Apologies if this subject is overdone. I'm writing it for my English teacher and not strictly for Harry Potter fans. With that in mind . . .
“Pottermania” has taken over the world. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels have been published in several countries, are available in 55 different languages, and are a major success with readers of all ages (General). “Everyone I know loves [Harry Potter],” says fan Charles Rosser (Comments). However, along with the resounding success, Harry Potter has always been surrounded by controversy. One often-argued point against the novels is that, with a male lead and fewer central female characters, the Harry Potter series is sexist. “Could it be that the Harry Potter books . . . fit into that chauvinist world of male literature where women are either absent, weak, silly, evil or vaporized by car bombs?” (Ramos) Rowling claims she never consciously wanted the novels to be seen as either sexist or feminist. Whether or not she intended the novels to be read in this way, through the themes explored with the female characters in the Harry Potter novels, Rowling has created feminist works of literature.
To understand what about the Harry Potter novels constitutes a feminist work of literature, one must first understand the complexities of feminism. “Feminism” as a singular noun is often seen as a misrepresentation due to the fact that there are so many different types of feminist movements with different goals. Because of this, many refer to the all-inclusive plural noun “feminisms” instead. As a part of several types of “feminisms,” feminist literary criticism embraces subjectivity in literary interpretations. A reader “cannot leave [herself] out of the picture when describing what [she sees] . . . to claim that we are objective, as patriarchy encourages men to do, is merely to blind ourselves to the ways in which we are different” (Tyson 95). Due to the fact that there is no one explicit way to define what feminist literature is, some feminist critics may see J.K. Rowling’s novels as sexist without directly disagreeing with the arguments presented in this paper.
The feminist ideals in Harry Potter are most easily seen through the lead female character, Hermione Granger, as she is a manifestation of the author herself within the text. “Hermione is me,” Rowling has said in several interviews, “A caricature of me when I was younger” (Conversation). Rowling has said that, as a child, “she was perceived as being very bossy and often the brightest one in her class, and those traits she gave to Hermione” (Gladstein 50). The reader sees Rowling’s many strengths and weaknesses through the character of Hermione, making Hermione one of the most complex characters in the novels.
As Rowling made Hermione a character with many strengths and weaknesses, feminist critics often attack Hermione for her weaknesses, criticizing her for being whiny, “bookish,” and “a stickler for rules” (Heilman 225); however, these criticisms ignore Hermione’s many strengths. Hermione, for instance, is more dependable than her male friends and so she is often trusted with more responsibility. In Prisoner of Azkaban, when two characters must be saved from death, Professor Dumbledore entrusts Hermione to save them, not Harry. “Miss Granger, you know the law – you know what’s at stake . . . good luck,” Dumbledore says to her. Meanwhile, Harry is “bewildered” and “[does not] have a clue what [is] going on” (Rowling, Azkaban 393). The common patriarchal gender roles have been reversed and Hermione is given the power to take control of the situation, while Harry just follows her lead. Through endowing Hermione with Rowling’s own strengths and weaknesses, the author “suggests that she intends for Hermione to be a strong character who continues to gain strength and self-determination rather than finding it in transient” (Dresang 226).
One of the most interesting aspects of the Harry Potter series is seeing the young characters grow up, and, through this growth, the reader begins to see Hermione maturing from a slightly insecure little girl into an independent young woman. In the first book, The Sorcerer’s Stone, Ron teases Hermione for being a know-it-all: “It’s no wonder no one can stand her . . . she’s a nightmare, honestly” (Rowling, Sorcerer 172). Eleven year-old Hermione’s response to this personal attack is to run off to cry in the girl’s bathroom. One could argue that this is an example of Rowling characterizing females as easily upset and prone to outbursts of crying. However, Hermione, in her act of crying, is not so much acting girl-like as she is responding like a child would respond to ridicule. When Hermione is older, she does not react in the same way. When Malfoy calls Hermione’s friend Hagrid “pathetic” for being upset over the loss of his hippogriff, “Harry and Ron both [make] furious moves towards Malfoy – but Hermione [gets] there first – SMACK!” (Rowling, Azkaban 293) Hermione takes it upon herself to stand up to the school bully. Even when two of her male friends are standing beside her, Hermione does not depend on them to fight for her. Instead of crying or just running away from confrontation, Hermione stands up for her friend, showing a growing agency that was not as apparent when she was younger.
At the age of fourteen, Hermione stands up for what she believes in once again and shows her true feminist ideals when she founds “The Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare” (S.P.E.W.) in the fourth Harry Potter book, The Goblet of Fire. “I was going to [call it] Stop the Outrageous Abuse of Our Fellow Magical Creatures and Campaign for a Change in Their Legal Status – but it wouldn’t fit [on the badges]” (Rowling, Goblet 224), Hermione explains. Hermione’s rally to help liberate house elves “is one common to contemporary feminist perspectives – inclusiveness and concern for all types of repression and marginalization rather than that of women alone” (Dresang 233). Hermione has trouble recruiting people to join in her cause, as most people do not even see house elves as equals; Ron insists that the elves like being enslaved. However, though Hermione’s friends castigate her for empathizing with the house elves, Hermione holds to her beliefs, continuing to fight for the rights of house elves in the subsequent Harry Potter novels. Hermione, through her determination to fight against abasement, proves that she is, in fact, a feminist.
Yet, some feminist critics claim that Rowling allows Hermione to conform to patriarchal ideals of what femininity should be when Hermione changes her appearance. In The Sorcerer’s Stone, Hermione is described as having “a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth” (Rowling, Sorcerer 105). However, when the children attend the Yule Ball in Goblet of Fire, Hermione looks very different:
“She had done something with her hair; it was no longer bushy but sleek and shiny . . . and she was holding herself differently somehow . . . She was also smiling – rather nervously, it was true – but the reduction in the size of her teeth
was more noticeable than ever” (Rowling, Goblet 414).
For this important event, Hermione made an effort to make herself look more attractive. While “radical-libertarian feminists maintain that females have the right to do whatever they want with their bodies” (Dresang 233), other more “radical-cultural feminists” complain that Hermione is changing her appearance solely for the purpose of male attention. According to some critics, Hermione is not “physically acceptable” until she makes herself over, and, by emphasizing this change of appearance in her text, Rowling’s “message to girls is: get a make-over. You are not okay” (Heilman 229). However, what is equally noticeable in this passage from Goblet of Fire is Hermione’s confidence. Rowling says that Hermione was carrying herself with poise and smiling. These actions radiate self-confidence that others find attractive. Hermione dresses up and fixes her hair nicely so that she will feel good about herself at this important event. By feeling good about her appearance, she feels confident, and this confidence makes her attractive to others. Wanting to look attractive should not be the antithesis to being a feminist. Hermione’s change of appearance does not exude “low self-esteem” (Heilman 229) as much as her smile and her poise in the same description show Hermione becoming more secure with herself.
Rowling includes several other strong female characters in her stories; one of the strongest characters in Harry Potter is Professor Minerva McGonagall. Like Hermione, McGonagall is often criticized for being dull, bossy, and for being merely second in command under a male headmaster. However, McGonagall holds a powerful position as headmistress of arguably the most respected house at Hogwarts, Gryffindor. Additionally, Professor McGonagall is second in command after Albus Dumbledore. When Dumbledore is killed in The Half-Blood Prince, Professor McGonagall is put in charge of Hogwarts. McGonagall is also an animagus, which means she has the ability to transform into an animal form without her mind turning into an animal’s mind, a spell that very few witches and wizards are able to perform. Throughout the series, McGonagall is “uniformly imposing and admirable . . . a responsible and positive figure” (Gladstein 57). In McGonagall, the children of Hogwarts have a strong adult female figure that they trust and respect.
McGonagall never backs down to anyone, so when Professor Umbridge takes over Hogwarts in The Order of The Phoenix, McGonagall is the only teacher who stands up to her. Umbridge and McGonagall fight over Harry’s chances of becoming an Auror, one of the most important of the witch/wizard jobs. While McGonagall insists that Harry does very well on all of his tests, Umbridge claims, “Harry has been achieving very poor results” on her Defense Against Dark Arts tests. To this assertion, McGonagall retorts: “I should have made my meaning plainer . . . He has achieved high marks in all Defense Against the Dark Arts tests set by a competent teacher” (Rowling, Order 664). McGonagall further undermines Umbridge’s authority by assertively declaring “Potter, I will assist you to become an Auror if it’s the last thing I do!” (Rowling, Order 665) McGonagall effectively stands for her beliefs in the face of her enemy, when no other teacher will, which further proves what a powerful force Minerva McGonagall is.
Ginny Weasley, Ron’s younger sister, is also a great example of Rowling’s feminism in the world of Harry Potter, although her first function in the storyline is as a victim. In The Chamber of Secrets, Voldemort appears as a memory of the teenage version of himself, Tom Riddle. Riddle is able to gain power by
“growing stronger and stronger on a diet of [Ginny’s] deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew . . . powerful enough to start feeding Miss Weasley a few of my secrets, to start pouring my soul back into her” (Rowling, Chamber 310).
Voldemort gains his power through Ginny in the same way that men gain power by the appropriation of feminine power in a patriarchal society: “Riddle’s violence towards Ginny is another instance of the masculine vampirizing the life-giving blood of the feminine” (Yeo 6). Tom Riddle cannot open the Chamber of Secrets on his own; he has to have control over Ginny so that she can do it for him. By representing the actions of a typical patriarchal male with the most evil character in the Harry Potter series, Rowling is criticizing the immorality of a society where men feel free to victimize women and take away their power.
As Ginny grows older, she becomes more of an integral role in the Harry Potter series, no longer allowing herself to be victimized or seen as merely Ron’s younger sister. In The Order of The Phoenix, “to the shock of the shallow reader, Ginny literally bursts upon the scene . . . with a lively, sharp-witted personality” (Ginny Weasley, Why?). Ginny overcomes her timidity and, in doing so, the reader learns that Ginny is a strong and complex female with many talents. Ginny is good at sports; she is a talented member of the Gryffindor Quidditch team as a chaser and also subbing for Harry as seeker when he cannot play. Also, Ginny is member of Harry Potter’s secret organization, the D.A., which studies Defense Against the Dark Arts, despite the ban of these practices by Professor Umbridge. She is a very important member of the D.A. because she recruits several of its members and also names the group: “Let’s make [the name] Dumbledore’s Army because that’s the ministry’s worst fear” (Rowling, Order 392). Besides naming the D.A., she is also a significant member of the group due to her exceptional abilities in casting spells. Even her brother George says: “Size is no guarantee of power . . . look at Ginny . . . you’ve never been on the receiving end of one of her Bat – Bogey hexes, have you?” (Rowling, Order 100). Ginny is gaining power in the world of Harry Potter and is being recognized for her strength and talents.
Although many fans of the Harry Potter series praise Ginny for being a strong female character, other fans attack Ginny for being a “slut” because, after she gains confidence and becomes more out-going, she has a handful of trivial relationships with several different boys. Women often receive criticism for trying to date whomever they want in the same way men do. Instead of being the docile victimized “Madonna” that she seemed to be when she was younger, she has become the “Whore,” by being flirtatious with boys and dating many of them. The “Madonna” or “Whore” concept “suggests that there are only two identities a woman can have” (Tyson 88). By implying that these are the only two types of people that a woman can be, if Ginny is no longer shy, docile, and modest when it comes to members of the opposite sex, then she must be a slut or a whore. People that criticize Ginny’s dating style are supporting the patriarchal labels that society places on women. Even Ron disapproves of Ginny dating so many different boys:
“ ‘Michael – but –‘ said Ron, craning around his seat to stare at her. ‘But you
were going out with him!’!
‘Not anymore,’ said Ginny resolutely . . .
‘Well, I always thought he was an idiot . . . good for you. Just choose someone –
better – next time.”
‘Well, I’ve chosen Dean Thomas, would you say he’s better?’ asked Ginny
‘WHAT?’ Shouted Ron, upending the chessboard” (Rowling, Order 866).
In this discourse between Ginny and Ron, Ron represents the typical patriarchal male attempting to control the female sexual identity. He advises her to “choose someone – better – next time” as if he knows what is best for her. Ginny’s unapologetic responses to Ron’s reactions show how her character does not allow patriarchal definitions dictate how she should act.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series exemplifies a young adult feminist novel in many ways. When reading a book from a feminist point of view, “most feminist critics look for character development and a strong portrayal of females involved in non-traditional activities” (Yeo 2). The examples given in this paper show that Rowling’s female characters are strong and complex. More importantly, throughout the six years that the reader has known the characters thus far, the characters show growth in which the female gains control and confidence, overcoming the patriarchal world in which they live in. As the Witch/Wizard world that Rowling creates runs parallel to the “Muggle” world, the Witch/Wizard world will undoubtedly mirror the patriarchal agenda that the “Muggle” world so strongly implements. However, Rowling’s female characters constantly fight against the patriarchal subjugation inherent in both the real world and in their fictional world, taking charge of their own identities and empowerment.
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