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Sexism in Harry Potter: An Analysis of an Unpopular Idea

 

Initially my inner Potter nerd shuddered at the thought that the Harry Potter series might actually be flawed in some way. However, I still powered through my investigation, trying to take the most unbiased approach to an extremely biased question. I sent myself out on a quest to research the plot and characters of this world-famous industry, in order answer the simple question: is the Harry Potter series sexist?

To understand the Harry Potter series, one must understand the creator, JK Rowling. Rowling is known as one of today’s modern literary geniuses, and in her personal life, she advocates for social, economic, and political equality. When writing the books, she was an unemployed single mother, on welfare, and newly diagnosed with depression.

Rowling claims “…Harry came to me as Harry, and I never wanted to change that, because switching gender isn’t simply putting a dress and a pretty name on a boy, is it? It’s a lot of preoccupations and expectations [which] are different on men and women.” Although the main character of her books is a boy, many would agree that Harry’s character is traditionally feminine, by taking on many non-masculine attributes for a children’s book. Harry is humble, and strives for family and love, not for selfish power and strength.

One of the most widely used themes for women in the Harry Potter series is a ‘motherly figure’. Harry lost his mother as a child, and attempts to compensate for that lost love, throughout the books. Professor Mcgonagall is a perfect example of a maternal role when Harry initially studies at Hogwarts. She is professional, educated and strong, yet still kind hearted to Harry. Most obviously, Ms.Weasley is another strong mother for Harry throughout his adventures. She represents a classic mother hen; she smothers Harry and her children, while still trying to keep the house and family organized. Harry’s birth mother, Lily Potter, although dead is seen as an unconventional motherly figure. She is portrayed as a brave wizard, who sacrificed her life for her child; a perfect illustration of the power of mother’s love. Although all these authoritative women are portrayed as strong and independent, and who help nurture Harry through his adventures, there is still a flaw associated with this idea. Essentially, these female characters are only present to help the progress of the men forward in the story. Nevertheless, by the end of the series, Rowling gave these women deeply developed story lines, whom make a direct impact to the overall plot. Rowling claims that this is because, “…[in] the wizarding world…when you take physical strength out of the equation, a women can fight just the same as a man can fight. So a woman can do magic, just as powerfully as a man can do magic.”

To contradict the ‘motherly love’ theme, there is also a continuing theme of ‘evil’ with women in the Harry Potter series. Bellatrix Lestrange is the clear example of a purely malicious character, as she has no sympathy and remorse for her actions. She emits an unmanageable and unwarranted craze of hate and anger. Conversely, Professor Umbridge represents a vastly different kind of evil. Professor Umbridge pretends to be sensitive and loving, but still uses fear and pain as a weapon. The depiction of ‘evil’ women can be harmful in media, because it upholds stereotypical notions that women are ‘crazy’ and need to be managed by men. Conversely, ‘evil’ women are crucial to the progressive representation of women, because if women and men are equals, then they should both be shown in both a good and bad light. To only show the positive side of women, teaches girls that that there is a perfect mold that they need to fit, and teaches boys that there is an expectation to have for women. To show the positive and negative qualities of men and women demonstrates that gender/sex does not define the person; it is what is on the inside that counts.

By the end of the novels, there is a developing theme of ‘educated confidence’, portrayed by the young female witches. Luna Lovegood represents a child of oddities, who does not feel pressured into fitting into the social norms. She is secure in her intellect, and does not waste her time trying to please others. Throughout the books Harry’s love interests, Cho Chang and Ginny Wesley, while often soft-spoken, are both mature and confident in their principles. Still, the most compelling female role in the Harry Potter books is Hermione Granger, she is Harry’s best friend who nearly single-handedly helps him through every adventure. She is a bookworm and is aware that she is ‘different’, yet she owns her intellect and will not settle for anything less than what she wants. She is confident in her actions, however still ready to learn and apply her knowledge. By the end of the novels, these young women have made major impacts to the overall Harry Potter plot. This helps show young girls that women do not have to be ashamed of their knowledge and independence. Realistically, the reason why it is the younger female characters that captivate the audience, and make the most impact to the story, is purely because Harry Potter is a children’s book they are the average age of the reader.

So then we are back to where we started, all of the women in Harry Potter have both negative and positive associations to the representation of females; so then how is the Harry Potter series sexist? Harry Potter is sexist because there is a lack of primary female characters. “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…Girls, when they are not downright silly or unlikeable, are helpers, enablers, and instruments.” Although many men and women in the Harry Potter novels challenge stereotypical ideas of females, there is a truth to this statement. Harry Potter is a story of a boy who fights a man, and is primarily assisted by other powerful males.

But do not fear my fellow Potter nerds, this does not mean that we have to burn our books along with our bras, and give up on our male driven society. Harry Potter is still revolutionary for a children’s book series. Usually children’s books recycle fantasy narratives of gender roles, however Rowling has written her stories with a progressive modern interpretation of gender.

Nonetheless, the Harry Potter series is not perfect, and neither is the creator JK Rowling. However, that is because the books are a product of this culture and generation, which is still subtly prejudice. Rowling claims that Harry’s character came to her as a male, but that may just be because of her internal subtle biases that comes with living in our sexist culture. Harry Potter is a transitioning series, a stepping stone, and unquestionably has aspects that progress women forward; however, it also has aspects that push women back to a comfortable medium. Progress comes in time, and one book series (while innovative and incredible as it is) cannot change the world.

Thus, after enough time, research, and persuading, I have determined to take the unpopular conclusion that – yes, the Harry Potter books are sexist. But then again so is our culture, and unfortunately our own subconscious minds.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Currently attending California State University, Northridge with a Major in Business Marketing, and Minor in Media Management. Studying abroad to Kingston University, London through the CSU International Program this 2015-2016 academic year. Interests include Global businesses, Film, Broadcasting Television, Public Relations, Brand Management, Marketing, Media Relations and Advertising industries.

Michaela is a marketing student, currently living in London

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