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The Phantom Librarian - Negative images of femininity in the popular Harriet Potter series
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
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Negative images of femininity in the popular Harriet Potter series
We kind of got off on a tangent on the Pet Peeves thread at the Quill, about people complaining because Harry wasn't Harriet. Accio Brain suggested that we'd probably get the same thing if we had the same books and exact same actions, but everyone's sex was switched. J Forias started, and I picked up, and honestly, I had too much fun to not share the results of this thinking.

How 'bout Herman, that nerdy book-name? ;)

It would be Herman who would get the most flak, since obviously Harriet is being presented as someone inept at school. Rhona is always worrying about interpersonal stuff. But of course, let's not forget Harriet's nemesis, the materialistic and spoiled Drusilla Malfoy, who embodies the stereotype of cut-throat females, exemplified in the '80s film Heathers (I mean, can't you see that movie reflected in her two manipulated best friends, Gretchen Goyle and Victoria Crabbe?)

Headmistress Alba Dumbledore is the worst of all possible stereotypes--she never worries about her position as head of the school and spends all of her time nurturing children, like she has nothing more important to do. Important things are done by Malcolm McGonagall--the man, of course, who is strict and disciplinarian, except when it comes to sports, which he pushes the girls in his house to participate in (and really, one must question how healthy that realationship is). Severa Snape, on the other hand, is perpetually described like she has permanent PMS--that focus on schoolgirl bullying, and inability to be objective about it! Of course, then there are the so-called "Marauders," a coffee-klatch of junior high school popular girls... of course the ones who really exercise their individuality (Jamie and Sirra, natch) are punished by the structure of the world, while Petra is a weepy, frightened thing who attaches to the dark side because of course this is what society determines women will do. (Not to mention that charm, Fidelius, and the "secret-keeper" business... how stereotypicaly girly is that? Undoubtedly, if these were men, it would have been a blood pact which was unbreakable, and the fact that it was women using an element of women's culture is what brought about the death of Lydell and Jamie.) The only one who survives is Remi Lupin, who accepts her feminine role as a teacher and childcare provider, and calmly takes all the misfortunes life lays at her feet--the patriarchy's notion of the perfect woman! Of course she's the only one left standing. Meanwhile, Lydell Evans (er, Potter) is shown as the only one willing to stand up for a bullied student, a icon of pure love, and, as you mentioned, the self-sacrificing one who dies to save his daughter--the exact glorified image of chivalric men.

And of course, let's look at Toma Riddle and her parents. Rowling expects us to despise her Muggle mother for "abandoning" her, but it's obvious from the text that she was, at best, duped by cad with powers she didn't understand--it's rape! She couldn't have been expected to stay with it. But of course, young Toma, brainwashed by the patriarchy, blames her mother rather than her guilty father, and goes on to pursue her patriarchal identity, because this character exemplifies the notion that people are raised to respect only their fathers...

Really, what sorts of images are these to show our daughters?
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rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: April 29th, 2005 05:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
*snort* Oh, glorious!
ashtur From: ashtur Date: April 29th, 2005 05:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
You forget Artura Weasley, the properly submissive housewife who lets Mollard run the house.

Poor Victoria Krum, with her self worth defined by being rather ugly and bowlegged, despite her evident success in the male dominated world of sports.

Or Argenta Filch, poor and uneductated, only able to find a living as a glorified housekeeper, having to deal with the cruel derision of the students.
absurdwords From: absurdwords Date: April 29th, 2005 05:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
And Cornelia Fudge, affirming the stereotype that a woman in charge is asking for trouble.
mamadeb From: mamadeb Date: April 29th, 2005 05:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's PERFECT. And beautiful, and so, so right.

I just read a Nimbus paper (okay, I started it, but couldn't finish) about how evil Rowling was on two counts:

1. She allowed Scholastic to "add a black character" because Dean Thomas was was not portrayed as black in the Brit editions.

2. She assumed that the default racial group in BRITAIN was white - of the Aurors in book 5, only Kingsley Shacklebolt's skin color was mentioned.

And and I started, um. Yelling at the paper. Because. 1. While the addition to the book was clumsily done, Rowling *did* identify Dean as black. It's just that Americans wouldn't know that West Ham was predominantly black. Which the writer of the article didn't seem to understand. And 2. It *is* - and when they're not white, they tend to be Asian or Indian, and thus identifiable by name.

Abd also - damned if she does, damned if she doesn't.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 29th, 2005 05:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
:headdesk:

I don't know if it's true or not, but someone mentioned in the course of this discussion that Dean's race was mentioned in the Brit edition, but edited out because the editor thought it was superfluous in context.

And of course, when someone fails to notice that Dean is black, Rowling gets it for not having any black characters. Rock and hard place.

And on the default ethnic group... um... wouldn't a British writer be perfectly aware of the default assumptions of her own culture?
ninepointfivemm From: ninepointfivemm Date: April 29th, 2005 05:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh yes, and of course, let's not forget the young, spunky Gene Weasley and Larry Lovegood. They have confidence and break the norm better than any girls, of course.

And Nina Longbottom is the worst! She's self-conscious and too afraid to really break out of the mold. She'll be forever holding onto her mother's wand, not wanting to let go.

Honestly, these horrible role models Rowling created!
sannalim From: sannalim Date: April 29th, 2005 05:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
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Fern, that is hilarious!
angua9 From: angua9 Date: April 29th, 2005 05:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
*worships*
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: April 29th, 2005 05:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
Badger Queen had a great post on a similar topic some time ago, I think. *grins* Didn't get into quite as many characters, though.
castaliae From: castaliae Date: April 29th, 2005 05:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
Wonderful!
gehayi From: gehayi Date: April 29th, 2005 05:54 pm (UTC) (Link)

I Had to Try This Too...

Of course, no discussion of the negative image of females in Rowling's work would be complete without the mention of Regina Black.

Regina Black is, quite obviously, a stereotypical upper-class girl. Her sister, Sirra, calls her "soft" and "a stupid idiot." She is depicted as a "go along to get along" kind of girl: morally weak and irresolute. The pampered younger daughter of a noble house, Regina is, unlike Sirra, the traditional girl that the Blacks expect their daughters to be. She joins Toma Riddle--now Lady Voldemort--apparently without realising what this will entail. She is obedient to the Dark Lady's wishes for a time, but at last refuses to do what Lady Voldemort wishes, and is slain.

Regina clearly sends a message to all girls that it is better not to rebel against the restrictions of society. After all, had Regina not decided to stand up for herself and to refuse to do something she found repellant, she would still be alive. Obedience leads, not only to survival, but to pampering and love; disobedience leads to cruel, premature--and, above all, unnecessary--death. Could a character BE more patriarchal?
sophonax From: sophonax Date: April 29th, 2005 06:10 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: I Had to Try This Too...

Great work! :) This, even more than Fern's original, I think, demonstrates what I hate *most* about this type of criticism...it focuses solely on the relationship between behavior and outcomes without any analysis whatsoever into what those behaviors and outcomes means within the moral context of the story; I could see a critic writing something sort of like this...maybe not quite this blatant, but similar...and you'd never have any idea from reading it that the Blacks were nasty people whose love and acceptance any person who hadn't grown up with them wouldn't WANT anyway, nor that Voldemort's act of ordering Miss Regina's death wasn't endorsed with a smile by the author as a shining example of just what ought to happen in any world where justice triumphs.

Oh, wait, I HAVE read a criticism exactly like that! I forget who the author was, but she (I'm pretty sure it was a she) used Voldemort's description of Ginny as a stupid, spineless, easily manipulated, emotionally-overwrought girl as an example of ROWLING's attitude toward women in general. Extraordinary, but someone really did it.
donnaimmaculata From: donnaimmaculata Date: April 29th, 2005 06:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
Fabulous. It's my favourite kind of argument, actually: turning the facts upside down while still maintaining a logical train of thought. People should do it more often to realise that there always is a different perspective and approach to facts.
lannamichaels From: lannamichaels Date: April 29th, 2005 06:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
This is awesome. :D
ladylisse From: ladylisse Date: April 29th, 2005 07:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ugh. See, I don't even have a problem with Herman in canon -- it's the fanon portrayal that drives me absolutely up the wall. Look at how the two big het ships: H/Ha and H/R. Because, y'know, clearly the great big sweeping romance of the story will revolve around which girl the major male character deigns to pick.

And don't even get me started on how every. single. slashfic. is H/G or H/L. I like Herman. I like Gene and Larry. But what about Harriet -- who's, y'know, the main character? No one writes about Drusilla Malfoy at all, never mind that she's so one-dimensional she's practically begging for backstory. You know the fandom would be all over her if she was male. Not that fanon makes me stabby or anything.
fiatincantatum From: fiatincantatum Date: April 29th, 2005 07:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's without even going into the catty remarks and jealously during and after the Yule Ball... how depressingly typical.
sannalim From: sannalim Date: April 29th, 2005 07:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
This analysis also points up how well Rowling's characters don't necessarily fit into traditional gender roles!
story645 From: story645 Date: April 29th, 2005 07:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
Can't stop laughing, it's just great. Agree wiht what others said though about how this just proves the awesome way JK's characters go against traditional gender molds and are real people instead.
subsidaryforge From: subsidaryforge Date: April 29th, 2005 07:40 pm (UTC) (Link)

Brilliant!

Isn't it terribly easy to write off everything as patriarchy? I've read textbooks (albeit about women directors instead of writers) sort of backhanding those who decide to use male protagonists as essentially doing nothing to advance their gender and less worthy of study. Never mind that Hermoine is a very strong character. She might not be Harry, but isn't in the position to be so. Voldemort didn't attack her as an infant. Um. As stands, Hermoine is very independent, self contained, and considering she's a teenager (why yes, more than 'considering she's a giiirl') she's able to go against the crowd remarkably consistently and even endure mockery from her close friends. Heh. S.P.E.W. anyone? Of course, some readers might insist that things like S.P.E.W. where Hermoine acts on her convictions and only her own are the areas where she's wrong and J.K. Rowling is poking fun, but that's ignoring that Hermoine tends to be the . . . general voice of reason, not just mirroring Harry and Ron, even if S.P.E.W marks a mistake. The thing is, a determined feminist critic can seize onto any character flaw or "lack" and decide this represents patriarchy in action. Sadly, this leads to a lack of complexity to female characters, not greater complexity. Even if you could write a book according to strict feminist standards. So, J.K. Rowling is a sell-out to the patriarchal agenda, the end.
sonetka From: sonetka Date: April 29th, 2005 07:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
People, people! We're forgetting Professor Dorian Umbridge! I mean, how much cattier could Rowling get? Here's a stupid, malicious bureaucratic-minded man who, just by being MALE, somehow manages to get the entire school in thrall while fluttery, typically-female Alba Dumbledore just sits back and lets everything fall apart. Does anyone seriously think that Umbridge's students would have taken him so seriously had he been FEMALE? I think not! He even reinforces his symbolically phallic power by forcing poor Harriet to cut her hand with a QUILL (I mean, look at the shape-symbolism there - bleeding obvious, to say the least!)
riah_chan From: riah_chan Date: April 29th, 2005 10:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
Snerk! That was great!
mafdet From: mafdet Date: April 29th, 2005 07:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
*applause, applause*
From: psalm_27 Date: April 29th, 2005 07:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
I wouldn't want to leave out our trusty Hagrida, our devoted caretaker and teacher of Magical Creatures. As our stereotypical woman, she is nuturing. She's always saying the wrong thing (can't anyone keep her quiet, honestly!). Because she happens to be a woman and a minority, we don't trust her with magic, but thats to be expected. No wonder she's one of the most disliked characters in the series.
marinarusalka From: marinarusalka Date: April 29th, 2005 09:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
What really annoys me is the way Hagrida is always crying. The worst female stereotype of them all: weak ninny who bursts into tears whenever things get tough.
lucie_p From: lucie_p Date: April 29th, 2005 08:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
Also, don't forget much-too-chatty-for-her-own-good Ruby Hagrid who tries to make each and every animal into a pet - such a case of a mothering-hen-symptom!

And of course, the one time she gets sent off on a crucial mission (accompanied by a male of course, a school headmaster no less - Master Maximal), what does she end up doing? Instead of initiating a communication about politics as was her missive, she completely loses focus on her set task and instead brings "home" her half-sister Grappa!
dreagoddess From: dreagoddess Date: April 29th, 2005 08:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh please. Just look at Ruby's parents if you want to see an example of the sexism that is so rampant in these books. Her father sweeps through, has his way with a weak and meek witch, and sweeps back to live his life however he wants while her poor mother is left to give birth to a guargantuan baby and tend the home. And despite having this care lavished on her until her mother's untimely death, does Ruby talk about her mother or seek out her mother's family? No, she goes to look for Dear Daddy, who abandoned her, just like all those male pigs.
biichan From: biichan Date: April 29th, 2005 08:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
Damn straight. It particularly irks me that Alastora Moody--who's supposed to be all Miz Thing Auror Bitch--ends up spending ten damn MONTHS in a bloody trunk just because some pissant Death Eater got the jump on her! And speaking of Bartie Crouches... well, if you're looking for studies on how careers turn women into heartless ice queens, you certainly don't have to look any further. Her own daughter she put in Azkaban and of COURSE it's the father that sacrifices his own life to get the girl out.

(On the other hand, ridiculously easy capture aside, John Rowling really does seem to be trying to break out of his sexist model with Moody. Allowing her to have a wooden leg and a glass eye--well. It's a pity no one really fics her, but I suppose the ugliness thing is a turn off. And it's not like you can give her the eye and leg back. Ah well, there's always femmeslashing her with some pretty little Death Eater ingenue. She does give off the hearty old sapphist vibe, much like William Grubby-Plank seemed much the confirmed bachelor.)
narcissam From: narcissam Date: April 29th, 2005 08:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
Don't forget the message that final confrontation in the DoM sends us. John Rowling writes these senior supposedly powerful Death Eaters simpering about like a bunch of.. well, useless girls, actually. The dreaded Ms. Mulciber, who is supposed to be an expert in Imperius, well, she goes to pieces and uses a few lame curses. Lucy Malfoy is a typical brainless beautiful thing, chattering aimlessly instead of taking out our young friends. In fact, one wonders if these women would have ever *started* fighting, if the stereotypical action-oriented male, Bellerephon Lestrange, wasn't there to harry them along.

It's no coincidence he's the only one who kills anyone, is it?
tiferet From: tiferet Date: April 29th, 2005 08:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
What gets to me is that Lucia Malfoy. Why are wealthy, beautiful women with power always the villains? Are girls not supposed to want to be in charge? And what's up with that husband of hers, Narcissus, the one we never see? Is that supposed to be like a message that if you're tough and strong and make use of the advantages life gives you, you're destined to end up with a narcissistic boytoy who never does anything on his own accord?
biichan From: biichan Date: April 29th, 2005 08:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
If I could pose him around the house however I wanted, I might not mind.
narcissam From: narcissam Date: April 29th, 2005 09:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
What is Bartemia Crouch Sr's (Bartie to her few friends) real sin? Is it that she wronged the innocent, that she sent people to Azkban without a trial, and employed the Unforgivables? Or is it that she is a woman in a role that is reserved for men? The ambitious women: that creature with no heart who recurs again and again in fairy tales and mythology, and must be destroyed. Notably, she comes with that stock figure of misogynist literature, the weak, henpecked husband. Mr. Crouch, whose identity has been so submerged by the dominant woman that he is not even given a name, has been symbolically castrated in his marriage, powerless to save his daughter except by dying. The whole Crouch episode must be read as a warning lesson. This is what happens when women are allowed to get too uppity.
bluemeanies4 From: bluemeanies4 Date: April 29th, 2005 09:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
And of course this extends inot the muggle world as well where Verna Dursley is the perfect portrayal of a wicked step-mother, with her daughter Dorothy being portrayed as vile and mean and a perfect wicked stepsister. These two also seem to be conforming female negative body image in that fat and ugly eguate with mean and stupid in a way that undermines girls self esteem. Only Uncle Pete is allowed to show anything verging on sympathy for Harriet.
sonetka From: sonetka Date: April 29th, 2005 09:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
And of course, Uncle Pete is the one who gets the mysterious message from Alba Dumbledore, and the only one of the Dursleys who seems to have some information we don't know yet - because, of course, God forbid any vital secrets get into the hands of a WOMAN, who'd just blat them all out in five minutes. Of COURSE a man is the only one who can be trusted to keep a secret.

That Rowling! Now I'm really steamed.
nomadicwriter From: nomadicwriter Date: April 29th, 2005 09:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
And how about the depiction of the Founders? Of course Slytherin, the house of back-stabbing, secretive schemers who are oh-so-wrong to dare to be ambitious is founded by a woman. Could there possibly be a more obvious example of the "ball-busting ice queen" stereotype of ambitious women? As our only contrasting example, we have Godiva Gryffindor's house - clearly sending the message that those women who don't completely repress their emotions are totally ruled by them and incapable of reaching rational decisions. (Notice how Herman, the most prominent male Gryffindor, is portrayed as much more intelligent and sensible than his peers, to the point of almost seeming to belong to a different house.)

Meanwhile, the two male Founders, Hugo Hufflepuff and Rowan Ravenclaw, are portrayed as "fair" and "wise" respectively. How much more clearly could Rowling send the signal that men in positions of power are balanced, logical leaders, while strong women are either completely volatile and irrational or unfeeling ice queens?

And let's not forget Harriet's family - notice how it's Peter Dursley who is now getting character development, while his ineffectual wife Verna (the classic overbearing mother figure who reacts irrationally to things her female brain cannot properly understand) and Dorothy (the spoiled, bullying fat girl, an extremely tired twist on the "ugly stepsister" mold) remain wholly one-dimensional. We see here that even "bad" men are portrayed as having a sense of duty and responsibility to the family, while the women are wholly wicked and selfish, ready to abandon an innocent child to a terrible fate without a second thought.
sannalim From: sannalim Date: April 29th, 2005 10:21 pm (UTC) (Link)

And what about Quidditch?

I can't believe no-one has mentioned Olivia Wood yet! Now there's a negative image of a hellion woman in charge if I ever saw one. But, too, look at how Kenneth Bell and Angelo Johnson try to undermine her leadership of the team. Even when a woman is in charge, she can't be allowed to just do her job. Frida and Georgia Weasley undermine Olivia's leadership, too--such stereotypically catty behaviour! And then there's Leann Jordan, who is a bad-mouthed, insolent, uncontrollable wench.

The Diggory girl has already been mentioned, but what about her boyfriend Charles Chang? His unabated grief only underscores the message of Diggory's death. Harriet's ineffective romance with Charles reinforces the old patriarchal stereotype that the woman must wait for the man to seek her out, for the man to make all the moves. Meanwhile, Gene Weasley pursues a romance with Michaela Corner that ends when Michaela--in a stereotypically "girly" fashion--gets upset about Gene catching the Snitch out from under Charles's nose. Michaela's defection to Charles portrays women as flighty and fickle.

And before I forget, there's also Roberta Davies, who is the worst sort of althetic hussy imaginable--she goes around kissing every boy she can get to look her way, notably Florian Delacour.
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