The Women of The Harry Potter Universe

Last November, fresh off a screening of the latest Harry Potter movie, I finally caved and cracked open my sister's worn copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. A mere five weeks later, I closed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in the series, and placed it on my nightstand. Thus another Harry Potter fanatic was born.

The final movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, opens this weekend, and will undoubtedly rake in millions, if not billions, at the box office. With more than 450 million copies sold worldwide, and six billion dollars more made at the box office over the past decade, Harry Potter is the highest grossing film and book series of all time. The reach of the series is unprecedented. Everyone loves the story of "The Boy Who Lived."

And what's not to love? JK Rowling provides a fully realized fantastical world bursting with magical creatures, wicked wizards, hundreds (seriously) of well-developed supporting characters and perhaps the most loveable teen trio ever written. One third of that golden trio is Hermione Granger, and I can't think of better role model for young readers.

Hermione is the brightest witch of her age, courageous (she is in Gryffindor, after all) and principled. She is deeply empathetic. She is studious and serious, although she allows herself to revel in the humor of others, namely Ron Weasley. She fears failure (but little else). In her younger years, she is labeled a know-it-all. I'd argue the others are simply intimidated by her intellect, and she is right not to dumb herself down for their benefit. All in all, I wish Hermione were a real person so we could exchange BFF charm necklaces and brunch it every Sunday.

Rowling wrote Hermione to eschew stereotypes. She doesn't end up with the hero; she is never there to function as Harry's love interest. She prefers Arithmancy to Divination in school. Hermione is also a total badass, despite her prim and proper reputation. When Hermione discovers that a nasty reporter who spread lies about herself and Harry is an unregistered animagus (a wizard or witch who can morph oneself into an animal), she traps the reporter in Beetle form in a jar and blackmails her. The next year, she tricks the totalitarian, ministry-planted Headmaster of Hogwarts, Dolores Umbridge, into a trap in the Forbidden Forest to escape unjust punishment. So often, female characters are allowed to be aggressive or rebellious, but in exchange are stripped of any traditionally feminine qualities and instead are forced to pick up traditionally masculine traits. However, Hermione is never made to do that. Most notably, she is written to be highly logical AND emotionally expressive, a combination not commonly afforded to most of today's leading ladies.

Best of all, Hermione is a true feminist. At first glance, Hermione appears to stick strictly to the rules. However, the truth is Hermione is constantly challenging the system and pushing others to consider the deep-seeded inequality faced by the non-privileged members of the wizarding world. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Hermione comes up with the idea to start a clandestine student resistance movement called Dumbledore's Army. In Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, when Hermione learns of the existence of enslaved house elves, not only does she call out her best friend for defending their enslavement, she establishes a student organization dedicated to demanding freedom and fair pay for house elves. The movement isn't popular, but hey –- Hermione isn't here to make friends.

Hermione is surrounded by dozens of complex female characters that inhabit the Harry Potter universe. These women fill all sorts of roles: mothers (Molly Weasley, Narcissa Malfoy, Lily Potter), professors (McGonagall, Pomona Sprout, Sybill Trelawney), highly trained aurors (Tonks, Alice Longbottom), Dumbledore's Army members (Luna Lovegood, Ginny Weasley, Hannah Abbott, Susan Bones, the Patil twins, Lavender Brown), nurses (Madam Pomfrey), Triwizard champion (Fleur Delacour), and Quidditch players (Angelina Johnson, Katie Bell, Cho Chang).

Still, the Harry Potter universe isn't some progressive utopia for women. Patriarchal pureblood families have a monopoly on wealth and influence at the ministry. Within the corrupt ministry and Voldemort's Death Eaters, women find themselves outranked and outnumbered. Even those women with power, such as Voldemort's #1 groupie Bellatrix Lestrange or Dolores Umbridge, are forced to work within a power structure that values first and foremost the needs of men. The only woman on the "dark" side who ultimately holds any power is Narcissa Malfoy, and this is because she defies Voldemort and the Death Eaters. In the safe spaces of Harry Potter's world, however, women fair far better. Women in the Order of the Phoenix makes decisions and spearhead dangerous assignments. Professors, particularly McGonagall, hold substantial influence over the education of students at Hogwarts. In fact, Lord Voldemort is defeated twice because he underestimates the power of a mother's love for her child. Ultimately, Voldemort's defeat rests on Harry's shoulders, but it is the choices the women in his life make that enable him to do so.

After this summer, when the magic ends, we will be left to wonder just how long it'll be before we get another series quite like Harry Potter. Even our beloved Pixar movies lack the quality female characters found in Harry Potter. The series, free of the princesses, underdeveloped love interests and shallow attempts at girl power that plague most of today's blockbuster franchises, feels like a mug of Butterbeer on a cold winter day; a treat that must be savored. Will Harry Potters' success be deemed a fluke, or a sign that moviegoers have finally fallen prey to the powerful spells cast by fantastic female characters?


This amended post originally appeared at Canonball; above is an amended version. Republished with permission.

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