In Defense of Umbridge
A few weeks ago, I compared and contrasted two incredibly despicable characters in young adult fiction: Agatha Trunchbull and Dolores Umbridge. Today, I will be spinning a 180 and attempt to parse through the fascinating character that is Umbridge. Because she is fascinating, regardless of – or quite possibly, because of – her ruthlessness, racist and classist agenda, and the bad name she brings to cat lovers.
There aren’t many named female characters in the Potterverse. Sure, we have a great variety of fascinating women – Hermione, Molly, Luna, Tonks, Bellatrix, Cho, McGonagall, etc. – but after a while, that list of female characters with full first and last names, backstories, agendas, and life apart from Harry comes to a stop. We just assume there is a sea of faceless, nameless ladies who drift along the periphery, making up the numbers of people in Hogwarts, in Diagon Alley, in the families of the Triwizard Tournament participants, in Ministry workers, and on and on and on.
Umbridge, then, is one of the handful of female characters who make repeat appearances throughout the series. Sure, she nicely fills in the role of villain while Voldemort waits for Wormtail to collect all the ingredients necessary to make him corporeal, and she’s a bit one-dimensional in her screeching and hatred toward children, but we have in Umbridge a fleshed-out character. And who am I to deny myself the chance to analyze a Potter character?
We meet Umbridge in the fifth book, looking down with complete disdain at the supposed hero of the wizarding world. We quickly discover that, to her, the Ministry is No. 1. She has unfailing loyalty to the Minister and absolutely does not approve of any dissent toward members of or factions of the Ministry. She, however, has zero tendency toward favoritism; she’s the exact opposite of Fudge in this way. She doesn’t bend her ears to rich brown-nosers like Lucius Malfoy. She’s more of the sort who stubbornly sticks to a political opinion and loudly argues against differing opinion, regardless of the facts laid bare in front of her.
However, admirably, Umbridge is a successful female professional who works in a male-dominated workspace. She defiantly sticks to a pink wardrobe, refusing to be cowed by the mass of men who wear somber dress robes to work everyday. She remains incredibly logical and seemingly practical – from her point of view – when it comes to the whole of her decision-making – whether that’s for better or for worse is another topic of debate. She doesn’t blink, even when confronted by Dumbledore, who has a history of assuming most people are beneath him in intellect and life experience. She has mutually beneficial professional relationships with men like Runcorn, an intimidating hulk of scowl and loom. And she knows when to use the stereotypical feminine sensibilities that a pink-loving lady is supposedly equipped with – soft, childish voice and sugary disposition – to her advantage, as a mask to cover up her true sadistic, psychotic nature.
Which brings us to her ruthlessness. There’s no need to mince words: Umbridge is a classist, racist, speciesist piece of turd with zero tolerance or understanding of anyone who has less privilege than her. She finds success at the Ministry because of her iron will. However, not once does she waver from her stance, despite her own half-blood status. She doesn’t understand familial loyalty or why family members or friends would band together to support and reassure each other (this is most probably due to her absolutely messed up childhood). She doesn’t bend to either student or public opinion. She has no qualms about snatching up Salazar Slytherin’s locket from Mundungus Fletcher so that she may wear it as proof of deserved witch status. In fact, unlike the trio, who was negatively affected by the locket’s Horcrux innards, Umbridge experienced only positive and strengthening effects from the evil artifact. Possibly because she was finally able to embrace her stunted moral character (physically manifested via her extremely short wand length) during her reign as
Muggle-born interrogator Muggle-Born Registration commissioner; accordingly, her entire Ministry legacy before that particular government position was made up of her stringent, anti-“half breeds” restrictive legislation.
Umbridge has nothing to soften her character. She has neither maternal instinct nor tragic backstory. It’s unthinkable to imagine her story rewritten along the lines of Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent or Miranda Richardson’s Queen Elspeth. Umbridge doesn’t even want to play the “successful but at every cost” card because the readers never find out whether she had to sacrifice any personal relationship to get to her current situation. From everything JKR has told us, Umbridge simply doesn’t have the capability to empathize or sympathize. And honestly – that’s refreshing. JKR is going back to the old school tactic of telling stories, where the villains get to stay villainous. They are bad people without remorse who do bad things because that’s what their role in the story is. There’s no need to redeem them; it is the hero’s job to defeat the bad guy – we don’t need no sob story – and it is up to the hero to be as gray and complicated as he would like to be.
Admittedly, Imelda Staunton toned down the truly awful elements of book-Umbridge in her portrayal of the woman in OotP and both DH movies. I always forget how wretched book-Umbridge is and how much she deserved all of her comeuppance: from the centaurs at the end of OotP, by Harry’s successful infiltration of Mary Cattermole’s trial, and her eventual sentence to Azkaban at the end of the Second Wizarding War. So MuggleNet readers, what do you think? Is Umbridge a character to be absolutely despised, through and through? Or does she take up that very particular arena of character-we-love-to-hate?