Hermione Granger and the Fight for Equal Rights

Well, that’s it. I just came home from my last-ever midnight Harry Potter showing. And as I sit here in my shock that it all has ended, one of the many things I’ve been mulling over is how much love and respect I’ve always had for Hermione Granger, the leading female hero of the series. She’s always been the character for whom I’ve nurtured a soft spot–I dressed up as her for Halloween probably five years in a row.

Hermione offers much for a generation of girls to admire, beginning with her unmatched, encyclopedic knowledge of spells, potions and magical history, which is crucial to Harry’s survival throughout the series. She also holds her head high in the face of attacks on her appearance (she catches flak for her frizzy hair and her large teeth) and her stigmatized status as a Muggle-born witch (her peers taunt her with the slur “Mudblood”). Her loyalty and devotion to her best friends keep the golden trio–Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and her–together until the very end. It’s no wonder fans have serenaded her as the “‘Coolest Girl’ in the whole wide world”.

But what I most admire about Hermione is her often-overlooked role as the most prominent social activist in the series. She stands up for people and creatures (from hippogriffs to giants to house-elves) who are not traditionally respected in the wizarding world. J.K. Rowling, an activist herself (all proceeds from her books, Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them go to the Comic Relief charity), has created a magical world as fraught with racism, sexism and exclusion as our own. Unlike most of the wizarding world, Hermione sees the people and creatures that have been written out of history and, in true feminist fashion, is determined to write them back in. 

As Hermione often points out, magical creatures are underrepresented in magical society and discriminated against in magical law, especially via the devastating rule that “No non-human creature is permitted to carry or use a wand.” Since wands are power in the world of Harry Potter, this law ensures wizards’ spot at the top of the social and legal hierarchy.

At the bottom of this hierarchy are house-elves, whose rights Hermione is most passionate about. House-elves live a Dickensian existence: They wear only tea cozies and are bound by magic to serve a wizard family until they die or are set free. This means not only obeying every order, but keeping the family’s secrets and brutally punishing themselves when they disobey or speak ill of their masters.

In defense of house elves, Hermione forms the radical S.P.E.W., the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare:

Our short-term aims … are to secure house-elves fair wages and working conditions. Our long-term aims include changing the law about non-wand use, and trying to get an elf into the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, because they’re shockingly underrepresented.

Like any activist worth her salt, Hermione understands that in order to change the way that house-elves are treated, she must fight to change their legal status, gain them representation and challenge the narrative the normalizes their servitude. She is outraged that her school’s textbook, Hogwarts, A History, is “not entirely reliable” on the subject of house elves:

A Revised History of Hogwarts would be a more accurate title. Or A Highly Biased and Selective History of Hogwarts Which Glosses Over the Nastier Aspects of the School. … Not once, in over a thousand pages, does Hogwarts, A History mention that we are all colluding in the oppression of a hundred slaves!

Hermione’s biggest challenge is the population she is trying to “save”: House-elves tend to see their role of complete submission as an honor and a duty. They consider her determination to free them as embarrassing and insulting. In an interview, J.K. Rowling explains that she purposely cast Hermione as out-of-step with house elves, to highlight a common complication for activists:

[Hermione] blunders towards the very people she’s trying to help. She offends them. She thinks it’s so easy. [She realizes that as an activist] you don’t have quite as much power as you think you might have. … Then you learn that it’s hard work to change things and that it doesn’t happen overnight. Hermione thinks she’s going to lead them to glorious rebellion in one afternoon and then finds out the reality is very different.

Hermione’s conflict will be a familiar one to Western feminists: We’ve had to learn that what we think best for women in another culture may just be based on our own biases and our own cultural limitations (consider the current burqa ban in France). What remains is a debate: Are house-elves, in fact, happy in their servitude? Certainly, other major characters–including Ron and Harry–repeatedly tell Hermione that house-elves enjoy being enslaved and that she shouldn’t bother to change the way things are.

I believe that the house elves are not “naturally” happy to serve, but reacting to centuries of conditioning. Ostensible opposition to freedom from the oppressed appears in our own history quite a lot. One reason for that may be Stockholm Syndrome; another is intense pressure on the oppressed to reassure their oppressors that they are happy with their lot. Take the frightening argument made by white masters (and many racists today) that black people were better off as slaves. Hermione’s fight, and ours, comes up against the myth of “happy servitude.”

But in true Hermione fashion, she fights through the opposition and belittling. J.K. Rowling reveals in an interview that an adult Hermione will be victorious in her quest:

Hermione began her post-Hogwarts career at the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures where she was instrumental in greatly improving life for house elves and their ilk.

I imagine Hermione publishing a book akin to White Like Me that brings wizard and witch privileges to the forefront (Witch Like Me, perhaps?), starting the discussion in the wizarding world about magical privilege. After all, Hermione understands better than anyone that, as Dumbledore said, “It is important to fight, and fight again, and keep fighting, for only then can evil be kept at bay, though never quite eradicated.”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be in my room, re-reading my childhood.

Photo from Flickr user nandesflickr under Creative Commons 2.0

Comments

  1. Little did I know as a 7th grader that Hermione was calling out to me, nudging me along on the path to feminist movement. So much of my feminist beliefs have come via literature written by women. Whether it was Janie in Their Eyes or Pecola in The Bluest Eye, literature has been the site of my feminist formation. I regard J K Rowling as one of the greatest contemporary writers, and I am most thankful for Hermione. From book one, she has shown herself to be integral to the continuation of the series.

  2. rosemary says:

    Great article! Jk Rowling is so smart : )

  3. Amazing, considering all of the above, that J.K. Rowling allowed her publisher to talk her into changing her name to her initials so that little boys wouldn’t know she’s a female author and would read her books. (There’s a YouTube video interview with Rowling and her publisher that vets this.) I haven’t read the books, seen the movies or followed much about the series at all, but I found that very disturbing that any modern, successful author would be asked to do that, much less agree to it!

    • I agree. I also couldn’t help but noticing that almost all main characters in the series- good or evil- are male, it’s kind of sad.

  4. love it! this is exactly what’s been on my mind when reading the series lately!!

  5. I loved S.P.E.W.! It was too bad that so much about Hermione was left out in the movies. Like when she finally kisses Ron in the books it is only when Ron finally sees the light about house elve rights!

  6. …And making no noise and pretending you’re not there? :D

    Wonderful article! I know this doesn’t connect to feminism, but Hermione with SPEW reminded me largely of how western countries, in their quest to assume poorer nations, often assume those nations are unhappy with their lives when they often aren’t. They need money for things like food and medicine, but the fact their lives are different doesn’t make them unhappy. That said, I’ve always loved Hermione for so many of the reasons you’ve mentioned. I hope generations of girls in the future will be able to look up to her in the future. Even if she’s fictional, she can be real to all of us. (Because of course it’s all in our heads, but why on Earth should that mean it’s not real? ^_^)

    • Er, that first “assume” is supposed to be “aid”. Perhaps after attending midnight premieres I should not spend the night after staying up just as late…

    • Amy Borsuk says:

      Hooray, you caught the little reference at the end. :D

      I think the White Man’s Burden that you’re referring to is very much a feminist issue, because it does depend on this idea of the dominant social group – white men – aiding communities that are usually lower class, and people and women of color. When people cross the line from giving aid so that these people can rebuild their city/culture on their own (such as in Haiti, perhaps) and giving aid where outsiders come in and completely take over, there’s definitely a lot of Western social and cultural differences playing into that dynamic.

  7. This is a brilliant post. Hermione is by far the best literary heroine my generation has. She is a strong, smart female. Those qualities alone make her rare. Her activism makes her rarer. I seriously appreciate this post. Hermione is an inspiration and you’ve reminded me again why I love her and pointed out some characteristics I didn’t realize I love about her. I’m rereading the books too, and I’m actually on the fourth with Hermione trying to get S.P.E.W. off the ground. I will read now and smile knowing she is eventually successful.

    I also love that J.K. just knows what her characters do post-series. She is brilliant as well. We need more authors like her to teach girls that they do not need a man, they do not need to be typical or pretty or dumb or submissive.

    Thank you for your post. You made my night.

  8. R. Ross Selavy says:

    Hermione also takes activism to a more overtly feminist end in the fanfic “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” (which is a more ‘scientific’ re-imagining), in which she starts the “Society for the Promotion of Heroic Equality for Witches”, after finding that all the heroes in magical history have been male. Also, the writing is actually awesome – it doesn’t suck!! woooooooo
    http://www.fanfiction.net/s/5782108/1/Harry_Potte

  9. gaylourdes says:

    Aha! I see your fic rec, and I raise you another. In Loco Parentis, from Hermione’s point of view. Insightful and critically engaged on a level not possible in Rowling’s work nor the movies. Without fanfic (incl community and debate), we are simply consumers of the Potterverse franchise.

    http://archiveofourown.org/works/109558/chapters/

  10. Something that should be noticed that the characters do in fact have female villains in the series, and that making the main villain a male is in no way a deliberate hidden feminist issue, because if it were, they would have actual symbolism for that, for example, she’d go into detail about their society and the roles of men and women, and try to hint that they live in a patriarchy, and the characters would be oppressing the woman characters, but they are not, instead, it is a group of men and woman trying to kill a young boy.

  11. What an excellent article! As a fanatic for Harry Potter, I have as much envy for Hermione as the next fan does. The reason why Emma Watson plays the role of Hermione so well is because she is playing a character that resembles herself. Hermione shows the strong feminist in her through her movies, which makes it so easy to fall in love with her and her keen ways of seeing everybody equal.

  12. Arlene Z says:

    What is left out of this discussion is the complete trashing in the films, of what Hermione meant for the girls reading this series.
    Suddenly in these male-directed travesties, she was an anorexic waif eagerly playing second fiddle to Harry’s heroics, instead of standing up for herself and others and obviously being the “brains” of the operation. What a let-down, but I guess the movie boys had to overrule Rowling’s concept.

  13. Karoline says:

    Really good artical! Loved it almost as much as I love Hermione!

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