Even though the series has many strong female characters, feminism in Harry Potter isn’t all there. Here is why.
For many of us, the Harry Potter books had been one of the best memories of our growing years. The novels, woven in the rich fabric of fantasy and magic, embroidered with threads of friendship, selfless love, courage, loyalty, sacrifice, and the triumph of goodness over evil resonated with us at the deepest levels.
Harry Potter taught us that even the most ordinary person has the power to bring a positive change in the world. The books gave us heroines like Hermione Granger – intelligent, fierce, and a loyal friend, someone who values books more than her looks. When society was teaching us girls that being pretty was the most desirable trait for our gender, Rowling reminded us that it was okay to be awkward and to prefer the pursuit of knowledge over the pursuit of outward beauty.
Besides Hermione, the books had other female role models too. Professor McGonagall, the strict but fair teacher, Molly Weasley the caring yet brave mother. Ginny Weasley for transforming from a shy little girl to a fearless warrior. Luna Lovegood for not caring about what people thought of her. We also had feisty women such as Tonks, Cho, Alicia, Angelina, etc. scattered throughout the series.
However, along with these strong feminist examples, there were places where the books seemed to portray instances of sexism. We failed to acknowledge some of these instances initially when we read the books maybe because those are so ingrained in our everyday life experiences as women. Rowling might have included these to make us aware of the wrongs in our society. Through the actions of her female characters she has also shown how we should counter such sexism.
Let us look into a few examples where the Harry Potter books have shown us glimpses of sexism which we might also identify with, in our own lives.
Ron Weasley’s mother Molly, known for her fighting spirit and courage, doesn’t take much time to judge Hermione’s behavior when she reads a tabloid gossip about Hermione supposedly breaking Harry’s heart. Instead of trying to know the real facts or better still, not bother interfering as Harry and Hermione were just two teenagers doing normal adolescent stuff, she goes on to give Hermione a cold shoulder.
It takes Harry to explain to her (and of course, he being the male, is believed) that it was just a piece of gossip. I can’t help but wonder whether she’d have the same adverse reaction towards Harry had she read that he broke Hermione’s heart? Or would she still be mad with Hermione for her ‘inappropriate behavior’ as a young woman?
How many times did we as women feel the brunt of a relationship not working out (though in this case this was just imaginary)? If we break up we’re called names like ‘cold hearted bitches’ or ‘sluts’, whereas if the man breaks up he’s either a ‘player’ or it’s our fault for falling for the wrong kind of men! Here Rowling shows how a girl is always judged for her behavior whereas the boy remains above all sins.
Ron assumes the role of the ‘protective’ brother figure (Ah! We’re so painfully aware of the protective men around us!) who knows what is best for his sister, sometimes to the annoyance of the sister herself. Ron isn’t comfortable with Ginny dating other men and once when he chances upon her kissing another guy, all hell breaks loose. He doesn’t forget to remind Ginny that people will call her certain names if she continues with this behavior.
Though we were all angry at Ron at that time, we might not have thought about the underlying slut shaming that is so prevalent in our lives too. I’m sure many of us have faced such situations where our dating lives is the collective interest of the entire society and Ron being the ultimate parent/sibling/relative whose first concern is “Chaar log kya kehenge?”
However, Ginny handles the situation with poise by making it clear to Ron that her love life and expression of sexuality is no one else’s business. This is a lesson for us too. No one should be given the chance to make us feel uncomfortable about our choices. We should have the firmness to stand up to the so called protectors of morality. Moreover, we should base our lives on the belief that just like a man, a woman’s worth should be measured by her achievements and not by her outward attractiveness and moral chastity.
Several times, the books seemed to portray Ron as one of those men who despite being well-meaning, might come out as a sexist and hence, annoying character. Ron expresses that he will go to the Yule Ball with Hermione only if there’s no other option. However, he then starts throwing tantrums when he sees Hermione with Victor Krum. Though this might still be discounted as a teenager’s tantrums, what’s more problematic is that Ron continues keeping an account of Hermione’s association with Victor even after years had gone by.
This behavior reminds me of many men I’ve known, who feel that they’re entitled to be the first man in their women’s lives whereas they themselves can explore as many ‘options’ as they choose to. This again comes from the age old notion that a woman’s worth is basically tied to how ‘pure’ she is.
While the previous instances had been those of downright sexism, we come to a more interesting and different kind of example here. Lavender Brown, portrayed from the perspective of Ron and Hermione, is someone who we just considered an airhead who has a crush on Ron. If we see from Hermione’s perspective, we think of Lavender as a less important individual when compared to Hermione just because their life choices are different.
I’m sure a lot of us are guilty of this attitude. When we think of ourselves as intellectuals, sometimes, we are guilty of looking down upon ‘too girly’ girls who might be more concerned about their makeup or their love lives. Feminism teaches us that we are equals irrespective of our genders, no matter what our life choices. Therein lies the flaw with the portrayal of Lavender as well as our thought processes.
Human beings are generally multidimensional. When the time came, Lavender Brown fought in Dumbledore’s Army and embraced death in the process. Despite that, she is mostly remembered for being the girl who had a crush on Ron. This is the tragedy of stereotyping people or judging them on some of their more apparent traits.
Arguably, one of the bravest witches in the books, Fleur’s good looks seem to shadow her skills and accomplishments in favor of the more ‘likeable’ female characters such as Hermione and Ginny.
Fleur is exceptionally beautiful and hence that becomes the highlight of her character. Boys like Ron start fawning over her to the point of annoyance, while people form an opinion that she is rude and arrogant. I’m sure a lot of us have witnessed how an attractive woman is hastily judged as being snobbish.
While dating Bill who is Ron’s elder brother, Fleur had been disliked by the Weasley family whose problem with her could be that she was pretty and confident, and hence came off as an intimidating woman. In fact, Molly even assumes that Fleur is so superficial that she will leave Bill after he had been attacked by Fenrir Greyback. This is the time when Fleur proved the Weasley family wrong by showing how she values the strength of spirit over the veneer of outward appearances.
Fleur’s bravery is most highlighted when she risked her own life to save Harry’s as the part of the small group that helped Harry in the Battle of Hogwarts. In short, Fleur is one of the most badass women in the books and yet most people remember her just as an exquisitely beautiful Veela.
There were two instances in the books where two entities were seduced against their wills with the help of a love potion. Ron ate some chocolates laced with love potion, which Romilda Vane had intended for Harry to eat. Ron forgets everything about his life and becomes infatuated with Romilda. If Ron hadn’t been cured of its effect, he’d remain that way – completely at the mercy of the other person’s will – for a full 24 hours.
The second example of the love potion taking its course was when Merope, Voldemort’s mother drugs Tom Riddle, who was a muggle. Merope was crazily in love with Tom who was not nice to her. Desperate to win her love, she manages to give Tom a love potion and then marries him against his will, and has a child with him. When the effect of the love potion wears off, Tom Riddle is justifiably disgusted by Merope’s tricks and leaves her. However, while reading the account the reader becomes so sympathetic towards Merope and her unborn son who had been abandoned by Tom Riddle, that we fail to recognize that what happened with Tom Riddle was indeed rape!
The sad thing about both the cases was that the victims of the love potions were both men and somehow given the portrayal and background of the stories, we didn’t even feel that they were wronged. If we see it from an objective viewpoint however, especially in the second case, Tom Riddle was raped and we didn’t sympathize with him because he was a man.
The other unfortunate part was that Hogwarts even taught the making of love potions!
This is perhaps the most interesting example of sexism. Throughout the series our favorite female characters like Hermione, Ginny, and Luna are shown as not being overtly conscious about the so called girlish issues.
Ron and Harry are Hermione’s friends because she is not like other girls. Rowling’s intention here might have been to portray an unconventional heroine. Someone who is geeky with bushy hair. Someone who prefers to read and can go to any extent to protect her friends. Though this is a matter to rejoice, what’s problematic is that girls who’d been shown as pretty or concerned about their appearance etc. had been reduced to being remembered only for that though they may have done brave things too. Case in point, Lavender and Fleur.
Though these characters gain the readers sympathy in the end, the problem is that it should not be a case where some qualities of women deem them to be superior to others. Why can’t a woman love makeup and still be smart? Why do we need to depend on stereotypes to love one over the other?
These are the questions which sometimes even we need to ask ourselves deep down. How many times did we feel proud to say, “Oh I am not like the other girls and that’s why I have more male friends?” By putting a certain category of girls down, we ourselves are perpetrating the same vice that we are fighting against – judging women for their life choices.
A close reading can reveal many such instances of misogyny. Did you find any of your own? Do let us know.
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