7 Feminist Take-Aways From the Final Harry Potter Movie

The Harry Potter films, after seven installments, come to a fulfilling close with the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. But the final movie has a special bonus: a number of feminist take-aways. Echoing the seven Horcruxes holding pieces of Voldemort’s soul, I found seven feminist lessons in Deathly Hallows: Part 2.

1. Patriarchy is evil. And it can be destroyed

Voldemort is the face of patriarchal evil, and the final film depicts him repeatedly as an oppressive father-figure. Snake-daddy extraordinaire, he covets power over others and uses such power to oppress. Like the many headed-hydra that patriarchy has been compared to, he has split his soul into a systemic and widespread matrix that makes him hard to beat. But also, like patriarchy, he can be overthrown. Such overthrow, of course, will need to draw on other feminist lessons.

2. The personal is political.

Sure, Harry’s quest is largely a personal one, set in motion by Voldemort’s personal vendetta against him, but it quickly becomes apparent that the stakes of this battle include not just Harry but the entire wizarding (and Muggle) world. In the final film, we see various instances of how personal relationships and choices reverberate with wider political implications. For example, when Harry insists on saving Draco, this selfless act ricochets in unexpected but positive ways.

And when Harry, with Ron and Hermione watching, finally chooses to destroy rather than keep the Elder Wand, the world’s most powerful wand, he denounces oppressive power. This profoundly political act underscores a core message of the saga: Power leads to corruption. Further, having Ron and Hermione witness his choice reminds us of the communal nature of Harry’s triumph: Harry no longer stands alone as “the boy who lived,” their triumph means a new, more equitable world can live on.

3. The “Smurfette Principle” needs killing along with Voldemort.

In her classic 1991 article “The Smurfette Principle,” Katha Pollitt argued that in the majority of media,

The message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.

But in Deathly Hallows: Part 2, girls are not a variation nor are they singled out as girls; rather, they are equally as vital, strong, smart and, sometimes, as evil. As noted at This Girl on Girls, this is in keeping with the spirit of the books, wherein

JKR [author Rowling] did not go out of her way to make women seem stronger and superior to men in the book, but rather wrote a series that showed men and women as equals—they can be equally evil, equally smart and equally brave.

In this final film, Hermione, my favorite female character, is not like “a passenger car drawn through life by a masculine train engine” (as Pollitt describes the majority of young female characters). She is a full-blown engine herself, pulling Ron and Harry out of the Gringotts with her dragon-riding idea, and helping Harry bring down Voldemort full-steam throughout. Do I wish she had more screen time? Sure. But the close of the saga happily gives us many females that are a far, far cry from Smurfettes.

4. The privilege/power matrix results in systematic oppression and relies on everyone participating.

As Allan Johnson writes in “Patriarchy, The System” “none of us can control whether we participate, only how. …” The birdcage aspects of this patriarchal system confine our actions and create barriers, yet the system functions as if under a cloak of invisibility, powered by forces beyond our vision or grasp. In Deathly Hallows: Part 2 we see, repeatedly, that for the evil patriarch Voldemort to thrive he needs a whole army of minions carrying out his bidding. Likewise, in order for Harry and Co. to escape the cage within which they are ensnared, they must revolt en masse. Together, those who wish to change the system must endeavor to destroy all the bars of the cage.

The destruction of the final Horcruxes offers a powerful lesson–if you only attack one bar, or one Horcrux, the cage (or evil) ultimately remains in place. Much like feminism must work to bring about equality on all fronts–race, class, gender, age, class, ability, and so on–so, too, must our valiant Harry Potter characters work to destroy all bars of the cage that Voldemort has created. Moreover, the fact one of these “bars” is within Harry leads to the next lesson:

5. There is evil within us all.

As we all participate in patriarchy, whether we like it or not, so too are we all shaped by its pillars of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. We cannot grow up in this cage entirely untouched by the shit on the floor, so to speak. In the final film, we learn Harry has a bit of Voldemort inside of him–that even the boy wizard of good has evil aspects. He must first realize that evil is part of him before he can get rid of it, much like we must admit our own biases and privileges before we can foment an effective movement. We must, like Harry, acknowledge our weaknesses and draw on our allies to help us become better, more effective agents of change.

6. Diversify your allies.

At the opening of the film, a scene with Griphook, a pointy-toothed goblin, reminds us that help can come from unexpected places. Later, Neville Longbottom surprisingly saves the day. While most movements have their icons, they cannot survive and thrive without unexpected allies, or without the support of diverse masses. Harry is the icon, but he could not succeed without allies such as Neville and the masses of Hogwart supporters. The ultimate triumph the film closes with would not have been possible without a diverse array of characters offering their different strengths and knowledge, from the professor powerhouse McGonagall to the super-protective, overly emotional mom Mrs. Weasley, to the timid-turned-brave Neville, to the loony Luna, to the giant and giantly indispensible Hagrid.

And let us not forget Snape, whom we think is evil for the majority of the saga, but whom this final installment reveals to be one of Harry’s ultimate allies. This lesson is further driven home in the final moments of the film, when Harry’s son worries about being placed in Slytherin and Harry assures him that Severus, from Slytherin, was one of the bravest people he knew. Named after Albus Dumbledore, Severus Snape and Harry Potter, Harry’s son represents a union between the original warring houses of Gryffindor and Slytherin, emphasizing that those we assume to be enemies can, under the right conditions, become allies.

7. Words matter.

In my favorite line from the film, Dumbledore tells Harry, “Words are … our most inexhaustible form of magic.” Of course, the entire saga has emphasized the power of language through its focus on powerful spells and incantations, as well as through revealing how game-changing words that are shared–or withheld–can be. This final film beautifully brings home this point by emphasizing the importance of listening. It is perhaps the quietest of the eight films, with many scenes of key dialogue shared in hushed tones.  Words are, we learn, a powerful magic that bind us to the past and help us to build a better future–as the words shared with Harry via the medium of Snape’s tears so powerfully reveal.

As the words captured over the course of seven books and eight films come to a triumphant close, may we all remember that words are indeed magical, and with them–along with diverse allies and political conviction–we might just be chosen to wield our own personal wands.

Deathly Hallows: Part 2 poster via MovieCultists.com.

Comments

  1. Catherine Bailey says:

    Lovely article, some great points!

  2. This is one of the best articles I have read in a long time relating to movies. Too often I read about how movies oppress women and reinforce stereotypes, but this was actually a positive article and I really appreciate it. This seemed to be thought-out thoroughly. I feel inspired to really pay attention to some of these themes in the next few movies I watch, instead of looking for the bad.

    Thanks Natalie!

  3. Michelle says:

    This is a great comment on the last HP movie. I’ve read other articles elsewhere arguing that the HP series is anti-feminist, or has weak female characters, and how wrong those writers are! Not many series feature female characters as strong and thoroughly imagined as Hermione, and characters like Prof MacGonagall, Bellatrix Lestrange and even Mrs Weasley show how central and powerful female characters can be for an exciting story (and yes, one that boys are willing to read too!).

  4. Sheer brilliance! Spread this as much as you can. I will use it in my presentations/education (and properly name the source of course). Nice OMFGmoment. #thebestoffeminism

  5. Thank you all for the positive feedback! Reading your comments makes me want to go out for my 2nd viewing of the final film.

  6. Cathryn Rudolph says:

    Great article and analysis! I too have read comments regarding the Harry Potter series as antifeminist, just because the central character is a boy, and was uncomfortable with those assertions. Thank you for pointing out the feminist strengths of the series!

    I appreciate this analysis especially since I read all of the books during a most important decade of my life. When the first one came out, I was about 10, and now that I’m 24 I do reflect on the positive effect that the series’ messages, such as the ones listed in this article, have had on helping to shape my pre-teen through now adult years. Surely it has had the same effect on others as well.

    I will definitely forward this to other feminist harry potter fans that I know– there are certainly more than a few. Thanks again!

  7. Power leads to corruption, so true.

  8. What a great article. This is my first time reading the Ms. Blog and I was extremely touched by the break down of the movie and how we can actually learn some great lessons from it. Thank you!!!!

  9. Richard Tucker says:

    This is perhaps the best article regarding the inner workings of good entertainment that I’ve read in a long time. All the points are salient and even inspiring. I remember writing this series off bout the time that it first came out. Our daughters received them as gifts and they slyly humored my dismissal. In reality they really enjoyed them, perhaps not as great books but as entertaining reads. By the time the first film came out I was more open to the experience of seeing them and have thoroughly enjoyed them. The gals read the series and enjoy the films and there has to be something said about the young to old women characters in these books and films and that is that while they could use more coverage they’ve never played second fiddle to the guys in the cast. They are essential just as they are in our lives. I hope the young women raised in this period of the Potter franchise finally get the hint that princesses are not the real ideal (with exception to Princess Mononoke!). Our daughters have have had fascinating and memorable examples of women, young to old as characters in films and books and I hope this continues if and when they decide to have kids. Now if only more women in entertainment would lose their desire to wear those cruel shoes….

  10. My first exposure to Ms. Blog, thanks to a good friend with whom I just saw this last epic, and shared similar observations. Thanks for your thoughtful and thorough expression- including Dumbledore’s “Words are…our most inexhaustible form of magic”, which I’m going to post over my pc, and in my bodywork room. I especially appreciate your kudos – not only to Hermione, and the triad, but also to the diverse allies who support and often save us. I’m inspired to refer to this analogy in a new “Ethics” course I’m teaching on “Cycles of Service,” crediting the author of course! Blessed Be! Linda

  11. I have been saying that “the world suffers from testosterone poisoning”. Look at the world and who is running it and it is easy to see. I suggest that the only anti-dote to that toxin is a Matriarchy. Having men own the world and everything in it cannot do anything but rush its demise. This Matriarchy cannot have any marraige in it as men have used marraige as a way to own women and that has forced women to participate in a Patriarchy without their consent.

    I have learned that 28% of couple nowadays are not married. That is a good start, but better is to have no couples whatsoever. Day after day women are being harassed, beaten or murdered by men who, given Patriarchal privilege, think it is their right to do with women anything they darn well please as woman-hating is the agreed upon mantra of males. As a result of male-bonding around this woman-hating mantra, men have become more and more sociopathic towards women, uncaring in their running of the world. Just as women got a few rights during the last 50 years, men and male oppressed women are doing everything in their governmental power to take away those rights. Religion, the main institution of woman-hating is leading this charge. There are no gods demanding the sacrifice of women’s rights. It is just Patariarchal greed and the power-hungry that pushes this idealogical thinking. It is time to vote in people-loving women in this next election.

    • miss riddle says:

      While I do have to agree that I think marriage it in itself somewhat pointless, the rest of this post is a little extreme. No, men shouldn’t rule the world, but women should’t either. In fact, there’s fault with ANYONE ‘ruling’ the world or a country or what have you. Now, I’m not against a government entirely, don’t get me wrong. I do think that some aspect of government is necessary. However, the government shouldn’t be a ruling body, but rather a body that assists (and assists equally). I don’t think this is going to happen with a patriarchy or matriarchy. Neither ‘rules’ are correct.

      I think we also have to assess whether gender should matter at all. Again, there’s no denying that it does matter in today’s world, but should it? Should we even establish this difference? After all, there are woman with biologically male parts and males with biologically female parts and people who identify with both or neither. Why should gender (or biology) be an issue at all? Wouldn’t it make sense to treat all genders equally? How the hell are you going to define the term ‘woman’ when it comes to a matriarchy. What about those who don’t identify with either or both? Where do they fall in this system?

      Yes, there are far too many men out there with sexist and misogynist views, and yes, this leads to sexist actions and rulings. However, there is NO denying that society plays a huge role in how men act. That’s not a complete excuse, don’t get me wrong–it’s not okay to be sexist even if your society instructs you in this manner, but it IS something we must remember when thinking about men. I mean, think about how women view themselves today? Society has done enough damage to convince many women that they ARE inferior (and in this case, they can’t be faulted for it). If society can convince women that they are inferior, can it not also have an affect on men as well?

      Men and women aren’t different naturally–no, they really aren’t. If we eliminated our obsession with gender, and treated both biological male and females and those in between equally, I think this would be much clearer. Any obsession with gender (or sex) is an issue.

      That said, this article was fantastic. I too have heard many arguments for HP as a sexist series, but I’ve never, ever noticed that. I can’t think of any other popular series that has such a wide and diverse case of females. Plus, the good side of the wizarding world is obviously for equality, is it not? (I suppose one could argue that all wizards look down on muggles, but I don’t think this is the case. Take Arthur Weasley, for example—he’s fascinated with them. I would even argue that he admires them. One could also argue that HP presents a ‘separate but equal’ system (which is never a good thing), since wizards and muggles are separate from each other, but I don’t think this is fair either. The worlds aren’t separated—not really. Muggles can easily have wizard children and wizards can even have muggle children. The muggle world and the wizard world, as we find, are actually very intertwined. When something happens in one world, it affects the other. Yes, the wizarding world is hidden from many muggles, but they aren’t separate worlds at all. Rowling also makes it very clear that good wizards appreciate muggles as equal beings and shows many cases of kind and loving muggles rather than just examples of ignorant or arrogant muggles. Hell, even Dudley come around in the end.

      Also, two million points for mentioning Snape. I have read many, many, MANY books (books of all sorts, for that matter), and I can honestly say that Snape is the most complex character ever written. Am I saying Rowling produced a better character than classical literature? Yes, I guess I am. I’ve never cried over a book like I did over the chapter with Snape and Lily.

      • How do you know matriarchy is bad if we never had the chance to experience it? What is matriarchy anyways? Because from what I learned, more then 6,000 years ago when there were matriarchal characteristics of society, it only meant that the lineage is traced through the mother, not father. There could be little doubt from whose body the child came out and to whom it belonged to if traced through the mother vs father. I just think you claiming matriarchy is bad has no substance or credibility, because how can we know matriarchy is bad if we never experienced it?

  12. Natalie, I keep coming across your articles and I must take a moment to say that I enjoy everything I’ve read thus far. The Harry Potter series is one I feel comfortable with sharing with my own daughter for all of these reasons.. Especially the fact that men and women are equals in the series.. It’s so hard to find that in young literature, or at least I’ve hard a hard time doing so.

  13. Fantastic article! I especially love point number 5, the whole thing is really well thought out. And people saying Harry Potter is anti-feminist clearly have not read the series, because as everyone who has read it knows, Harry and Ron would be completely lost without Hermione! Not only the brightest witch of her age, but the brightest magical person of her age too, without a doubt!

  14. Thank you all for your comments! After a 5 day stretch at San Diego’s Comic-Con, where I witnessed much anti-feminism (I have a post forthcoming on this topic), it is refreshing to find my feminist commentary on Harry Potter so well-received. I very much appreciate your feedback and thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Next week I will be posting a review of Cowboys and Aliens – alas, if the movie is anywhere near as bad as the title, I doubt it will be aa complimentary a review as the one above.

  15. I realize this was meant as a bit of fun, but I question how many of these points, with the exception of #3, are distinctly related to feminism. I realize that feminism, as a highly adaptable set of values based on fundamental rights, overlaps with many other schools of good-doing, but it seems somewhat narrow-minded to see all of these lessons as feminist. The theme of good vs. evil predates Mary Wollstonecraft; the self-policing observed in #4 could easily be attributed to Foucault. And with few tweaks, you could easily turn this into a Marxist critique of HP. The third point is most interesting because it actually relates the movie and feminism in a unique way. The others have only become feminist issues, it seems, because Dr. Wilson has concluded, inverting her first point, that “evil is patriarchy.” I don’t know how else she could conclude that the cage-destruction detailed in #4 has anything to do with gender equality. If that’s the case, however, what about learning to “diversity your allies” by reading or watching “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” wherein a totalitarian matriarchy heads-up the forces of evil? Same goes for “The Wizard of Oz,” which had both a female hero and a female villain (not to mention a lot of lessons about confronting testy chest-puffing with reason, confidence, and goodness), from which one could easily learn that “words matter” (a belief that surely cannot be claimed by any one ideology). Since these points about the new movie were meant as takeaways, I suppose they are all valid as “feminist beliefs that HP validates,” but that doesn’t seem like the finest way for Ms. to use its webspace. I suspect someone wanted to get the words “feminist” and “harry potter” in the RSS hopper in time for opening weekend, which can’t be terribly fair to the actual nuances and powers of feminism.

    • Andrew, I am surprised you feel these points are not distinctly related to feminism. “The Personal is Political,” for example, is one of THE feminist mantras. Of course feminism overlaps with many other schools of thought, Marxism among them (and there are many excellent pieces written by Marxist, Feminists, and Feminist Marxists about how feminism and Marxism are supportive and complimentary to one another.) Further, Foucault’s theorizations are conducive to much feminist theorizing as well, and he certainly doesn’t hold the copyright to ideas about power and hierarchy. The cage metaphor referenced in point #4 comes from a famous essay by Marilyn Frye, of which I presume you are not familiar (she came after Mary Wollestonecraft). It was not my intention to suggest these “take-aways” can only be claimed by “any one ideology,” as you put it. And nowhere do I suggest that a matriarchy would necessarily be less evil than patriarchy nor do I claim that HP is the only narrative that has feminist take-aways – the other two narratives you mention certainly have much to analyze in terms of feminist take-aways as well. As for the suggestion this was some sneaky way to get the words “feminism” and “harry potter” into the “RSS hopper,” well, as a blogger yourself, I am assuming you now the importance of timely reviews and news hooks. And I am a feminist film critic, writing many reviews here and elsewhere. It’s not as if I put on my witchy-hat and rubbed by palms together, concocting an evil plan to fool RSS feeders. As for being “fair to the actual nuances and powers of feminism,” might I suggest that your comment, in claiming feminism doesn’t “own” these ideas and instead suggesting they are more rightly Marxist or Foucauldian leans towards the “narrow mindedness” you accuse me of. Feminism is complex and overlaps with many other philosophies and social movements – it has both benefited from Marxist and Post-Structuralist thought, as well as benefited them. In any case, thanks for your comment. Perhaps you will want to read my forthcoming feminist review of Cowboys and Aliens — that’s right, I will be conniving with RSS feeders once again this weekend!

  16. I actually found the film disturbingly conservative and bigoted. All mentions of tolerance in the book (i.e. Voldemort’s entire Pureblood agenda) was systematically eliminated from the film (as was anything in Dumbledore’s backstory that hinted at his being gay), and what we got in its place were messages of proscribed heterosexuality, and a Voldemort that was anything but the symbol of Patriarchy…he was a foppish sexual deviant and a racial freak who terrorized innocent white straight kids.

    Anyway, I know this sounds like a plug, but I really don’t want to reiterate a three page argument I’ve already written…so I’ll just say that if you click the link on my name, I go further into my qualms with the film. In short though, the film may be progressive when it comes to straight white women, but that’s where its progressive nature begins and ends.

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