News & Politics

Why Harry Potter Is a Feminist

J.K. Rowling presented positive female characters and influenced multiple generations of women with her Harry Potter series.

It’s common knowledge that Harry Potter has infiltrated our culture and had a lasting effect on this generation: the J.K. Rowling franchise consists of seven works of literature, eight full feature themes and an amusement park. But when the final installment of the film series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, premieres today, there's something fans and moviegoers might not have expected from the series: a quiet but real feminist revolution.

Since 1997, the Harry Potter enterprise has influenced young readers through its female-friendly views on gender. There is an authentically feminist premise beneath the surface of Quidditch games and duels against Lord Voldemort. The series creates a subtle feminist consciousness for young women exposed to this fictional world of magic in three parts: the female characters written into the novels, the overarching themes that relay themselves into the movies and the woman behind the entire franchise—J.K. Rowling.

The thing about the female characters in the series is that they aren’t all depicted as friendly, happy go-lucky ladies. And that’s the beauty of it. Rowling gave the women of the Wizarding World a range of characteristics and personality traits, instead of pigeonholing them into the progressive female stereotype of independent, loud and smart. Of course, lead heroine Hermione fits the stereotype well, but she’s not the only woman who plays a key role in the series. (And she’s a pretty damn good role model for young woman to read, regardless of her stereotype.)

Bellatrix Lestrange, old friend and loyal follower of Lord Voldemort; Rita Skeeter, troublemaking tabloid reporter; and Dolores Umbridge, employee at the Ministry of Magic, are all worthy of great hatred. They each play somewhat destructive roles in the ultimate goal of achieving peace and equality in the Wizarding World. But this representation of female characters in the series is critical to the feminist understanding that women are all different and should not fit into one, specific, descriptive category.

Some characters are evil and troublesome, while others are intelligent and driven. Aunt Petunia is submissive and eternally catering to both her son and husband, but Professor McGonagall doesn’t take anyone’s crap—she eventually ends up as Hogwarts’ headmistress. Positive personality traits found in female characters are not what makes Potter feminist per se. It’s the diverse range of individual tendencies that makes Rowling’s female characters strong.

Thematically, Rowling works what may seem like the simplest of themes into subtle examples of everyday feminist tenets. Consider the mentoring that goes on between Harry and Dumbledore and Hermione and McGonagall. Their close-knit relationships aren’t exclusive to one gender, but are explored through male-male and female-female encouragement. The mentors guide their followers in the right direction and pass on their knowledge and wisdom. 

Motherhood is another important motif to consider. The books and movies offer a range of different mother types, namely Petunia Dursley, Molly Weasley and Narcissa Malfoy. Even the deceased Lily Potter’s presence is felt throughout the narrative—ultimately, his mother’s love is what saved Harry from the most evil and powerful wizard of all time.

It's obvious that Rowling leaned toward girl-positive themes to begin with, but it's telling that readers of all genders and ages around the world idolize the author. When she first imagined the series Rowling was a single mom experiencing depression with bare-bones finances. One simple spark of imagination, though, began a billion-dollar enterprise through a premise originally scribbled on a coffeehouse napkin.

Forbes has named Rowling as the first person to become a US-dollar billionaire by writing books. This is a huge feat for any individual, let alone a female author whose gender is still underrepresented in literature. The author originally intended to have her gender take a backseat to the HP books; she used the pen name J.K. instead of her own name, Joanne, out of concern that young boys wouldn’t want to read fantasy fiction written by a woman. This clearly became a non-issue as young men and women became obsessed with the Harry Potter stories to the point of worshiping the author and the world she cultivated.

Children who read the books and young adults who attend the movie premieres are aware of Rowling’s female presence, which inherently affects the ways in which our culture perceives female success. Young girls now imagine themselves as possible billionaires, business owners and successful writers because of Rowling’s authorship. The true significance behind this entire phenomenon isn’t the male character in the title, but the woman who served as the brains behind the entire operation.

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