I’ve listened to Harry Potter audiobooks every night since I was about ten years old. Stephen Fry, not Jim Dale, because I’m not a barbarian. It is the only way to assure a solid night’s snooze but every so often I hear a line as I nod off and I won’t be able to stop thinking. How did Slytherin Quidditch players have leeks growing out of their ears when Gamp’s law of transfiguration means you can’t summon food out of thin air? Why do wizards live in a world where you’re either a civil servant or a sports star? There are a great many questions to mull over before entering the land of nod but one has plagued me for ages: women in Harry Potter.
The most recent quandary came about over the Harry Potter movies and the Bechdel test in Sweden that announced all but one of the movies failed to make the grade. This shocked me considering the female characters in Harry Potter are a superb bunch and severely outweigh the men on my list of favourites. Yet it got me thinking: I will inevitably introduce my children to Harry Potter the way my Dad introduced me to The Hobbit. But will I be promoting an equalist view of the world if I do?
I think it’s safe to say the new Swedish ratings have proved the movies are out and fair enough on that count: Nymphadora Tonks, one of the most autonomous women in the series, was relegated to wife and child bearer to Lupin after a few token wand waves in Order of the Phoenix. Ginny Weasley, a competent hexer, became nothing more than a target for Harry’s affections. Hermione is a whole different level of change. From bushy haired intellectual with a firm belief in empowering minorities and a knowledge of wizarding law so thorough even the Minister was impressed to a busty sidekick who pushed Ron one step further back on every movie poster. Emma Watson’s own inherent beauty is not to blame- a movie marketing ploy to make sure Hermione kept the girls coming back time after time created a superwoman with none of her original identifiable character traits. Just odd echoes that were quotes designed for the trailers (‘Who are you and what have you done with Hermione?’ THAT’S WHAT WE’RE ALL THINKING RON.) The moment movie Hermione- afraid of flying from the word go- demands everyone leap on a dragon to escape Gringotts I knew we had lost what little we had of her left.
But if we think about the books, we don’t get much more woman-to-woman interaction than we do in the films. We can blame this on the fact Harry is a perpetual narrator but even in the scenes outside of Harry’s point of view we are only once, for half a chapter, given a female point of view. Vernon Dursley, the Prime Minister, Snape, Frank Bryce… Only briefly with Narcissa and Bellatrix do we get women talking freely. Even when we witness woman-to-woman conversations like young Petunia and Lily, we watch it through the gaze of Snape and Harry in the pensive.
The women we meet of course give us far more to appreciate: McGonagall tears the entire male staff of Hogwarts to shreds in Deathly Hallows. Angelina Johnson is one of the most competent quidditch captains we meet. Yet in the later part of the series women who take their independence and strength into their own hands never do so for long: Marietta Edgecombe is a tattle-tale, Cho Chang is overly emotional and Madame Rosmerta becomes nothing but a sexy doormat. In fact, for a book filled with women in combat, Harry’s final survey of the defeat of the Death Eaters only features men winning.
The final battle may seem like a place for character development and finality over a place for sexual politics, but Rowling herself admitted in a talk at Carnegie Hall.
It was the meeting of two kinds of – if you call what Bellatrix feels for Voldemort love, I guess we’ll call it love, she has a kind of obsession with him, it’s a very sick obsession … and I wanted to match that kind of obsession with maternal love… the power that you give someone by loving them. So Molly was really an amazing exemplar of maternal love. … There was something very satisfying about putting those two women together.
As Rowling pointed out in another interview ‘she is the only woman on the good side who kills’ and yet this symbolic battle contains an important prologue: the three young, forward-thinking girls are blasted aside to make way for a battle between two of the oldest cliches of women: the femme fatale and the mother.
This is a book series based around a double murder. A double murder where the father stands to fight and the woman is killed shielding her baby. A book series where we do not witness a single divorce, and only one man ran out on his wife at all: that being Dean Thomas’ Dad, in case you didn’t read the appendix on JK Rowling’s website (they only source of the information until she guilty crammed it into the final book.) This is a series that represents the damaged soul of ultimate evil as an aborted foetus. While this is also a book that implies Dumbledore asks Snape to euthanise him, seated beneath everything seems to be a reluctance to really push the tropes of femininity. With so many better books- Jane Eyre, The Bell Jar, The Hunger Games- will Harry Potter suffer due to an ethical backbone that sometimes seems to have suffered a jelly-legs jinx?
At the end of the day my children are being read Harry Potter every night whether they like it or not (if only because I do a great Hagrid.) The problem is whether this will be teaching them the right lessons. But I suppose most children’s literature hardly tackles the great questions of modern thought and it shouldn’t be expected to. But Harry Potter, so loaded with strong ideas of family and sacrifice and moral strength, should be a clearer cut piece of choice literature. Maybe there should be ratings for books as well. I suppose it could be worse though. I could read them Twilight.