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29 March 2006 @ 08:28 pm
Feminist Literary Criticsm and the Black Sisters  
The idea for this essay cropped up suddenly in my Literary Criticism class where my "incessant scribbling" irritated my professor. Supposedly, I was ignoring her lecture in favor of "mere personal writing whims." Yup, she used alliteration on me. But, back to the subject at hand. Herein I am attempting to deconstruct the three Black sisters by using the rules of the Feminist School of literary criticsm. I will apologize for the length now because I may forget later. :)

The main focus of Feminist Criticism is the study of a particular binary opposite: male/female. The gaps created by difference in gender and the particular sets of rules/roles for each is important. They argue that male characters tend to supercede and dethrone female ones, as the case of Hamlet/Ophelia shows. (She died because of gender roles.)
These Feminist Critics use three simple questions when observing characters:
1. Who has the power in the given situation?
2. Whom is dominating whom?
3. Who is/isn't adhering to specific gender roles?

One can examine the three Black sisters in relation to these three questions. First, I will look at Bellatrix, who many assume to be of the Feminine Mystique crowd but who does not show many of the qualities a true feminist would adhere to.

BELLATRIX LESTRANGE (Who seemingly ignores her femininity)

Bella has been shown in canon to be a proud, conceited, and vicious woman. She is named after the Warrior Woman star in the constellation Orion, and she is a powerful witch. She appears to be an overwhelmingly strong woman with commanding opinions, but I tend to doubt her position.
Concerning the aforementioned three questions, one must look at Bella's relationships with the people around her. My main concern is her relationship with Voldemort, but I also looked for what one may construe from the text her relationships (or lack thereof) with her parents, sisters, and husband.
Her relationship with Voldemort is that of devoted follower. She is cowed by the mere mention of his name and will cower in his presence. Most of her opinions stem from her belief in LV and his supposed mission of pure-blood domination. She has no true thoughts of her own and is willing to throw away any free will when he is around or mentioned. She'd send her sons on a long walk off a short pier for the guy. Bella has no free will, so she is being dominated by LV in any situation where his names pops up. He has the power. The same could be said for the Department of Mysteries debacle. She was to follow Lucius's orders, who was an extension of LV in that particular situation. Yet, Bella showed no control in that situation. She only wanted to get the prophecy for her master, even if she had to terminate six children with extreme prejudice. She is still being dominated by the male figure of LV.
Bella is controlled by her family as well as by LV. She marries a pure-blood as is expected of a Black daughter. She chooses to follow the rules of the house, to not make waves. So, she is fulfilling the gender role of proper daughter. We see no mention in the books of her feelings for her husband, only those for LV. She could care less if Rodolphus died for the cause. The same goes for her sister, Narcissa. Bella is appalled that Cissa could even think about going against LV's orders. Her nickname for her sister shows a level of intimacy that does not exist anymore. In the end, Bella would sacrifice her entire family for LV.
Some may argue that she does not listen to Snape and is rude to him in Spinner's End, but this is out of fear for LV's safety. She seems to be the one controlling the situation with her questions of Snape and ordering Cissa to be quiet, but Cissa and Snape have more control than she does. Once she is asked to proceed with the Unbreakable Vow, she is too surprised to tell Snape to bugger off because her Lord would never permit it of her. This act, therefore cannot really be seen as an act of free will against LV, because she is told to do it. Plus, if Snape has convinced her that he really is LV's favorite, she'd think that she had better do as he says.
She is the ultimate subservient female figure even if she is represented as a warrior woman.

NARCISSA MALFOY (Who uses her femininity as a weapon and a shield)

Narcissa resembles Bella in a few aspects: she marries a pure-blood and fulfills the role of obedient daughter as Bella does and continues the pure-blood rantings of her family. She also appears to be dominated by the male figures in her life: her husband, son, Snape, and LV. However, Cissa is a behind-the-scenes powerful female. It seems to me that Narcissa wears the trousers in her marriage, for Draco states that she would not allow him to attend Durmstrang in GoF. If she did not support Lucius's decision to be a DE I doubt he would be. Where Bella is straightforward, Cissa is elusive and tricky. Did anyone else notice that Cissa is paying extremely close attention to the situation in Spinner's End? The entire scene plays as she wants it to. She handles Snape fairly well, that's for sure. He was putty in her hands! Oh the wiles of the female. All that boo-hooing was for real concern for her family, but she used it to get what she wanted. Cissa knew what she was doing: using her femininity to manipulate Snape. She was smart enough not to attempt this on LV directly.
She also manipulates Bella. There is no doubt in my mind that Cissa wanted Bella to follow her to Snape's house, because she knew that Bella's goading would aid in her quest. Cissa understands the inner workings of those around her and uses this knowledge to her advantage.
Unlike Bella, Cissa is a good mother and wife. Not good in the sense that she teaches Draco to be prejudiced, but that she will protect him with animal ferocity. She also defends Lucius and is worried about his fate, something that Bella knows nothing about.
Cissa represents the desperate mother, good wife, and the deceitful woman archetypes often seen in literature.

ANDROMEDA TONKS (Who is at ease with her femininity)

Although we don't know that much about Andy we can gleam a few theories from canon evidence. We never get to view the scene where Andy defies her parents' wishes and marries the muggleborn Ted Tonks. Did she do it out of spite or was she really in love? I would tend to go for the love match myself, because I want to think that JKR made the three sisters differ in their marriages. Where Bella has made a pure-blood match, she does not seem to have any feelings for her husband. Cissa is also in a pure-blood marriage but is devoted to Lucius. Andy flouted the parental decree and married for love alone. (Yeah for love! :) ) Andy is the overt rebel of the three. She has the power in the situation with her family and is dominated by no one but herself.
She has produced one daughter who is stable and appears to have come from a loving home. Tonks is not spoiled like Draco and has a mind of her own. Tonks never says whether her parents are worried about her involvement with the Order, but I don't get the impression that they forbid her to join. They appear to have let her pick her career for one, which is the most dangerous for a witch of wizard. Tonks talks with ease about her mother, like a regular daughter. (Side note: my mom can also clean houses like the dickens and pack a suitcase perfectly...I seem to have taken the Tonks route on both of those domestic abilities...)
I have never heard anyone berate Andy for being less powerful or less of a respectable woman because she is good at domestic spells. This would be a typical female thing to do; the cooking, cleaning, etc. Maybe because she went against her parents people look at her in a favorable feminist light and ignore the domestic stuff. I do hear people describe Tonks as less of a role model for girls because of her love of Lupin, but her situation reminds me of her mother: willing to fight for what she wants and love whomever she pleases, may the world be damned.
Andy is neither docile nor duplicitous like Bella and Cissa respectively. She is her own person and is comfortable with her choices. She seems to be a good mother and has produced a healthy (both emotionally and physically) lifestyle for herself. She's got two up on her sisters. They are both in LV's immediate radar, whereas she can live her own life away from the claustrophobic nature of her family.
Andromeda is the take-charge woman who is happy and comfortable with her choices. She upholds many female roles but also goes beyond.

JKR has created three very memorable female characters in the Black sisters. Although we have not met Andromeda yet, I believe that the reader can see a lot of her in her daughter. All three of these women are undoubtedly powerful witches who can run with the guys. Each is admirable in that instance. However, for the Feminist Critic, Andy stands out as the most remarkable female character. She is different from Bella and Cissa who are the pawns of their family and must be (or appear to be) subservient to their parents and LV. Andy took her life away from her family, which must have been difficult. They are her only family after all. Her bravery is the character trait should be lauded most. She is allowed to be an individual, to govern her own fate. Bella merely follows in the wake of LV. She wears the mask of a warrior to cover her true face of obediance. Cissa takes the road of least resistance and must hide her true feelings and convictions under the disguise of obediance. Andy wears no mask upon her face, and that's something for us women to be proud of.
(Deleted comment)
fayeval05 on March 30th, 2006 05:04 am (UTC)
I apologize for offending anyone, but this essay is not an expose for my own personal views. Like I said in the beginning, I'm deconstructing the sisters by way of the Feminist School of Literary Criticism, which in fairly old (1960's I think...) They looked at characters only using those three questions because they saw that women were only being portrayed in respect to those kinds of questions. They saw women trapped in those particular archetypal roles and analyzed the literature by showing others that those archetypes existed. They saw the archetypes as limiting and demeaning as well. This was an exercise in critical technique and not my feeling on what constitutes femininity. I don't think I could even describe exactly what it means, for me personally, to be a woman. I like being a woman. I think the only point in my essay that was personal was my feeling that Andromeda is her own person and my admiration for her not just going along with what someone else expects of her.
(Deleted comment)
fayeval05 on March 30th, 2006 09:29 pm (UTC)
Re: I am reposting this comment, having edited it for a bit more clarity. Hopefully.
No problem! I just like writing and the old feminist criticism seemed worthy of an hp essay
luleh on March 30th, 2006 05:15 am (UTC)
I'll agree that Bellatrix is certainly a subservient figure. Why she's considered by some to be a strong woman is a mystery to me.
Essential Joyessentialjoy on March 30th, 2006 07:47 pm (UTC)
I think it's because people read things into her character that aren't there. They impose their personal "sexy dominatrix" stereotype on her. I've read arguments that she's the only "strong" women in the Potterverse. This drives me crazy. She is a fanatic who has no mind of her own and only lives to serve Voldemort. She was beautiful once, and I think that's where the mythology that surrounds her comes from.
gunderpants on March 30th, 2006 08:00 pm (UTC)
Because seriously? Chicks like McGonagall, and Umbridge, and Tonks are all incredibly strong women. Bellatrix? Hurls cats, man.
neville81 on March 31st, 2006 11:08 am (UTC)
I mostly agree with you. But I think one reason why Bellatrix seems stronger than she is, is a comparison between her and the other Death Eaters, particularly during the Battle in the DoM. They were all pretty pathetic (I mean, Tarantellagra on Neville? Look at my user name and you'll see that I'm glad that it wasn't anything worse, but it's really not a kind of course you expect a Death Eater to use) and Bellatrix was the only one, who managed to do something evil.
E McGeemelusinahp on March 31st, 2006 01:54 pm (UTC)
I've never really understood why the Death Easters ever use anything other than Avada Kedavra. It's not like they are concerned about being gentle with their victims. Why don't they just go in for the kill, instead of messing about with stunning and Tarantellagra, etc.

Unless, it just takes too much energy to keep performing the Killing Curse.
I've got freedom, I've got second sight: black sisterskethlenda on March 31st, 2006 09:10 pm (UTC)
My best guess has always been that you have to concentrate pretty hard to use AK. Whenever people use it in canon, they seem to always have a second to collect their thoughts and *then* fire the curse.

(It's also because if everyone used AK the second they got into a fight, there would be no wizards left, thereby destroying the plot. LOL)

Anyway, excellent points. *puts in memories*
rogueravenclaw: Flitwickrogueravenclaw on March 30th, 2006 10:46 pm (UTC)
Well, in her own respect, she deviated from the family. She is really the first Black to join up with Voldemort (Sirius's mother and that generation were all at school with TR, and they never took up with him. Were they really as supportive of the DEs as Sirius implies?). And then at Spinner's End she puts Voldie to the side to help her sister (the Unbreakable Vow). In general, however, you're right. She's blindly loyal, to the point where she has lost her free will.

I don't really find it that contradictory that she's named for the warrior star. She falls into that same category as Crabbe and Goyle, I think. More brawn than brains, ;P
canadian_bren on March 30th, 2006 09:28 am (UTC)
I came to these conclusions, that Andromeda was the strongest sister, while Bellatrix was the weakest, a while ago, but with different reasoning (and without any understanding of feminist lit crit). Obviously, Bellatrix is the only sister we see who allows herself to be dominated by men, no matter how fierce she attempts to be. Narcissa is fully able to control the men we see (or hear) her interacting with, while Andromeda, by asserting her own independence, certainly seems the strongest sister. Between Andromeda and Narcissa, because they are both mothers and I feel you can tell quite a bit about women by seeing the independence and confidence of their children, again, Andromeda is much stronger. Although, clearly both Draco and Tonks have been raised to love their families, which is good. Andromeda seems to have gleamed what was most important from her childhood while Narcissa is still trying to play catch-up. But then, I don't claim to know much about feminist theory.

Truly a thought-provoking essay that has managed to make me ramble... Thank-you.
fayeval05 on March 30th, 2006 09:32 pm (UTC)
Thank you for reading, and you should have seen the version from my class notes! Holy crap did I ramble! Ah the joys of English classes...
kayleelupinkayleelupin on June 4th, 2007 05:00 pm (UTC)
Speaking of being dominated by men, and the difference between Andromeda and her sisters (Bellatrix in particular), Andromeda's name literally means "Ruler of Men". I find that pretty interesting, considering her two sisters are ruled by or devoted to men. I wonder if Ted Tonks is a more subservient husband, ruled by his wife a la Arthur Weasley? Do we have any canon for that?
Precious Lilywhitecheckerdandy on March 30th, 2006 05:55 pm (UTC)
This essay was definitely worth ignoring the lecture! Very well-writen.
fayeval05 on March 30th, 2006 09:32 pm (UTC)
Thanks! My teacher was sassy w/ me again today about that! Icon love btw! Potter puppet pals are awesome!
Summersummerborn on March 30th, 2006 07:02 pm (UTC)
Great thoughts here! You've laid out some clear and some subtle differences between the three sisters. And I'm glad I'm not the only person who thinks of her as "Andy" :)
focusf1focusf1 on March 31st, 2006 11:56 am (UTC)
Bellatrix is the only sister we see who allows herself to be dominated by men posted above

Not men. One man. The points made above by the community reflect my own views that Bella is not this really strong woman or the only strong woman in the series. There is a difference between saying someone is a "strong" person and them being "headstrong." I would have her as the latter- action without thought nor question.
In fact I find her to be on of the weakest of will due to the fact that she will do anything for her Dark Lord - without question. That kind of person is worse than the average "yes dear/no dear" wife. I wonder how her husband feels? The way she talks about LV would be enough to make any husband's blood boil!
feldspathoid on April 3rd, 2006 05:37 am (UTC)
I agree that Bellatrix is being oppressed by the male figure, but to me is seems a bit of faulty parallelism. You see, female AND male figures are completely subservient to Voldemort. Therefore although Bellatrix is being dominated it can't really be taken as a metaphor of the relationship between females and male oppressors. It isn't an issue of gender but the fundamental battle between good and evil.

By the way, I really liked your essay. I never thought to look at these three and constrains upon them! I believe I was thinking along too simple a wavelength... Harry Potter deffinitely should be closer examined for social issues.
Ariel: bella is hotbeautiflytragic on August 15th, 2007 04:12 am (UTC)
Wow, what an awesome essay! I especially love the last 4 sentences. I'm so glad you decided to write about the Black sisters from a feminist point of view! Very insightful ^-^.
swissmargswissmarg on December 23rd, 2007 12:56 pm (UTC)
Post this on FictionAlley
This is really interesting. Would you consider posting it on FictionAlley under the Harry Potter Ink Pot for essays? http://www.hpinkpot.org/

You can find out more about posting fics on FictionAlley here: http://forums.fictionalley.org/park/misc.php?s=&action=faq&page=3