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Originally presented April 2003 at PCA/ACA in New Orleans, LA
|By Natasha Whitton||
It seems impossible to imagine the landscape of children's literature just five short years ago before the storming entrance of Harry Potter and his gang of friends. Since soaring to the top of the fiction best-seller lists and becoming the favorite books of children, adolescents, and adults alike, Harry Potter has also had to endure the scrutiny of outrage over its alleged promotion of witchcraft and, more recently, its treatment of women. In an article entitled "The Trouble with Harry Potter Teaching our Children Sexism" pm the AdvancingWomen Network website, Andreas Ramos asks, "Could it be that the Harry Potter books, written by a woman for her daughter, fit into that chauvinist world of male literature where women are either absent, weak, silly, evil or vaporized by car bombs?" (par. 1) She regards the lack of attention to what she feels is blatant stereotyping as next to criminal and cites a review in Salon magazine by Christine Schoefer. Schoefer wrote, "I have learned that Harry Potter is a sacred cow. Bringing up my objections has earned me other parents' resentment they regard me as a heavy-handed feminist with no sense of fun who is trying to spoil a bit of magic they have discovered" (par. 12).
What I found as I entered the world of Harry Potter was a landscape dotted with stereotypes, both male and female, but one seemingly devoid of non-stereotypical females. Consistently, throughout the first four books in this series, women are referred to as unattractive, witchy, fat, nagging, mean, stern, bookish the list goes on and on. Even with the seemingly insignificant characters that people the background of such fascinating locales as Diagon Alley and Hogwarts School for Wizardry, the women are consistently stereotyped as unpleasant. Schoefer writes,
When I began this study, I tackled all four of the books in print in this series, but as I began writing I found that in the first book alone, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, there was more than enough material for a twenty minute conference presentation, so that will be my focus today. This first novel introduces us to Harry and his Muggle (i.e. non-wizard) Aunt and Uncle and cousin Dudley with whom he has been living since his parents were killed when he was an infant. The reader learns very quickly that Harry has been living a miserable orphan's life under the stairs while his cousin is lavished with presents and food, but as with most adolescent fairy tales, all that is about to change as Harry learns the his parents were a wizard and a witch, and he is famous in the wizarding world due to the extraordinary circumstances of his last meeting with villainous Lord Voldemort. So, let us began with the first of Rowling's installments and the women that it offers.
On page one of this novel, we are introduced to Harry's aunt, Mrs. Petunia Dursley, who is described as being "thick and blonde and [having] nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors" (SS 1). Mrs. Dursley is characterized as a stay-at-home mom who splits her time between caring for her husband and spoiled son and gossiping with the neighbors. There are other mothering figures in the novel, but they are equally flat. Although his mother is dead, Harry has the chance to see her after he arrives at Hogwarts. While wandering in the castle under an invisibility cloak one night, he comes upon the magical Mirror of Erised that allows him to see his heart's desires. In one of the most favorable female descriptions in the novel, Harry sees that "she was a very pretty woman" (SS 208). Harry will naturally idealize his mother, especially considering her untimely death and the pain of this re-meeting, but notice that his idealization becomes one based on solipsistic yearning for her to be like him: "She had dark red hair and her eyes her eyes are just like mine, Harry thought, edging a little closer to the glass. Bright green exactly the same shape" (SS 208). Harry's only other mother figure is Mrs. Weasley, his best friend's mother, who tries earnestly to protect him from prying eyes while seeming unable to prevent her own curiosity about his past. When they meet on the train platform to Hogwarts, Mrs. Weasley becomes concerned that her daughter is crowding Harry: "You've already seen him, Ginny, and the poor boy isn't something you goggle at in a zoo" (SS 97) But goes on to ask how her son Fred how he knew it was him and then forbids him to mention Voldemort to Harry, "As though he needs reminding of that on his first day at school" (SS 97). The only other mention of Mrs. Weasley is as a domestic who sends Harry a knit sweater just like those she makes for her sons at Christmas.
Beyond these mothering figures, Rowlings presents us with a world of doting fools, overweight loud-mouths, simpering girls, crazy witches and old women. Ginny Weasley, representing young teenage witch girls everywhere, begs "oh, Mom, can I go on the train and see him, Mom, oh please" (SS 97). Old Mrs. Figg is "knocked down" by Dudley "as she crossed Privet Drive on her crutches" (SS 31). Even when Harry visits the magical Diagon Alley, his attention is diverted by "a plump woman outside an Apothecary [who] was shaking her head as they passed, saying, Dragon liver, seventeen Sickles an ounce, they're mad" (SS 71-72). The dressmaker who helps him get fitted for his school robes Madam Malkin is described as "a squat, smiling witch dressed in mauve" (SS 76). Even Neville's Gran loses patience when he loses his toad again and sighs painfully while waiting for the Hogwarts train (SS 94).
By the time that we reach Hogwarts, the reader is prepared and unsurprised by the first activity the Sorting Hat. As the new students assemble, they are led into the Great Hall where the older students are sitting according to their HouseSlytherin, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Gryffindor. While Malfoy, a young man who Harry has taken a dislike to, has already told Harry that he would leave if put in the Hufflepuff House and even Hagrid has described them as "a lot o'duffers," the very first girl called to the Sorting Hat "a pink-faced girl with blond pigtails" who "stumbled out of line" is placed there, as is "Bones, Susan" (SS 80; 119). When the new Gryffindor's Harry and Ron make their way up to their new house, they find it guarded by "a portrait of a very fat woman in a pink silk dress" (SS 129). To get in, they must say the appropriate password and hope that the "fat lady" as they call her is not off making rounds or having tea with some other painted personage in the castle.
Even in casual conversation it would appear that fine, upstanding women cannot be found. As Harry learns about his fellow classmates, he hears the stories of their childhood and parents, including that of Seamus: "'I'm half and half,' said Seamus. My dad's a Muggle. Mom didn't tell him she was a witch til after they were married. Bit of a nasty shock for him'" (SS 125). Here it is left for the reader to decide whether this deceitfulness is more common to females or non-Muggles. The popular wizard game of Quidditch is also not safe. While both boys and girls participate in the popular sport, it too seems drenched in gendered language. Angelina Johnson is a chaser for the Gryffindor House team, but Wood the Captain addresses the team as men and has to be corrected. When another student, Jordan, who is announcing the game compliments her on her chasing ability he immediately follows it with the coment "rather attractive, too" (SS 186).
Now, wait, you may be saying, what about the professors at Hogwarts? Surely these esteemed women who join their male colleagues in training the young men and women of this community are placed on an equal footing with their male counterparts. In juxtaposition to Albert Dumbledore, beloved Headmaster of Hogwarts, we are given Professor Minerva McGonagall who is a cat when we first meet her on the street outside Harry's house, but when she transforms herself back into a woman is described as "severe-looking" with "square glasses exactly the shape of the markings the car had had around its eyes" and looking "distinctly ruffled" (SS 9). Dumbledore is standing nearby and says that he recognized her as a cat because he claims the he has never seen one "sit so stiffly" (SS 9) Her demeanor is repeatedly referred to as cold or piercing. When Harry meets her at Hogwarts, she is "a tall, black-haired witch in emerald-green robes [. . .] She had a very stern face and Harry's first thought was that this was not someone to cross" (SS 113). Later as Harry enters his first class with Professor McGonagall, this first impression is reinforced:
Unlike Professor Snape who protects the members of his house, Slytherin, McGonagall shows no favoritism to her house, Gryffindor. The Quidditch referee and flying coach is Madam Hooch who has short, gray hair, and yellow eyes like a hawk" and is generally quick tempered (SS 146). Even the librarian, Madam Pince, has only one angry line in the Sorcerer's Stone, "You'd better get out, then. Go on out!" punctuated by a feather duster (SS 198) Likewise, "Madam Pomfrey, the nurse, was a nice woman, but very strict" (SS 301). And finally, the herbology teacher, Professor Sprout is "a dumpy little witch" (SS 133). True, Snape and some of the other male professors are portrayed in an equally unflattering light, but there is always Dumbledore and Hagrid for Harry to look up to.
Even the animals seem slighted by gender. Hedwig, Harry's owl, is a female whose only job is ferry messages to and fro and the caretaker of the castle, Filch has a female cat: "Filch owned a cat called Mrs. Norris, a scrawny, dust-colored creature with bulging, lamplike eyes just like Filch's. She patrolled the corridors alone. Break a rule in front of her, put just one toe out of line, and she'd whisk off for Filch, who'd appear, wheezing, two seconds later [. . .] it was the dearest ambition of many [students] to give Mrs. Norris a good kick" (SS 133). Even the genial Hagrid cannot stand her: "'An' as fer that cat, Mrs. Norris, I'd like ter introduce her to Fang sometime. D'yeh know, every time I go up ter the school, she follows me everywhere? Can't get rid of her Filch put her up to it" (SS 141).
Of course, I have not yet mentioned Hermione Granger -- the yin to Harry's yang, the only girl of Harry's ever-widening circle of male friends including Ron and Neville. In her first meeting with Harry on the trail to Hogwarts, she is described as having "a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth" (SS 105). After spending several moments with the boys, her snottish attitude becomes apparent: "'All right I only came in here because people outside are behaving very childishly, racing up and down the corridors,' said Hermione in a stiff voice. And you've got dirt on your nose, by the way, did you know?'" (SS 110).
Once the group arrives at Hogwarts, Hermione quickly proves herself the bookworm and teacher's pet of the class. She has already informed Harry and Ron that she has read all of the books for the term and done extensive additional research to prove herself worthy of a Hogwarts education, whether because she is a girl or a part-Muggle is not entirely clear. In one of their first lessons with Professor Snape, he challenges Potter to answer several questions and acquit himself of being a dunderhead: "Hermione Granger was on the edge of her seat and looked desperate to start proving that she wasn't a dunderhead [. . . she] stretched her hand as high into the air as it would go without her leaving her seat" (SS 137). This knowledge of magic, potions, spells, and herbs, however, seems daunted by the more physical lessons taught at Hogwarts:
Not only are her lectures ignored, but Hermione quickly gets a reputation for being a pest and a stickler for the rules. When Harry and Ron try to sneak out to meet archrival Malfoy for a midnight duel, Hermione tries to stop them "wearing a pink bathrobe and a frown" (SS 155). She follows them out of the tower nagging and pleading with them to return and then is trapped when the "Fat Lady" in the Gryffindor tower portrait goes "on a nighttime visit" leaving Hermione with no one to tell the password to deserted by even the women of the castle (156).
The inner strength that Hermione seems to possess based on her reading and knowledge escapes her in practical situations. When Ron calls Hermione "a nightmare," she goes off to the bathroom to cry, only to be trapped there when a troll is let loose in the castle. When the boys find her and try to pull her towards the door, "she couldn't move, she was still flat against the wall, her mouth open with terror" (SS 175). After Hermione has "sunk to the floor in fright," Ron who has never been able to successfully use his spells in Charms class suddenly performs a perfect "Wingardium Leviosa!" on a club that knocks out the troll. Interestingly, Hermione is able to finally achieve respect and friendship from Ron and Harry at the end of this incident, but not because they accept her for who she is a bookish Muggle who wants desperately to belong but because she lies to protect them from the wrath of Professor McGonagall by saying:
After this incident, Hermione loses Gryffindor House points while Harry and Ron receive points for the House because of their heroic efforts. After the threesome regroups in the Gryffindor common room, they all say thanks and "from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. There are some things you can't share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them" (SS 179). Following this incident, Hermione's behavior is descried as "more relaxed," and this attitude is credited to her having finally broken the rules, although her transformation is not complete (SS 181). When she discovers that Harry has been sneaking out in his invisibility cloak each night, she is "torn between horror at the idea of Harry being out of bed, roaming the school three nights in a row (If Filch had caught you!'), and the disappointment that he hadn't at least found out who Nicolas Flamel was" (SS 215). As finals approach, she starts "drawing up study schedules and color-coding all her notes. Harry and Ron wouldn't have minded, but she kept nagging them to do the same" (SS 228).
For me, however, the final brick in the stereotypical wall was built in an episode near the end of this first novel. In the last of the puzzles leading up to the Sorcerer's Stone, Hermione and Harry are faced with a riddle that Hermione immediately deduces is a logic puzzle designed to help them discover which of a series of potions will allow them to pass through the fire that surrounds them. One will take the drinker on into the inner chamber while another will allow the drinker to go back the way they came. Harry urges Hermione to go back and send an owl for Dumbledore to help them; and when she cautions him that he may have to face Voldemort, Harry replies, "Well I was lucky once, wasn't I?" (SS 286) Such bravery cause Hermione's lip to quiver and for her to burst out, "Harry you're a great wizard, you know" (SS 287). At which point, Harry pays her the ultimate compliment, "not as good as you" and I uttered a sigh of relief (SS 287). Finally, after 287 pages the true heroine of the novel is given credit for all of her tireless and unrewarded efforts. But the character with whom this ingenious novelist most identifies as closest to herself as a child responds, "Me! Books! And cleverness! There are more important things friendship and bravery and oh Harry be careful!" (SS 287) While I agree with the sentiment that there are more important things in life than books and learning, I found it hard to swallow this sudden transformation ofa studious, earnest young lady into a simpering sycophant.
There is, however, another view of this behavior which has been offered by Eliza T. Dresang in "Hermione Granger and the Heritage of Gender," an essay recently published in the University of Missouri release The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter. Dresang traces the heritage of Hermione through her name beginning with the female form of Hermes: "Hermione [. . .] is immortalized in Greek mythology as the daughter of Helen of Troy and Menelaus, King of Sparta" (213) Even this mythical predecessor, however, is "a daughter and a wife whose destiny is in the hands of her father and her two husbands" (Dresang 213). Rowling references the Hermione of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale who finds her life forever altered by a husband who declares her unfaithful (Dresang 214). In spite of this history, Dresang declares the novel successful, even feminist, because of her distinction been caricature and stereotype:
She does admit that Hermione does, at times, exhibit stereotypical pre-teenage girl behavior, but uses Rowling to counter these attributes. In interviews before the publication of the fourth book in the series, Rowling made it known that a major character would be killed. The majority of the kids that she encountered worried about Ron; no one seemed to worry about Hermione. Rowling believes that this is because she is seen as self-reliant, but could her adolescent audience simply be following the stereotypical clues left them by the author? No one at Hogwarts seems to care much and many are actually glad when Hermione and her lectures are stopped short.
Dresant also insists the Minerva McGonagall is an independent and fair woman, although the books describe her as stern. But beyond Hermione and McGonagall, she admits "the female landscape at Hogwarts (or in the magic or Muggle world beyond) is somewhat bleak [. . .] Many of the background characters are stereotypes" (Dresang 235-236). Her conclusion is actually rather in line with my own:
Duckworth, Lorna. "Children's Books Still Portraying
Women Negatively." The
Ramos, Andreas. "The Trouble with Harry Potter
Teaching our Children Sexism."
Reid, Melanie. "Potter Sidekick a Feminist Icon or Goodie-Goodie?"
The Herald 6
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scolastic Press, 1997.
Schoefer, Christine. "Harry Potter's Girl Trouble: The
World of Everyone's