Harry Potter and Feminism
I just had another look at J.K. Rowling’s official site, wondering why “Wizard of the Month” hadn’t been changed to “Witch of the Month” in honour of the female Minister for Magic that takes pride of place in February’s calendar: Artemisia Lufkin (1754-1825).
This woman is a great woman, of that we can be sure. For, as well as achieving the top post at the Ministry of Magic, she has managed to spark a lot of debate among Harry Potter fans, intrigued by this glimpse into the history of women in magic:
“The wizarding community had a female head of office in the early 1800s? Good for them! I wonder why the magical world is so much more progressive on issues like women’s rights than the Muggle world has been?!”
Could this be a hint that the next Minister for Magic will be a woman? Why haven’t we seen more women in authority in the HP series? One fan has evidently worried over this matter:
“They’re her books and she can do whatever she likes, of course, but a lot more adults, for one thing, would have respect for such otherwise lovely books, if stereotypes weren’t so incredibly re-enforced in this series. I wouldn’t want my younger siblings, and children if I had planned to have any, to read them, because the first free-thinking, independent, non-nagging all the time, not second-in-command female doesn’t appear until the fifth book, in the character of Luna Lovegood. Tonks also has potential, and I do hope she will be developed more. But this issue is still a puzzle to me, especially since Ms. Rowling is so enlightened in all other matters.”
I would like to argue that the Harry Potter series is actually the perfect vehicle for subversive feminism (which, face it, is the only kind that will get through the chauvinist book-reviewers net), and that Ms. Rowling promotes perfectly the kind of equality that the magical world seems at first to overlook. If we are reading these books as adhering to patriarchal beliefs, I would suggest the fault is with us readers for the way we see meanings in certain things and not others, rather than a chauvinist traditionalism in the author. For the books are littered with examples of subtle pronouncements of Girl Power, and we must learn to recognise these if we are to represent to children the equality of the Harry Potter stories.
Firstly, let’s look at the most obvious stereotypes at play in the books — and which of these could be more obvious than Mrs. Weasley, the archetypal overbearing mother? Then we have Aunt Petunia, to whom nothing is more important than gossip and house pride. As well as these homemakers, we have a school very much run in a patriarchal way — a male headteacher (no surprises there), male school caretakers (Filch and Hagrid) and female child caretakers (Madam Pomfrey).
But hang on — let’s think about culture today — think about our mothers. I would say that most families are still based around pretty well established male and female stereotypes, especially the roles of childcare and homecare. Remember, these books are set in the 1990s — they are not science fiction! But Hermione, too, is a nag! Always fussing about what Harry and Ron are up to! So where does the feminism come in?
The answer to that is in the younger female characters — and there are many that prove this point. In fact, I believe Ms. Rowling has some very definite feelings about the interaction between school-age girls and boys. Firstly, there is Ginny, the only female Weasley for several generations, and the only girl in a 6-strong cast of Weasley boys, but nevertheless a very strong character herself. In Book 5, she is confident enough to challenge Harry’s self-absorption after Mr. Weasleys attack (UK OotP, pg. 441: ”Well, that was a bit stupid of you,” said Ginny angrily ). We later learn that Ginny hasn’t taken the overbearing personalities of her older brothers to heart: “She’s been breaking into your broom shed in the garden since the age of six and taking each of your brooms out in turn when you weren’t looking,” said Hermione (pg. 506). And Ginny’s Bat-Bogey Hex certainly put paid to Malfoy: ”Ginny was the best, she got Malfoy” (pg. 670). So she’s a powerful witch, and she can stand up for herself and others (for example, Neville on the train to Hogwarts).
Why is Ginny a feminist? She has an overwhelmingly male family, being the first female born into it for a long time, and yet she can hold her own. The fact that her brothers never let her play Quidditch with them didn’t discourage her from practising it by herself and becoming very good at it. This will ring a bell with school girls endlessly being told by boys that they’re rubbish at sports. In short, nothing any boy tells her is going to stop her doing what she wants: “Excuse me, but I care what happens to Sirius as much as you do!” said Ginny, her jaw set (pg. 671).
This leads me on to my second study — Quidditch players. We know that Quidditch is a game of skill, probably involving very good spatial awareness and dexterity — which, in the Muggle world, would probably make it a “male” sport (consider those tedious “spatial awareness” quizzes that aim to prove the differences between male and female brains). And yet, there are many very talented female Quidditch players in the Harry Potter books — Angelina Johnson, Katie Bell and Alicia Spinnet; Ginny Weasley; Cho Chang; and at least two of the Irish National Quidditch Team (Mullet and Moran, UK GoF, pp. 99-101).
It’s the National Team that gives us the hint that Quidditch is a subtle assertion of female equality — precisely because Rowling does not make a big deal about there being women on the team — she slips in the references: nearly knocking her off her broom (pg. 101). This shows that its not a surprise to have women on the team — they belong there because this sport is equal. Another way in which Quidditch is a tool for equality is the absence of girls on the teams of which we are less than fond — the Slytherin team, for one. This team has obviously gone for brawn and not brains (OotP, pg. 359), and I think the link between the corruption of the Slytherin team and the lack of girls is telling. Slytherins are prejudiced against Muggles and “Mudbloods,” and they also seem to be patriarchal (can you think of a female Slytherin that rose to power?). By creating an all-male team famous for its bigotry and corruption, Rowling is linking the Wizard-Muggle bigotry with all other types of bigotry, including male-female. So sexism is very definitely a bad thing in the Potterverse.
Thirdly, I’d like to discuss emotions in the HP books, and this point is actually best illustrated by Hermione — who, by her affinity for logical, mundane subjects, should be more “male-brained,” and therefore unemotional. But she has shown that she understands emotions very well, and gets some great lines out of it: “Just because you’ve got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have,” said Hermione nastily (OotP, pg. 406). Rowling uses Hermione to explain to the unemotional boys the differences between girls and boys — and in this way, she avoids the usual stereotypical mystique surrounding girls’ emotional states — the boys are not forced to wonder why girls are so crazy and mixed up — they are instructed by a rational, calm and independent female, and I believe this does them good, and hopefully does the male readers a bit of good, too!
Finally, why does this series follow the well-established convention for heroes — in that the hero and his nemesis are both male? Well, since Harry Potter just “popped into her head,” I think we can allow Ms. Rowling the choice of her heroes! I also think that the use of a male hero is important. Since the books have, purportedly, done so much for children’s literacy, they have to appeal to all children. And it’s sad, but true, that boys probably prefer a boy hero (unless its a Lara-Croft-type tomboy, groan!), whereas girls, being used to male dominance, will read anything. But in my opinion, this is good — the more males that read these books the better, considering the hidden feminism within their pages! I have a feeling this fan has read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code:
“Here’s one thing I don’t understand about the HP books. First female minister of magic 1754? Males in our world have been in power for an estimated 6000-7000 years because Goddess-worshipping tribes were killed off, and because males henceforth used sheer physical power to be tyrants. In the wizarding world, where physical strength has no meaning at all, and magical strength alone dictates how powerful a person is, there should be no gender differences. Why did Miss Rowling not think of this matter when she wrote her books?”
But, to that person, I would say: if Goddess-worshipping tribes are your thing, I’d keep a serious eye out for the future roles of Luna Lovegood and Lily Potter — and, if you have read The Da Vinci Code, then check out some of the Grail symbolism in the books, then think hard about what (or who) Harry sees in the Mirror of Erised, and for that matter Voldemort’s puzzlement at Lily’s ancient magic!! And, if Harry is the Sun God (Leo), we can be certain that Luna the Moon Goddess will provide the Yin to Harry’s Yang (note this is a storyline thought, not a ship!).
To conclude, I was at first a bit surprised by the apparent lack of strong female characters in the Harry Potter books, and the stereotypical portrayal of the girls in it. I felt a bit betrayed by this great author who knew what it was like to be a single mother. But I slowly realised that the Harry Potter books are perfect examples of a world in which women are equal to men — and not just equal, but free to be feminine without being submissive (for example Cho, Luna). It was my own reading of the books that was skewed by present Muggle society, and I now think Rowling has provided a very honest view of teenagers’ lives, while slipping in some important lessons.
We have seen women in power in the books — Millicent Bagnold, Fudge’s precedent as Minister for Magic was a woman (pg. 88, UK OotP), to name but one. But Rowling doesn’t overemphasize this fact, because it is only when issues like “men vs. women” cease altogether to be an issue that true equality has been gained, and this is why there is no mention of male-female dynamics in Harry Potter (other than romantic ones). These books are full of subtle feminism which should be a valuable lesson to all schoolchildren, if only they are read in the right spirit.