*Disclaimer: The following is based on how the characters are depicted in the Harry Potter book series, not in the movies.
The Harry Potter universe is known for having many parallels to social justices issues in the real world. Never is this more obvious than in chronicling the systemic oppression faced by Dobby and other house elves. In the series, house elves are essentially slaves owned by various wizarding families, institutions, and organizations, who perform various essential but manually taxing or repetitive actives in order to make those families, institutions, and organizations run more smoothly. The house elves are bound by magic to their masters and thus cannot escape unless set free. And this is just accepted by every witch and wizard. Their contributions are also so undervalued that we don’t even know that there is such a thing as an elf, and that house elves are the unseen and unheard slaves of the wizarding community, until Dobby makes his first appearance in Harry’s life in the second book of the series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
At his introduction to the series, Dobby is the house elf of the Malfoy family, and one who is presented as having the unique desire to be free. Dobby wants more than to be a servant to this cruel wizarding family for the rest of his life, and though he sees no means of escape, he does try his best to save Harry Potter, whom he idolizes as a hero. As a (disrespected and abused) part of the Malfoy household, Dobby was privy to the knowledge that the Chamber of Secrets at Hogwarts would be re-opened, and went out of his way to warn Harry to not return to the school, a warning that Harry does not heed.
This is the first (but certainly not the last) time that Dobby puts his life on the line to help protect wizards, even though the magical community at large has a hierarchy that puts wizards at the top, and house elves firmly beneath them (and every other magical being). Though possessing rather impressive magic of their own, and access to spaces that even wizards can be barred from, house elves are treated with oblivious dismissal at best, and gross abuse at worst.
The series in many instances, explores the inherently oppressive dynamic of wizards and elves, and how even the humans who didn’t own elves benefitted greatly from their labour. As aforementioned, most wizarding families own house elves, but the muggle-borns, like Hermione, or those raised outside the magical world, like Harry, are completely oblivious to their existence. And when they are made aware of the existence of these beings, it changes almost nothing.
When Hermione discovers that house elves are unpaid labourers, and that Hogwarts has several hundred house elves who do the work of cooking, cleaning, and other janitorial services on the campus, she starts an organization called the Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare (SPEW). Hermione doesn’t bother to ask the house elves at Hogwarts what they want, what they need, what would make their lives more comfortable. Her “surveys” come with the implication that she can do more for them than they can for themselves. She doesn’t like the answers they give, so rather than peel back the layers of their internalized oppression, and analyze the role she plays in it, Hermione patronizingly assumes that she knows what’s best for them, pities them for not having many ambitions outside of working, and uselessly knits items to “promote awareness”.
This is very similar to what White “allies” who speak against racism do: Either parrot what Black and nonBlack people of colour have been saying for years, and use our words to bolster their own platforms, or ignore us altogether, and demand that they lead the charge in our liberation, without any input from us, the people who will actually be affected. Also similar to these “allies”, Hermione continues to relax her morals when it becomes clear that nearly all of the people in her life are either staunchly for, or neutral about (which is inherently for, in matters of systemic oppression), the enslavement of house elves. Much like White “allies” speaking on Black oppression, Hermione is found irritating by her peers, but absolutely no one responds to her with hostility or threats, as they would a house elf speaking for themselves, and being their own activists. This is privilege, one that blinded this otherwise intelligent girl as to why even the house elves who were dissatisfied would never align themselves with SPEW, because doing so could endanger them. Her “cause”, one that she eventually considered a success and gave up on, even as other house elves were still legally enslaved, was a matter of life and death to the beings in question. Hermione’s performative allyship, while questioning the social position of house elves, never questioned or challenged the system which gave her a platform to speak for and over them, the same system which was responsible for their oppression in the first place.
Much like White people’s discussions of emancipation, the discussions these young wizards had (all without elf input, of course) about the welfare of house elves was disgustingly belittling, and those who were open about seeing elves as inferior were actually a breath of fresh air from those who insisted that enslavement was “good for them”, and that, since serving wizards was the only life they knew, the elves must therefore enjoy it. Absolutely no one, not even their “ally”, Hermione, asked the elves what they wanted, what would make them more comfortable and their jobs easier, or even who/where there families were. Even presenting Dobby as the only elf who desires freedom, simply because he is the most vocal about it is inherently privileged, myopic rhetoric. Not only did it give validity to the arguments of slave-owning wizards, but teaching readers that marginalization is wrong, but the narrative that most of the marginalized are totally happy with being oppressed is profoundly dangerous.
Hermione also falsely assumed that the house elves didn’t want to work, when in reality, most of them enjoyed labour, and just wanted recognition and compensation for that labour. Dobby didn’t hate being a house elf so much as he hated belonging to the Malfoys. He wanted to be treated with dignity and respect; he never wanted to stop working. It is when Dobby is sans employment that the reader understands the true plight of wanting to be paid for your labour when nearly all of your species is forced to work for free. When Harry tricks Lucius Malfoy into freeing Dobby, it is Harry who is seen as a hero for taking a minute to take off his sock, not the brave elf who put his life on the line again and again to both save Harry and strive for his own autonomy. We were too busy praising Harry and forgiving him for ignoring Hermione’s (well-intended, albeit misguided and self-centered) conversations about ending the system of elf enslavement to understand that the way he favoured and tokenized Dobby while ignoring the plight of other elves was part of the problem. I can’t stress fully enough how deeply problematic it is that the series hero, as well as his mentor, Professor Dumbledore, claims to be fighting for (wizard) justice while continuously ignoring their oppressions of non-wizard beings, many of whom (elves, giants, centaurs, etc.) they then run to in order to help fight their battles.
Eventually, Dobby lands a job working in the Hogwarts kitchens for one galleon a week and one day a month off. This compensation, respect, lighter work, and acknowledgement were all he ever wanted, and while it’s great that Dumbledore eventually came around to understanding this, it is sad that the welfare of the thousands of other house elves slaving for wizarding families, being abused, and separated from their kin, are largely ignored. Everyone can pat themselves on the back because they managed to help some elves without actually having to change the system oppressing them, a system from which the wizarding community benefits entirely, at all. Just like in the real world, tokenism only helps select members of a group. It never truly liberates all, nor is it meant to. Tokenism is a means by which the oppressor can assuage their guilt, and the oppressed can be tricked into silence by believing that progress has been made.
Because of Harry’s hand (or rather, sock) in freeing him, Dobby remains almost obsessively loyal to him, which is also a huge problem. So often in the real world, marginalized groups are expected to be so grateful when a member of an oppressive group deigns to do the bare minimum on our behalf. Though (thankfully) Harry doesn’t demand such reverence from Dobby (quite the opposite, actually), Dobby is portrayed as endearing for his unending gratitude, one which Harry and Dumbledore have absolutely no qualms about using to get their token to shame, spy on, and fight other house elves on their behalf. Dobby is eventually portrayed as the enlightened version of Winky, and the evolved version of Kreacher, two beings who have been crudely shaped by centuries of systemic oppression, and years of internalized abuse, and then blamed for how this has affected their perspectives. Every elf who isn’t “on Dobby’s level” is portrayed as varying degrees of pathetic or dangerous, or simply not worth discussing.
Though Rowling was clearly trying to make her readers recognize oppression and exploitation, she did so from the lens of privilege, and it shows, not only in the way that Dobby was tokenized, but also in Hermione’s performative allyship, one that had more to do with assuaging her witch guilt than wanting these beings to have equal rights to herself. In Hermione’s mind, slightly less oppression for a few elves was good enough. Why do they need more? They should be grateful they aren’t still slaves! Sound familiar? At the end of the day, the hierarchy of wizards first, and a magical community which revolves around their wants and needs, is never even remotely threatened.
Dobby floats in and out of the Harry Potter series, there when his particular brand of magic, or his relation to other elves, is required, conveniently absent when it is not. Now, I know that Dobby is not a central character to the series, but his role throughout the Harry Potter series was reduced to that of a very intelligent pet. His opinions, desires, experiences, and input simply wasn’t valued as much as that of other magical creatures. Even his “best friend” Harry Potter never once asked him who his parents had been, if he had any siblings, or if he wanted to have a family. In fact, Dobby and all the house elves are reduced to sex-less beings whom, although they must be reproducing somehow, are like autonomous machines whose feelings (beyond loyalty and work ethic) simply do not matter. So perhaps Dobby was actually more like a neutered pet.
True respect for Dobby comes when Harry is digging the elf’s grave, after he is killed protecting Harry once more. In this moment, Harry treats Dobby’s corpse with the same sort of patience, compassion, and reverence that Dobby had always shown him. Dobby’s death was one of the most harrowing of the series not just because he was so loyal and kind, but because we knew nothing about him outside of his relationship to important wizards. We loved Dobby, but never really got to know him. His freedom and gainful employment were attributed to the efforts of Harry and Hermione, respectively, and somehow, Rowling thought that it was okay that his life then revolve around them. Dobby was bright, brave, and bold. He deserved more than to be a footnote in the life of Harry Potter. It is at his death that Dobby is finally afforded the humanity, attention, and gratitude that he always deserved. In his life, Dobby was tokenized while the rest of his species was limited to reductive tropes. And sadly, by writing his character this way, Rowling did not teach readers to do better in combating slavery, racism, and other systems of oppression. She simply re-enforced the status quo.