Written by: By Nandini Mazumder
Note: This article reflects the opinion of the writer. Readers’ discretion is advised.
A woman once conceived stories filled with flying brooms and wands in a train from Manchester to London in 1990. We now know them as the popular Harry Potter novels, currently with a worldwide readership of well over 500 million. But while JK Rowling did produce an epic fantasy world I had wanted to be a part of when I was a kid, it now breaks my heart to acknowledge as an adult how sexist the seven books are.
Now, it’s a controversial opinion; I’m well aware. Some fans even go as far as to say that they are feminist novels, having female characters that evolve into powerful roles with somewhat considerable significance in the storyline. Unfortunately, while I don’t deny the latter part, with a consistent lack of representation and evident gender stereotypes, the novels are far from the former.
All seven books of Harry Potter see a striking case of under-representation of female characters. Both the protagonist and the antagonist of the story, Harry and Voldemort, are male. Even amongst the accompanying leads of both Harry and Voldemort, the number of male characters outweighs the number of female characters.
Hermione is the only girl in the iconic trio of Harry’s best friends. Hogwarts, where the story is primarily based, also shows a jarring disparity in their faculty team. The majority of the teachers are male, except for Professor McGonagall, Sprout, Trelawney and a few others. Dolores Umbridge joins the school in the fifth book, but even with her, female professors are outnumbered. To top that off, except for McGonagall and Umbridge, none of the other female teachers make any major contribution to the storyline, whereas most of the male teachers, including Headmaster Dumbledore, Snape, Lupin, Hagrid, contribute significantly to the story.
Additionally, not one Defence Against the Dark Arts professor was female. Why no women were seen as fit, strong or skilful enough to teach the Defence Against the Dark Arts is beyond me and frustrating, to say the least. Following the same unfortunate pattern, Voldemort’s army has more male members as well, with only Bellatrix Lestrange as the lead female villain.
The lack of representation doesn’t cease there. Harry’s teenage rivals from Hogwarts — Draco Malfoy, Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle — were all males. The famous sport of the wizardry world, quidditch, was a male-dominated game as well. Even though we do come to know Cho and Ginny for their talent and skills in quidditch, their inclusion almost feels compensatory because of how less the number of girls in the teams are. These girls rarely ever take a match till a win; it’s always the boys who do.
The Ministry of Magic, the ultimate governing body of the wizard community in their country, also mostly consists of men. Some of the few female ministers named are Amelia Bones, Dolores Umbridge, Nymphadora Tonks, Tina Goldstein and Queenie Goldstein. But except for Umbridge, and Tonks to some extent, none of them add anything substantial to the storyline. The same gender disparity continues amongst the Death Eaters and the poor house-elves, too.
Although the house division of Hogwarts is fair and equal in terms of gender representation, the two houses that prove to be the most important and strongest are the houses founded by two men: Gryffindor (founded by Godric Gryffindor) and Slytherin (founded by Salazar Slytherin), both with attributes that are often associated with the domestic characters of men in our society.
To my utter disappointment, I say that under-representation is not the only alarming trait in Rowling’s writing. Gender stereotyping is much common, too, and a noticeable lack of attention and character development of the girls and women in the story.
The girls are often described as giggly, gossipy and often in need of assistance of their male friends whenever caught in a soup. That is the pattern we see throughout the seven books. Hermione comes across as very uptight, disciplined and knowledgeable. But her wisdom only helps Harry and others to accomplish tasks, never her in achieving those tasks herself.
Instead, she acts as an enabler for the more significant male characters, mainly Harry. She boosts his confidence and self-worth every step of the way, sometimes even at the cost of downplaying herself. One such example is when she says, “Me? Books and cleverness. There are more important things: friendship and bravery. And Harry, just be careful (Rowling, 1999).”
When it comes to Hermione’s character development, we see a pretty flat graph. Her character remains one dimensional and predictable throughout the seven books, whereas her friends Harry and Ron both show considerable emotional growth by the end of the series. Ron becomes more confident and sensitive, and in touch with his sense of self-worth. Harry, too, overcomes his fears and becomes more self-dependent, and emotionally strong and assertive.
Similarly, we get different character insights of Snape, Lupin, Sirius and even Hagrid, but not McGonagall. Her character remains quite one-dimensional throughout the series.
She is also given motherly attributes by Rowling, making her short-sighted and soft-hearted in the result. She seemingly lacks the bravery and confidence that the ever-enigmatic Dumbledore does. In the second book, when Harry enters the Chamber of Secrets, she fails to keep her emotions in check, unlike Dumbledore. So, when Harry successfully returns from the Chamber, Dumbledore stands tall in pride and confidence, while McGonagall gasps and heaves a sigh of relief, clutching her chest.
Another example is Dolores Umbridge. She always (yes, always) wears different shades of pink, evidently to symbolise her femininity, which is another ridiculous stereotype that should have no reason to exist anymore.
Another character, who is stereotyped the most among many, is Lily Potter, Harry’s mother. She succumbs to the biggest gender stereotyping trope for women, the unconditional and ever-sacrificing role of motherhood. She gives up her life for Harry by casting a spell, which is said to be the strongest in the Wizardry world, subtly upholding and glorifying the notion that there’s no other purpose in life for women as mighty and rewarding as motherhood.
Instances of more such stereotypes can be found when the seven books are read from a critical and feminist point of view, and not through rose-coloured glasses. Honestly, the concerns and problematic examples I have mentioned here are only a few out of a far longer list. Unfortunately, two or three countable and arguably significant female characters do not and can never make up for a consistent lack of representation and structural sexism in a book. They are compensatory, at best.
What’s upsetting and ironic is that JK Rowling herself is a single mother of a daughter. Yet, she wrote the entire series with such prejudices in her mind. A woman, who most definitely must have faced gender politics and biases in her own life (because, let’s be real, which woman doesn’t), is so steeped into the patriarchal pool of thoughts that her writing reeks of age-old conditioning.
She also made some outrageously transmisic comments in the recent past, proving to be an example of her questionable and ignorant mindset. It is no less than an immense disappointment to all Harry Potter fans worldwide.