The theme of the “happy” slave in science fiction and fantasy is one that I wish the genre would retire. From the house-elves in Harry Potter to the Ood in Doctor Who, writers (usually white) exploring slave races through non-humans tend to feel more like a tool to assuage their guilt over real world slavery than a means to explore the atrocities of the system in any meaningful way. While the intent may not be one of malice, the outcome can be far more damaging and is what really matters in the end anyway.
On #WizardTeam, we’ve recently started Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the book where a magical race known as the house-elves are introduced. This creature (really just elves, though adding ‘house’ to their name emphasizes their place of servitude) is initially introduced to us through Dobby, an elf who, we are told, unlike his fellow people, wants to be free. House-elves are enslaved, usually by old wizarding families, though there are hundreds working at Hogwarts cooking and cleaning, generally unseen by it’s inhabitants.
Outright, it is made explicitly clear that Dobby is much different from the other house-elves. This is shown initially through Winky and the Hogwarts house-elves in Goblet of Fire and later with Kreacher. Whereas Dobby risks his life to warn Harry about the terror that will arrive at Hogwarts in his second year, or brags about being paid for his subsequent work at Hogwarts starting in Goblet of Fire, the other elves are not only happy but eager to please, and are generally embarrassed by Dobby’s behavior. However, we never truly get to explore why Dobby is this way in the first place.
Dobby is originally enslaved by the Malfoy family, where he is abused and neglected by the family. Dobby is able to overhear the plans of Lucius Malfoy because he is a mere servant, but when he goes to warn Harry of the plans it is not without consequences. You see, even if the Malfoys never found out what Dobby was doing, because he is clearly going against their wishes, he is magically wired to punish himself. House-elves cannot go against their master’s orders and if they do can be punished without the wizard themselves even lifting a finger. But somehow all the other house-elves are happy with this arrangement, except for Dobby. The way they are presented in Harry Potter, it is as if they were born to be enslaved, a notion that is incredibly dangerous given the society we live in, one that is both historically and contemporarily built on the enslavement of people deemed lesser by those in power.
Similarly in Doctor Who, we are introduced to the Ood, a peaceful alien race who are enslaved by humans from whenever the humans “discover” them up to the 42nd century. In both “The Impossible Planet”/ “The Satan Pit” and “Planet of the Ood,” some evil takes over the Ood (different evils in different centuries), who begin killing their human masters. What is interesting is that while the Doctor seems staunchly against genocide (which we can talk about in more detail at another time), in his first encounter with this supposedly “happy” slave race, he doesn’t question whether the Ood really are happy, or even think to speak with the humans about the fact that they’re enslaving an entire race of people. It’s only when he realizes how the Ood are treated (in his second encounter in “Planet of the Ood”), when he truly stops and humanizes them, that he begins to see the horror of slavery. In “Planet of the Ood,” he realizes that it isn’t that they are content with their situation, they are literally imprisoned in a way that they can’t fight back.
While I feel like Doctor Who has made a decent attempt in fixing the storyline of the Ood in their second appearance and subsequent ones, the show continues to introduce new races of enslaved. For instance there are the Tivolians, the race whose home of Tivoli is the “most invaded planet in the universe.” The Tivolians are essentially a race who welcome colonization by any other race with open arms, unable to do anything unless they have some sort of overlord. In their case, the Doctor just scorns them, writing them off as cowards rather than investigating the root cause of this cultural mindset. The most recent season of Doctor Who introduced another slave race called the Grunts, humans that are grown and programmed to serve, to the point where the one in “Sleep No More,” named 474, risks it’s life for the crewmember who treated him worse than all of the other humans the Grunt was working for. I don’t like “Sleep No More” for a lot of reasons, but that scene in particular made me cringe.
While I think that stories of slavery can be told in meaningful ways, I would rather they not be told at all than be mishandled. While Harry Potter tries to explore the immorality of the system of slavery, it largely does it through one character, Hermione Granger, and even that storyline is incredibly flawed. Hermione does try to help, but her help falls along the lines of the White Savior Trope (though we all know she’s black). Hermione assumes that the house elves have no agency at all and that they just don’t know what they’re missing. In her fourth year she goes on a crusade to free the house elves having only met one elf in her entire life. Later, she decides that she is going to free all of the Hogwarts house elves by knitting them clothes and hiding them under trash, essentially tricking them into freedom. What is so frustrating about this is that while her intent is commendable, her actions are not. It’s impossible to see how her actions could have been more efficient when the house elves are written as not even wanting to be free—Dobby ends up being the only house elf cleaning the Gryffindor Common Room because the other elves are offended that Hermione is trying to free them, which not only highlights her failure as an ally in this instance but also continues to carry on the theme of the happy slave.
And why shouldn’t they be happy? Unlike Dobby, the other house-elves we see (other than perhaps Kreacher, who worshipped his mistress rather unhealthily) don’t have evil masters like the Malfoys. Instead they have the sweet Hepzibah Smith, or even Albus Dumbledore who is willing to pay them if they were to ask (though they wouldn’t, and even when Dobby does he only wants one Galleon a week). This notion of the good versus bad slave master is one that has been proliferated throughout the years and is just as damaging as the notion of the happy slave, or in this case house-elf. While these stories seems to attempt to make some sort of commentary on the system of slavery, they don’t do very well, often falling into the same traps and holes created by stereotypes and propaganda created to justify slavery in the first place.
While with Doctor Who the initial explanation of the Ood being benevolent servants in glossed over, they do eventually come back and are freed. There hasn’t been much exploration of the Tivolians and their strange need to be colonized, the Doctor and the writers themselves thinking it’s just a quirky cultural difference rather than one potentially harmful to audience members who are themselves colonized or are the descendants of the colonized. With Harry Potter, the house-elves are written into a hole because not only are their oppressors convinced that they are happy, but they do nothing to go against this notion. There is of course the possibility that we just don’t see the ways that house-elves resist their oppression. As we are following Harry’s point-of-view, it is quite possible that the house-elves didn’t trust him, a wizard, enough to show or tell him how they really felt about their predicament. At the same time, there is a lot of evidence in the books that suggest that they weren’t written all that deeply. Everything we see from the house-elves, even Dobby, seems very much like how they are. Even when the elves did fight back against Voldemort it was for, as Kreacher said, their “master” Harry, one who may be better than the greatest Dark Wizard of all time, but is still complicit in their enslavement.
I would love for science fiction and fantasy to retire the trope of the happy slave. Not only is it propaganda, directly pointing to stereotypes that were literally used to maintain the enslavement of African people in both Europe and the Americas, but in the ways it currently shows up feels more targeted to the descendants of the masters than it is for the descendants of the enslaved, which is to say, a smoothing over of the complexities of a barbaric system. Rather than truly reckon with history, these stories continue to replicate oppression in a way that is unhelpful for anyone involved.