Finally, it is here. Last week, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 arrived in movie theaters. Waiting to greet it were hundreds of thousands of devoted and nerdy fans of J.K. Rowling’s remarkable books, as well as of the movie franchise they have spawned. The Potter series is remarkable for many reasons. But one of the best things about it is that Rowling created a host of female characters who are smart, competent and courageous, women who defend themselves and others, and who defy gender stereotypes.
In this sense, Rowling’s books are enormously important; recent studies have found that in entertainment created for children, women and girls are severely underrepresented, and when they do appear, they are less likely to speak than male characters and are often depicted in ways that reinforce gender stereotypes. Over the course of seven books, Rowling has given her readers, some of them young and easily influenced by depictions of gender on the page and the screen, and some of them older and desperate for books that portray women as complex, valuable characters, a wide range of heroines to choose from. And some of those heroines are flat-out awesome.
Let’s start with the obvious heroine, Hermione Granger. Hermione is the smart one, the one whose intelligence solves so many of the mysteries in the books and whose quick thinking so often gets Harry and Ron out of trouble. At the beginning of the series, Hermione is, in the words of Potions Professor Severus Snape, “an insufferable know-it-all.” She’s smart, she never breaks the rules, she works really hard to be the best in every class, and she’s also pretty annoying. By the end of the series, however, Hermione’s intelligence and her determination to know the answer to every question she’s asked has become an asset rather than an annoyance. Without Hermione, Harry and Ron probably wouldn’t have made it to the end of the series alive.
Of course, the most common stereotype about smart girls is that they’re not pretty. In much of popular culture, smart and pretty are mutually exclusive. In the case of Hermione, this thankfully isn’t the case. Rowling didn’t write Hermione as gorgeous, or as unattractive; rather, she’s just a down-to-earth pretty young woman who occasionally gets dressed up, but is usually too busy with school work to worry much about how she looks. It’s refreshing to meet a heroine who is unashamedly intelligent, and who isn’t afraid of alienating or intimidating the boys with her smarts. Moreover, it sets a powerful example to readers to write a heroine who doesn’t feel the need to compensate for her brains by emphasizing her looks.
Hermione is loyal and brave, and when she believes in something, she will fight for it. Whether it’s advocating for the abolition of slavery in the magical world or becoming an outlaw in order to help Harry defeat his nemesis, Hermione has the courage of her convictions. She might be a bit over-cautious, a bit too enamored of rules, but Hermione is determined, brave and way smarter than you.
Next up, there’s Ginny Weasley, sister to Ron (and to five other brothers), and as I made recently made clear at Feministing.com, my favorite character in the Potter series. Though she becomes Harry’s love interest in the sixth book, Ginny is so much more than just a love interest. She’s athletic and bold and as much as I hate to use this word to describe someone with red hair, fiery.
Ginny’s full name is Ginevra, and it is no coincidence that Rowling, who chose character names with great care, would choose this name for this witch. History’s most famous Ginevra is the Florentine aristocrat whose portrait by Leonardo da Vinci hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. In that portrait, allusions are made to Ginevra de’ Benci’s virtue and chastity, which makes it all the more deliciously ironic that Rowling would bestow the name on a serial dater who snogs her boyfriends all over the Hogwarts campus. Don’t get me wrong, one of the best things about Ginny is that she is totally unashamed of her sexuality. She dates a lot of boys, and when her brothers try to hint that she’s being a bit slutty – or as Ron would say, being “a scarlet woman” – she doesn’t put up with it for a minute. She makes it very clear that there is nothing wrong with what she’s doing, and that her private life is none of their business. And when she and Harry finally get together after years of silent crushing on her end and several months of angsty hesitation on his, it is Ginny who finally makes a move and kisses Harry.
Ginny, like Hermione, is courageous and willing to risk death to fight for what she believes in. But she’s also got something of a temper. She might have started off shy and starstruck by Harry’s celebrity, but by the end of the series, she’s no shrinking violet. Perhaps it’s for this reason that Ginny has so many detractors, fans who call her a slut or a brat and who deride her athletic talents. Ginny isn’t just a simpering love interest: she’s a fully-formed female character, and a pretty feminist one at that, who ends up with the hero in the end.
When you look at her parents, it’s easy to see where Ginny gets her boldness and courage from. Molly and Arthur Weasley are poor but generous, and as the series goes on we learn that despite being the most unlikely freedom fighters imaginable, they have been deeply involved in the fight against Voldemort for many years. Molly Weasley, in particular, doesn’t fit the standard profile for feminist heroines. In fact, when we first meet her, she fits the standard profile for the strict, henpecking wife who cooks very well but is prone to yelling at a very high volume whenever her sons or husband upset her (which happens rather often).
But at the very end of the series, we discover that Molly Weasley knows how to fight, and when the time comes to defend her family, she will do it. She will go head to head with Voldemort’s most vicious deputy, and she will win. She might even curse as she does it: Rowling only wrote a handful of curse words in the entire series, but she put one of them in Molly’s mouth. I have no doubt that Harry Potter fans will riot in the streets if the final movie omits the scene in which Molly Weasley rushes headlong into a battle to defend Ginny, crying, “Not my daughter, you bitch!” This moment is arguably one of the highlights of the seventh book and after reading it, one has the sneaking suspicion that Arthur Weasley wasn’t really henpecked all those years. He just knew something that we didn’t: his short, plump, kindly wife is actually a fierce warrior who is deadly with a wand.
No list of Rowling’s heroines would be complete without a mention of Minerva McGonagall, the brilliant Hogwarts Transfiguration teacher, or of Luna Lovegood, the eccentric student who befriends Harry, Ron and Hermione toward the end of the series. At school, Lovegood is ostracized and ridiculed because she’s so odd, but she has never felt the need to disguise her eccentricity in order to fit in. As a result, Harry, Ron and Hermione, who accept her the way she is, are the first friends she’s ever had. There’s also Fleur Delacoeur, the breathtakingly beautiful French witch, who ends up married to the eldest Weasley brother. Other authors might have written Fleur as a blonde bimbo, but again, Rowling challenges the idea that beauty and brains cannot coexist by making Fleur smart as well as beautiful. When other female characters try to dismiss Fleur as stunning but stupid, as women are so often taught to do in our culture, Rowling has a male character remind them that Fleur is in fact quite smart and magically talented.
It would be a mistake to believe that all the female characters in the Potter series are angels. This is far from true; some of the most evil and detestable characters that Rowling created are women. Bellatrix Lestrange, Voldemort’s aforementioned deputy, is a heartless, soulless murderer who enjoys torturing her enemies and gleefully kills those members of her family who are not loyal to Voldemort’s totalitarian cause. Her sister Narcissa isn’t any better, except that she balks at the idea of sacrificing her own son to Voldemort. The secondary villain of the fifth book is Dolores Umbridge, a power hungry and sadistic Ministry of Magic official whose pink clothing and girlish giggle aren’t fooling anyone. While Rowling has written some kind, principled and courageous female characters, she clearly doesn’t believe that women are somehow better or purer than men. In the Harry Potter universe as in ours, women are just as vulnerable to corruption and evil as men are.
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