The Battle of the Women: A Critical Look at the Molly/Bellatrix Duel
Let me begin by stating what is bound to become the obvious to everyone reading this entire essay: I do not like the Molly/Bellatrix duel and probably never will. Why? The main reason is because it clearly illustrates a more old fashioned side of the Harry Potter books. Let me also start with a disclaimer: I sincerely believe Rowling created many strong female characters which defy stereotypes. This cannot be emphasized enough. The HP books are full of positive messages and themes and the characters created are vivid and complex. In this case though, Rowling reduces both characters involved to old fashioned tropes and reinforces stereotypes. How do I believe she is doing that? Is she doing that?
Now that the unpleasantness is out of the way and my own subjectivity out in the open it is possible to begin an analysis of this duel and the reactions it has received. It seems as though the duel has polarized the fandom and everyone has an opinion about it. You either like it or you don’t, you were either cheering when reading it or going “WTF, where’s Neville?” The fandom is spilt into fans loving the scene, skeptics which question Molly’s magical abilities, those happy Bellatrix is finally gone regarding of who is chosen to finish her off and last but not least those questioning the message of the duel and how positive it actually is. I count myself among this last group.
Molly vs Bellatrix- according to the author
But let’s begin from the beginning, with everyone’s favorite author and her take on the duel:
“I wanted it to be Molly, and I wanted it to be Molly for two reasons.
[…] Second reason: It was the meeting of two kinds of - if you call what Bellatrix feels for Voldemort love, I guess we'll call it love, she has a kind of obsession with him, it's a very sick obsession ... and I wanted to match that kind of obsession with maternal love... the power that you give someone by loving them. So Molly was really an amazing exemplar of maternal love. ... There was something very satisfying about putting those two women together.” (JKR at Carnegie Hall, Source: LeakyCauldron)
“Yes in book seven she kills Bellatrix- she is the only woman on the good side who kills. I saw Molly and Bellatrix standing opposite of each other for a long time; two completely different characters, who each show a very feminine side of love. The pure and protecting love of Molly, and the obsessive, perverse of Bellatrix. Those two feminine types of energy against each other. That was very satisfying to write.” (JKR interview nov 2007, http://www.the-leaky-cauldron.org/2007/11/19/new-interview-with-j-k-rowling-for-release-of-dutch-edition-of-deathly-hallows)
(emphasis mine, as it will become relevant later)
These explanations came as no surprise to most fans. The parallels between the characters were evident after the end of DH. What I find most interesting here is Rowling’s word choice. She associates Molly with words such as “maternal and pure” while Bellatrix is “perverse and obsessed.” I’m sure most of us would agree with this description and with Rowling’s assertion that they are each other’s opposites. The quotes also make it abundantly clear in my opinion that the fact that we are dealing with two female characters is important here ( just look at how many times Rowling mentions their gender). The duel would not have worked with Molly against a man. A more in depth comparison is perhaps useful here, expanding on the opinion Rowling presents.
In a book series praising maternal love and family Molly Weasley is the character which best embodies these themes. She is the ultimate matriarch, extending her love, kindness and generosity to Harry besides her already large brood of seven children. The Weasley family are not rich, to say the least, and yet none of the children are actually missing anything (despite Ron’s constant complaints about hand me downs and the family’s lack of money). Molly is also a member of the Order of the Phoenix, relatively active in this organization though not engaging into any fights prior to DH. Even in the Order, her role as a home maker and mother is evident in her treating her colleagues with hospitality and cooking them dinner at the Grimmauld Place. It is therefore no wonder that Harry holds the Weasleys in such high esteem and regards them with affection: they are the family he never had. Molly is the mother Harry never had, this being particularly evident at the end of GoF where Molly hugs an exhausted and traumatized Harry after his confrontation with Voldemort:
“He had no memory of ever being hugged like this, as though by a mother.” (Goblet of Fire, The Parting of the Ways, p. 620, UK hardback edition)
While Molly revels in being a mother it is debatable how content she is with her role as a housewife to Arthur Weasley. After all, we’re not talking about Aunt Petunia here with her passion for scrubbing everything clean and doting on her son and husband. Molly is a loving mother but a determined one demanding respect and authority. Even Fred and George respect and on some level even fear her. But like Ron, Molly is frustrated with the family’s financial situation and encourages Arthur to accept a position with higher pay at the Ministry something he vehemently refuses to do. So Molly is left struggling to manage a family of seven on a tight budget yet does so successfully. So much so, that she also throws Harry birthday parties and organizes her son’s wedding. She is a strong female character and a far cry from the oppressed traditional housewife. And speaking of strong women…
There is much to say about the portrayal of Bellatrix, little of it positive. She describes herself as Voldemort’s most faithful follower, proud of not denying her connection to him after his first downfall and constantly trying to earn his trust and appreciation. It quickly becomes obvious that, unfortunately for many characters, her magical power matches her sadistic tendencies, proven by her victories against many of the good characters. She is arguably the most powerful female character, with the exception perhaps of Minerva McGonagall. As opposed to other female characters and even some males, Bellatrix, as her name suggests, enjoys battling other wizards and fights alongside her male colleagues (the Death Eaters seem to be a male dominated organization with only two female members). While her sister Narcissa chooses to marry, mother a son and become a trophy wife, Bellatrix enters into a loveless marriage of convenience. In HBP, in Spinner’s end the difference between Narcissa and Bellatrix is underlined. Narcissa begs Snape to save her son while Bellatrix demonstrates no empathy or understanding for Narcissa’s maternal concern. In some way though Bellatrix does come around and helps Narcissa and Snape with the Vow.
The Deathly Hallows reveals another piece in the puzzle of this character, that piece being her attraction to none other than Voldemort. While many call her feelings love, the book never portrays it as being more than lust combined with devotion and a desire to achieve power. It is most likely therefore that Rowling refers to this “love” as perverse. It is a power hungry love, based on lust and shared ideals, very much unlike the love other characters feel and Dumbledore talks about. This aspect of Bellatrix’s character is very important and Rowling only shares it with her readers in the last book because it is what she needs to do in order to properly set up the duel between Molly and Bellatrix. It is the last nail in Bellatrix’s coffin.
A comparison between Molly and Bella is easy to make and what I’m about to write will come as no surprise to many fans since it is what they themselves believed and wrote in so many posts on so many forums. To keep it simple, where Molly is maternal, Bellatrix is not only childless but as HBP demonstrates unable to feel empathy for her sister’s concern for her son. Adding to that, we have her infamous line about “giving up” her children to Voldemort.
“You should be proud!’ said Bellatrix ruthlessly. ‘If I had sons, I would be glad to give them up to the service of the Dark Lord’ ” (Half Blood Prince, Spinner’s End, p. 39, UK hardback edition)
(Notice the use of the word “ruthlessly”.) Molly, while having a dangerous temper, completely lacks Bellatrix’s cruelty and desire to hurt in order to achieve her goals. She also prefers to stay out of the action, or is kept out of it by the author, while Bellatrix considers the battlefield her home. After all, when Molly engages in combat she only does so out of the strong maternal desire to protect her daughter. Molly uses knives to cook dinner, Bellatrix to kill Dobby. While Molly flushes when Arthur calls her “Mollywobbles” in Harry’s presence (Half blood prince, An Excess of Phlegm, p.86), Bellatrix has no qualms about talking to Voldemort “as though to a lover” (DH, The flaw in the plan, p. 580, UK edition) in the presence of all the other Death Eaters. Indeed, Bellatrix’s sexual power is so great that it reduces even the terrifying Lord Voldemort to a simple, potential bed partner. Bellatrix is portrayed as a subject and Voldemort, who fascinates other prominent male characters such as Dumbledore, as a mere object of desire in her view. Voldemort may like to think of himself as “more than a man” as he tells Frank Bryce (Goblet of Fire, The Riddle House, p. 19, UK hardback edition), but to Bellatrix this is what he is most of all.
Very few other female characters display their desires so openly and attempt to pursue a man. Lily Evans is turned into an object by the author as she is desired and loved by both Snape and James. All we know about her take on the matter is that she chooses James after he outgrows his bullying tendencies. Ginny may have a crush on Harry but decides to date other boys waiting patiently for Harry to sweep her off her feet in HBP. When she expresses her love for Harry in CoS, it nearly leads to her undoing and allows Tom Riddle to manipulate her. Lavender pursues Ron passionately but she is made into an object of ridicule. A whole other essay could be written discussing why Rowling attributes sexuality to her most negative female character and also why lust is, according to Rowling, part of what drives Bellatrix into committing evil acts, aside from her bigotry. But I digress…
When Molly met Bella
Without attempting to speak for anyone else and least of all for Rowling I believe this is how she meant us to compare these two female characters and come out of it with Molly on top. So why is this problematic? Because it is not just a duel between good and evil; it is about much more than that. It is a duel between bad and good women, madonnas and whores, mothers and non-mothers, some even said it is Rowling’s warning to post feminism. Consider this quote from Kate on MuggleNet Academia, episode two:
Kate: “I always read that as maybe Rowling warning post feminists of taking power a little bit too far maybe… […]. I had thought of it as maybe Rowling’s response to post feminine women who want to obtain a higher power than men.” (MuggleNet Academia, lesson 2, 40:55- 41:33)
This quote best illustrates why the duel is a problem to me and to other fans. I am not targeting the quote itself as I largely believe it to be a reasonable interpretation but there are some things I disagree with here. First of all, just to be nitpicky, we cannot actually talk about a post-feminist period since the struggle of feminism is not over and probably will not be over for at least 100 years from now, even longer in non-Western parts of the world. Second, I personally see nothing wrong with women wanting power. And third, I do not believe feminists would like to have their movement represented by someone like Bellatrix. It has to be said: She cannot be considered a feminist icon in the full sense of the word. Bellatrix is constantly seeking Voldemort’s approval and avoiding his anger, hardly evidence of feminism. The discussion continues thusly:
Kate: “Since Molly Weasley is such as strong character maybe that’s Rowling saying that it’s safe for women to stay in the home, we’re past the 1970s when women were burning bras. We’re able to stay in the home but still have an ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ kind of feeling”. (MuggleNet Academia, lesson 2, 46:32-46:42)
I believe, once again, that this is a conclusion Rowling would approve of. It might not be exactly what she had in mind but to me at least it is completely understandable that people have interpreted the duel in this manner. It is these kinds of interpretations that the duel brings forth. This is what I believe (if not a problem already), should be problematized and discussed critically. Molly may not be the traditional housewife, she may wield more power than the traditional housewife and demand greater authority and respect. But the historical connotations are there. One does not need to know a lot about feminism to understand that it was largely about women attempting to shed labels of domesticity, passivity, of not having any other goals to fulfill besides their biological ones. Not too long ago women were told they had to choose between career and family and that choosing the former will leave them unsatisfied. Not too long ago, only a few decades ago actually, women were being told they were not fit for anything besides motherhood and that they should give in to their biological needs. This is part of what the feminist struggle has been about; not about “luring” women away from the home or stigmatizing motherhood and marriage as there is nothing wrong with these things per se, but rather about preventing these things from becoming limiting or perceived as “natural” for a woman (while a man is free to pursue whatever lifestyle he wishes).
In many ways, Molly is a traditional woman and her type of femininity is traditional and one which has praised by men throughout centuries. It is unthreatening, comforting even. Bellatrix’s femininity is different and, it could be argued, more modern (which Kate also believes judging by her applying the label of “post-feminist” to Bellatrix). Women are not traditionally good warriors, sadists, openly expressing their sexual desires, and choosing a life which doesn’t involve domestic bliss and children. That’s not to say that there aren’t sexist aspects to Bellatrix as well. I am also not suggesting that she is in any way a positive role model, very much unlike Molly. But in this case she represents a modern type of femininity. She is not the type of character you could find in books written in the 1950s. Or rather, you could but it would be only to prove a point, the point Rowling is also making: that what she is doing is bad, “obsessive and perverse” and what Molly is doing is “pure and maternal” and right. Rowling certainly isn’t the first author to use the Good vs Bad Woman trope and is unlikely to be the last. This stereotype was used a while ago in the form of a confrontation between the “good mother” and the bad “career woman”. While Molly and Bella certainly don’t fit those roles (they are much more than that) they do re-enact the trope. Here is another quote from the same podcast about how Molly Weasley personifies the comfort of the home:
John: “So you’re suggesting that a young woman reader reads the book and doesn’t say ‘wow, I really don’t want to stay at home and be just a mom, I wanna go out into the world’ , but she sees Molly Weasley as a ‘hey I can be at home, have a dynamic, and challenging relationship with my spouse and my children and be, you know, a full person as well as a woman.” (MuggleNet Academia, lesson 2, 46:00-46:27)
This is meant to present Molly as a positive role model and indeed does so to some extent. Of course young women should be exposed both to strong female characters who work outside the home and to those who do not. But history once again rears its ugly and full of lessons head and this interpretation of Molly’s character can instantly be seen in a more negative light; the home is where the woman is happiest. This is not what Rowling intended but it is a valid interpretation. Indeed, it is rather strange that Rowling doesn’t present or think of this at all as being problematic considering the history of women and their struggles for independence. I’m not willing to go as far as to believe that Rowling is advocating for women to return to the home. Not at all! According to Rowling neither Hermione, nor Ginny became housewives. In fact, Molly is the only positive housewife that we see, Petunia and Narcissa being rather nasty people.
(I would like to make a brief pause here and say that being a home maker in real life is not the issue here. On the contrary, women making their own choice, no matter what those choices are, is nothing if not empowering. But at the same time I don’t think the same logic which applies to real women also applies to female characters. Characters cannot make choices; the author chooses for them, compares their choices and, as in this case, presents one choice as more suitable for a woman than another. Herein lies the problem. Had Bellatrix won the duel I would still be writing this essay. While another outcome may have removed the historical links, it would certainly leave us with the same problem of the comparison between two different female characters in this case reduced to stereotypes, to caricatures of their former selves.)
What I believe Rowling is doing therefore, is comparing women to each other and judging some as more appropriate examples of femininity than others. Of course Rowling should portray bigotry, violence and murder as wrong, no doubt about that. They are reprehensible in both sexes. But what the duel shows is not that. The duel itself, as well as Rowling’s post publication quotes, show that the main problem with Bellatrix’s character is her attraction to Voldemort and her not suppressing that attraction but acting on it and pursuing it. Her evil side is trivialized and the readers are encouraged to focus on and judge her lifestyle, her choices, and her personal life. Rowling is vilifying traits like lust or childlessness which are otherwise neutral. Women being judged in this manner is something feminism has fought to abolish. And really, do you have to be a feminist to agree that no femininity is better or worse than another, just like no masculinity is better or worse than another and that people should freely make their own choices? The mention of the B word only adds to the issues of this scene since it first of all makes the duel seem comic and secondly confirms the importance of gender in the duel. This a “woman on woman fight” where the characters’ gender is highly relevant.
How Bellatrix “made” Molly
Needless to say most fans have enjoyed the duel and this isn’t a problem in itself. I know many also believe it to a have a positive message since it empowers housewives and encourages people not to underestimate them. That may very well be, but reactions such as “I always thought Molly was just a housewife but know we know there’s more to her. Go Molly!” which I am sure we’ve all seen on HP boards, are hardly a compliment in my humble opinion. First of all, Molly’s character needs no justification. What she does is good, she is a positive female character and role model. But according to these reactions, she needs to demonstrate male like power and defeat someone in battle in order to be considered a full-fledged character. Second, I don’t see how it can be flattering to any group of people to be reduced to stereotypes and to representations of just one of the many choices they have made in their lives. Third, what about Molly’s sudden popularity? She has been around since book one, doing what she always does. Yet some fans only really start noticing her after she defeats Bellatrix. It is now impossible to discuss Molly without that subject coming up eventually, while Bellatrix still has the fans she gained after her first appearance in the books and is much less defined by the duel. Oh Molly, we never knew you… In the end she owes most of her newly gained popularity to Bellatrix. Perverse indeed!
In defense of the duel
However, context is always important. I wouldn’t want to overstate my case. The HP books are rather traditional in many aspects. Power and ambition are condemned even in men, think Dumbledore and Barty Crouch Sr, not to mention Lord Voldemort himself. Maternal love is also a very important theme of the series, Harry being saved by a mother’s love not just once in the first war but also in the second when Narcissa deceived Voldemort. The most unlikable house, that of Slytherin, has ambition as one of its most important values indicating ambition is a negative trait. The main themes of the books are love, friendship and family. These are also the things Harry has and that Voldemort has never known and always devalued. Indeed, it can even be argued that the author presents Harry as a better wizard (man) than Voldemort just like she presents Molly as a better witch (woman) than Bellatrix.
I am not entirely satisfied with these explanations (hence the essay of course). The situations are in no way comparable. Voldemort and Harry face each other because they must, because Voldemort has killed Harry’s parents and will not rest until Harry joins them. This is more than just a man who can’t love against a boy who can and does so immensely. With Bella and Molly the duel could have been edited out with none the wiser since no one saw it coming anyway. It was put in simply to make a point which while it underlines the motherhood theme of the series it also touches a rather sensitive chord. There were after all other Death Eaters Molly could have taken out in a fit of maternal rage (how about Dolohov who killed her brothers?).
To summarize, neither Bella nor Molly’s characterizations are wrong or anti-feminist or what have you. Neither is a perfect role model nor entirely devoid of positive qualities. It is only when these two characters are put together that negative connotations appear and the ghost of women’s past (or what should be their past) re-emerges.