Friday, February 08, 2008

Harry Potter's girl trouble...

I have to write a summary on this for one of my classes- being a huge fan it was really fascinating to me. What do you think??

Harry Potter's girl trouble
The world of everyone's favorite kid wizard is a place where boys come first. By Christine Schoefer Four factors made me go out and buy the Harry Potter books: Their impressive lead on the bestseller lists, parents' raves about Harry Potter's magical ability to turn kids into passionate readers, my daughters' clamoring and the mile-long waiting lists at the public library. Once I opened "The Sorcerer's Stone," I was hooked and read to the last page of Volume 3. Glittering mystery and nail-biting suspense, compelling language and colorful imagery, magical feats juxtaposed with real-life concerns all contributed to making these books page turners. Of course, Diagon Alley haunted me, the Sorting Hat dazzled me, Quidditch intrigued me. Believe me, I tried as hard as I could to ignore the sexism. I really wanted to love Harry Potter. But how could I?

Harry's fictional realm of magic and wizardry perfectly mirrors the conventional assumption that men do and should run the world. From the beginning of the first Potter book, it is boys and men, wizards and sorcerers, who catch our attention by dominating the scenes and determining the action. Harry, of course, plays the lead. In his epic struggle with the forces of darkness -- the evil wizard Voldemort and his male supporters -- Harry is supported by the dignified wizard Dumbledore and a colorful cast of male characters. Girls, when they are not downright silly or unlikable, are helpers, enablers and instruments. No girl is brilliantly heroic the way Harry is, no woman is experienced and wise like Professor Dumbledore. In fact, the range of female personalities is so limited that neither women nor girls play on the side of evil.

But, you interject, what about Harry's good friend Hermione? Indeed, she is the female lead and the smartest student at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. She works hard to be accepted by Harry and his sidekick Ron, who treat her like a tag-along until Volume 3. The trio reminds me of Dennis the Menace, Joey and Margaret or Calvin, Hobbes and Suzy. Like her cartoon counterparts, Hermione is a smart goody-goody who annoys the boys by constantly reminding them of school rules. Early on, she is described as "a bossy know-it-all," hissing at the boys "like an angry goose." Halfway through the first book, when Harry rescues her with Ron's assistance, the hierarchy of power is established. We learn that Hermione's bookish knowledge only goes so far. At the sight of a horrible troll, she "sinks to the floor in fright ... her mouth open with terror." Like every Hollywood damsel in distress, Hermione depends on the resourcefulness of boys and repays them with her complicity. By lying to cover up for them, she earns the boys' reluctant appreciation.

Though I was impressed by Hermione's brain power, I felt sorry for her. She struggles so hard to get Harry and Ron's approval and respect, in spite of the boys' constant teasing and rejection. And she has no girlfriends. Indeed, there don't seem to be any other girls at the school worth her -- or our -- attention. Again and again, her emotions interfere with her intelligence, so that she loses her head when it comes to applying her knowledge. Although she casts successful spells for the boys, Hermione messes up her own and as a result, while they go adventuring, she hides in the bathroom with cat fur on her face. I find myself wanting Hermione to shine, but her bookish knowledge and her sincere efforts can't hold a candle to Harry's flamboyant, rule-defying bravery.

Even though Hermione eventually wins the boys' begrudging respect and friendship, her thirst for knowledge remains a constant source of irritation for them. And who can blame them? With her nose stuck in books, she's no fun. Thankfully, she is not hung up on her looks or the shape of her body. But her relentless studying has all the characteristics of a disorder: It makes her ill-humored, renders her oblivious to her surroundings and threatens her health, especially in the third volume.

Ron's younger sister Ginny, another girl student at Hogwart's, can't help blushing and stammering around Harry, and she fares even worse than Hermione. "Stupid little Ginny" unwittingly becomes the tool of evil when she takes to writing in a magical diary. For months and months, "the foolish little brat" confides "all her pitiful worries and woes" ("how she didn't think famous good great Harry Potter would 'ever' like her") to these pages. We are told how boring it is to listen to "the silly little troubles of an eleven-year-old girl."

Again and again, we see girls so caught up in their emotions that they lose sight of the bigger picture. We watch them "shriek," "scream," "gasp" and "giggle" in situations where boys retain their composure. Again and again, girls stay at the sidelines of adventure while the boys jump in. While Harry's friends clamor to ride his brand-new Firebolt broomstick, for example, classmate Penelope is content just to hold it.

The only female authority figure is beady-eyed, thin-lipped Minerva McGonagall, professor of transfiguration and deputy headmistress of Hogwart's. Stern instead of charismatic, she is described as eyeing her students like "a wrathful eagle." McGonagall is Dumbledore's right hand and she defers to him in every respect. Whereas he has the wisdom to see beyond rules and the power to disregard them, McGonagall is bound by them and enforces them strictly. Although she makes a great effort to keep her feelings under control, in a situation of crisis she loses herself in emotions because she lacks Dumbledore's vision of the bigger picture. When Harry returns from the chamber of secrets, she clutches her chest, gasps and speaks weakly while the all-knowing Dumbledore beams.

Sybill Trelawney is the other female professor we encounter. She teaches divination, a subject that includes tea-leaf reading, palmistry, crystal gazing -- all the intuitive arts commonly associated with female practitioners. Trelawney is a misty, dreamy, dewy charlatan, whose "clairvoyant vibrations" are the subject of constant scorn and ridicule. The only time she makes an accurate prediction, she doesn't even know it because she goes into a stupor. Because most of her students and all of her colleagues dismiss her, the entire intuitive tradition of fortune-telling, a female domain, is discredited.

A brief description of the guests in the Leaky Cauldron pub succinctly summarizes author J.K. Rowling's estimation of male and female: There are "funny little witches," "venerable looking wizards" who argue philosophy, "wild looking warlocks," "raucous dwarfs" and a "hag" ordering a plate of raw liver. Which would you prefer to be? I rest my case.

But I remain perplexed that a woman (the mother of a daughter, no less) would, at the turn of the 20th century, write a book so full of stereotypes. Is it more difficult to imagine a headmistress sparkling with wit, intelligence and passion than to conjure up a unicorn shedding silver blood? More farfetched to create a brilliant, bold and lovable heroine than a marauder's map?

It is easy to see why boys love Harry's adventures. And I know that girls' uncanny ability to imagine themselves in male roles (an empathic skill that boys seem to lack, honed on virtually all children's literature as well as Hollywood's younger audience films) enables them to dissociate from the limitations of female characters. But I wonder about the parents, many of whom join their kids in reading the Harry Potter stories. Is our longing for a magical world so deep, our hunger to be surprised and amazed so intense, our gratitude for a well-told story so great that we are willing to abdicate our critical judgment? Or are the stereotypes in the story integral to our fascination -- do we feel comforted by a world in which conventional roles are firmly in place?

I have learned that Harry Potter is a sacred cow. Bringing up my objections has earned me other parents' resentment -- they regard me as a heavy-handed feminist with no sense of fun who is trying to spoil a bit of magic they have discovered. But I enjoyed the fantastical world of wizards, witches, beasts and muggles as much as anyone. Is that a good reason to ignore what's been left out?

About the writer
Christine Schoefer is the mother of three die-hard female Harry Potter fans. She is also a German-American freelancer whose writing has appeared in the Nation, the L.A. Times, Utne Reader, the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications in the U.S. as well as in Germany


brooke said...

I could not disagree more. Ok Bellatrix lestrange is like the main bad girl in the book, she defeats a lot of men, she seems just as powerful as voldermort at times.

Then Mrs. Weasley defeated her. She was always level headed while her husband is portrayed as a dim wit.
And she has always been really caring to all the children.

and everyone tells harry how similiar he is to his mom and how they share so many characteristics.

stacey said...

As you have only read the first three books, I do understand where you are coming from. However, I highly recommend that you read the whole series and then see if you see the same sexist themes. The character roles are accurate, but the characters that Harry cares most about are male. The books are about Harry and from Harry's standpoint. As he grows, and starts to learn more about the world he is in, female characters gain much more power.

Is Hermione's behavior not understandable? She is 11(12,13), and she is not perfect. The book shows how a typical boy of the same age would view her. It's not sexist, its realistic. Also, while the fact that Harry doesn't know much about girls to begin with doesn't help matters, he also judges other male characters to be just as negative (Neville, Crabbe and Goyle, and many characters in later books).

Wouldn't a real 12 year old boy be embarrassed by a friend's sister's obsessive crush on him? Don't real pre-teenage girls have obsessive crushes on celebrities? Yes, they do. And furthermore, when you quoted lines about Ginny, you were quoting from the most evil character who is known to be a bigot (against muggles). His ruling also shows his sexism. Are not the most evil leaders in reality sexist? For that matter, are not more men in power positions than women to begin with? It's unfortunate, but it's reality. J.K. Rowling portrayed real gender roles AND showed how untrue they are as the books progress. If anything, she is saying how bad sexism in real society is, and has her characters break stereotypes as Harry's world becomes better revealed to both him and readers.

Bianca Reagan said...

I agree! I addressed these concerns, and more, here and here.

hailey said...

I can't dissagree more about the girl thing.

Hermione and Ginny...Their the real deal! Ok, second volume Hermione was paralized But the paper in her hand. If she wasn't there Ron and Harry would never have figured it out.

Then there's Bellatrix Lestrange. Just look at what she did to Neville's parents! She's strong, possibly as strong as Voldemort himself!

I understand Hermione her obsessive studying. And Ginny her blushing around Harry. I mean I was the same way with my crush. Some girls can keep it cool while others studder and blush.

Mrs. Weasley is the kind of witch that can live alone with her children. She can be dependant and independent.

In the fourth volume Fleur Delacour was right there with everything! She's not the WIMP like in the movie!

I no this is off subject... but no one knew that Ginny was such a great flier. It was because when her brothers weren't at home she took their brooms and went flying.

It just depends on which girl you are talking about. Like Penelope I would understand if she would stand in the background. But Hermione and Ginny I see them ALWAYS in the middle of the action!

Anonymous said...

I see this post is from a while ago, so you'll have gotten past the fifth book now.

The fight, where Luna and Ginny do as well as the rest? I rest my case.

Anonymous said...

Interesting essay...but if you read the later books, the girls' status improves.

Did you read book 7? In the final battle, it's BOTH boys and girls fighting. And it's none other than courageous witch McGonagall who leads the final battle and leads Hogwarts to victory over the evil side.

* No girl is brilliantly heroic the way Harry is...*

In later books, brilliantly girl heroes appear, all as brave as Harry...Ginny. Luna. Hermione comes to her own also. Those three for starters.

*Though I was impressed by Hermione's brain power, I felt sorry for her. She struggles so hard to get Harry and Ron's approval and respect, in spite of the boys' constant teasing and rejection. And she has no girlfriends. Indeed, there don't seem to be any other girls at the school worth her…*

Not really; she is not afraid to tell them off when they annoy her. And by book 3, she has befriended Ginny and in book 5, she becomes good friends with Luna Lovegood.

*Harry's flamboyant, rule-defying bravery...*

Harry does have a rule-defying bravery, for sure, but flamoyant, Harry is not. Harry is very quiet and shy. He's one of the quietest students at Hogwarts.

*. At the sight of a horrible troll, she "sinks to the floor in fright ... her mouth open with terror." Like every Hollywood damsel in distress, Hermione depends on the resourcefulness of boys and repays them with her complicity.*

But the very next day, Hermione rescues Harry from a jinxed broom thu her own resourcefulness and quick thinking. And Harry is quite terrified when his broom is jumping and going wild.

*Ron's younger sister Ginny, another girl student at Hogwart's, can't help blushing and stammering around Harry...*

In book 4, Harry is blushing bright red and stuttering over Cho. And even in book 2, when conceited Lockhart pulls Harry up front for a public photo-op, Harry silently blushes bright red and looks timidly at the floor. Harry's a very shy boy.

I actually think a large part of what made the books so popular with both boys and girls is that Harry is NOT a traditional, all-confident, all-calm male; he gets frightened, he cries, and he has vulnerabilities just as any of the girls do.

Also, by book 5, the six main characters are three girls and three boys...Hermione, Harry, Ron, Ginny, Luna, and Neville, all of who each have an important part in defeating Voldemort.

And as I said, in the end, esp. the battles, BOTH men AND women, both boys AND girls fight equally, side by side.

I say this series is one of the most progressive fantasy series, certainly much more so than *Star Wars* or the *Lord of the Rings* series.