Striptease based on J. K. Rowling’s children’s books reveals the real value of literature (and a lot more).
I’ve seen Dobby strip. Yes, that Dobby, the elf from Harry Potter.
About a month after moving to New York, on a night that hit home the city’s infinite possibility for strangeness, I attended a Harry Potter burlesque show: “Harry Potter and the Boobies of Fire.”
The part of Dobby was played by a nubile young woman wearing large latex bat ears and a very revealing pillowcase. Dobby danced sinuously around the stage, twirling, not a boa, but the sock that gave J. K. Rowling’s character his freedom.
We were also treated to dances from a viciously attractive female Malfoy, Hagrid, Hermione and even Harry himself. The show was set to the sounds of “wizard rock,” a genre of music inspired by the Harry Potter universe.
I applauded with the rest of the audience, impressed and astounded at the dedication it must have taken to put together a show like this. Could Rowling have imagined how far her creation would spread? That fans would take such ownership of the characters and the universe they lived in? That someday there would be Harry Potter characters stripping to Harry Potter-themed music while butterbeer was served at the bar? Despite the irreverence typical of a burlesque show, the attention to canonical detail showed the loving touch of die-hard fans. They were having fun with Harry Potter, but not making fun. It was obvious that both the dancers and the audience had much respect for the series.
Every year, members of the Jane Austen Society of North America dress in Regency costumes and attend a ball inspired by Austen’s novels. Lord of the Rings fans who have spent years learning Elvish, a fantasy language created by J. R. R. Tolkien, form meet-ups and message boards to practice their mastery of the tongue. In 2009, hundreds of readers gathered in London, wearing bathrobes and carrying towels to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
How do books do this to us? We plunge into them, eager scuba divers examining every detail, immersing ourselves in the stories and carrying bits out into our real lives like coral souvenirs. We attend midnight premieres at bookstores, write fan-fiction and play trivia games. We cosplay and parody and join clubs. We produce themed burlesque shows.
Reading a book is not a passive activity — in fact, it’s inherently a team sport. To use Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s classic baseball metaphor, the author is the pitcher and the reader is the catcher: The pitcher can throw balls forever, but if the catcher just lets them fly by, not much is going to get done. As a reader, you need to interpret the words on the page, bringing all of your own experiences along with you.
If you’re a member of a wizard rock band, you’re going above and beyond. You’re hitting the ball out of the park. (It’s an imperfect metaphor, I know, but stay with me.) Taking a story and turning it into a piece of music, or fanfiction, or a burlesque show, is engaging with it on a higher level than your typical reader. In The Art of Immersion, Frank Rose describes how storytelling has evolved to become participatory, tearing down the fourth wall between storyteller and audience. “People tell and retell stories they love because that’s what humans do,” says Rose. “If the story is meaningful enough, a superficial encounter won’t leave them satisfied. They’ll want to go deeper. They’ll want to imagine themselves in it, retell it, make it their own.”
During Banned Books Week, loyalties become particularly apparent. We fight against those who would label our favorites as unworthy of, or unsafe for, general consumption. Sarcastic listicles pop up all over the internet detailing which innocuous children’s books were banned last year. Bookstores have displays of banned books sitting front and center. The message is clear: Don’t you try and tell us what to read.
When I think about “Harry Potter and the Boobies of Fire,” or the Jane Austen Society of North America, or fluent Elvish speakers, I can see why. Books are where we live. Banning a book is more than a restriction on entertainment — it’s an eviction. Readers build their lives around books and build the books they love into their lives. It’s no wonder, then, that people are so passionately defensive about their reading material.
So when I’m standing by the bar of a burlesque club with butterbeer in hand, surrounded by other Harry Potter fans, it feels like home ... even with Dobby’s thong in my face.