Posted by: Amelia | July 11, 2007

The Redemption of Harry Potter, Part 2

Read Part 1 of this essay here.

Christine Schoefer wasn’t the only feminist to bemoan the state of female characters in the pre-Order of the Phoenix Harry Potter universe. Sadly, I no longer have the links, but I remember that the common criticisms fell along the lines I drew in Part 1: there weren’t enough girls and women numerically, and those that did exist were mostly stereotypical and flat. Moreover, there were never women in any true positions of authority (a fact that might have been okay if some character had bothered to critique it, but there had been no such commentary). Perhaps J.K. Rowling caught wind of the criticism and consciously made a change, or perhaps she had always envisioned a more balanced wizarding world but never had the opportunity to present it. Whatever the reason, Book 5 marked a dramatic shift in the portrayal of women in the Harry Potter universe. Part 2 of this essay is below the jump.

Let us start with the issue of women in power. Early in the book, Harry is brought before the wizarding equivalent of the Supreme Court (or perhaps the International Criminal Court). A woman presides over this court, and it is indicated that are other women are present as well. We later discover that the male Minister of Magic – the equivalent of Prime Minister or even UN Secretary – was preceded by a woman. (Fun fact: on J.K. Rowling’s website’s “Wizard of the Month” feature, it was revealed that women have served as Ministers of Magic as far back as 1798).

Book 5 also marks progress on the non-governmental front. We are introduced to previous Hogwarts Headmasters via their portraits in Dumbledore’s office and discover that there have, indeed, been Headmistresses in the past. Additional strong women are seen within the ranks of the Order of the Phoenix (both the current army and the original version that fought Voldemort the first time).

The importance of these background characters should not be underestimated. Not only do we have confirmation that women do, in fact, exist within these important organizations, but that they have had leading roles within them as a matter of course. Even at the student level, we see many young women joining the covert “Dumbledore’s Army” (a kind of junior Order of the Phoenix). These include not only the major female student characters, but also a host of minor characters as well. Shifting the generic background character away from its default ‘male’ position adds to the richness of the Harry Potter universe and assures us that our few heroines are not mere tokens.

Of course, those heroines increase in depth and in number in Book 5 as well. We meet Luna Lovegood and Nymphadora Tonks, two quirky characters that break with previous stereotypes. Luna is neither simpering like Lavender and Parvati, nor bland like Cho and Ginny (more on them later). Tonks, while occasionally clumsy, is a far cry from the feeble Fleur Delacour (a rather poor excuse for a girl-warrior from Book 4). Luna and Tonks are both oddballs, but unlike Sybill Trelawney, for instance, their weirdness never marginalizes their contributions to the plot. Both characters, but particularly Luna, become more fully realized in a single book than almost any female character did in the first four (Hermione excepted, of course).

Book 5 also presents beefed up roles for female characters we had met in previous books. Mrs. Weasley, it is revealed, is a once and future member of the Order of the Phoenix. Professor McGonagall, also an Order member, shows courage, tenacity, and initiative in Book 5, and by Book 6 is kicking ass and taking names. Book 5 also significantly increases the role of Ginny Weasley, transforming her from a boring little girl mooning over Harry into a Quidditch-playing, hex-casting powerhouse who dates a boy from another house, but rightly dumps him when he sulks at her for beating his Quidditch team. And while Cho Chang, Parvati Patil, and Lavender Brown don’t really grow as characters in Book 5, at least they join Dumbledore’s Army and get more screen time (Cho Chang in particular).

As awesome as the Buffying-up of the good guys (er, gals) is, I think it’s just as important that Book 5 delivers some female villains as well. Dolores Umbridge is a politically powerful opponent with such an extreme streak of nastiness that I quite viscerally hated her. And I think that’s great. A universe in which all women are angelic damsels and righteous heroines both gives us too much credit and denies our human nature. The capacity for corruption is not limited to men, and women in fiction must be allowed to wield power not only for good but for evil as well. Bellatrix Lestrange proved herself a far more formidable presence than her fellow Death Eater husband and completely outshone Lucius Malfoy in both cruelty and efficacy. If anyone is fit to be Voldemort’s second-in-command (or eventual successor), it’s Bellatrix.

For better or for worse, Book 5 was a vast repository for all the details that J.K. Rowling hadn’t been able to sneak into the first four books. While it’s disappointing that a gender-balanced history and a sizeable population of women in the wizarding world were among such ‘details,’ at least now we know they were really there all along. Book 5 allowed its female characters to breathe, and gave feminist fans such as myself permission to fully enjoy the series.

Book 6, which returned the series to crisp storytelling, added some modest additional victories (such as Ginny continuing to grow into someone even this Harry/Hermione ‘shipper could see as being reasonably worthy of Harry’s affection). Book 7 is likely to end with some major battles involving Harry, Voldemort, and Snape – all male characters. I’m alright with this. J.K. Rowling created her books around a male protagonist and antogonist, and it’s no use criticizing someone for the books they didn’t write. I’m just glad that Book 5 transformed the books she did write into a richer, more balanced fictional universe accessible to readers of all genders.

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Responses

  1. I have hopes that Rowling will still be able to keep the women in the forefront, despite the focus on Harry/Voldemort/Snape/Draco. Hermoine will undoubtedly get her share of space, and I think you can expect McGonagall and Bellatrix to get a lot of face time as well.

    And I agree about Luna and Tonks–wonderful characters. The other early female character I wish would have been played with more was Moaning Myrtle. She had promise, I thought, and was underused.

  2. […] Phoenix film tonight at the Uptown.  No doubt many of the details I mentioned in yesterday’s essay will be cut; at 2 hours and 18 minutes, the fifth film is actually the shortest of the series.  […]

  3. […] 5 changed everything. Tomorrow, in Part 2 of this essay, I will show you […]


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