Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter from a Feminist Perspective

Yes, I admit it. My partner and I took turns reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows aloud to each other the weekend of its release. It seemed both fairer, not to mention more fun, to savor that last piece of the story together.

I do not propose to justify my particular interests from a feminist perspective: frankly, I’m long past that dubious exercise. What I would like to address is the Harry Potter phenomenon, and what it can tell us about the status of women in the 90’s and ‘00’s, when these Books were written, and in which they are also set.

J.K. Rowling – Jo to her fans – is said to be the wealthiest novelist ever from this series, having grossed over $1 billion in royalties. Almost as much as the Books themselves, part of this story is also the story of Jo and her fans – and how she has set the agenda for the discussion and review
of these Books in a post-Internet world, a highly instructive process by itself.

So let’s lay the groundwork. The Harry heptology is the blockbuster fantasy series of our time, supplanting the Lord of the Rings (LotR ) series for this crown, despite the stunning Peter Jackson movie renditions of the Ring Trilogy. Thus, it is worthwhile to compare elements of both. Both series drew upon rich sources of Western mythology to create vivid and varied worlds. Magic is a hallmark of these fantasy worlds, like so much of the fantasy genre which LotR could be said to have seeded. Within different fantasy universes, magic works differently. In LotR, magic is a specific province of particular races, like the Elves (Elder). Magical objects – most notably the rings – can achieve a kind of sentience: a plot mover in LotR is the desire of the One Ring to return to its master, and its ability to actually make events happen that will move toward this goal.

Magic in the Potter (HP) series is congenital: one is born either magical or muggle, with magical ability usually manifested by the age of seven, and with non-magical offspring (squibs) possible within magical families, and magical offspring possible within muggle families. In this, Rowling’s universe more closely resembles psi ability in the sci-fi television series Babylon 5, although it could also be said that both of the latter series are reflecting the post 1950’s scientific outlook of DNA and genetics.

Two of the great religious-philosophical issues are shared by the two fantasy series: Fate, and the problem of Evil. In LotR, evil is incarnate in Sauron, the current Dark Lord, who was lieutenant to the previous Dark Lord of an earlier age. Sauron crafts a ring of power – the One Ring which will rule over all the magical rings of Middle Earth. In the Potter series, the Dark Arts can be studied by any magician, and in the modern period in which the Potter series takes place, a dark-magical expert named Lord Voldemort emerges. HP is the story of the entwined fates of Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort. When Harry was one year old, Voldemort murdered his parents, and then attempted to murder Harry. Instead, when he tried, the killing curse rebounded on Voldemort, disembodying him, while Harry was left with a lightning-shaped scar. Harry was henceforth called, The Boy Who Lived, because nobody previously had ever survived a killing curse. Evil is a bit more relativistic in Harry Potter: one becomes evil by doing evil deeds.

As for Fate, the Fate of LotR is multi-layered and inter-generational. It is clearest in the character of Aragorn: the descendant of King Isuldur, who defeated Sauron and then failed to destroy Sauron’s ring, thereby allowing Sauron to eventually return to power. It is Aragorn’s job to fix the mess, if the new age of men is ever to dawn.

In HP, Fate is personal: the whole series of events leading to Harry’s parents’ murders and Harry’s survival sets him up as the Chosen One – the one who ultimately must go toe-to-toe with Lord Voldemort for the hearts and minds, bodies and souls of the wizarding community.

Before we proceed to an actual examination of the works, it’s worth mentioning one biographical note: J.R.R. Tolkien originally invented Middle Earth and the stories to engage and amuse his children: the effort of an extremely bright academic philologist to engage his sons in his own academic passions. J.R. Rowling wrote her Books to support her child: she completed the first volume as an unemployed divorced mother, a few years after the death of her own mother.

At first, it’s easy to critique the HP series from a feminist perspective (and it has been done) – the current Top Dogs are all male: Voldemort, Harry, Professor Dumbledore, and the various Ministers of Magic. There is the slightly disturbing piece that all female magicians are called witches, while all male magicians are called wizards. To most ears, “wizard” sounds better (perhaps because of Gandalf in LotR) – had Rowling chosen the word “warlock” for the men, the footing would, perhaps, have felt a little more equal, although still raising the question of why the genders need to have different words ascribed to them at all. It is, by the way, completely appropriate to critique Jo on word usage: she has shown great care in her choice of language over the years, and especially in choosing titles for foreign language editions. Further superficial feminist critiques include the level of giggling among the girls, and the housewife roles like Molly Weasley. On the other hand, having taught girls of this age: I'm sorry - but they giggle. This may not be a convenient feminist idea, but it is true!

But I think these issues are better considered comparatively. LotR was written roughly fifty years before HP. In LotR, the female roles are ancillary and cardboard, for the most part. Of course! Tolkien invented this world for his sons, and so males occupy better than 95% of the roles, except for extras, of course. They mostly move the plot passively, if they move it at all. Some, like Goldberry, are female Earth or Water deities. Galadriel is the one female Elf ring-bearer (there are no female ringbearers among either the dwarves or men): and she uses her ring to maintain the forest Lothlorien, and to prophesy. Arwen is Aragorn’s love interest, an Elf, who gives up immortality to be with the (mortal) man she loves – a part so sketchy in the book that Peter Jackson considerably juiced up the role in the movie. The only active part is Eowyn, of the royal house of Rohan. She sneaks along with the army that rides to fight in Gondor, and acts as the agent to kill the leader of the ringwraiths – a man for whom it had been prophesied that no man could kill him. She thus acts the part of demonstrating, as was so typical of the Celtic concept of prophesy, that the exact wording of the prophesy is critical.

Things are much different in HP. Here, the first notable point is that the Trio as they have been dubbed – Harry, Hermione and Ron – is two boys and a girl. Stop and think about this – this is actually exceptional. How many trios do any of us remember growing up that were mixed gender, unless they consisted of brothers and sisters? Jo has said that Hermione was a composite of herself and her sister – Hermione played the role of the smart kid who kept Harry and Ron in passing grades in many of their classes – and was always there to do the library work to figure those things out that they needed, but hadn’t been taught yet. Because she read so much, she found amazingly useful spells that the boys couldn’t even begin to consider. She learned how to make complex potions and sophisticated spells by reading about them and then trying them out.

Women are all over Hogwarts, even if they aren’t in charge. Professor McGonagall is the Deputy headmistress throughout six of the Books, briefly becoming Acting Headmistress at the end of Book 6. Other regular female professors are Professors Sprout, Trelawney, Hooch, Vector and Sinistra. This works out to a staff gender ratio of 1:1. As far as we can see, the gender ratio of students is around 1:1. The school was founded by two witches and two wizards. The four houses that they produced are still headed by faculty members in a gender ratio of 1:1.

The issue of career pathways and choices for women seems to be open. It appears that Molly Weasley chose to be a housewife: but she also chose to be a member of the Order of the Phoenix, a resistance group set up by Dumbledore the first time Voldemort attempted to come to power. There are many witches employed at the Ministry of Magic. Witches are textbook authors, judges and examination supervisors. The professors at Hogwarts seem to follow the Medieval model of being in Church orders, which meant celibate. But whether this was compulsory is never stated. And here is one of the areas where the magical community does seem to differ from the muggle community: it appears that there may be a lower incidence of marriage. And what does seem to be completely absent from the books is any hint of homosexuality.

The story takes place in the United Kingdom in the 1990’s. The magical community is a parallel community to the muggle one: as such, it is going to look a lot like the world as a whole. Would a sub-community with no sexism and racism even be believable to kids (much less adults) reading what to them is contemporary fiction? I think not. In fact, it is precisely Jo’s brilliance at portraying Harry as the totally realistic obnoxious self-centered adolescent in Book 5 that sets up so much of the plot development in Books 6 and 7. Voldemort’s vicious sexism in Book 2 causes him to completely discount Ginny’s emerging strength – which becomes an increasingly important plot element as the series proceeds. Hermione’s bookish personality may not look like heroism in Book 1, but she does show an innate ability to think on her feet, and she finds her courage totally by Book 7, when she is in the thick of the hunt for and destruction of the horcruxes.

As it is, Jo’s magical community is less sexist – and racism becomes a major issue in the books: often, but not always, intertwined with evil. Racism in the magical community is shown in two ways: the ancient preference of some of the wizarding families for pure blood (i.e., no muggle ancestry, or at least none closer than great grandparents), and the treatment of the other sentient magical species: goblins, centaurs, and house elves. In Books 5 and 7, the racist oppression of others by the evil side is a primary theme. In Book 7, the benign neglect type of racism of a character counted among the “good guys” in Book 5 is shown to have been partially responsible for his death, and Harry himself gets involved with “fixing” things with the aggrieved party.

In comparing HP to LotR, we see not only a massive increase in both the number and complexity of female roles, but we see a greater articulation of the concept of evil. Tolkien did the written version of LotR in the shadow of World War II: when the whole Nazi regime could be seen as a personification of evil. Tolkien wrote of the ring of power: that the power over others was the gateway to evil deeds. Compare the evil of Sauron to the good of the Elves: the three elven rings were used to protect the people and lands. But in Sauron’s obsession to amass all power to himself, he insured that the other rings could not defeat him – but this also insured that when his ring was destroyed, that destruction in turn destroyed the power of the elven rings.

In HP, the track which turns Tom Riddle from a somewhat sadistic boy into a true bastion of evil as Lord Voldemort was his obsession with conquering death: and then surrounding himself with a cadre of Death-Eaters for whom the purity of (magical) blood was a paramount issue – this, despite the irony that Riddle/Voldemort himself was a half-blood (i.e., half muggle). In Book 7, it is also revealed that the last great evil wizard was also obsessed with the need for power over the muggle community. Riddle is gradually revealed through Book 6 to have been a loner – a boy/man who felt no familial connection, and no true friendship. As Dumbledore prepares Harry for the Final Showdown, he emphasizes to Harry how Voldemort cannot begin to understand the love and sacrifice of Harry’s mother when she allowed Voldemort to kill her, but as her last act, wove a spell around Harry which deflected Voldemort’s killing curse back upon himself. The theme of power vs. love resonates to an old mythos in the human psyche.

It should further be emphasized that Rowling does not merely populate the Good side with women: they are among the most evil characters as well. Voldemort has followed Hitler in designing the "chain of command" as a diffuse structure, not a tight hierarchy. That way, nobody but him knows everything going on. But within the competition thereby created for his attention, one of Voldemort’s top lieutenants is Bellatrix Lestrange, who of all the Death-Eaters, appears to be the most bloodthirsty by far. But witness her duel with Molly Weasley in Book 7 for two sides of the coin. Molly fights not out of malice, but for her family and friends: her two brothers had been killed in the earlier confrontation with the Death Eaters in Voldemort's first rise to power, and she has been suffering from the losses to the Order of the Phoenix in this more recent war as well.

The other seriously evil female character is Dolores Umbridge, who is a Ministry of Magic plant brought in as a professor in Book 5 to keep an eye on Dumbledore, when the Ministry of Magic suspects Dumbledore of lying about the return of Voldemort at the end of Book 4. Although not a Death-Eater (i.e., follower of Voldemort), she has a completely sympathetic vision of the future of the magical community (pure-bred), and some sadistic ways of enforcing her will, whether on students (Book 5), or on the magical community itself (Book 7).

I would be as seriously suspicious of a tale this complex with no evil women as one where all the evil characters were women. Thus, neither good nor evil is presented as having a gender affiliation.

In judging the whole of the work, it needs to be remembered that this was, from the beginning, a commercial enterprise on Rowling’s part. There is no shame in an author who wants to support herself on her writings! Part of what has made this such a successful work is that there is close to a perfect mix of creative imagination with realistic character development. Pretty much everybody can find at least one character to identify with – apart from the sexual preference omission. Rowling leads a bit on gender equality and certainly more than a bit on racism. And one has to acknowledge that the question of just how far one’s fiction should lead ahead of contemporary mores is as much a tactical one as anything else.

Note: I wrote the above before Rowling "outed" Dumbledore, which raises a whole series of other questions. Was Jo right to exclude any mention of homosexuality from the actual text, and then bring in the topic later? I have heard two sides to this question. On the one hand, and this seems to be the larger faction among feminists I have spoken to, is can be viewed as cheating. While there was nothing in Dumbledore's background to suggest that he wasn't gay, it was a bit of a stretch - but not impossible - to piece together the story of Grindelwald and the impact of Dumbledore's personal/sexual feelings on his subsequent behavior. However, this level of reading into the plot hearkens back to a much earlier period in gay history: the "Before Stonewall" Era, when only a hint of deviance was kosher. In that time, legions of lesbian and gay readers followed Jeannette Foster's example in Sex Deviant Women in Literature in teasing out the slightest nuance which could suggest this possibility. The fact is: in roughly forty years time, most of us have lost this knack - if we ever had it.

The other point of view is that Jo did the right thing: these works are, after all, technically children's literature, and perhaps it's best to just leave the whole thing out. I have to say I would disagree with that viewpoint: I am reminded of Philip Pullman's comment en passant about a minor character in The Golden Compass that he was unusual in having a daemon of the same gender that he was - a comment alive with possibilities, and yet hardly explicit in any way.

Of course, in Rowling's case, we may find that she has her cake and eats it too. By "outing" Dumbledore during the filming of Book 6 - where we first glimpse the younger Dumbledore - and before Book 7, one would ask how these scenes will be handled now.