Strong Mothers, Smart Lovers: Identity Conflict of Harry Potter’s Women (Through the Eyes of the Reader)

by Carmen

Abstract: This essay analyzes the new perspective on the ideals and roles of women that has been brought to discussion by Harry Potter and its readers, and how understanding how this perspective can continue the discussion (and ultimately progress) with women’s equality for the next generation.  Strong Mothers, Smart Lovers: Identity Conflict of Harry Potter’s Women (Through the eyes of the Reader).

Although the Harry Potter series is arguably the most successful work of literature in the postmodern era (in terms of financial success and mainstream pop culture recognition), the women in the series can be identified as anything but postmodern in characterization. At least, that is what one initial interpretation of a fan forum discussing female characters might suggest. In fact, as I read the forum and the written responses talking about how the anonymous contributors admired different female characters for their “loyalty” to the more prominent male characters, and admitting how woefully underdeveloped the histories of the female characters are (especially when compared to the mini-biographies given within the series for Harry Potter, Lord Voldemort, Albus Dumbledore, and Severus Snape), I even began to question myself whether or not I had shamefully forgone my own principles of self-worth and feminism in favor of a good read.

However, after many weeks of careful deliberation (and internal strife over whether or not by being a loyal fan of Harry Potter I was contributing to the reversal of progress made by previous era of women’s movements), I finally realized that the characterization of women in traditional postmodern literature and the identities of women in the real world are often stark contrasts. In the case of the Harry Potter series, as the forum contributions have made clear, the female characters overall do not embody what we would consider to be radically postmodern feminist personas. They are loyal friends, girlfriends, mothers, wives, professors, caretakers, and lower employees. They are not represented in the main protagonist nor antagonist, the main source of wisdom or tragic hero, the most skilled Aurors (wizards training against the Dark Arts), or the most highly ranked government officials. Yet, in the forum they are also ascribed positive traits (for example, Hermione’s intelligence and bravery). These conflicting portrayals of women are recognizable in today’s world of conflicting and confusing identities women seek to attain, so becoming familiar with these conflicting reflections of ourselves the women of Harry Potter enables us to understand another reason why the story has found its way into the hearts of millions of readers around the world.

The main subject of this analysis is a thread found on a forum hosted by Mugglenet. The title of the forum is “About female characters,” and the original post was created by a user named Green_Arrow. The title alone immediately invokes a question; after all, to date, there is no thread entitled “About male characters” in the forum. This is a subtle yet important red flag. According to Jane Flax, the author of Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory, “gender relations themselves have been concealed in a variety of ways, including defining women as a “question” or the “sex” or the “other”” and men as the universal (or at least without gender)” (Flax, 629). So while male characters are freely discussed without being assigned their “male” roles, women have an entire forum dedicated to their feminine selves.

This original post by the forum creator asks that responders answer three questions: “Favorite over-all [female] character?”, “Favorite [female] character on the side of the light/dark?”, and “Character you would like to know more about?” The discussion following the original post continues where mostly users post their answers to the questions along with the reasoning behind them. When beginning to read the forum, I immediately noticed repetition of certain traits different posters admire in female characters. The third poster describes Hermione Granger as “very loyal” and claims to admire Narcissa Malfoy for “her devotion to her family.” The next two forum participants also refer to Hermione for her “loyalty” and state the belief that Hermione was important in the series because “Harry really needed her.” A later post states how Luna Lovegood “helps Harry and the Trio in the Department of Mysteries.” This pattern of describing female characters through their relation with males is a consistent one throughout the forum, citing prominent characters including Bellatrix Lestrange as well as minor ones like Augusta Longbottom, where females are admired for their ability to be supportive, helpful, and devoted to others (mostly males). Furthermore, the perspective on the female characters is usually described through the relationship they have to a more prominent male character (Hermione Granger is Harry’s best friend, Bellatrix Lestrange is Voldemort’s second-in-command, Molly Weasley is Arthur’s wife and the mother of the Weasley children, Ginny is Ron’s sister and Harry’s love interest).

According to Flax on traditional roles of women, “gender relations so far as we have been able to understand them have been (more or less) relations of domination. That is, gender relations have been (more) defined and (imperfectly) controlled by one of their interrelated aspects-the man” (Flax, 629). This statement is reinforced through how the women are viewed and perceived through men. Rarely are any of the female characters referred to by their own independent statuses and histories, and many different posters state their wish to know the noticeably absent back-stories on these women. This is not to say the females are not described in any positive and non-submissive ways, but therein lies the postmodern contradiction to the traditional feminine persona defined earlier. Many of the descriptions of the female characters (especially protagonists such as Hermione, Luna Lovegood, Minerva McGonagall, and Nymphadora Tonks) are accompanied by some variations of the words “smart,” “intelligent,” “strong,” and “skilled.” So although the fans have perceived these characters as possibly submissive to male ones thus far, they are also describing them through strong positive characteristics that are commonly used to describe postmodern women of today; in fact, this noticing of positive female characters is, in itself, quite postmodern, since the traditional female would not have been singled out for her traits in the first place.

This tension, although a seemingly minor anomaly in the forum, brings to surface a critical tension in the roles of the women in the Harry Potter series itself. In Harry’s Girls: Harry Potter and the Discourse of Gender, Meredith Cherland uses concepts from feminist post-structural theory to analyze the Harry Potter novels. Although her purpose is instruction of secondary school students in literacy and not simply feminist critique of gender roles in Harry Potter, she provides useful insight that not only confirms my initial uptake on traditional female roles, but also suggests further the tension between the various roles female characters adopt, particularly as they relate to women in the real world. In the beginning of her publication, Cherland defines what it means to think in humanistic perspectives, and how such thought could be applied to binary contrasts between male and female gender roles (which immediately provides a support for the idea that there are obvious contrasting views of female characters in Harry Potter, as made evident by the forum writer participants). She brings in a new example citing the Veela, magical creatures who appear to be young women but who have a dangerous power over male desires. She states that they are clearly an allegorical reference to the Sirens of Greek mythology, as well as embodiments of the sexual stereotype women are also ascribed (but was not noted in the fan forum). Noting that although author J.K. Rowling “often uses discourse of rationality to mark male characters as rational and female characters as foolish,” the presence of Veela “turns this familiar discourse upside down” because males are made helpless through the presence of the Veela while females remain untouched by such sexual confusion (Cherland, 275). She continues to explore this view of sexuality and rationality versus irrationality in contrasting gender roles throughout the commentary, also noting a contrast between changing female roles and perceptions, from being helpless and irrational to powerful and with considerable control over their male counterparts. The contrasts Cherland notes are similar to those contrasts found in the forum, where fans describe females as subservient to males, yet nevertheless ascribe to female characters descriptive characteristics that are positive and empowering, such as “strong” and “intelligent”.

In addition to the reference to Veela, Cherland also considers the character of Ginny Weasley. Cherland notes Ginny is often positioned in the form of a sexual temptress to Harry, such as in Deathly Hallows, when, shortly before he leaves on his mission to destroy Voldemort, she pulls him into her bedroom to partake in passionate kissing. However, Cherland also notes how “… elsewhere in the Harry Potter novels, Ginny is positioned as an achiever (for her athleticism, her popularity, her intelligence, and her beauty)” (Cherland, 277). She also notes how Ron frequently expresses his concern over Ginny being popular with boys, which in a subtle way suggests she may be sexually confident and liberated. Again, like the example with the Veela, we see a tension between the roles of women in terms of their sexuality, as well as the social acceptance of those roles. Ron’s disapproval of Ginny’s behavior is striking (especially considering he never expresses concern for Harry being popular with girls). It is also very familiar to any young women who has ever felt as though their family members (and society in general) are holding them to double standards of sexual behavior compared to their male counterparts. While men often receive admiration for their sexual prowess, women at the same turn, are mostly vilified as amoral for displaying any similar behaviors. Ginny emphasizes the resistance to these standards through her confidence and rebuking of Ron’s criticism, yet throughout the series she is still mostly displayed through her relationship as Ron’s younger sister and later, Harry’s lover.

So does Rowling’s work advocate the traditional female mold, or is it, maybe, a catalyst for innovative postmodern feminist thought? The answer is that it is neither, and therein lies its brilliance. Although the series strongly adheres to expected female roles, Rowling has deviated from the trend of postmodern literature that simply masks these roles behind postmodern personas of women. Intentionally or not, the author has recognized that young adolescent women are struggling to find themselves in Hermione, Ginny, and other female Hogwarts students. They may even see their mothers in Molly and Narcissa; women devoted to their families – and little else. Despite postmodern literature’s best attempts at depicting otherwise, women today still struggle with the way they perceive themselves. Rowling’s answer to this, instead of masking the problem with postmodern powerful female characters, is simple honesty: boldly stating what women are and what they struggle to be. The readers understand and admire this greatly. Indeed, even with the magic and fantasy of the world of wizards, it is the honest reflection of reality which has really solidified the series’ status as a global icon – and, ultimately, what will be the claim to its timelessness.