(Magical) girl power
Harry may be the star, but his female counterparts also wield a mean wand
As legions of rabid fans gathered around the world to await the stroke of midnight for the July 21 release of the seventh and final Harry Potter book, it was apparent from the sheer number of girls in the crowds that the adventure books appeal to them as much as they do to boys.
Rowling’s female characters may have started out the series as underdeveloped, literary back-up singers to the male leads, but they have steadily evolved into examples of bravery and determination as they battle fantastical villainy in Harry Potter’s world. The female group portrait—once so irritating to many feminist critics—now paints a picture with more realistic female examples.
While “Pottermania” sweeps the globe—with more than 350 million books sold in 63 languages and five Hollywood movie adaptations so far—some critics and fans believe the Harry Potter stories can help young girls search for role models and escape a beauty-obsessed culture.
“These characters are not objectified or appearance-obsessed,” says Karyl Kemper, a mother of two who sells homemade Potter-themed handicrafts. “They are dealing with the same challenges as the males, large epic battles, where the females are fighting alongside the males.”
Elizabeth Heilman, author of Harry Potter’s World: Multidisciplinary Critical Perspectives and a professor at Michigan State University, chafed at Rowling’s early traditional portrayals of the female characters, but says as they’ve developed they are more in line with contemporary heroes, suggesting the example of actor-activist Angelina Jolie.
“The new global hero actively fosters peace and incorporates elements of what might be considered both male and female characteristics: nurturance, compassion, creativity, sensitivity, as well as toughness, bravery, strength,” Heilman said. “The new global hero, like the characters in the Harry Potter books, seeks goodness and betterment on many levels and sees how personal, small and domestic daily goodness and heroics intersect with our biggest global challenges.”
For those who don’t know, orphaned Harry Potter has grown up with the shadow of death hanging over his head in the form of the most evil wizard ever, Lord Voldemort. In his years as a student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, destiny has forced Harry to carry an adult’s burden and repeatedly battle Voldemort and his minions in a war that readers expect will end in the series’ seventh book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Best friends Hermione Granger and Ronald Weasley—along with Hogwarts’ teachers, classmates and a varied cast of cleverly crafted characters—have helped the hero on his journey, many becoming heroes in their own rights along the way.
But it’s the female characters, in particular Hermione—the only female in the central heroic trio—that have brought Rowling some very vocal criticism. Heilman, for instance, charged in her 2003 book that the books “feature females in secondary positions of power and authority and replicate some of the most demeaning, yet familiar, cultural stereotypes for both males and females.”
Hermione, like many of the female characters, is introduced in a manner that has been construed as gender-loaded by critics. Described at various points during the series’ early books (the first was published in 1997) as a “know-it-all” having a “bossy sort of voice,” Hermione, while annoyingly studious and always ready with an answer, cringes in fear or is knocked out of the narrative line before a big battle.
As the books go on, however, young Hermione—like the other students around her—is growing up. By the fifth book she is almost universally recognized as the smartest witch of her generation, widely respected among her peers. Rowling passes over verbose discussions on her appearance—Hermione’s gawky stage is gone, eclipsed by a capable, intelligent, caring campaigner for the cause of good, who is always ready with a solid plan of action for an impending battle.
“These characters are real children growing up and discovering themselves, each with their own weaknesses and strengths,” says Kemper. “That’s what makes them work so well together and so easy for young readers to look up to.”
When the time comes to stand and fight, Hermione’s lightning-fast intellect and spell work are decisive and save Harry at critical moments.
Beyond Hermione, the use of suggestively female characteristics—like teary eyes, worry, giggling or nagging—has not fettered any of Rowling’s female characters.
“The traditionally feminine traits of some of the female characters—such as thinking before acting, having empathy for others—should be valued, not always dismissed as being stereotypical,” says Annette Wannamaker, a professor of children’s literature at Eastern Michigan University. “These are valued by Rowling, and portrayed positively in the novels.”
Perhaps the best example is Mrs. Molly Weasley, a stay-at-home mother of seven who worries, quite vocally and rather often, about the safety of her family. She cries often, is prone to passionate outbreaks of emotion and is forever giving out hugs and kisses.
Yet it is Mrs.—not Mr.—Weasley who, “white to the lips” but looking “resolute,” commits the family to actively fighting in the war against Lord Voldemort without a second’s pause at the end of the fourth book, demonstrating female strength of determination and bravery.
Other girls and women in the Harry Potter world have also overcome early “character flaws.” Mrs. Weasley’s daughter, Ginny, went from debilitating awkwardness to fierce command of complicated spell work, particularly the “bat bogey hex,” a handy battlefield spell that is repeatedly admired by male characters in the series. Deputy headmistress Minerva McGonagall at first played second fiddle to Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore, but has now ascended to the top with his death. And dreamy-eyed Luna “Loony” Lovegood is often made fun of by other students for her unusual style (her radish earrings and butterbeer cork necklaces), but has repeatedly ignored the jibes and forged her own path.
While the Potter-world females are engaging and immensely popular with fans, some critics believe they fall short of other classic and contemporary juvenile fiction characters.
“It’s a misconception that Rowling represents the best children’s literature out there because the Potter series is so popular,” says Wannamaker. “There are many children’s books that are more sophisticated, have more complex characters, and are more original and more complex than Rowling’s novels.”
Wannamaker points to Lyra Belacqua, the mischievous protagonist in Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, and the typically strong female leads of fantasy novelist Diana Wynne Jones as more potent female models than Rowling’s creations.
At the same time, Wannamaker says the series’ popularity virtually guarantees Rowling’s characters will continue to attract attention.
“We want our girls and boys to grow up to be better, smarter and more sensitive than we were,” she says. “And we believe that literature will affect them deeply, that it will affect their sense of self, the way they see and treat others, and the ways they view gender roles.”