Monday, July 27, 2009

Harry Potter Stirs Alcohol Controversy

I've been debating going to see the new Harry Potter movie ever since it came out in theaters. While I wouldn't call myself a huge "fan" I have enjoyed the previous films and think there is no substitute for a big-screen view of Quidditch. So after mixed reviews from friends, I was surprised to read about the intersection of Harry Potter and public health in today's New York Times Health Section.

Columnist Tara Parker-Pope discusses the proliferation of drinking in the recent film by painting a picture of the frequency of drinking scenes (often) and the connotations attached them (drinking as a way of coping with shyness or anxiety).

She poses the following question in her web-based forum on the column:

Will [the drinking scenes] have a negative influence on children or is the fantasy world of Harry Potter not worth the worry?

She thoughtfully presents and responds to skeptics that may suggest she is overreacting to the consumption of alcohol to even pose this question. For example, there is evidence that children's exposure to alcohol consumption in movies may lead to starting drinking at a younger age (from an Institute of Medicine Committee Report on the topic and a German Study). Also, critics may point out that in England the legal drinking age is lower -- age 18. Sixteen year-old Harry, Hermione, and Ron may have been in the clear during their pub crawls except that the film does not show them drinking with food (a legal requisite for drinking under age 18).

Beyond legal definitions of drinking -- it is more about understanding what kind of cultural norms the movie promotes. May this reinforce or set norms around teenage drinking? Might it inspire kids to use alcohol as a way to cope with uncomfortable social situations or as a way to escape problems or life's challenges? Could the film have been produced a little differently, to the same effect, without sacrificing the integrity or intent of the director or writer while not promoting youth's early use of alcohol? YES!

I don't think that the "magical" environment of Harry Potter or Hogwarts excludes the film from the scrutiny that should take place for any media. Alcohol and tobacco in media should both be cautiously employed in children's media. To join the discussion comment below or check out the original post.

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