Fantasy Fiction has brought forth memorable female characters that have been revered and idealized respectively by male and female readers. A reason behind their popularity, however, is that they stand out from the rest of a book’s characters, which is a result of their number not being very high. The question then is, why are they not made the norm, and whether and to what extent does Rowling’s seven-part series follow this trend.
As compared to Fantasy works published before the series, the number of such females is certainly higher in Rowling’s work. The two iconic authors who have apparently determined the conventions of the genre and serve as hallmarks of High Fantasy, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, have, wittingly or unwittingly shown conspicuous misogynism and strict adherence to gender-related assumptions.
C.S. Lewis gave importance to female characters, but one observes that they are not, at large, made part of the major action. Even when the brain behind the action is a female – the characterization of Lucy, for example – it is almost always carried forward by male(s), here, the character of Peter. Moreover, women in his books have, in most cases, confirmed to what is called ‘lady-like’ behaviour and choices.
Surprisingly, the above-mentioned division of tasks according to gender does feature in Rowling’s work, even if active women are present. Looking at the Trio, although Hermione does partake action, the major roles that fall on her are of brainstorming, planning, and taking care, which are indeed not taken up by Harry, and especially Ron. Hermione is prone to getting scared in a similar way as Ron’s mother, Molly Weasley – a comparison which the narrator makes itself – for instance her encounter with Grawp. She has been depicted as the voice of the caring, mother-figure who consistently warns her children against breaking rules and tells them to be careful of their ‘actions’, here a quite relevant word. Most of the action has been set by the author for Harry. Even though he is the protagonist, it would not have appeared inappropriate if, for example, Harry did the brainstorming and caring while Hermione performed the action. Ginny Weasley is another intelligent, witty and talented girl who has not been seen much in operation. Her quick-wit and skills are recognized by the narrator, but not the characters, an instance being the fifth book where Harry, along with Ron, thinks of Ginny as one of his least likely choices out of all DA members, for an attempt of rescuing Sirius. Harry also forgets that he could have consulted Ginny before assuming that he has been possessed by Voldemort since she had already faced it.
The Triwizard Tournament is the most apt example of Rowling not being wholly feminist, of impactful females probably not being the norm in her books. Of the four Champions, only one is a female, who in addition, comes across as less competent than her three male counterparts.
Nevertheless, Rowling does present us with a few bright females who have significantly contributed to the action, such as Minerva McGonagall, whose name itself suggests bravery, Bellatrix Lestrange, Nimphadora Tonks, and a few others. Still, like in most traditional Fantasy, Rowling’s Hero and Villain are both males, unlike, for instance, in the work of Philip Pullman – who wrote around the same time – in whose imagined world the Hero, Lyra, and one of the antagonists, Mrs. Coulter, are females.
Rowling’s is, however, in a better state than traditional Fantasy, such as C.S. Lewis’, as already explained. J.R.R. Tolkien’s is probably the greatest example of pure Fantasy, in the sense that rather than people travelling from, in Rowling’s term, a ‘muggle’ world to a magical one, his books are set in the realm of magic itself. Where Lewis at least gave importance to female characters – even if depicting them as unwilling to act – Tolkien almost does away with them. In the prequel to Tolkien’s iconic The Lord of the Rings trilogy, that is, in The Hobbit, there are no women, while in the trilogy, hardly any female characters can be encountered and even those serve more as objects of love than as important members of the plot. Galadriel is a character recognized for her wisdom, but is not made part of the action. She has rather been, it seems, presented in the image of the deified lady from the courtly-love tradition. Tolkien’s gendering of characters, however, has more-or-less been prevented by Rowling from penetrating her fictional world. Almost every female in her books has been a crucial plot-device, and there is no example of a Galadriel-like figure; but stereotypically feminine characters do feature in her world in the form of Umbridge, Lavender Brown, Sybill Trelawney, and Cho Chang to some extent, amongst others.
Rowling’s incomplete feminism reflects popular culture at large, manifested in the Harry Potter movie-adaptations that have, in their process of glamorization, furthered the gendering of women. They have not adhered to Hermione’s book-description of having improper teeth and extremely bushy hair. The last few movies, particularly the last two, have in fact made her hair look quite normal. The movie-makers have even added a dialogue of their own to justify Hermione’s becoming more ‘girly’ from the fourth movie onwards, when in the third movie she disapproves of her hair- “Is that really what my hair looks like from the back?” In the fourth movie she is shown wearing Pink – considered a typically feminine colour – during the Yule Ball, where according to the book it was supposed to be Blue. Ginny Weasley, quite a strong female in the book, has been toned down to several levels in the movies, and in addition has been allotted very little space.
Rowling has certainly increased the number of impactful females who also break gender-stereotypes. They have, however, not been normativized, first because they have, in the books, still stood out when juxtaposed with other characters, and second, because their number is lesser than it ought to be, as illustrated above.
Contributed by: Bhavya Mittal, Music Teacher and Harry Potter Expert