Thursday, December 23, 2010

Iconography: Harry Potter and the Girls Who Weren’t Chosen Ones

The series may be barely over, but we all knew from about the fourth book on that Harry Potter is the children’s literary icon of its time. Let’s take a look at its author, J.K. Rowling, and the young ladies of the series.

J.K. Rowling is called that because her publishers insisted that boys wouldn’t want to read a book written by a woman. Jo Rowling’s story is a famous one, of writing in cafes while trying to take care of her daughter by herself. She’s now the only person in the world to have become a US dollar billionaire through writing books. She’s well known for her charitable work, particularly in aid of children in poverty, and for being extremely nice to her fans. And never mind her fiction, Rowling’s The single mother’s manifesto is one of the best things I’ve read this year.

Rowling said something in an interview with O Magazine in 2001 which I think really rather telling:

I had been writing the first book for six months before I stopped and thought, 'Why's he a boy?' And the answer is, He's a boy because that's the way he came. If I had stopped at that point and changed him to Harriet, it would have felt very contrived. My feminist conscience is saved by Hermione, who's the brightest character.

The hero of the piece is a boy, fair enough. He doesn’t have the most heroic qualities–he can be petty, selfish, and so forth–which is pleasantly unusual and realistic. It’s not Rowling’s fault in particular, but she’s playing into a pattern in which even the most unheroic boys in children’s fiction get to be the main character rather than the most fitting of girls. Even the most heroic girl characters get shoved to the sidelines, because girls are a specialty but everyone can relate to boy characters, right? In the case of Harry Potter, some of the most iconic characters are the girls surrounding Harry, Hermione, Ginny and Luna in particular.

Hermione Granger is Rowling’s feminist presence in the novel, of course. We’re continually hit over the head with how clever she is, and it’s Hermione’s intelligent thinking that so often saves the day. Hermione is always guided by a strong set of ethics: She cares about social justice, as particularly embodied in her commitment to house elf rights where most of the wizarding world wouldn’t think twice about their status. She nurses a passion for Ron, her best friend with Harry, but never loses her dignity for it. (Her "Just because you've got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn't mean we all have" line will never lose its punch.) And she’s brave. Hermione has a fierce kind of commitment to the fight for peace and justice running through the series, even when that means modifying her parents’ memories and sending them to Australia so they will be safe. She made it cool to be smart and forthright for a lot of girls.

Where Hermione has to fight the stigma of being a Muggleborn (of non-magical descent), this is a world Ginny Weasley was born into. That doesn’t mean she has it easy: She’s the only girl in a family with six older brothers. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, she’s possessed by the evil Lord Voldemort and is forced to hurt her classmates. She comes out fighting, and develops into a mature, savvy young woman. I love that she’s in charge of her own sexuality, unapologetic about dating other boys when she decides to leave her feelings for Harry be. Of course, she ends up with him eventually, but where Rowling could have so easily gone with making Ginny a pathetic character, hopelessly in love, Ginny is her own person. She’s sporty, practical, and sharp. As a shy young girl, I related to her a lot, and loved seeing her develop as the years went on into the kind of person I hoped I’d be.

Luna Lovegood is the strange girl in all of us who doesn’t fit in anywhere. There’s a hilarious sequence in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in which she temporarily acts as the Quidditch commentator–except she tends to comment on things like cloud shapes rather than the actual game. She doesn’t have many friends, as she frequently points out, to Harry’s discomfort. She believes in the weird and wonderful, and Luna’s incisive insights cause a few disagreeable yet clarifying moments for the other characters. My favorite Luna scene is when she dances by herself at a wedding in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which perfectly captures her absolute disregard for what anyone else thinks. Wandering about with her wand tucked behind her left ear, she’s an independent sort, and pretty cool for that.

It’s the girls of Harry Potter who make the magic happen for me!’t-chosen-ones

1 comment:

  1. ...hmm. Yes, yes. Yet I find it disturbing Fleur Delacour is the only champion who doesn't manage to fulfill the 3rd task and who panics in the maze.