What? Did Hermione Granger really say “I can’t” during the climactic battle in the final chapter of the Harry Potter film saga? Presented with her chance to destroy one of the horcruxes she had put her life on the line to hunt, she backs away and needs her almost-boyfriend Ron to insist that of course she can. Sorry, filmmakers, that quavering girly-girl is not Hermione.
Maybe it was a fluke, a contrivance to make Ron the more capable one for a change, showing that Hermione was no longer a bossy know-it-all. Maybe. Except that in Deathly Hallows: Part One, when the snatcher Scabior pauses at the edge of the hidden encampment and sniffs, Hermione wobbles to Harry and Ron that he could smell her perfume. Perfume?! That’s just riddikulus. We’ve known since Goblet of Fire that when the occasion arises, Hermione can dress up and be a glamour queen. But on the run, living rough, hunting horcruxes, and facing the possibility of death at any moment, Hermione is not even going to pack perfume in her magical bag, let alone wear it.There’s almost a direct correlation with actress Emma Watson’s growing prettiness through the course of the films and Hermione’s decreased bookishness and pragmatism. Screenwriter Steve Kloves may have liked Hermione best when he was first given the job of adapting the books but as she became an adolescent, something shifted. It’s one thing for a girl to be the brains of an operation when everyone is prepubescent. But an adult woman who is brainy and takes charge is “domineering”. A very scary witch indeed. Presumably Kloves didn’t want any young male filmgoers sneering (or crossing their legs nervously) when Hermione was on screen.
Which misses the point that millions of young males and females already considered her an old friend long before the first owl hit the screen. While cinema demands streamlined plots and arcs – and, of course, the stories are about Harry – diminishing Hermione’s overt scholarliness and complex thinking under high pressure is more peculiar than a Blibbering Humdinger.
It’s also discouraging. Hermione is a great role model who doesn’t care if her bookishness or activism (absent in the films) are laughed at. She knows the power of books.
It can’t help Hermione that, although the productions are British, the series is owned by the very Hollywood studio Warner Bros. Warner’s president, Jeff Robinov, was alleged to have said in 2007 (when Half-Blood Prince had begun filming) that the studio was “no longer doing movies with women in the lead”. Such sexist policy would no doubt affect supporting characters, turning famously multilayered females into more standard Hollywood fare.
Hermione steadily became blonder and sexier in Deathly Hallows, wearing jeans so tight you’d think her legs would break if she tried to run. When it comes to film, something about a smart, fearless woman who doesn’t care about her looks makes Hollywood leery; even if, in this instance, she commands a loyal and loving built-in audience before the film begins.
Why is it so difficult for proudly brainy, bookish, outspoken girls of any age to see themselves on screen, especially in major studio films? Where are the girls who don’t make an effort to fit the “feminine” stereotype and are still admired and even loved anyway?
And where will girls learn and be validated in their belief that they don’t have to compromise fundamental aspects of their personalities to prosper? That there is never any reason to say “I can’t”? Books, for a start.
Be warned: Elements of the plot of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are revealed below, though not the ending.
What are the politics of Harry Potter? The rift in the magical world described over the course of J.K. Rowling’s epic pits the young wizard and his companions against the terrorizing, fascistic Lord Voldemort, who seeks to “cleanse” the wizarding community of “mudbloods,” those witches and wizards born into non-magical families. Parallels to the Holocaust and other genocides and apartheid regimes are easy to draw. Just as we’re eager to hear that Hitler was part Jewish, or gay, or suffered from a terrible sexual dysfunction, Potter fans eat up the revelation that Voldemort himself had a Muggle, or non-magical, father.
Rowling, though famously tight-lipped, has used her personal website to draw explicit comparisons between her mythological universe and 20th century history. A young reader wrote to Rowling to ask, “Why are some people in the wizarding world (e.g., Harry) called ‘half-blood’ even though both their parents were magical?” She responds:
The expressions “pure-blood,” “half-blood,” and “Muggle-born” have been coined by people to whom these distinctions matter, and express their originators’ prejudices. … If you think this is far-fetched, look at some of the real charts the Nazis used to show what constituted “Aryan” or “Jewish” blood. I saw one in the Holocaust Museum in Washington when I had already devised the “pure-blood,” “half-blood,” and “Muggle-born” definitions and was chilled to see that the Nazi used precisely the same warped logic as the Death Eaters. A single Jewish grandparent “polluted” the blood, according to their propaganda.
Rowling describes her surprise at learning her own fictional creation mirrors historical reality. Whether we believe this stance or understand it as a pose for the benefit of young readers, Rowling clearly intends her audience to see the moral predicaments in her novels not as “far-fetched,” but as quite relevant to a troubled world.
Thus, some critics have been tempted to read Harry Potter as a commentary on the 21st-century struggle to contain global terrorism. But Rowling began plotting the series in the early 1990s, and four of the seven books were written and published before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The series, therefore, is less a critique of Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib (echoes of which many readers see in the Ministry of Magic’s cruel Azkaban prison) than a meditation on the challenge of diversity, that conundrum at the center of modern societies.
But Rowling’s ideology cannot simply be described as anti-racist, for as strongly as she condemns racially-motivated violence, Harry Potter remains a classic work of fantasy. And fantasy is a literary genre intent, above almost all else, on the reassuring order of classification and categorization, of blood lines and inheritances.
Though we’re meant to abhor Voldemort’s obsession with “pure” blood lines, father-to-son inheritances are crucial to fulfilling Harry’s destiny as savior of the magical community. The “Deathly Hallows” referred to in the title of the seventh book are three medieval magical objects made by pureblood brothers and thought to allow their owners to avoid death. Toward the end of the book, Harry learns he is the rightful heir to one of the hallows and can access the two others as well. So the boy wizard tasked with fighting the pureblood ideology is himself a descendent of one of the most prestigious families in magical history. The plot device is too conventional to be ironic, and fits squarely within the fantasy tradition of ascribing high-born histories to even the most humble heroes. Think of Aragorn in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
Like Tolkien, Rowling depicts a variety of magical species in addition to human wizards. Tolkien unabashedly racialized his magical beings; Tall, pale Elves spoke a beautiful Latinate tongue; little Hobbits were simple, fun-loving, loyal folk; and dark-skinned “southern” human tribes sided in battle with orcs, savage creatures no better than animals.
Rowling’s world isn’t all that different. A magical species called Veelas are high-born, fairy-like creatures who seduce men and possess unnatural, silvery-white beauty. Over the course of the books, the young wizards do learn to respect house elves, a species in slavery to human masters. Yet even in freedom, the elves’ personalities are depicted as fundamentally servile. A rather pathetic elf named Kreacher feels his subordination so keenly that when he fails in tasks assigned to him by Harry, he beats himself to a pulp. We’re meant to feel sorry for Kreacher, but elves have no agency—they owe even their liberation movement to humans.
The position of women in the narrative fits this vision of prescribed social roles and hierarchies. Harry’s heroes—his school headmaster, godfather, and various magical sporting figures—are all men. His dead mother, the Muggle-born Lily, is portrayed as the source of love and sacrifice in his life, while his late father, James, was daring, brash, and heroic. The books do strike some blows against gender stereotypes, portraying brave female warriors, a number of uncommonly cruel and violent female characters, and, of course, Harry’s best friend Hermione, a heroine because of her ability to turn academic acumen into practical magical solutions. But on the whole, Rowling’s wizarding society conforms to boringly conventional gender roles. Dads, like the loveable Mr. Weasley (father of red-headed sidekick Ron), go off to work while steadfast moms stay home cooking, cleaning, and rearing large families. Magical education doesn’t begin until the age of 11, so witches are also tasked with full-time parenting and educational responsibilities over young children, Rowling clarified for a curious reader at her website.
The best window into how Rowling subtly critiques, yet ultimately hews to, a fantasy script dependent on stereotypes culled from real-life racism is the acrimony between humans and goblins, an important plot device in book seven. Goblins in the series are humanoid beings (they can mate with people) skilled at forging metal and protecting valuables. Harry and Ron distrust goblins, but the naïve Hermione reminds them that wizards have been cruel to goblins throughout history, provoking bad behavior from the creatures. Against his better instincts, Harry cuts a deal with the goblin Griphook: In exchange for help in obtaining a magical object deep with a protected vault, Harry will give Griphook a valuable medieval sword he has inherited. But Harry soon learns goblin ideas of ownership are different than human ideas; while people believe they own an object once they pay for it and can pass it to whomever they like, goblins believe a valuable object must be returned to its creator—often a goblin—upon its purchaser’s death. Thus, Griphook steals the sword from Harry without fully upholding his end of the bargain. The ultimate judgment is that whole categories of creatures, even those whose blood is intermingled in the human race, cannot be trusted.
Of course, one could make the argument that Rowling is “color-blind;” her minor characters sport a variety of ethnic names—Anthony Goldstein, Parvati Patil, Cho Chang. But even as Rowling attempts to neutralize race by presenting a diverse cast of young wizards, she creates a world in which some beings are born into stereotypes they cannot overcome and that render them inherently inferior. This is, unfortunately, par for the course in the fantasy genre, in which pretend humanoid species have too often been used as a cover for our reactionary assumptions about different types of real people.
The hierarchical, patriarchal undertones of the fantasy genre will likely be lost on children caught up in Harry’s quest to defeat the evil Lord Voldemort. The series is great fun, and I wouldn’t deny anyone the pleasure of reading these books. But the politics of Harry Potter, while broadly anti-authoritarian, are far more complicated at the level of individual identity, and cannot be described as progressive. Perhaps this is why science fiction is ultimately a more radical genre than fantasy. While fantasy looks backwards for its myths and mores, sci-fi looks forward. So here’s hoping the next J.K. Rowling washes her hands of Tolkien and, perhaps in her next series of books, popularizes Madeline L’Engle instead.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out last week, and it’s pretty safe to say that most of the universe has witches (and wizards) on the brain. The blockbuster success of the Harry Potter franchise is not all that surprising, though, considering that humans have been obsessed with witchcraft both real and imagined for millennia. One of our favorite things to do throughout history has been to accuse social outliers of one form or another of being witches, whatever exactly that means. Usually it has meant “making me and mine totally uncomfortable and disrupting the status quo and thus inviting persecution, torture, and death upon yourself as a witchy-type person.”
So let’s break that down a little bit. You know those stickers that say, “Well-behaved women rarely make history”? Well, they also rarely get into the history books without getting called a witch at some point along the way. Go figure. This week, I’ve rounded up some historical figures of varying degrees of renown who would, according to their detractors, have fit right in at Hogwarts with Hermione, Ron, and Harry.
Many have heard of Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book Silent Spring was a game-changer in the use of DDT and other toxic chemicals in the treatment of water, plants, and even people as insect repellent. She died seven years too early to see her environmental work reap political benefits, but she is the reason DDT was banned in the 70s by the U.S. government, and Silent Spring remains essential environmentalist reading in this country and abroad. So, let’s add this up. Woman? Check. Trying to change massive American industry (chemical engineering)? Check. Mentions nature in her argument? Check. CONNECTION TO OCCULT: OBVIOUS, said her opponents. Her book was called “sinister,” and the pesticide industry called her “a hysterical woman,” “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.”
My guess for Rachel? Ravenclaw. Clever, brave under pressure, independent thinkers.
Taslima Nasrin is a Bangladeshi physician, writer, and feminist icon who is currently blacklisted in her home country, and has had fatwas (a price on her head) in several others. She has never stopped writing, and has gained a following in the last two decades while she has lived in exile. After the publication of her first book, Shame, posters went up around Bangladesh that said, “Taslima Nasrin is a filthy, nasty witch, a bitch, a sinner, a sex-lover, a prostitute, an anti-religious and anti-Islam atheist! All are warned to stay far away from this filthy woman.”
Taslima would be a Gryffindor for sure. Bravery, distrust of authority, and an insatiable desire for truth-telling in the face of corrupt, dangerous adversity.
Joan of Arc
No talk of historical with-hunts would be complete without mentioning Joan of Arc, or Jeanne d’Arc; Frenchwoman, voice-hearer, army-leader, Church-defier, literal latter day saint. (That is, it took the Catholic Church a few centuries to decide she was NOT a satanic demon child and was in fact a martyred saint.) Joan was burned at the stake in 1431, at the age of 19.
Joan would have been a Hufflepuff, I think. Hard workers, compassionate, and loyal to the death. Although she probably killed a bunch of English knights, and might not be too welcome at Hogwarts. Maybe Beauxbatons for her, after all…
There are many, many more women through the ages that have been labeled witches for their rabble-rousings.
Well, that’s it. I just came home from my last-ever midnight Harry Potter showing. And as I sit here in my shock that it all has ended, one of the many things I’ve been mulling over is how much love and respect I’ve always had for Hermione Granger, the leading female hero of the series. She’s always been the character for whom I’ve nurtured a soft spot–I dressed up as her for Halloween probably five years in a row.
Hermione offers much for a generation of girls to admire, beginning with her unmatched, encyclopedic knowledge of spells, potions and magical history, which is crucial to Harry’s survival throughout the series. She also holds her head high in the face of attacks on her appearance (she catches flak for her frizzy hair and her large teeth) and her stigmatized status as a Muggle-born witch (her peers taunt her with the slur “Mudblood”). Her loyalty and devotion to her best friends keep the golden trio–Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and her–together until the very end. It’s no wonder fans have serenaded her as the “‘Coolest Girl’ in the whole wide world”.
But what I most admire about Hermione is her often-overlooked role as the most prominent social activist in the series. She stands up for people and creatures (from hippogriffs to giants to house-elves) who are not traditionally respected in the wizarding world. J.K. Rowling, an activist herself (all proceeds from her books, Quidditch Through the Agesand Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them go to the Comic Relief charity), has created a magical world as fraught with racism, sexism and exclusion as our own. Unlike most of the wizarding world, Hermione sees the people and creatures that have been written out of history and, in true feminist fashion, is determined to write them back in.
As Hermione often points out, magical creatures are underrepresented in magical society and discriminated against in magical law, especially via the devastating rule that “No non-human creature is permitted to carry or use a wand.” Since wands are power in the world of Harry Potter, this law ensures wizards’ spot at the top of the social and legal hierarchy.
At the bottom of this hierarchy are house-elves, whose rights Hermione is most passionate about. House-elves live a Dickensian existence: They wear only tea coziesand are bound by magic to serve a wizard family until they die or are set free. This means not only obeying every order, but keeping the family’s secrets and brutally punishing themselves when they disobey or speak ill of their masters.
In defense of house elves, Hermione forms the radical S.P.E.W., the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare:
Our short-term aims … are to secure house-elves fair wages and working conditions. Our long-term aims include changing the law about non-wand use, and trying to get an elf into the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, because they’re shockingly underrepresented.
Like any activist worth her salt, Hermione understands that in order to change the way that house-elves are treated, she must fight to change their legal status, gain them representation and challenge the narrative the normalizes their servitude. She is outraged that her school’s textbook, Hogwarts, A History, is “not entirely reliable” on the subject of house elves:
A Revised History of Hogwarts would be a more accurate title. Or A Highly Biased and Selective History of Hogwarts Which Glosses Over the Nastier Aspects of the School. … Not once, in over a thousand pages, does Hogwarts, A History mention that we are all colluding in the oppression of a hundred slaves!
Hermione’s biggest challenge is the population she is trying to “save”: House-elves tend to see their role of complete submission as an honor and a duty. They consider her determination to free them as embarrassing and insulting. In an interview, J.K. Rowling explains that she purposely cast Hermione as out-of-step with house elves, to highlight a common complication for activists:
[Hermione] blunders towards the very people she’s trying to help. She offends them. She thinks it’s so easy. [She realizes that as an activist] you don’t have quite as much power as you think you might have. … Then you learn that it’s hard work to change things and that it doesn’t happen overnight. Hermione thinks she’s going to lead them to glorious rebellion in one afternoon and then finds out the reality is very different.
Hermione’s conflict will be a familiar one to Western feminists: We’ve had to learn that what we think best for women in another culture may just be based on our own biases and our own cultural limitations (consider the current burqa ban in France). What remains is a debate: Are house-elves, in fact, happy in their servitude? Certainly, other major characters–including Ron and Harry–repeatedly tell Hermione that house-elves enjoy being enslaved and that she shouldn’t bother to change the way things are.
I believe that the house elves are not “naturally” happy to serve, but reacting to centuries of conditioning. Ostensible opposition to freedom from the oppressed appears in our own history quite a lot. One reason for that may be Stockholm Syndrome; another is intense pressure on the oppressed to reassure their oppressors that they are happy with their lot. Take the frightening argument made by white masters (and many racists today) that black people were better off as slaves. Hermione’s fight, and ours, comes up against the myth of “happy servitude.”
But in true Hermione fashion, she fights through the opposition and belittling. J.K. Rowling reveals in an interview that an adult Hermione will be victorious in her quest:
Hermione began her post-Hogwarts career at the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures where she was instrumental in greatly improving life for house elves and their ilk.
I imagine Hermione publishing a book akin to White Like Me that brings wizard and witch privileges to the forefront (Witch Like Me, perhaps?), starting the discussion in the wizarding world about magical privilege. After all, Hermione understands better than anyone that, as Dumbledore said, “It is important to fight, and fight again, and keep fighting, for only then can evil be kept at bay, though never quite eradicated.”
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be in my room, re-reading my childhood.
With excitement building for the final Harry Potter movie, we’re hosting a week of posts about the series on the Ms. Blog. Today we’ve got a report on gender equity at the heart of the hardest-core Harry Potter fanbase: the people who actually play Quidditch.
For the uninitiated, “Muggle” Quidditch is a land-based version of the series’ imaginary airborne sport. Think of it as a cross between dodgeball, basketball, rugby and capture the flag, except all the players run with brooms between their legs. Since the first intramural league game in 2005, it has gained a serious following, with over 400 college teams in the International Quidditch Association (IQA) from 13 countries and 45 U.S. states. It’s a game serious enough that players do sometimes get injured in play, and silly enough that if dementors attack the field during a World Cup match, everyone has a laugh and gameplay goes on relatively unimpeded.
One of the most interesting aspects of Quidditch, however, is that Muggle Quidditch is co-ed, just as in the books. (Fans may remember that both Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley have game-winning Snitch catches, though the latter was omitted from the movie.)
In fact, the IQA official rulebook [PDF] mandates that “each team must have at least two players of a different gender from the other players”. This is part of what the IQA calls Title 9 3/4, which puts a Harry Potter twist on U.S.-gender-equity-in-education statute Title IX. IQA’s official page regarding Title 9 3/4 reads:
We believe that if men and women learn to compete equally, then they will learn to respect and value each other’s abilities regardless of gender. It is well researched that sports participation improves the lives of women and levels the “playing field” not only in sports but in every aspect of society; with Quidditch we would like to take those benefits a step further by promoting a sport that is truly co-ed, rather than evenly segregated (as it currently exists under Title IX).
With the increasing popularity of Muggle Quidditch, the IQA hopes to challenge the world’s view on gender in sports, as well as to challenge professional sports leagues to modify their gender rules to promote gender equality.
If other sports leagues do start featuring mixed-gender sports, it could mean a lot for social advancement in more than just one area. Unisex sports leagues are generally hostile towards transgender or genderqueer people, often requiring them to register under a gender they do not identify with. Additionally, ridiculous and invasive “gender verification tests” such as the one South African runner Caster Semenya had to undergo would be unnecessary in mixed-gender leagues.
So how does this theory of putting both genders on the playing field at the same time work in practice?
Really well, as it turns out. While I’ve only been playing Quidditch a few months, learning to play a rough sport against both men and women has been both surprising and rewarding. As Quidditch is a relatively new sport, it’s extremely welcoming to newcomers, even those with little to no experience playing sports. I had been expecting most of the roughhousing and point-scoring to come from the male players, but a few well-thrown bludgers (this is where the dodgeball aspect comes in) and tackles from other women quite literally knocked me to my senses. And at the very first annual Western Cup that took place early in April, some of the best plays I saw were completed by members of different genders cooperating.
To sum up what I learned on the field: It doesn’t matter what gender you are, anyone can ride a broomstick.
To follow what’s happening in Quidditch, check out the IQA’s official twitter page.
Last week the first installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out, and that’s given me an opportunity to think even more than usual about how much I love the series. And as I was thinking about that, I realized that you, Ginny Weasley, are more awesome than Viktor Krum is surly. You are more excellent than Peter Pettigrew is cowardly. You are a badass feminist witch and I am so glad that you are around as a heroine for young women reading the Potter series.
Girl geeks of the world, rejoice. One of our own—brainy activist witch Hermione Granger—has come into her own.
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I” burned up the box office its first weekend, riding to history on a wave of devotion from a worldwide fandom bewitched by the magical wizard and his world-in-peril. But Harry, our scarred and spectacled protagonist, made room for his best friends Hermione and Ron to shine in this film, as the three of them embarked on a fugitive life away from their quirky wizarding school and its legions of supporting characters.
And so this penultimate installment, in many ways, became Hermione’s movie. Her emotions and choices, classically heroic, anchored a piece of the epic story that would have felt muddled and rootless without her.
Director Chris Yates underscored his focus on her right from the get-go …
Although nothing has been confirmed yet, Azad’s case has all the makings of an attempted honor killing–an unfortunate but very real and rising trend amongst the British-Muslim community. The United Nations defines an honor killing as:
The murder of a (typically female) family or clan member by one or more fellow (mostly male) family members, in which the perpetrators (and potentially the wider community) believe the victim to have brought dishonor upon the family or community.
This “dishonor” can be anything from unacceptable dress codes to refusing an arranged marriage or engaging in sexual acts.
Annual worldwide statistics of victims of honor killings are as high as 5,000 women. The rates are especially alarming in the United Kingdom where every year about a dozen women become victims of honor killings. The UN reports that these murders are happening almost exclusively in Asian and Middle-Eastern families.
THE dad and brother of an Asian Harry Potter actress have been charged with threatening to kill her.
Pretty Afshan Azad, 23 — who plays Padma Patil in the hit films — was allegedly attacked at her home in Manchester.
Her father Abul Azad, 54, and brother Ashraf Azad, 28, appeared at Manchester magistrates’ court on Tuesday accused of threatening to kill Afshan.
Ashraf is also charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm.
Me: You know, all of Snape and Dumbledore’s plans would have been shot if anyone at all would have listened to Bellatrix.