The Harry Potter series is incredibly popular with children and adults alike. Beth Anderson is also a fan, but she wonders what messages the most recent book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is sending about the role of boys and girls (and men and women). Is the magical world created by J.K Rowling as limited by stereotypes as ours?
DISCLAIMER: I do actually enjoy the Harry Potter books, but that doesn’t stop me looking at them with a critical eye! Also, if you’ve not read the Order of the Phoenix, you may not want to read this article, as I discuss the book’s events in some detail.
The amount of hype surrounding the release of a new Harry Potter book seems to grow with each release. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, this book’s predecessor, sold three million copies in its first 48 hours on sale and is reportedly the fastest selling book ever. The Order of the Phoenix saw new heights, breaking records with a first print run of 6.8 million copies and a second print run of 1.7 million – an unprecedented figure. Tesco reported sales averaging 220 books every minute on the first day of release. Kids seem obsessed by the books, and the adults aren’t far behind them! JK Rowling is credited with persuading ever-more children to sit down and read. She’s made a fortune and is now one of the richest women in Britain. Quite an achievement!
So what is this world she’s created like from a feminist point of view? Is it a world with plenty of strong women who are more than a match for the men? Does it reflect Western society, with all its problems, or would it be a better place to live? After all, the children (and teenagers!) who are reading Harry Potter now are the leaders (and hopefully feminists!) of the future, so the message they take from the book may influence the way they look at the world – as good literature should! That’s obviously not to say that writers shouldn’t write about undesirable situations, but good writers should be able to make it clear why the circumstances described are flawed without saying it in so many words. I believe that it’s very important to ask what message JK Rowling is giving so many of our children to take away.
The universe of Harry Potter has no real differences from the one we live in, apart from the one major difference that the world of magic folk – witches and wizards, squibs, giants and all the rest – is revealed to be a layer beyond the one in which you and I live. We poor Muggles are sheltered from the truth, and on the occasions when we accidentally see someone perform magic have our minds manipulated in the wizard hospital, St Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. Even though children will presumably recognise that the world of the book is subtly different to the real world, the close similarities will ensure that they will take away ideas about gender roles in society. As she has a daughter, surely Rowling will want to ensure that her books contain strong female characters and role models for her daughter and her compatriots to admire?
On first reading the answer would appear to be yes. There are strongly drawn females almost everywhere you look. Professor McGonagall teaches at the school and is one of Harry’s closest allies in the fight against evil that runs through the whole series. Some members of the Order of the Phoenix, the organisation working against the Dark Lord Voldemort (and also outside the law), are female – Nymphadora Tonks, Emmeline Vance, and Hestia Jones. Hermione, one of Harry’s closest friends, is a very intelligent and hardworking student who has saved Harry and Ron’s skins on more than one occasion. Angelina Johnson is the Captain of the Qudditch team Harry’s a member of – and she’s not only female but black! When Harry is given a lifelong Quidditch ban, it’s a girl (Ron’s younger sister Ginny) who replaces him. Even Dolores Umbridge, the High Inquisitor and right hand woman of the Minister for Magic, is female. She may be manipulative and shortsighted, but she’s a strong character – even if she seems to walk the line between good and evil for most of the book. (She’s actually very hard to categorise – she puts herself firmly against Harry, even ordering an attack on him near the beginning of the book, but it is at no time suggested that she’s actually on the side of evil.)
But look closer, it seems to me, and the old stereotypes and gender roles permeate the wizard’s world just as much as ours. For a start, all the actual leaders in the book seem to be male. Harry himself, obviously; Albus Dumbledore, the headteacher of Hogwarts, Harry’s school; Tom Voldemort (also known as ‘You Know Who’), the ‘Dark Lord’ who murdered Harry’s parents when Harry was a baby and even tried to kill Harry himself; his nemesis in school, Severus Snape, who is technically on the side of good but hates Harry due to his resemblance to his father (a viewpoint the reader gains more sympathy with in this book); Draco Malfoy, along with Crabbe and Goyle, the gang who spar with Harry; Cornelius Fudge, the Minister for Magic. Both Dumbledore’s Order of the Phoenix and Voldemort’s Death Eaters contain women as well as men, as does the Ministry of Magic, the Magic community’s government, although the women in all these organisations seem to be outnumbered by the men (in the book, ten Death Eaters break out of Azkaban, the wizard’s prison; nine are male, one is female). But the thing that signals most strongly to me that Harry’s universe really isn’t all that much of a feminist haven are the passing comments about relative status and casual stereotypes that seem to be thrown around. True to life maybe, but there are not many examples of characters bucking the trend of their gender that might have shown Rowling fighting the stereotyping so rampant in society.
Even down to such small points that in the Ministry of Magic, the voice that greets visitors and announces the floors in the lift is female; the security guard is male. In St Mungo’s, the reception witch is female. It’s only a little thing, and certainly you could argue that in a fair universe there should be a 50-50 chance of the guard or voice or receptionist in question being male or female, but there just don’t seem to be any examples of this working the other way round.
The Weasleys, Harry’s friend Ron’s family, are quite a good example of this. Ron’s father works in the Ministry of Magic. His mother doesn’t seem to have a job – even though by this point all her children have gone to Hogwarts so she doesn’t really need to be at home any more. The Weasleys are both members of the Order of the Phoenix, which would imply that Mrs Weasley is important too. However, when Harry is brought to 13 Grimmauld Place, the Order’s Headquarters, Mrs Weasley shows Harry to her room, making her late for the meeting of the Order that the wizards and witches who brought him have come for. If she was seen as truly important, they surely could have waited for her to return before the meeting started.
Such examples are scattered throughout the book. Mrs Weasley shouts at people for smoking in the kitchen; shouts at her husband for experimenting with Muggle medicine. Although she is generally popular and a good character, she quite often seems to turn into a fully-fledged nag. Not exactly a great feminist role model! She’s overprotective – she is against Harry and his friends hearing details of exactly what’s going on with Voldemort, and is (understandably) very angry when she is overruled by Sirius (Harry’s godfather) and her own husband.
Hermione screams when the Weasley twins suddenly apparate in the room the group is in; Harry and Ron don’t appear to react at all. Hermione’s unfortunately named efforts to encourage people to treat house elves with respect, the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare or SPEW, is treated as an embarassement by Harry and Ron and ridiculed behind her back. Some friends. Even when Dumbledore points out that had one house in in particular been treated better certain event might have been avoided, Harry doesn’t seem to grasp the point, never mind think of changing his behaviour.
Sirius mentions that it was his father who put the many security measures on the Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix – even though his mother was also very powerful. Dolores Umbridge is manipulative and indirect, using a ‘fluttery, girlish, high-pitched voice’ totally at odds with her image and using a discreet fake cough to get attention when other people are speaking, although when riled she shows herself to be a dangerous enemy. It is even implied, in the Sorting Hat’s song at the start of term, that one of the two females that were among the four original founders of Hogwarts took the leftovers that the other three didn’t want – Slytherin wanted ‘those whose ancestry is purest’ Ravenclaw those ‘whose intelligence is surest’ Gryffindor ‘all those with brave deeds to their name’ with Hufflepuff being left with ‘she took the rest and taught them all she knew’. Even stereotypes of appearance are used. Rita Skeeter, the magic world’s equivalent of a tabloid journalist, is portrayed as having turned ugly and unconcerned about her appearance since being unemployed.
The thing that I find annoys me most, though, is that Harry’s ‘love interest’, Cho Chang isn’t better drawn. That’s not to suggest that there aren’t other giggling girl stereotypes – Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown particularly wind me up. They seem incapable of getting through a lesson without giggling or simpering. Seems harmless enough, maybe, but they seem to crop up far too often for fairly unimportant characters. But Cho, as Harry’s love interest in the previous book as well as this one, deserves better.
She’s had a difficult year the previous year – first she was torn between who she liked better out of Harry and Cedric Diggle, one of Harry’s rivals in the Tri-Wizard Tournament that was taking place. Then after picking Cedric almost by default (because he asked her to a dance before Harry did), he was killed by Voldemort, leaving Cho ridden with guilt and torn between her feelings of grief for Cedric and her increasing affections for Harry. Unfortunately, although she is on the side of good and joins ‘Dumbledore’s Army’ (or DA), the illegal society formed by Harry to practice Defence Against the Dark Arts, at times she seems just as interested in having the opportunity to spend time near Harry, giggling in corners and blushing when he looks her way, than to actually learn the Dark Arts the group are meeting to practice.
It gets worse. Whenever Harry upsets her, she never actually comes out and say what’s wrong, instead turning cold and angry by turns. In some of the situations they find themselves in, it’s understandable, but in a couple it actually makes me want to knock their heads together til they see sense!
She even drags her friend Marietta along to the DA meetings – even though Marietta’s mum works for the Ministry of Magic and has forbidden her to do anything that might upset Umbridge, then she fails to notice that her friend has cracked under the pressure of regular illegal meetings. Granted, she isn’t responsible for her friend’s actions, and I find Harry’s (unspoken) opinion that Cho could have chosen her friends a bit more carefully rather harsh; however, Marietta chose a time when she should have been at a DA meeting to tell the Umbridge, the High Inquisitor, about the illegal meetings. I would have hoped that under the circumstances, any woman worthy of Harry’s interest might have noticed she wasn’t there and mentioned it before the meeting started, but that’s just my bugbear…
There’s also the fact that in the discussions Harry, Ron and Hermione have about Cho, Hermione (without actually talking to Cho) knows exactly what is the matter with her (namely that she’s very sad because of Cedric dying; guilty because kissing Harry is an insult to Cedric’s memory; worrying about what everyone might say; confused because Harry couldn’t save Cedric, and scared of being thrown of the Quidditch team), while Harry and Ron are amazed by all this. Harry and Ron have never been painted as particularly insensitive before, and Hermione’s sudden (well OK, not so sudden) omnipotence and Ron’s reply that anyone feeling all that at once seems a little na”ve even for him.
When it comes down to it, I really enjoy JK Rowling’s books, and I think that getting children away from their DVD players, X Boxes and Playstation 2s long enough to read anything at all in the numbers she’s managed has to be a good thing. Maybe if they learn that reading can be that much fun they’ll start to read other books, and learn to read with a more critical eye. And girls take male characters as role models far more often than vice versa, according to www.mediawatch.com. But I can’t help but think that it’s an enormous shame that Rowling has fallen into the trap of such casual reinforcement of male and female gender roles when she could have taken the opportunity to create a less prejudiced world.