Harry Potter is what made an entire generation accustomed to reading, and not without good cause. It fights fiercely for racial and gendered equality, and for love to triumph over evil. It does all this within an excellent storyline, and has its popularity well earned. Even when it comes to the feminist cause, Harry Potter throws up some genuinely pleasant surprises. Hermione is more accomplished intellectually than Harry and Ron, Bellatrix Lestrange and Minerva McGonagall are some of the strongest fighters in its universe, the main heroine (Hermione) doesn’t fall for the main hero (Harry), and chooses Arithmancy over Divination, the latter having implications of being somewhat ungrounded in hard facts. However, Harry Potter does let down feminism through the problem of under-representation.
Under-representation is not when women are represented derogatorily, as weak or unintelligent, but when their representation is insufficient and scarce. And that is what happens in Potterverse, starting with the naming of the series. The series is titled with a male name, making Harry the obvious hero and most important character. In his closest friend circle, the golden trio, Hermione is outnumbered by males 2:1. Switching over from the good side to the bad, the chief villain in the series, Lord Voldemort, is also male. A good story stands as much on the shoulders of its hero as it does on its villain’s, and Bellatrix, the most prominent female villain of the series, being only a loyal helpmate of Tom Riddle says a lot. The Death Eaters as a group seem pretty sexist, with only Bellatrix Lestrange and Alecto Carrow receiving any screen-time at all, in comparison to several prominent male Death Eaters (Snape, Lucius Malfoy, Peter Pettigrew, Barty Crouch Junior, the list could go on).
The main tragedy of this exclusion involving the two most important characters in the series, Harry Potter and Voldemort, is that it is disproportionate to talent. Throughout history, the arts, sciences, literature and politics have seen a sweeping exclusion of women, and male chroniclers have explained that away on the grounds that women weren’t educated or productive enough to be considered. While that deficiency can be traced back to the patriarchy very easily, with its prohibition on women entering prominent schools like Oxford University till 1921, Harry Potter’s kind of exclusion is more insidious. Hermione is more intelligent and pro-minority than Harry is, Bellatrix is Voldemort’s right-hand lady which Barty Crouch is not strong enough to be – and yet, Hermione doesn’t have a single book named after herself, and neither does Bellatrix get to be the single featured villain of any book. This kind of exclusion harks frighteningly back to talented women’s subjugation by far less qualified men, as in the prominent cases of Ada Lovelace(computer algorithm) and Lise Meitner(nuclear fission).
Hermione is more intelligent and pro-minority than Harry is, Bellatrix is Voldemort’s right-hand lady which Barty Crouch is not strong enough to be – and yet, Hermione doesn’t have a single book named after herself, and neither does Bellatrix get to be the single featured villain of any book.
Moving on from Harry and Riddle to the most major supporting characters, we come to the teachers of Hogwarts. Harry Potter Wiki’s list of Head Mistresses and Masters of Hogwarts is able to list 12 Head Mistresses, as opposed to 34 Head Masters. During Harry’s stay at Hogwarts, 19 professors play a major or minor role, according to the Pottermore page of Hogwarts professors. Of them, 5 are women, making 14 of them men, more than double the number of women. Among the 5 women professors, only one plays a prominent good part (McGonagall), one is not a very major character (Pomona Sprout), one is a villain some consider worse than Voldemort (Umbridge), one is a certified Death Eater(Alecto Carrow), and one has her veracity constantly doubted by the ‘good guy’ McGonagall herself(Sybill Trelawney). On the other hand, at least 4 of the men professors emerge crucial and completely good characters in the saga (Dumbledore, Snape, Remus Lupin and Rubeus Hagrid).
6 out of the 7 rotating Defense Against the Dark Arts professors Harry is taught by are men (Quirinus Quirrell, Gilderoy Lockhart, Lupin, Crouch junior, Snape and Amycus Carrow). The list of the only two characters stronger than Voldemort includes Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald, both men. Divination, clearly implied to be pseudo-scientific by Hermione, is expectedly relegated to a woman professor, as in the real world the ‘soft’ sciences are relegated to ‘women domains’. What message does JKR’s magic school, severely deficient in women faculty, sell us? The over-popular fallacy, that the learned woman is rare, or loony (Trelawney)/dangerous (Umbridge)?
We can now focus our attentions on Harry’s parental generation. Of the popular people from that time, we can identify 5 men (James Potter, Sirius Black, Lupin, Pettigrew and Snape) and 1 woman (Lily Evans). This men-majority spills over from Harry’s past, to his present in the storyline. Both his parents die, leaving him in the cares of various parent figures at different times in his life. Of these temporary and stopgap parent figures in Harry’s life, we are able to clearly locate 5 men (Dumbledore, Sirius, Lupin, by proxy Snape, Hagrid) and 1 woman (Molly Weasley). The under-representation of the women here spills over from quantitative to functional, making it more dangerous.
During Harry’s stay at Hogwarts, 19 professors play a major or minor role, according to the Pottermore PAge of Hogwarts professors. Of them, 5 are women, making 14 of them men, more than double the number of women.
Dumbledore is the strongest wizard in the Potter books, and is involved in all major duels in Harry’s life. Sirius and Lupin play key roles(teaching Harry the famously difficult Patronus charm, providing a link to his biological parents, being present in several battles including the one in which Sirius died, one of the few in which Voldemort actually appeared). Snape is one of the “bravest men” Harry knew, an Occlumens fit to stump Voldemort, and one of the most popular characters in the series.
Hagrid is the one who actually introduces Harry to the wizarding world. In contrast, Molly Weasley performs… almost nothing major. She isn’t the most loved by a long shot in the fandom because her character wasn’t written very remarkably, she appears in no major war but one, and only somewhat uncharacteristically kills the much stronger Bellatrix in the end. By pushing Molly firmly inside the ‘house’ and putting Dumbledore on every warfront even after his death, JKR unintentionally lends much power to the gendered segregation of labour in society.
Coming to the storyline’s contemporary student body, Harry’s adolescent nemeses are all men (Draco Malfoy, Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle). Fred and George Weasley, the golden-hearted pranksters, keep up the tradition of James Potter and Sirius Black, and never receive women counterparts. They rub shoulders with the House ghosts, in which category men outnumber women in a 3:1 ratio, and sit in the classes frequented by the original Order of the Phoenix, the original picture of which shows 6 women in a total of 20 people. The school also names several ‘best students’ of their class – sadly, comprising of 5 known men (Dumbledore, Tom Riddle, James Potter, Sirius Black and Percy Weasley), and 1 woman (Hermione).
JKR’s magical creation, which broke many moulds in giving us a character like Hermione, very progressive for the times she was conceived in, only shows cracks when held up to the mirror of 2019. It is disheartening to think that Harry Potter, a volume of texts we deem ‘progressive’, possesses such deep-rooted gender problems. What exactly are the contents of the texts we do NOT deem liberal then? Those that reinforce the message that, however, ‘powerful’ womankind may hope to become, it cannot hope to ‘catch up’ to mankind? In a world where men think the sex ratio is 50-50 if there are 17% women, and it is tilted towards women majority if there are 33% women (Geena Davis Institute for Gender In Media), how long and hard a battle do we still have to fight?
Harry Potter is more relevant and disastrous with regard to this issue because it is a children’s text, and how children’s minds are impressed determines the future shape of the world. A critical reading of the text shows how ‘progressive’ translates to ‘not adequately progressive’, and even when ideal role models are found in fact or fantasy, they run high risks of being outnumbered and oppressed.
Women characters in the series are rarely given as much space to evolve as the men (Hermione we see only in relation to the point-of-view character Harry, and Bellatrix’s childhood is not shown as opposed to Voldemort’s, both of them being witches par excellence). This reflects all the discrimination talented women continue to face till date, but hope lies in strength – we cannot forget that we do have Hermiones and Tonkses on our side. Without despair, “the last enemy that shall be destroyed” will surely be oppression.
Featured Image Source: Joe