Posted by: Amelia | July 10, 2007

The Redemption of Harry Potter

This week is the premiere of the fifth Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The book on which it is based came out around this time four years ago, and I had great fun clamoring into the Harvard Bookstore at midnight to get my copy of the 800+ page tome. I read it until about nine in the morning, took a four hour nap, and then finished it in the afternoon.

Book 5 is probably the least loved of the Harry Potter series. It was criticized for its meandering and unfocused plot, mountains of extraneous detail, and the overload of angst from Harry himself (who tended to shout in all-caps for paragraphs at a time). From a pure storytelling point of view, I agree that it is the most problematic of the books.

And yet, as a die-hard fan of the universe that J.K. Rowling had created, I completely loved Book 5. Those mountains of detail, while extraneous to the book itself, answered many questions about the wizarding world that had been left unanswered in previous books. We learned about wizarding government, war history from Voldemort’s first reign of terror, Neville Longbottom’s backstory, Sirius Black’s family tree, Dumbledore’s predecessors as Hogwarts Headmaster, and so on.

The best thing to come out of Book 5, though, was the beefed up and vastly expanded roster of female characters. After the jump, Part 1 of an essay.

Back in 2000, right around the time I first read the Harry Potter series, Christine Schoefer wrote a piece in Salon entitled “Harry Potter’s Girl Trouble.” In it, she lamented the lack of fleshed-out, plot-driving female characters that had appeared in the first three books. And at the time, she was right. The female characters were, for the most part, a collection of flimsy and uninspiring stereotypes. Mrs. Weasley was a nagging mother-hen, Ginny Weasley was a wilting flower in need of saving, and Deputy Headmistress McGonagall was at once humorless and ineffective. Then there were the descriptions of the nameless faces in the background. Hogwarts’ female denizens, Schoefer wrote, “‘shriek,’ ‘scream,’ ‘gasp’ and ‘giggle’ in situations where boys retain their composure.” Schoefer also noted:

A brief description of the guests in the Leaky Cauldron pub succinctly summarizes author J.K. Rowling’s estimation of male and female: There are “funny little witches,” “venerable looking wizards” who argue philosophy, “wild looking warlocks,” “raucous dwarfs” and a “hag” ordering a plate of raw liver. Which would you prefer to be? I rest my case.

But then, of course, we have the great Hermione defense. Hermione Granger was the series’ saving grace. Schoefer found faults even with her, but to me Hermione is unassailable. Smart, ambitious, and socially-conscious, Hermione proves her mettle time and again and grows more compelling with each book. As a sidekick to Harry (and yes, I’m okay with the fact that the protagonist is male), Hermione has proven far more competent than Ron. Compare, for instance, the final sequence of Book 2 (in which Hermione is out of commission and Ron gets stuck behind a rock wall) with the final sequence of Book 3 (in which Ron is out of commission and Hermione leads Harry on a time-turning precision mission).

But one female, however awesome, was not enough to make up for the vast gender imbalance in both quantity and quality of characters. Consider the microcosm of Harry’s Gryffindor classmates. There are five boys (Harry, Ron, Neville, Seamus Finnegan, and Dean Thomas) and three girls (Hermione, Parvati Patil, and Lavender Brown). Whether you’re counting by numbers, screen time, or character details, the boys win hands down.

Then consider that, prior to Book 5, the only female government official we had EVER heard about was a low-level employee by the name of Bertha Jorkins, mentioned in Book 4. We never actually meet the gossipy and airheaded Bertha Jorkins, though, because she dies off-camera as an unwitting pawn in Voldemort’s return to power. So much for women in power.

Book 5 changed everything. Tomorrow, in Part 2 of this essay, I will show you how.


  1. I get the feeling I know where this is going, but I’m looking forward to it all the same. And I loved all the backstory in the 5th book, loved the detail. It made the universe that much more rich to me, and seemed like the necessary setup for the final two books. It answered a lot of the “why” questions for me.

  2. […] The Redemption of Harry Potter, Part 2 Read Part 1 of this essay here. […]

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