Hey baby, what’s your sign?
A few months ago my brothers and I were sitting around talking, when my oldest brother, R, asserted for some reason that we are all Ravenclaws, maybe with the exception of my youngest brother, M, who might be Gryffindor. I was about to argue with R, but I stopped myself because I realized my point was going to drag R away from his point, which is that everyone in my family is very smart, and into a deconstruction of the entire premise of Harry Potter houses. I remembered this moment recently when I watched a video by Screen Prism about why Hufflepuff represents a personality type that more people should aspire to. I realized thinking about both the video and R’s comment that my biggest issue with the houses is that I don’t really identify with any of them – yes, my intellectual drive has dictated a lot of my life, like a Ravenclaw, but the way that I’ve actually pursued my intellectual goals has been unabashedly ambitious (Slytherin) and has required a lot of bravery (Gryffindor). And my personal interactions are largely guided by a sense of compassion and fairness (Hufflepuff). In short, I see aspects of all the defining house personality traits in how I conduct myself.
I usually offer the ajahs from Wheel of Time as a counterpoint to the houses. Where the houses describe who you are, the ajahs define what you do, and noteably in the world they inhabit, they apply to fully formed adults as sort of professional societies, rather than children in school. There are 7 ajahs, which gives more archetypes: white (philosophers and mathematicians), gray (lawyers and jurists), green (activists), red (police and those enforcing order), blue (politicians), yellow (doctors), and brown (historians and archivists). Wheel of Time largely describes the ajahs in terms of the personalities they attract – cool and logical whites or severe reds – but in it’s actual treatment of the characters, we as the readers find that similar personalities with similar goals exist across different ajahs only because they have different methods. As a teenager first reading these books, I always thought of myself as a green – driven by passion, argumentative, idealistic but grounded. But as an adult I’m reconsidering whether I’m actually a brown, since my passions have led me to history and the reinvigoration of knowledge of the human past. I’m a historian, not an activist, even if I try to implement activist goals in my work. This really shouldn’t be an identity crisis – it’s a fictional identity system, after all, and it has no bearing on my life.
But it’s hard not to look for archetypes to make sense of our personalities, even as much as we know the archetypes are overly rigid and simplistic. This is the appeal of zodiac signs, which, at 12, offer the most complex variety. But even there, I’m on the border between Capricorn and Aquarius and I usually find that a combination of their traits describes me best. Say what you will about the myth of the zodiac, but the kind of guidance people look for in it is less about telling the future and more about finding a way to approach the world that fits with your individual personality.
In that sense, identifying with your sign is perhaps just as valid as looking to your Meyers Briggs type. There, again, I am exactly in the middle of two types. I am equal parts introvert and extravert, and equal parts thinking and feeling, so I guess I’m an I/ENT/FJ. I have gotten this result every time I’ve taken this test, across different versions – even when I get a concrete answer, the analysis always says I was exactly on the border for two of the four traits.
All this is not just to brag about how complex and balanced I am as an individual. Actually, I think in some ways I’m very rigid and adhere to a very specific type. It’s just that type isn’t represented as such in any of these systems. I’m reminded of when I was in high school, my teachers often described me as a history/English type more than a math/science type. And I really resented this label, especially given the evidence that year to year I was consistently best in history and science, I only did well in history when I liked the subject matter, I had almost no interest in most of the literature we read, and despite my somewhat poor math grades, my teachers independently opted to place me in an advanced class because they thought I would enjoy it more even though I would probably not show it in my grades (this was perhaps the most enlightened educational moment I’ve ever participated in). It took me until college to realize that there were plenty of people like me, and they all worked in interdisciplinary fields like archaeology.
In fact, I think archetypes are important – they give us the tools to articulate our feelings and experiences by helping us identify our greatest personal values, drivers, and pitfalls. Even though I didn’t become an archaeologist, I found it offered a model for how I wanted to move forward in my career – it made it easier for me to choose my own path because I could tweak one that already existed instead of throwing out the whole system. In that vein, I still find the ajahs and zodiac signs appealing, because I think they’re specific enough that I can reasonably discount the parts that don’t apply to me. Yes, I’m a historian, but I’m still grounded and driven by passion – ultimately, I’m still a green ajah. And maybe I’m creative and take risks (Aquarius), and maybe I’m not as stubborn as I used to be (or as much as my mom would have you believe), but ultimately I require a certain level of structure around me, even if just so I can ignore it (Capricorn).
Where I have more trouble with the Meyers Briggs and Harry Potter houses is that they are so general that they become restrictive – in attempting to adhere to these identities, it’s easy to hide behind them instead. The introvert/extrovert divide is the clearest example of this within the Meyers Briggs scale. Just look at the memes.
And in the Harry Potter houses, it’s the impassioned defenses of Hufflepuff and Slytherin.
Identifying so strongly with an archetype leads to a kind of tribalism that minimizes the similarities across these divides in favor of the defining traits within them.
Notably, this criticism I’m making is in line with perhaps my strongest personality trait – a resistance to definitions and personally being put in a box. I have yet to find an archetype that focuses on that, even though I think a lot of people feel as strongly about it as I do, and certainly there’s space for this trait within the broad definitions of every archetype system. In fact, this trait overwhelmingly pervades my work and my life, and has been the root cause of a lot of interpersonal conflict. A lot of people find real comfort in these archetypes, in knowing that they belong. I find comfort in knowing that I don’t. I like having something to push back on, I like the fluidity of being able to move between groups. I like the poetry of light as both a particle and a wave. I don’t want a tribe, I want many.
So who am I to criticize the comfort other people find in their Harry Potter house? If that helps them assert their identity, if it helps them find their people, that’s all right with me. As long as I can still move around between these groups, argue with them in good faith, and be appreciated in my personal complexity, I’m happy with archetypes.
To sum up, I’m reminded, as usual, of a Regina Spektor song:
The one who left wanted everything
The one who stayed never wanted more
It’s not your choice, it’s how you’re built
It’s in a blueprint of your soul
Something to being one of the many
Something to being one in the masses
Something to being surrounded by others and not alone by yourself