Harry Potter was an integral part of an entire generation’s childhood, but as children we rarely get the opportunity to look at things with a critical eye. With the return of J.K. Rowling’s magical world to both stage and cinemas this year, ComicsVerse will take a look at the Harry Potter series. We will explore the cultural representation of the books, as well as try identify how the books ignited such a massive and dedicated following. To read the entire ComicsVerse Harry Potter Series, check out this tag!

HARRY POTTER is many things to its readers, especially those who have stood with the series from start to finish. It is, first and foremost, a magical world for children that provides an escape from reality, gives us hope for a better future, and teaches us valuable lessons about loyalty, friendship, and redemption. It is also a world in which the strong female characters of the story teach younger female readers that they, too, are brave and intelligent and worthy. They, too, can be heroes. Specifically, for many young (or not so young) girls reading the books, Hermione Granger seemed like a gift from some divine deity. She is a smart, amazing young witch who never compromises her own values. She is a force of good and knowledge, and one of the most powerful fighters and witches alive. In a world where most stories center around men and their achievements, as a young reader, it was such a relief to see the same ideas portrayed through a female character. And back then, it seemed like I finally had a world of escape where women were equal to men in every way, where the feminist movement had done its job and sexism was a scary textbook chapter of the past—in short, a post-feminist world.

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There were other strong female characters in the series that we could look up to as well. I personally will always remember the sudden surge of emotion I felt when Molly Weasley killed Bellatrix for daring to cast a spell in Ginny’s direction—the amount of badass mothering in that scene alone was unique. Ginny herself is a force to be reckoned with in the series, a perfect example of how a strong female character can also have a love life and have crushes on other characters and how none of that has to diminish her strength.

However, while there were these strong female role models for us growing up, and while I would have been the first one to say that HARRY POTTER presents us with a magical, fantastical, post-feminist world, on second look there are several characters and situations that, unfortunately, do reflect the everyday sexism of the real muggle world. After reading up on what other people have to say about this issue and thinking back on my own experience of reading the books, I want to talk about these characters and situations, not to throw blame at Rowling (because I think some of these, at least, were intentional), but to highlight that even in this fantastical worlds, women will inevitably face the same types of sexist situations as they do in the real world. And as important as it is for young readers to see capable women, it’s even more important to see how capable women deal with the rest of the world being assholes to them.

While we can’t cover absolutely everything, let’s look at a few moments in which our badass, three-dimensional heroines faced discrimination much like we muggles face every day.

Snily: AKA Abusive Pureblood Friend is Nice to “Mudblood” Witch and Expects Sex in Return

Alright, I know I’m going to get a lot of flack for this, especially from people who were absolutely charmed by Snape’s redemption story. And I’ll be the first to admit, even if it was done for dubious reasons, Snape did a good thing. He was on the side of good. He protected Harry and put his life in danger in order to help fight against Voldemort. Still, it doesn’t make him a nice person.

In fact, almost everything we learn about why he helps Harry points to him being a sexist asshole who has a bad case of “I was friendzoned!!” In the memory that he shows Harry, we see that Snape was in love with Harry’s mother, who ultimately chose another boy—further, a boy who used to bully him!—and left him in the dust and refused to be his friend. Sad, right?

Well, let’s look a little deeper. Snape befriends Lily, and for a while they are two peas in a pod. As young children, Snape is bullied by James Potter and the Marauders about his poor hygiene. Let it be known that Lily only “chooses” James when he becomes less of an ass—during the time of his bullying, she shoots him down regularly. During their time as friends, Snape starts hanging around known supporters of Voldemort, and even calls Lily a “mudblood” once, which is indisputably the most horrible name you can call a muggle-born witch or wizard. So she doesn’t stop being friends with him out of the blue. She stops being friends with him when he devotes himself to a cause that believes people like her should be exterminated. That seems like a pretty okay reason to me.

In all of this debate over which ship should have been endgame, not once have I ever heard anyone say, “Lily wanted James. Period. The end.” Not once have I ever heard anyone acknowledge her agency as a human being who has her own feelings and desires. The argument is as simple as: she didn’t feel romantic attraction for Snape. But instead the arguments center around who “deserves” her. Snape “deserves” her because he was nice to her, and he got hurt, and we feel bad for him. Never mind the fact that in the rest of the series, he’s shown to be an emotionally abusive teacher and all around dislikable person. Has anyone stopped to consider the fact that Lily maybe didn’t want him because of this? And even though he somewhat redeemed himself in the end, it doesn’t mean that he deserves Lily any more. One good action can’t erase a series of bad ones. And, of course, there’s still the simple fact that he’s not what she wanted. She doesn’t need to justify herself in that way, and it’s disgusting to see the fandom discourse around her.

In the books, however, Lily does have agency. Whether fans acknowledge it or not, she has the agency to choose one or neither of them. She chose someone she loved, someone who treated her right. Every depiction we see of the Potter family life (though there isn’t much) is happy and healthy. And even more to the point, she didn’t want either of them to start out with. She stood up to James in Snape’s memory, telling him to leave her the hell alone. She stood up to Severus when he called her a mudblood and started hanging out with Death Eaters. She was caught between two boys who, at first, thought they had a claim on her. And she is still caught between a fandom who thinks the boys have a claim on her. But when she did choose James, it was because he had grown up and because she had the agency to do so, to wait until he was good for her.

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Hermione Granger and Viktor Krum…and Ron Weasley?

In their fourth year, Harry, Ron, and Hermione have a chance to go to the Yule Ball. Harry and Ron spend much of the story worrying over who they’re going to ask. Only as a last resort does Ron turn to Hermione, with the expectation that she, too, doesn’t have a date and will be willing to take whoever wants her at that point. A surprise comes for him when she says someone has already asked her. Unfortunately, things go downhill for Hermione from there, because she dared to not be there for Ron when he decided that he wanted her.

Throughout the night of the Yule Ball, Ron makes things hard for Hermione. Everyone is astounded by how beautiful Hermione looks but Ron is so overcome with jealousy about her being there with Viktor Krum that he turns on his former Quidditch hero and yells at Hermione that Krum is using her. When she says she can take care of herself (accurate), he responds, “Doubt it.” Not only does he undermine her agency, even when he knows she’s the best witch in their school, but he also implies that Viktor has less than honorable intentions with her. We also see no character traits of Viktor’s that indicate he is anything but crazy for Hermione.

Ron’s jealousy fuels him to make awful remarks about Hermione and her agency. I think this was intentional by Rowling, as we see Ron do things like this throughout the entire series, particularly with his sister Ginny. It’s an unfortunate character trait of his that Rowling chooses to highlight, not because it makes him a bad person, but because it shows that sexism can come from wonderful people that we love.

Fleur Delacour and Her Werewolf Husband

If Hermione and Ginny are a big part of the story, one might say it’s because they “aren’t like the other girls” on the character list. There are many other women that are traditionally more girly (Lavender Brown, anyone?) that take a backseat. Fleur Delacour, however, is an interesting case. Delacour is a beautiful French woman and a Veela to boot, attracting everyone around her with her special Veela powers. Even throughout the story arc of the GOBLET OF FIRE, the fact that she’s beautiful is focused on much more than the fact that, out of her entire school, she’s the one chosen as worthy enough to compete in the Triwizard Tournament. She is the first of the four (and the only woman) to complete a task. Later, when she’s engaged to Bill Weasley, Ginny, Hermione, and Molly Weasley spend much of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS making fun of her.

How the rest of the cast of characters treat her throughout the story didn’t rub me the wrong way until after Bill Weasley is bitten by a werewolf and his face is left scarred. Everybody thinks Fleur is a shallow woman (despite the fact that there is evidence of her being many things—a great witch, a good and loving sister—but not shallow). After Bill is attacked, Molly assumes the wedding will be off because obviously Fleur doesn’t want an “ugly” husband. She responds, “What do I care how he looks? I am good-looking enough for both of us, I theenk! All these scars show is zat my husband is brave!”

I love this moment. In fact, I love Fleur as a character. I think she is drastically underrated by the fandom and discarded as a side character. All of the female characters are, in my opinion. It doesn’t help, of course, that the main characters were first introduced to her while she and her classmates delicately flounced into the Great Hall, but it seems they give her a lot of flack for being attractive and don’t seem to focus on much else—a phenomenon which many girls and women do face on a day-to-day basis. I love that Rowling gives her a moment to speak out and have agency in this seventh book, to really put all of the other characters (especially Mrs. Weasley) in their place and show them that they’ve been underestimating her unfairly all this time.

CLICK: Click here for a wonderful discussion on genderbending in fandoms! 

HARRY POTTER: Not A Post-Feminist World

While I can’t cover a comprehensive list of all the wonderful moments of sexism and female agency, it’s clear to see that the women in HARRY POTTER are more than just role models of strength and intelligence; they’re a way for young girls to see how strong and intelligent women react against the sexism they will undoubtedly face. As a woman herself, Rowling definitely had the ability to create this post-feminist world if she wanted to. She created a fantasy world with HARRY POTTER, and a world of equality certainly is a fantasy for many women. But I think her decision not to make her world post-feminist is almost as radical, especially given that her books are for young readers.

Rowling presents a world where many things are different, but what isn’t different is the shitty, day-to-day microaggressions and sexism that women face. She didn’t shy away from those things, nor did she use a heavy hand to point them out. They’re just there, as inherent facts of life for the female characters in the story. What Rowling does brilliantly, at least in these three memorable instances, is make it obvious to the reader that there is something wrong with this sexism. She gives her female characters the agency to fight against it, and in doing so shows young girls that while situations like these are inevitable, they don’t have to passively accept it. She shows young female readers how to deal with situations like these. Sexism is hard to face, especially when it comes from people you love and respect. Rowling’s female characters fight Voldemort and sexism in the same series. It shows young girls that they can, too—that they are as strong and capable as these characters and they will still experience this discrimination. Above all, it shows them how to fight back. While HARRY POTTER isn’t a post-feminist world, it certainly is a feminist one.

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