Well damn. After some googling…I stand corrected. Rowling is a Gryffindor who loves Hufflepuff. However. The quote to which I responded is still completely asinine and, like most fan discussion I’ve seen of Hogwarts houses and how they’re portrayed, entirely oversimplifies the issues at play.
There’s this section of fandom that wants to defend Slytherin House. I get it. Draco Malfoy is a big Dark Emo Woobie that we all wanted hugs and a redemption arc for. We want to know that there is good even in the darkest of places. Not getting that is deeply disatisfying. But it is NOT deeply unrealistic. And neither is the portrayal of Slytherin House, despite all the meta and headcanoning to the contrary.
First, let’s look at the core values of Slytherin House: Cunning, ambition, cleverness, shrewdness, pureblood status.
Yes, you do have to include that last one, because the racial hatred and pureblood superiority associated with Slytherin House during Harry’s time were not added to the mix later, kids. They were in it from the very start. Remember the Sorting Hat’s song in the fourth year?
"Said Slytherin, ‘We’ll teach just those whose ancestry is purest,’" and "For instance, Slytherin took only pure-blood wizards of great cunning, just like him."
Did you get that? Salazar Slytherin took only purebloods. Only. Regardless of talent, his first criteria was that they be a pure-blooded wizar or witch.
Slytherin would not have admitted Lily Evans, who was by all accounts a wonderful person and a brilliant witch, because she had muggle parents. He wouldn’t have admitted her halfblood son, either, who quite aside from the incidental things that made him famous, was not only gifted well beyond his years in Defense Against the Dark Arts and a survivor of multiple attacks by a powerful Dark wizard, but also capable of teaching that advanced defensive magic to other underaged wizards before he was sixteen years old.
(Hell, Slytherin wouldn’t have let Severus Snape or Tom Riddle come to Hogwarts either, for that matter.)
And Hermione Granger. HERMIONE GRANGER.
"brewed a polyjuice potion in my second year"
"entrusted with a Time-Turner in my third year"
"devised an elaborate security system for a covert army of underage wizards in my fifth year"
"bosses baby giants around"
"capable of safely performing a complicated memory charm before attending my seventh year"
"memorized my textbooks before ever getting on the train"
"brightest witch of my fucking age thank you very goddamn much"
Yeah, no. Salazar Slytherin didn’t want riff-raff like that at his school.
In fact, he was so opposed to admitting muggleborns and halfbloods that when he finally left the school, he left behind a creepy underground chamber to house his GIANT KILLER SNAKE CREATURE, whose sole purpose was to “purge” the school of those he deemed unworthy. Or, in less euphemistic terms, kill all the non-pureblood children.
So I’m sorry, but no…it’s not that J.K. Rowling villifies shrewdness and ambition, or even the ruthlessness that can sometimes come with them, due to these being qualities she doesn’t value. In fact, Hermione Granger is both ruthless and ambitious, and she’s one of the three characters we’re supposed to root for the most.
The aspect of Slytherin House that J.K. Rowling villifies, from the very beginning, is its association with racial hatred and, by extension, Dark magic. (The two are very closely tied in the series, possibly because both entail a lack of respect for life.)
And what she portrays very accurately in doing so is that hatred and intolerance are both hereditary and contagious. They are learned at home and either enforced or discouraged by our peers. And while the racial hatred within the Harry Potter series is a problem of the Wizarding World as a whole, and therefore likely present to some extent in students from all four houses, none of those houses encourage it the way Slytherin does, not in their peer interactions OR in their histories.
Slytherin House, in at least three generations that we’ve seen, and probably in all of them from Slytherin’s time to Harry’s, attracts the children of parents who espouse racial hatred and elevate pureblood status (and children who, for one reason or another, lack that status and want it for themselves). Those children join Slytherin House not because they’re ambitious or clever, but because they believe in the supremacy of magical blood, as taught to them by their parents. They are encouraged to venerate Slytherin, to value the things he valued, and to want to continue the family legacy by being in his house.
And because of the isolation created by the House system itself (boy I could write a separate tome of an essay on that shit), these children are unlikely to have any positive interactions with anyone from the other houses, who might be of a different background or upbringing—and learning a different set of primary values—than their own. At the same time, children within Slytherin who aren’t pureblood or who weren’t raised by pureblood-elevating parents probably aren’t going to be very vocal about that, if they mention it at all. Maybe they don’t outright antagonize members of other houses or add to the hatred themselves, but they don’t speak out against it either, because it’s a matter of survival for them to at least appear to conform.
Does that make all of Slytherin tiny racist villains-in-the-making? No. But what Rowling is depicting is, in some sense, a very bleak reality in a very fantastical setting. Wizards, for all their magic, are no better—or better off—than muggles. They still have wars. They still have prejudice and inequality. They still have people who do horrible things and people who stand by and let them. And yes, they still have people who fight for what’s right…and a lot of those people walk away scarred forever. Some don’t walk away at all.
So the point of the way Slytherin House is portrayed is not meant to demonize every individual child who’s in the house. It’s to illustrate how hate can be a legacy, passed on through the generations, and how once that legacy is forged it is almost impossible to wipe completely clean.
In fact, the only way the negative legacy of Slytherin would have a hope of changing would be if all “pureblood” parents stopped glorifying that status and associating it with both superiority and Slytherin…as well as for all other parents in the wizarding world to stop villifying Slytherin as the house of dark magic and blood status. And it would take a long, LONG time for that transition to be made.
Rowling shows this somewhat in her epilogue. You have Harry reassuring his son Albus that there’s nothing wrong with being in Slytherin, and Hermione admonishing Ron not to pit children against each other based on houses. But the very fact that either conversation has to happen is indicative of how much things have not changed.
Ron, who was once terrified at the possibility of not being put in Gryffindor with the rest of his family, is now passing on that legacy of house separation and rivalry to his own children. And Harry may say there’s nothing wrong with being in Slytherin, but James Jr. got that idea from somewhere and torments his younger brother with the possibility.
The children of this new generation will likely grow up with conflicting messages about houses, blood status, and the way the two are related. And perhaps their children will grow up with similarly conflicted messages. There’s really no telling how many generations it would take for Harry and Hermione’s view to become the more prominent one, if it ever does. And even then, there’s no way of knowing whether it would truly eclipse the original notions.
And that begs the question: if the entire Wizarding world moved past all its blood-based prejudice and racial hatred, would anyone even want to be associated with Salazar Slytherin anymore? Would anyone want to uphold the name or wear the colors of a man who espoused the exclusion and murder of halfblood and muggleborn children? Would it be possible to uphold the other values of Slytherin House, acknowledge the flaws of Salazar Slytherin himself, and still justify having a house in a prestigious place of learning named after him?