On Feminism and Harry Potter

Warning: spoilers.

I’ve always loved Harry Potter.  When I was seven, I had a pen pal with whom I corresponded solely about the Harry Potter books.  When I was eleven, I genuinely wished I could be whisked away to Hogwarts to study magic, instead of to middle school to study algebra.  When I was fifteen, I sobbed over Fred Weasley’s death.  And when I was eighteen, I joined the Harry Potter Alliance, which helped me to see the ways in which Harry Potter, as a book, has impacted our lives.

A recent article in Business Insider, entitled “Reading ‘Harry Potter’ Makes You a Better Person, Research Shows” discusses how the books are useful tools for teaching empathy…something that the founders of the Harry Potter Alliance have known, and been utilizing, for years.  By reaching out to fans of the books, the HPA has built libraries, created podcasts, moved petitions, organized phone banks, hosted Rock the Vote concerts, sent medical supplies to disaster zones, and worked to support individuals struggling with mental illness, among other great causes.  Reflecting on the HPA, and on the books themselves, I’ve been thinking of all the amazing, and subtle, messages that I got from reading these books as a young woman, about myself, about my potential, about figuring out who I am…and what that means, reading the book from a feminist perspective.

 

When I first set out to write this post, I wanted to recognize several of the female characters who most stood out across the series-~-and I will, in a moment.  But I honestly think that having a few strong women at the forefront is not what makes Rowling’s books so incredible.  Rather, it’s the fact that every woman in the Potter universe, no matter how good or bad she may be, has her own agency and makes her own decisions.  Characters major and minor live their lives in Rowling’s world in such a way that Hermione is special not because she is a woman who is also incredibly talented, but simply because she is so incredibly talented.  McGonnagal is one of the most amazing teachers at Hogwarts not because she’s the one female teacher with a spine (she’s not), but because she’s absolutely resolute in who she is, and she’s willing to fight for the Hogwarts she loves.  These are wonderful, strong characters who happen to be women, not women who stand out as great because the other women around them fall flat…and that’s more special than I think we sometimes recognize.

Take Lavender Brown, just as an example.  Lavender lurks in the background for the first five books, sighing over Professor Trelawney’s lessons, excitedly attending the Yule Ball, participating in class, until she starts dating Ron in Half Blood Prince and moves closer to the forefront, at least temporarily.  You’re not really supposed to like this about Lavender, because you’re mostly rooting for Hermione, but the reality is that from the moment you meet her, Lavender is an independent agent.  She’s not brilliant, but she’s not unintelligent either-~-she’s just different from Hermione.  Lavender genuinely seems to care about Ron, she acts on her own impulses and has her own preferences, and she ultimately makes the brave decision to fight in the Battle of Hogwarts at the end of the series.

The same is true for many of the other background characters, or even villainous characters, featured in the books.  There’s basically nothing likable about Bellatrix Lestrange, but she is definitively a strong character: she survives Azkaban with her personality intact, pursues her ends fairly relentlessly, and is a remarkably internally consistent character.  Narcissa Malfoy makes the brave decision to defy Voldemort and protect Harry in order to seek out her son after the Battle of Hogwarts appears over.  Even Aunt Petunia, who is an annoying and terrible guardian for Harry, still has and pursues her own objectives, and stands up to Vernon when she is forced to remember how vital her role is in protecting Harry.  Rowling also gives us Professor Sprout, Madam Pomfrey, handfuls of random quidditch players and DA members, Fleur, Harry’s first girlfriend, Cho Chang, and witches who are simply referenced as being incredibly powerful or important scholars, to round out a universe where women clearly matter.

It’s not just the women who are worth taking note of here, though: Rowling’s male characters are, generally speaking, respectful of the women they work with.  Harry and Ron openly admire Hermione and admit that they could never have succeeded (in school or in life) without her.  Fred and George are incredibly proud of Ginny’s accomplishments when they are all in school together.  And they’re equally respectful of their significant others: Rowling never allows any of her male characters to become emotionally or physically violent towards their female counterparts, and instead, they’re generally supportive of their female partners.  From Harry’s general support of Ginny to Ron’s open recognition of Hermione’s brilliance to Arthur and Molly’s obvious partnership, Rowling depicts healthy male-female friendships and romantic relationships for her readers to enjoy.

It is on top of a cast of generally empowered women that Rowling then gives her readers Hermione Granger, Ginny Weasley, Molly Weasley, Luna Lovegood, and Minerva McGonagall.  Each of these women is a different kind of woman-~-some are tough, some are absentminded, some are sweet, some are sharp-~-but they all bring something unique and valuable to the table, and they each act on their agency in their own way.  And as such, each of these incredible female characters brings something different for a reader to connect to and admire, whether it’s Hermione’s academic prowess, Ginny’s athleticism and spunk, Luna’s intellectual curiosity and subsequent social outcast status, or Molly’s mothering but no-nonsense nature, they are all multi-dimensional, colorful characters whom you come to care about.

 

At the end of the day, its the combination of these elements that makes Harry Potter such a great read from a feminist perspective.  Obviously, Rowling does far more, tackling labor issues, mental health, ableism, masculinity issues, racism, and classism as she moves through the series, and that, too, makes the series invaluable from a social justice perspective.  Rowling takes issues that are of great importance today, and makes them accessible and relatable, through strong characters that readers come to love and admire…and honestly, that’s some of the greatest magic of all.

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~ by Randi Saunders on September 20, 2014.

One Response to “On Feminism and Harry Potter”

  1. I am a huge fan of hp. Never though of the women from that perspective. Thanks for pointing out. More to love about the series and jk Rowling!

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