfire, lunacy, orphne, notapipe, and nothingbutfic for very helpful feedback in the awful icky draft stage of this essay.
I would also like to echo what no_remorse said in her essay on Hermione: Draco’s story is still very much unfinished. Elkins wrote two full years ago that in four books Malfoy’s character had received no significant substantive character development, and as this statement is still true two years and two books later, it is tempting to start drawing final judgments about his character and his role in the books. I submit to you that doing so at this point in canon would be a drastic mistake, and that, despite appearances, Draco’s future and consequently all of our initial judgments about him remain up in the air.
“Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.” --Jane Austen
Draco Malfoy is the most controversial character in the Harry Potter canon. The questions underlying not only J.K. Rowling’s treatment of him in the books, but our reception of him, have been the subject of constant disagreement throughout the fandom for the past five years. Is he a sympathetic character? Is he Hitler youth? Is he meant to provide a very crucial lesson to Harry about tolerance, prejudice, and inter-house unity? Is he filler, a comical stock bully? Is he nuanced or cardboard, or both at once? What the heck is up with his status as widespread fandom idol, a reading of his character which Rowling herself has openly and frequently rejected?
I was introduced to Draco the way most of us were--through the books. I read the HP series in 1999 and then began lurking in the fandom not quite a year later, just a month before Book 4 came out. So for the past, what, four and a half years, I have been listening to the debates over Draco Malfoy, who is one of my favorite characters in the books, and who forms 1/2 of my OTP. I had the privilege of moderating the first academic panel on Draco Malfoy at last year’s Nimbus convention in Orlando, and then as now I was fully aware of how overwhelming this topic is, both in terms of the outpouring of discussion we find about him, and in terms of the polarization of response this character seems to evoke. The subject of Malfoy invites side-taking and scorns moderation--all of which is very indicative of the character himself.
Despite his lack of depth as a character, Draco Malfoy is one of the most important characters in the books. He has more spoken lines in the book than Snape, and figures prominently both as Harry’s schoolyard rival and his Shadow.
He is most often described as “pale,” “blond,” and “pointed.” These three descriptions, repeated over and over again in the books, are the only thing we know about his physical appearance. The angular features suggest a rather delicate appearance. He blushes “pink” instead of red, seems to rely heavily on his father for protection, wears robes at one point that make him look like a “vicar,” and resists physical violence, all things which would seem to imply that he is rather effeminate/ and possibly asexual or anti-sexual. The fact that the Greek translation of the books uses the word “malakos” for Malfoy underscores this reading: the word “malakos” is Greek for “effeminate” or “sissy.”
While the kids of Hogwarts would not have heard “Malfoy” and thought “sissy,” the implication everywhere seems to be that as a character, Draco is emasculated. The only thing physical we ever see him engage in is Quidditch; he is reluctant to work with animals in Care of Magical Creatures, and never gets physical in fights against Harry. Quidditch itself is not an extremely masculine sport, and while it is aggressive in nature, Draco and Harry both occupy what is arguably the most passive position in the game: they watch. When the position of Seeker does turn aggressive in the inevitable final moments of the match, Draco comes out the loser 100% of the time against Harry.
Over a period of five books Malfoy's antagonistic behavior has remained a sort of constant for Harry (in Book 2, Harry thinks he'd prefer seeing Malfoy again to another day spent away from Hogwarts). Moreover, Harry's initial opinion of Malfoy has, by every indication, undergone no change whatsoever since the day they met. Because so much of what we know about Malfoy in the books is filtered through Harry's perception of him, it's worth looking closely at the very first scene in which he meets Harry (SS/PS, p. 59-61).
Initially, he strongly reminds Harry of Dudley, and also makes Harry feel stupid. He speaks aristocratically, using a very proper syntax and phrases such as "I say," and "I must say." He is also very polite in speech, though he strikes Harry as being insincere. He also seems to be concerned with making sure Harry remembers him. His language, his references to his implied wealth and family's position of power and heritage, all indicate that he wants Harry to be impressed. Significantly, one of the first things he says is, "I think I'll bully father into getting me (a racing broom) and I'll smuggle it in somehow." With this line, Malfoy indelibly establishes himself here as a bully and a rulebreaker, even before we see him perform an actual act of bullying in the next scene where he meets Harry again. He also, in this scene, establishes himself as being prejudiced against Muggles, though to what extent is debatable.
While these basic impressions of Draco--that he is greedy, insincere, a snob, a bully, and possibly a bigot--are the ones that follow us throughout the book, they're problematic in that, like so much of what is problematic in the Harry Potter series, what we are told to believe, either by the authorial voice or by Harry's perceptions of events, and what we see happening in the books, are contradictory. For instance, he cautiously offers Harry and the reader his only rationale for his prejudice against Muggle students: “They're just not the same, they've never been brought up to know our ways. Some of them have never even heard of Hogwarts until they get the letter, imagine.” This is actually not an illogical rationale in and of itself. Also here, Draco establishes himself here as a bully; yet when we meet Lucius Malfoy in Book 2, it becomes clear that he is a strong-willed man and not the sort of person that Draco could ever "bully." We also think of Draco as a rulebreaker in this first scene. In fact, Draco tends to manipulate rules to his advantage rather than breaking them; he seems to want to avoid rulebreaking, and the punishment that goes with it, as much as possible.
Again and again throughout the series, Draco pits himself against Harry and comes out the weaker. Unlike Harry, Draco’s biggest moments in the books are all defined by a lack of action; in fact, his entire modus operandi throughout the books can be summed up as a series of passive-aggressive actions against Harry and Harry’s friends. All of these attempts fail miserably and often work for Harry rather than against him. When he does try to stand on his own, he fails horribly and embarrassingly.
Even though Draco is much weaker than the Gryffindors, he possesses an uncanny ability at getting under their skin. The twins and Ron all take delight in getting the better of Draco, and respond to him physically as well as verbally in an echo of the enmity between their fathers. Harry is frequently incensed by Draco; he finally snaps in Book Five and goes for Draco with his fists after five years of holding back. Draco, as far as we can tell, does not fight back, but rather crumples. Of the trio, only Hermione seems to have learned to ignore Malfoy’s posturing. She also often sees him far more objectively, and the viewpoints he expresses far more rationally than do Harry and Ron, who have to work to hold themselves back when he taunts them. Yet despite all of the aggression, by the time they part in Book Five, Draco has failed to secure a single lasting victory over Harry, and Harry has ceased to be intimidated by him at all.
At the end of Book Four we witness a confrontation between Harry and his friends and Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle, which is very indicative of Malfoy's weakness and inability to act. On the train home, he confronts the Trio, and is promptly hexed and left unconscious on the floor of the compartment. The exact same pattern is repeated at the exact same point in the book, at the end of Book Five. This time Malfoy gets a fraction farther along before he is hexed, this time by twice as many students as the previous year. In these two encounters we see that the earlier symbolic defeats of Malfoy in the first three books have progressed to more physical defeats.
This pattern both represents and foreshadows the more physical battles that Harry and his friends face in the upcoming war against Voldemort (indeed, by the end of both books Harry has already faced physical battles against Voldemort and his minions). But while Harry and his friends face the adults in battle directly, Malfoy is never involved in these far more serious battles. It is tempting to read these final confrontations on the train, after the real battles have been fought in both books, as parody, or as a way of giving children the satisfaction of seeing an immediate enemy, Malfoy, get what he deserves. Seen in this light, Draco is at once a thwarted antagonist and an unwitting catalyst for Harry, an easy lesson that good will triumph over evil. Indeed, the moral surrounding all of Draco’s actions thus far seems to be that karma is a bitch, and bullies will be punished.
We can argue, therefore, that Draco’s role in the books is primarily a narrative function: his presence allows J.K. Rowling to tie her plot ends together very neatly using him as a catalyst for changes in Harry’s life, time and again, while also using him as a barometer by which to judge Harry’s own developing strength. She also seems to use him as a source for plot exposition, as in the scene in Book Two when Harry and Ron sneak in to the Slytherin Common Room and find out the minor but crucial fact that the last time the Chamber of Secrets was opened a girl died.
The narrative function explains a highly contested scene early in Book Four in which Draco shows up to “warn” the Trio that Hermione is in danger from the crowd that is rioting at the Quidditch World Cup. Looking at this scene in terms of character motivation, the impulse to warn Hermione contradicts everything we have seen from the character who, at age 12, eagerly said he hoped Hermione was killed. It doesn’t make sense looking at it from the standpoint of character. Looking at it in terms of narrative structure, however, Draco serves as a device to inform the reading audience that the crowd in the woods is dangerous, and mostly comprised of Death Eaters-a fact which is important later in understanding why the house-elf Winky was in the woods.
The 'narrative function' argument breaks down if we look at it too closely, however. A book later, Malfoy does something similar to the GOF warning: he hints strongly to the Trio that he knows about Sirius and his Animagus form. This hint is never followed up with any substantiation (perhaps the major amounts of editing that were done to Book 5 explains this), but the Trio takes it seriously. The interesting thing is that this hint serves no strong narrative purpose, and as a threat is largely ineffective since it would have been better to simply say nothing. Instead, it comes across as a warning for Sirius, in effect, to keep his big furry head down. He does something similar a few scenes later, hinting that Hagrid has “been messing with stuff that's too big for him, if you get my drift.”
Does Draco intend these two incidents as taunts rather than warnings? He frequently taunts Harry by implying that he knows more, and has an insider’s information as to what’s really happening; but in these scenes the typical malevolence of such taunts is missing, and without a narrative reason for them to be there, it's difficult to explain what he's doing.
Even more importantly, though, the narrative function fails to explain the emotional appeal of Draco in the books. The single most controversial scene involving Malfoy comes in Goblet of Fire. This is the Ferret Scene, in which professor punishes Draco by turning him into a ferret and bouncing his ferret form all over the room in front of a crowd of students, before another professor puts a stop to the behavior. Narratively, this scene serves, through the shocking cruelty of a teacher performing what is a blatant act of child abuse, to jolt us into an awareness that all is not right with the professor in question, and to hint at that person’s own hatred of the Malfoy family. Its overall narrative point, however, is often lost in the reader's response to Draco, who paradoxically manages to appear both stoical and pathetic in this scene:
...a moment later, with a loud snapping noise, Draco Malfoy had reappeared, lying in a heap on the floor with his sleek blond hair all over his now brilliantly pink face. He got to his feet wincing.
"I'll (speak to Snape), then," said Moody, staring at Malfoy with great dislike.
Malfoy, whose pale eyes were still watering with pain and humiliation, looked malevolently up at Moody and muttered something in which the words 'my father' were distinguishable. - (GOF, p. 180)
He still clings desperately to his father’s authority here, and comes across in the narrative as helpless and weak in a way that, despite evoking sympathy, is hard for us to respect or admire.
The difference between what has actually happened here and the way it is presented is crucial to understanding why Draco Malfoy is so controversial a figure: here we see him do what he does best throughout the series: knocked down, he gets right back up again without hesitating, and doggedly persists in being a jackass. If the scene in Madam Malkin’s could be said to sum up everything we know about Draco in canon, then the Bouncing Ferret scene might be said to sum up every impulse in readers that has provided the basis of Draco in fanon. Our sympathies are never intentionally directed towards him by anything in the narrative: he is presented repeatedly as having no redeeming qualities that we can see: at worst he is a racist, at best, a spoiled bully. And yet in this scene we see him reacting in a very understandable, human way, far better than many kids would, to what is a terrible amount of undeserved abuse. A little later we see the Trio laughing and enjoying his humiliation. Many readers during this scene are very sympathetic towards Malfoy, when it is clear the text does not present him that way at all.
In fact, the text presents him as being the nastiest sort of racist, and does nothing at all to extenuate that apart from the veiled warning to Hermione. Malfoy is prejudiced in ways that seems to deepen as he gets older. By Book Two the tentative rationale he expressed in the first scene has progressed to blanket racial slurs: "No one asked your opinion, you filthy little Mudblood." By Book Four, he exhibits a kind of institutional racism, characterized by a distrust of everyone who is “outside” of that particular institutional set of beliefs: “Well, you know (Draco’s father’s) opinion of Dumbledore - the man's such a Mudblood-lover.”
The depth and extent of Malfoy’s racism is debatable, but it cannot be stated too strongly that “Mudblood” in wizarding terms is an explicit racial epithet whose closest counterpart in our culture is the ‘N’ word. Draco apologists will argue that Draco’s racism is the kind that seems to manifest more in words than actions, and that it is of a kind that may be unlearned through the direct challenging of the assumptions around which his worldview is built. However, we have yet to see him face such a direct confrontation in canon, and every indication of the text thus far is that Draco will continue to practice social and racial prejudice like his father before him. This obviously underscores everything that Harry is not.
It can be said, then, that Draco seems to function as both narrative prop and reflective property. And yet this still leaves us with a pretty flimsy construction of a character, and considering the depth and complexity of characters with far smaller parts, it is a terribly unsatisfying one. The things we learn about him in Act One, Scene One (he’s a snobby, rich bully who thinks Muggles are bad) are, give or take a few things about genealogy, the only things we know about him at the end of Act Five. Is that all there is for him? It seems far too consistent a theme to be merely coincidence that so many of the changes in Harry’s life come directly at Draco’s expense; and it seems too easy to read the confrontations between Harry and Draco as filler confrontations, a less serious, moralistic version of bigger events with further-reaching consequences.
One clue to the point of Draco's under-developed characterization can be found in JKR’s narrative structure itself. Throughout the books there are frequent hints that the perspective of our protagonists is flawed, that the judgments the text makes about certain characters are deceptive judgments, because we are in a point of view—Harry’s—that is neither omniscient nor completely objective. Particularly where Slytherin is concerned, over and over again we have hints that the prejudice between Slytherin and the three houses, as it represents social and racial prejudices of the Wizarding World, is a divisive element that must be gotten beyond if the students are ever to reach their full potential. The most overt statement of this comes from the Sorting Hat at the beginning of Order:
For were there such friends anywhere
As Slytherin and Gryffindor? …
What with dueling and with fighting
And the clash of friend on friend
And at last there came a morning
When old Slytherin departed
And though the fighting then died out
He left us quite downhearted.
And never since the founders four
Were whittled down to three
Have the Houses been united
As they once were meant to be. …
And we must unite inside her
Or we’ll crumble from within.
… “And it wants all the Houses to be friends?” said Harry, looking over at the Slytherin table, where Draco Malfoy was holding court. “Fat chance.” - (OOTP, p. 205-209).
This initial rejection from Harry and the other Gryffindors of the Sorting Hat’s warning is acted upon later with the idea to create Dumbledore’s Army. During the discussion about whether to include the other houses, Slytherin is pointedly not even brought up as an option. Apart from vague physical descriptions, and the passing reference to “a Slytherin boy” having seen thestrals, the only Slytherin we know anything substantial about in the books is Draco. While Draco himself is drastically underdeveloped in the books, he is far more fully realized than any other Slytherin student.
That the books paint him in such a distinctly nasty light—and that, so often, what we see in the books about a character and what we are told about them are completely contradictory—is part of a greater narrative theme of prejudice. While Hermione is juxtaposed against Draco as being far more clear-headed and non-judgmental, and is able to view him occasionally without prejudice, she seems perfectly willing to write off the entirety of Slytherin house as being just like him. Her own prejudice is a blind spot, as it is for the rest of her housemates. The point of the Sorting Hat song, which they so easily dismissed, is that until they stop assuming that all Slytherins are like Malfoy—the way Malfoy assumes that all Muggles are “filth”—they will never be able to stand successfully against Voldemort.
The ultimate question for Draco is not whether Draco Malfoy is ever so lame, or a slimy little git, or an insensitive, prejudiced bastard who supports Voldemort--because the answer will always and irrevocably be yes, he is all of those things. The question, rather, is whether his purpose in the narrative is ultimately one of reflection or one of change. The two houses have been charged to learn to get along. Will Draco, then, ultimately be written off as a nasty exception to the rule of inter-house harmony, or will he be reevaluated and incorporated into the new order? Will he continue to mirror, with his own bigotry, Harry’s need to be more open-minded? Or will he turn out to be one of the Slytherins who have been unfairly judged?
As we currently stand in canon, five books have not been sufficient to create an understanding of any kind between Gryffindor and Slytherin. We have no conclusive evidence that such a union will be forthcoming--indeed we have yet to see a single redeeming characteristic from any student in Slytherin--but everything in the narrative hints that there will be one, that we will learn more about the house and its students later on.
By contrast, even though we have no in-depth or conclusive information about Draco's relationship with his House, his family, or his outlook on the world, and even though he is a major character, poised to play a major role, nothing in the narrative hints that Draco will undergo more development. Many, many fans are convinced that this is all the Draco we will ever be given.
And that is extremely frustrating for many of us, because despite JKR’s repeatedly saying we are not meant to like Draco Malfoy, many of us do like him. In retrospect, I would argue that the creation of fandom!Draco was inevitable because of the discrepancy between the narrative certainty about him, and the uncertainty of readers responding to the text. For many fans the gaps in his characterization are so large that fanfic is the only way to bridge them. This has led to what we call “Fanon,” in which the more understated, slightly more positive qualities Draco exhibits are focused on to the same degree that all his negative qualities are in canon.
The little we know of him in canon paints a portrait of a character who is weak-willed, histrionic, dramatic, and malicious. And yet many readers see him as smart and witty--his sarcasm and running criticism in Care of Magical Creatures is hilarious, as well as being completely understandable. He gets up every time he is knocked down, and continues to exude an incredibly smug, confident attitude whenever he interacts with Harry, even when we see him humiliated time and again. He remains eerily observant about the people and events around him, and knows exactly how to get under Harry’s skin. He writes lame songs with lame lyrics, makes badges, is good in school, and seems to be able to beat every other Seeker at Quidditch except for Harry. He is a talented bragger and a complete drama queen, he knows how to get attention and capitalize on it, and seems to be particularly good at uniting the sympathies of his housemates.
All of these qualities taken together and magnified create a rather colorful, flamboyant opposite extreme from the personality he exhibits to Harry in canon. Thus fanon!Draco becomes a Draco who is misunderstood, heroic, smart, witty, snarky, and essentially sexy. This Draco dresses well, is often gay, and very often powerfully attractive, a trait embodied in the creation of specific fandom stereotypes such as Leather Trousers!Draco and Veela!Draco. In most fanfic centering around Draco, his jealousy and obsession with Harry is central, and it is hardly surprising that Harry/Draco is the most popular single ship in the fandom. Because Draco’s motives in canon are so unclear, even if you have a canonical take on his voice and his mannerisms, you can still wind up with a million and one different takes on his character simply because there are so many different directions to go with him--directions that are prone to change every time new canon comes out and forces us to completely re-evaluate and reconsider the conclusions we had drawn about him before. And fanon!Draco as a variable has undergone several distinct phases of growth and development since he first appeared as an entity with distinct characteristics. In many respects Malfoy in canon is a cipher, a blank page we in fandom have been writing and rewriting for years.
JKR has indicated that she believes Draco’s popularity among fans is due to Tom Felton, who plays him in the movies. But this is far too easy an analysis, which assumes that fans must somehow have to write off his canon character in order to like him. In fact many of us loved him at first sight, for a number of qualities, perhaps the most simple and endearing of which is that the guy never wins and never quits. Ultimately, all of our questions about Draco in canon will be resolved, either because they are resolved in the narrative, or left completely undealt with, thereby keeping him permanently in his current roles as prop, shadow, stock villain. Yet even if the current, slightly hole-filled characterization of Draco is all we ever get, it is more than enough to be going on with, as fanfic has proven time and again.
After all, flat or three-dimensional, redeemed or unredeemed, he's Draco Malfoy, the little bigot that could. And what's not to love about that?
Fandom Fic Phenomena:
All of these writers have had a significant impact on the way Draco Malfoy is written in fanfiction, either because of timing or talent. That all of these major fics are H/D fics, with the exception of the Trilogy, is indicative of the sway H/D seems to hold over Draco fans. That all of these basic trends are pre-OOTP indicates a kind of lack of general direction in terms of how he is being written by fans post-book five.