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Evolution

While the representation of gender in the Harry Potter series is stereotypical at times, there is marked progress in the later books as compared to earlier ones. In the fifth book in the series, the number of significant female characters increases dramatically. Heilman notes that “the expansion is so extreme that it reads as a willful attempt at gender inclusion” (Heilman 142). Beyond simple numbers, the role female characters play also increases in significance. Order of the Phoenix sees the introduction of Professor Umbridge and Amelia Bones, two of the most powerful witches mentioned in the series. Harry first meets Luna Lovegood, an eccentric but well-meaning Ravenclaw student, as well as Nymphadora Tonks, a female Auror (elite government fighter) who works for the anti-Voldemort organization the Order of the Phoenix. Order also introduces the first female villain in the series in Bellatrix Lestrange.

This is also the first book in which Ginny Weasley becomes more fleshed out. When Ginny is first introduced in Chamber of Secrets, her crush on Harry is her most significant characteristic. As the series progresses, she becomes a much stronger character, excelling at Quidditch and earning the respect of her brothers for her magical prowess. When Ginny’s brother Ron implies that she is too popular with boys, she “stands her ground, points to the unfairness of a sexual double standard, and declares herself free to act as she pleases” (Cherland 278). Ginny becomes one of the few female characters to be consistently confident about her beliefs and actions.

Ginny’s mother, Molly Weasley, also moves beyond her original position as simply a matriarchal figure. In Order of the Phoenix she is shown participating in Order meetings and being actively involved in the fight against Voldemort. In Deathly Hallows, she is shown fighting fiercely in the final battle at Hogwarts rather than cowering in a corner. Professor McGonagall steps up to lead her students and fellow professors fearlessly in to battle. She goes on to become the next Headmistress of Hogwarts. Hermione too saw a change in character over the course of the series. In the first book, Harry and Ron are forced to rescue her from a troll let loose in the castle, fulfilling the ‘damsel in distress’ role perfectly. By the last book, however, Hermione has become confident and independent, her ambitions leading her to a career in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.

The Harry Potter series presents many positive lessons for children and adults alike. They include messages of tolerance, of love, and of friendship. Rowling’s books do not unfairly portray gender, they merely reflect an existing problem in society. It is not likely that Rowling intends for girls to imitate the characters in her books. Even so, the significance of these portrayals should not be understated. If a new generation is ever going to challenge existing unfair social norms, they must be provided with the tools to get there.

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The Domestic Ideal

When Harry’s parents were murdered in his infancy, Harry was taken to the only relatives he had left, the magic-despising Dursleys. His Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, along with their son Dudley, made Harry’s life miserable growing up, giving him the absolute bare minimum while lavishing gifts and treats upon Dudley. While Harry was forced to sleep in the cupboard under the stairs until his eleventh birthday, Dudley had two bedrooms to himself just to accommodate his excessive toy collection. Harry’s cheerless childhood left him longing for a family who cared for him, longing for somewhere he was understood, accepted, and loved.

In many ways, Hogwarts became this place for Harry. Hogwarts was “the first and best home he had known” (Deathly Hallows 697). It was where Harry discovered that he had a place in the world and that he was wanted. In the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry comes across the Mirror of Erised, an enchanted mirror that shows the deepest desire of anyone who stands before it. Peering into its reflection, Harry sees himself surrounded by smiling, waving family members. He returns to the mirror, night after night, entranced by the image, longing for what the mirror shows, longing for a family.

Harry’s yearning for a family provides his ultimate motivation throughout the series. He wants to avenge his parents’ murder and stop Voldemort to ensure that their sacrifice to him was not in vain. When Remus Lupin proposes leaving his pregnant wife to help Harry on his quest to defeat Voldemort, Harry explodes at him. The thought of a child growing up without a parent, as he had, was unthinkable.

Throughout the series, family is seen as the single-most important aspect of life. Even characters who have displayed the most deplorable of actions are shown to be willing to sacrifice anything for family. In Deathly Hallows, Narcissa Malfoy betrays what was her primary motivation in life, her loyalty to Voldemort, in order to save the life of her son. When Voldemort asks Narcissa to determine whether Harry is dead, she lies for him after he tells her that her son is still alive and within Hogwarts’ walls.

Still feigning death on the ground, [Harry] understood. Narcissa knew that the only way she would be permitted to enter Hogwarts, and find her son, was as part of the conquering army. She no longer cared whether Voldemort won (Deathly Hallows 726).

Hagrid faces death and imprisonment for smuggling his half-brother (and giant), Grawp, away from his mountain colony where Grawp would have likely been killed. Rowling also provides examples of the dangers of a loveless childhood in the characters of Voldemort. While pregnant with him, Voldemort’s mother was abandoned by his father, and, destitute, gave birth at an orphanage. She died shortly thereafter, leaving Voldemort, then known as Tom Riddle, to grow up parentless and unaware of his magical gifts. Never knowing love, Voldemort eventually became the most feared wizard in history. Dumbledore explains, “that which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows nothing” (Deathly Hallows 709).

On his very first train ride to Hogwarts, Harry befriends Ron Weasley. The whole Weasley family becomes a surrogate family for Harry, providing the structure, warmth, and love that the Dursleys never could. Molly Weasley treats Harry as if he were her own son, saying “he’s as good as” (Order of the Phoenix 90). For the bulk of the series, Molly Weasley’s only purpose in the books is to serve as an example of what a mother figure should be, doting on her sons, worrying about their well-being, and making sure they stay out of trouble. She stands out in sharp contrast to Petunia Dursley, the next prominent mother figure in the series. Petunia’s obsession is with maintaining a clean house and being the envy of her neighbors. She spoils her son and spends much of her time keeping up on neighborhood gossip.

Other females in the series also serve as mothering figures, of sorts. Hermione often fills the role of caretaker for Harry and Ron, helping them with assignments when they fall behind and making sure that Harry eats properly before Quidditch matches. Professor McGonagall is the head of the Gryffindor house and serves as a mother figure for her students, making sure they do not stay up too late after a Gryffindor team win.

In many ways, the Harry Potter series falls under the label of fairy tale. The books feature clear moral lessons (the power of love over hate), a fight between good versus evil, magic and enchantment, and, most importantly, a happily ever after. In this case, what Rowling shows as the perfect happy ending is to be married and have children, the same nuclear family that has prescribed as ‘ideal’ for generations. The final page of the epilogue describes Harry seeing his son off for his first year at Hogwarts.

The train began to move, and Harry walked alongside it, watching his son’s thin face, already ablaze with excitement. Harry kept smiling and waving, even though it was like a little bereavement, watching his son glide away from him . . .

The last trace of steam evaporated in the autumn air. The train rounded a corner. Harry’s hand was still raised in farewell.

“He’ll be all right,” murmured Ginny.

As Harry looked at her, he lowered his hand absentmindedly and touched the lightning scar on his forehead.

“I know he will.”

The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well (Deathly Hallows 759).

While it is not harmful for children to aspire to have a family of their own one day, it is important for them to understand that it is not the end-all measure of success and happiness. Professional, academic, and a host of other ambitions can bring an equal level of satisfaction. We see Rowling’s world through Harry’s eyes, and so when Harry achieves the one thing he has wanted all his life, it conveys to the reader his sense of fulfillment. That’s not to say that Rowling herself sees the nuclear family as the ultimate achievement, however, it would be positive for children to be exposed to a less traditional measure of accomplishment.

Power

When examining all the characters throughout the Harry Potter series, the number of male characters greatly exceeds the number of female characters. Beyond that, male characters tend to play much more significant roles, not only in terms of plot, but also within wizarding society. The main characters are Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermione. Ron comes from a family dominated by males (6 brothers and 1 sister). Fellow Gryffindors in their year consist of 5 males and 3 females who are ever referenced. In the entire series, there are 115 female characters versus 201 male characters ever mentioned who play some role in the plot (Heilman 141). Within the Ministry of Magic, the governing body of the wizarding world, the majority of employees mentioned are males.

 

The bigger problem with this is that, while females do often hold positions of high power, they are always under a male superior. This is a problem found throughout the Science Fiction / Fantasy genre. In a review of Fantasy Girls: Gender in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television E. Michele Ramsey discusses a similar issue in the television series Babylon 5. In that show, several women hold relatively important positions of authority, but “the validation of their identity, power, and sexuality comes from men” (Ramsey 112). Professor McGonagall is both the head of Gryffindor house and the deputy headmistress at Hogwarts. But Professor Dumbledore, the archetypal wise old man, is in charge. He can and does overrule McGonagall’s authority. In the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Dolores Umbridge, a Ministry employee, is appointed to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts as a way to subvert Dumbeldore’s authority. Umbridge abuses her position to exert control over the lives of the students at Hogwarts, but ultimately, she answers to Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic. Her greatest desire is not to assume this powerful position, but to please her superior. Also in Order of the Phoenix, we are introduced to Amelia Bones, the Head of Magical Law Enforcement and member of the Wizengamot, who presided over Harry’s disciplinary hearing. Bones is shown to be a powerful authority figure, described as fair and honest, but she too reports to Fudge. In Rowling’s world, no explicit rules exist to prevent women from attaining power, and yet, no women are shown to achieve positions as high men. Without a true example of a woman being in charge, the sentiment that ‘girls can do anything’ must still be amended with ‘almost.’

 

Of those three women, the one with perhaps the most power is Umbridge. It is noteworthy that she is also the most detestable of the three, being one of the most despised characters in the entire series. She abuses her power as well as her students, and admits to hating children. In the character of Umbridge, Rowling provided a female character in an authoritative role but simultaneously made her extremely undesirable.

 

Rowling comes near to achieving an example of true female resistance to male dominance a number of times, but seems to come short of achieving it. There are several instances throughout the series in which we see a female character stand up to a male. As Mayes-Elma describes, “this is consistent with the traditional or stereotypic construction of woman: society ‘permits’ women to resist and question, but only up to a certain point; they are not to cross an undescribed and invisible line . . . all of the characters in the text and in society in general know where the boundary is and do not step out or over it” (Mayes-Elma 84). An example of this is seen early on in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when Professor McGonagall objects to Dumbledore’s decision to send Harry to live with his relatives, the Dursleys.

 

“You don’t mean – you can’t mean the people who live here?” cried Professor McGonagall, jumping to her feet and pointing at number four. “Dumbledore – you can’t. I’ve been watching them all day. You couldn’t find two people who are less like us. And they’ve got this son – I saw him kicking his mother all the way up the street, screaming for sweets. Harry Potter come and live here!”

 

“It’s the best place for him.” (Sorcerer’s Stone 7).

 

At this point, McGonagall backs down from Dumbledore’s authority and no longer pursues the subject. Rowling often includes this type of resistance – enough to show that her female characters are strong and opinionated, but not enough to prove that their voices are as important as male voices.

 

A final aspect to the concept of power is the fact that while male characters are often depicted breaking rules, female characters nearly always enforce or follow the rules. Arguably two of Rowling’s strongest female characters, Professor McGonagall and Hermione Granger, are two of the biggest proponents of rules throughout the books. In Prisoner of Azkaban Hermione repeatedly warns Harry that she will tell a Professor about his sneaking out of the castle, and turns him in when he receives an anonymous gift at Christmas. As the series progresses, Hermione becomes more and more comfortable with the idea of breaking rules, but her motivation is different than that of her male friends. While Harry is seen to bend the rules in order to make some sort of self gain (such as winning a task in the Tri-Wizard Tournament), Hermione breaks rules exclusively for the benefit of others. She is shown to be willing to make exceptions when she believes the ends justify the means. In Sorcerer’s Stone she magically binds classmate Neville Longbottom in order to attempt to stop the theft of the Sorcerer’s Stone. In Prisoner of Azkaban, she hexes Professor Snape to help an innocent man escape a fate worse than death, the Dementor’s kiss. Remus Lupin describes the kiss it as having “no chance at all of recovery. You’ll just – exist. As an empty shell. And your soul one for ever … lost” (Prisoner of Azkaban 268).

Introduction

Within the first twenty-four hours following its release, the final book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, sold 15 million copies worldwide (Gibbs). The increase in popularity the series saw over its seven-book life was colossal. For comparison, British publisher Bloomsbury initially printed just 1,000 copies of Philosopher’s Stone (Sorcerer’s Stone in U.S. markets), the series’ first book. Author J.K. Rowling famously went from being a single mother struggling to make ends meet to being one of the wealthiest people in Britain today, surpassing even the Queen (“JK Rowling ‘richer than Queen’”). Although the appeal of this book series covers a broad spectrum of ages, marketing by its publishers focuses most of its efforts on children with everything from toys to clothing being geared at this younger demographic.

The entire Harry Potter series is filled with positive, empowering messages for children: that good can triumph over evil, that friends and family are vitally important, that love is a powerful force. Rowling’s engaging and immersive style makes readers all the more apt to swallow whatever message she might deliver. In a literary context, this makes it easy for readers to trust things characters tell them so that the author can jump in at the end to reveal some twist that we had been too preoccupied to notice. In a social context, however, this makes the books’ over-arching ideals easy to absorb and, perhaps, to eventually become part of a reader’s subconscious. For children, an important part of growing up is the discovery of a personal identity. Childhood is also a time in development when kids are extremely susceptible to the influences of the outside world. With such an enormous portion of the population exposed to the Harry Potter series, it is important to consider whether the books provide a positive example of social norms during these formative years. Without these positive examples, problems that exist in the outside world (which are reflected within the books) will be the only example on which children can model their own ideas about how the world works. These social problems will likely be perpetuated unless children are presented with more than a single way of structuring society.

In this blog I am looking to examine whether the Harry Potter series challenges or sustains gender stereotypes, as well as rather Rowling herself subscribes to those stereotypes. I will also further address the implications any potential stereotypes on such a young audience.