So, I think its only fitting that I re-start this whole blogging business with a continuation of the facebook conversation that convinced Elizabeth and I that we REALLY needed to start to blog again, like SERIOUSLY – which was about this article on Harry Potter (spoilers – although honestly, if you haven’t finished the Harry Potter series AND haven’t been spoiled AND care, you are a rare specimen and I would like to hear from you the story of how you came to be in this situation): http://globalcomment.com/2011/in-praise-of-hermione-granger-series. Which I loved, and agreed with on many points, but which I also think misses the mark in a couple places.
This paragraph is where I think it really went off the rails:
Dumbledore, memorably, falls in love with a younger man in the third installment. Other female characters were introduced, and developed beyond stereotype; we learned to value McGonagall as much as Dumbledore, to stop slagging Lavender Brown off as clingy and gross because she actually wanted her boyfriend to like her, to see the Patil sisters and Luna as something other than flaky, intuitive, girly idiots. Unbelievably, even Ginny Weasley got an actual personality.
First of all, the part about Dumbledore feels gratuitous to me. Mainly because most of the teachers are presented as sexless, and generally without lives outside of school – or if they have them, we never see it. Now, as I think about that, its interesting because one of my favorite things about My So-Called Life is that the parents are real people, with sex lives, and lives in general beyond what the kids see. And I would argue that maybe one of the shortcomings of the book is that the teachers are only teachers – multidimensional, complicated personalities with histories, but not people with regular lives. We’re given the impression that none of them have spouses or children or lives outside of Hogwarts. But given that choice, its not strange that Dumbledore falls into that pattern.
Second, on Lavender: one of the (many many many) things I love about Book 7 is that some of the characters we had seen in one-sided ways (in part because we see other kids at school, especially non-main characters, generally through Harry’s eyes) are presented with respect and with more dimensions in a way that makes it clear that a) they are not as one-dimensional as they might have seemed to us/Harry b) that maybe they never were that one-dimensional, and c) that everyone has grown and changed which makes sense as they’re teenagers. Is the portrayal of Lavender while she’s dating Ron problematic? In some ways, yes. But its also realistic, and since there are a variety of female characters shown in a variety of ways, Lavender doesn’t get to me as much. Same goes for the Patil sisters, and even earlier for them – I think the way get appropriately mad at Harry and Ron at the Christmas Ball in book 4, and then deal with the situation by saying screw you guys and going off to have fun is great. Are they gossipy and in certain ways a stereotype of teenage girls? Yes. But they’re also intelligent and self-confident. Its not that simple, and I appreciate that.
Third, are you seriously suggesting that Ginny Weasly didn’t get a personality? She’s awesome. By mid-series, she knows herself well and has grown into that in a realistic and self-analytical way. She’s very confident, obviously very smart, has a wicked sense of humor and no shame. I think the way in which she stands up to her brothers when they get upset about her dating life is excellent and frankly a rare portrayal of a teenage girl who’s got a very clear sense of her own right to date or not date whomever she pleases based on her own desires and comfort levels. Throughout the series after Book 2, Ginny deals with being consistently underestimated not by getting discouraged or losing confidence, and not by feeling a need to prove herself, but by simply doing her thing and letting other people catch on (or, you know, be on the recieving end of a bat bogey) themselves. She’s one of my favorite characters and I don’t know how you can say she has no personality.
The other thing I really disagreed with in the article is the part about the house elves. I actually appreciated that Hermione’s campaign to free the elves was complicated and called into question by her failure to, you know, consult with the elves. I love that she’s portrayed as right on the point of this is slavery and its wrong, but at the same time chided for employing a model of benevolently freeing them from above without their knowledge, consent, or action, because she thought she knew best. That’s not liberatory; that’s not how oppressive systems change or should change; and had it magically worked, I would have found it both unrealistic and politically problematic. I wish this story line had gotten more developed from there, but I’m glad that at least this piece of it was treated as it was.
The rest of the article, though I think is totally on-point. In particular the critique of the whole “Chosen One” thing is dead on – my biggest issue with the books was always Harry’s inability to get over himself and recognize the bigger picture. At various points he’s called out on it, and it keeps seeming like the perspective will shift definitively, because its made really clear to the reader that at least by book 5, people aren’t fighting back to defend Harry, they’re fighting for their own reasons, for principle, for their families, etc (except maybe Dumbledore, and of course Snape is a particular complication). But then the same basic “oh no, I can’t have everyone else sacrificing themselves for me” “they’re not doing it for you!” conflict just keeps getting rehashed and is more annoying each time. Harry’s own understanding never quite gets there, which is frustrating and which also raises the question of whether that’s intended to imply a flaw in him, or that in fact it is all about him in the end.
My favorite parts of book 7 in particular are about what everyone else does, and how its always clear that the trio’s saga, while important and the primary focus of our story, is just a piece of a much larger picture, that lots of people are fighting and working in different ways for different reasons. That even includes Ron and Hermione, who are partially in it out of loyalty to Harry, but primarily because they believe Voldemort is evil, because they are fighting for a principle, because they care about their familes, their friends, themselves, and their world. I hadn’t thought of it as a flaw steming from having started from the “chosen one” trope, and I’m still not convinced that trope can’t be twisted in a really interesting way to have there be a “chosen one” who’s not the be-all end-all and understands that. I think you could have a story where there’s a person who’s able to do something or play a role that no one else can for whateve reason (like, say, having horcrux lodged in your forehead), but where they’re just one of a bunch of people each with their own piece that they and only they can do, or where that makes them unique and important, but is only one piece of what’s needed. I thought Rowling was going there with all the stuff about being the “chosen one” not really being all about fate, but she never quite made it.*
*This theme comes up again for me in very similar ways with the Hunger Games series - there’s a little teaser for you on that post, which is coming soon!