Harry Potter’s Unsung Feminist Heroes

When asked to name a feminist character in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, one typically singles out leading Harry Potter heroine Hermione Granger, whose brilliant mind and attention to detail basically keep the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from going completely to shit at the climactic moment of every book. “Hermione, we have screwed ourselves into a battle with life-eating succubi and have also accidentally caused the death of our beloved teacher. Could you fix that for us, please?” And she always does.

But let’s be honest: We all know Hermione could run this entire universe with one wand tied behind her back. Her extreme capability borders on tedious at times. No one enjoys highly effective people; it puts the rest of us off of our Competitive Lounging.

Besides, any fan of the books would likely agree that it is actually the background characters–the parents and friends and teachers of the titular hero–who form the elaborate and tightly woven tapestry that makes this series so compelling. But are any of these tertiary characters feminists? And how does their feminism enable them to aid Harry in his seven-book-long battle to kick the villainous Voldemort’s pasty butt back to hell?

For my first feminist contender, I’m putting forward fan favorite Luna Lovegood, a core member of Harry’s posse of school friends and allies. Sure, when Luna arrives on the scene, she’s taking the Express train to Hogwarts straight from Crazytown. All google-eyed glasses and talk of government conspiracies, Luna, the only child of a tabloid editor, is seen as flighty, to put it kindly.

Yet Luna’s reality is shaped by the hidden truths that she filters out from the usual media noise. Unlike her more sheltered friends, Luna has seen death and injustice. She has seen that the order of things is not as it should be, and it’s that knowledge which allows her to guide Harry and his friends on their mission. She cares deeply about doing what is just, no matter the risks, and that depth of conviction elevates her from “Loony” Luna to not just a trusted ally in the cause, but a person worth risking one’s life (or elf) for.

The hapless (at first) Neville Longbottom is another close school friend of Harry’s whose feminism isn’t splashed all about the page but is quietly displayed in his every action. The quiet son of first-wave heroes who were tortured by the forces of Voldemort (note for non-fans: Voldemort is very bad), Neville provides a fascinating study in cis-male feminism. After his mother was tortured past the point of sanity, he could easily have become the archetypal “Vengeful Manly Man Out To Seek Justice”, but Neville defies this role. He does not recklessly beat down the doors of the offenders or repay violence in kind, but does as we all should when confronted with the victimization of those we love: He teams up with the side of right and works to prevent this same action from happening to others.

Neville never forgets the very real origins of his cause. In my opinion, the most compelling scene in the entire series is when Neville quietly pockets the twisted gum wrapper that his mother, out of both her madness and her love, gives him for Christmas. Neville knows the worth of the fight he is enduring, but more importantly he knows the person he is fighting for.

I could go on–and do when I get a few drinks in me and corner some unsuspecting patron at the bar–but my 50-page treatise on Tonks, Kickass Auror to the Stars, would take up entirely too much server space. My hope, however, is that the children, teens and adults who have or will read Harry Potter will absorb, perhaps even unconsciously, the qualities of these brave characters and will foster those same qualities in themselves and demand them of others. Oh, and if someone can get to work on perfecting the Accio Whiskey spell in real life, I’d really appreciate it.

Portrait of actor Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood by Flickr user SarahKristin under Creative Commons 2.0

Comments

  1. Amy Borsuk says:

    I’d never even thought of Neville as a potential for that archetype/trope. That’s really interesting. I wonder, if he had become that vengeful person, would he have been as successful? There’s something about Neville as this humble but determined hero that gives him power (and makes him a badass).

  2. This post reminds of when you’re in college, and you have a paper due and nothing to write about, so you make up a thesis and stretch your facts and support to look like they fit, by omitted and manipulated relevant information.

    I’m not trying to be an ass, but why would you say: “After his mother was tortured past the point of sanity, he could easily have become the archetypal “Vengeful Manly Man Out To Seek Justice”, but Neville defies this role.” Why did you specify mother here? You obviously know from the prior sentence that both of his parents were tortured, and yet you only specify mother? If Neville did become vengeful, and sought justice for both of his parents, how would that make him an archetypal manly man out to seek justice? Are you implying women can’t be vengeful? Or aren’t archetypically? (See Kill Bill, famous female revenge/wrath stories). You’re reaching, and I think you know it.

    Your argument for why Luna is a feminist comes down to these sentences, “Unlike her more sheltered friends, Luna has seen death and injustice. She has seen that the order of things is not as it should be, and it’s that knowledge which allows her to guide Harry and his friends on their mission. She cares deeply about doing what is just, no matter the risks, and that depth of conviction elevates her from “Loony” Luna to not just a trusted ally in the cause, but a person worth risking one’s life (or elf) for”

    What a bunch of nonsense. This just makes her an intuitive and caring person, perhaps an advocate of general social justice, not a feminist.

    Rowling has strong female characters for sure, but if you’re going to try and make an argument for feminism, do it properly. Flush it out. Or don’t do it at all. Certainly learn that you will never garner writing respect by ending an already weak argument with “I could go on,” because it is rather obvious that you cannot.

    Some reading:
    http://www.sosyalarastirmalar.com/cilt2/sayi9pdf/

    • You seem to have overlooked an important point in your haste to “not to be an ass” – context.

      This – is a blog post, with limited work count and a more informal style of writting is acceptable.

      Your link – is an 11-page article in the Journal of International Social Reserch: which I suspect gives a word limit considerably greater than 500 words and doubtless has a more formal editorial style.

      Now, were this blog post appearing in the JISR, then your kvetching may well be justified. The converse would also be true: had the 11 pages of densely referenced text (one page is alone is a list of references) then I would say that was not appropriate for a blog.

      Horses for courses. Apples/Oranges. Blog post/academic paper. Ass/Arabian.

  3. Great post. I love Luna’s Crazytown. She is my favorite hippie: peace, love & not as space-cadety as she appears. I so lived watching Neville’s character stay true and grow out of his meekness to be a force.

  4. Wonderful post. Neville and Luna are two of the strongest characters in the books, yet two of the most quiet and unassuming. In the last movie they each had their moments of greatness (I LOVED when Luna yells, “Harry Potter, you will listen to me!”), and it was so terrific to see these two unsung heroes be sung for once in the movies!

  5. Well Whitney certainly spoiled all the fun.

    I think Professor McGonnagall strikes me as strong first wave or second wave feminist. She’s not as liberal as the youngsters, but she knows what she is fighting for.

    • I was initially going to write an ode to Minerva, but I was recalling a discussion I had with a coworker a few weeks ago who said he didn’t know any feminists. My first response was, “duh, you’re talking to one,” but when I started thinking about it more, I thought about what made someone an “unassuming” feminist. The core values of equality, freedom, etc. And then I started thinking about tertiary characters in HP who don’t scream feminist, but are.

      Or I just wanted to love on Luna and Neville a bit. It could go either way. :)

  6. hmm – i appreciate the sentiment of this post, but in the whole series i was frustrated at how secondary and tertiary the female characters were. all the high up posts belong to guys, whether it’s in career (minister of magic, headmaster of hogwarts, prime minister of england) or in character (most evil wizard alive: voldemort, greatest wizard alive: dumbledore, boy who will save everyone: harry, biggest bully at school: draco).

    i think so much more could have been done with lilly, who unlike james potter, had no character arc or friends. she was either harry’s mom, james’ wife, or the girl snape loved. rather than james, who had a gang of pals, was great at quidditch, got into a lot of mischief, was not perfect, etc.

    and i was really turned off how the attitude toward some of the secondary female characters was often that they were too strict and shrill (madame pomfrey, mrs. weasley, professor mcgonogall, even hermione).

    ruh roh – i just had a major dork out! sorry for the deep harry thoughts :)

    i did love the series, but found some of the old standbys tiresome. as a kid, i remember being annoyed at how i was supposed to be satisfied with having male characters come first in movies and books, and just follow along happily.

  7. Let’s not forget Neville’s grandmother! A true battle-ax and second-wave feminist if every there was one, and she brought up Neville.

    That said, Ginga is right.

  8. This post was A-MAZING! I’ve always wanted to approach Harry Potter with a feminist literary analysis, but with seven books, eight movies and a whole frickin’ fictional world, it’s often hard to be original without immediately going the predictable Hermoine Granger route (though I do love her).

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  10. No love for Ginny? Ginny is amazing, she fights to be seen as one of the boys and proves that she is. And most relevant, she is the one who we see get the most modern form of sexism: slut shaming. Upon seeing her kissing her boyfriend in an empty, secret passageway, her brother upbraids her and is about to say that he doesn’t want people calling her a “something” that would most likely be “slut” if there weren’t children reading it. But Ginny stops to him, she stands up to him and tells him she is her own goddamn person and she can kiss whoever the hell she wants and he has no right telling her otherwise.

    Ironically, parts of the fandom tends to see Ginny through Ron’s eyes. I can’t even count how many people have called her a slut who moves from boyfriend to boyfriend. When in fact, she is a teenager who had two long term relationships that didn’t work out, ended on reasonable terms and then she, in her own time, found someone else.

  11. Can I just say that this article is flawless?

    “But let’s be honest: We all know Hermione could run this entire universe with one wand tied behind her back. Her extreme capability borders on tedious at times. No one enjoys highly effective people; it puts the rest of us off of our Competitive Lounging.”

    haha, this was probably meant semi-facetiously, but I like the point it makes a lot. I adore Hermione, but I am not Hermione. At all. And a girl doesn’t have to be perfect, or a genius, or an overachiever, to be a feminist. My grades and intelligence have always been something I’ve been very insecure about, and it’s Neville that I’ve always related to the most. Neville and Luna are my favorites amongst the kid characters, precisely because they’re NOT perfect, they’re not the stereotypical idea of “strong”, neither of them showcases traditionally masculine traits but they’re both seen as heroic and important.

    Focusing on Luna, she’s not really particularly masculine or feminine- she’s certainly not the stereotypical girly girl; she’s a nonconformist that Parvati and Lavender would probably giggle at. But her traits are things generally associated with femininity: gentleness, understanding, imagination, creativity- and these are all wonderful traits. I’m not saying that girls should have to embody feminine traits, I’m saying that those traits are things that everyone should respect and see the value in, even if in our patriarchal society, they’re viewed as “weak” or “silly”. Luna’s not the typical Strong Female Character, she doesn’t scream feminism, but she is definitely an “unassuming” feminist, and it’s nice to see characters like that get some attention. There’s more to fictional feminism then Wonder Woman, folks.

    And Neville is pretty much my favorite character ever. I see a lot of myself in him. I’m no Strong Female Character either. The world of girl characters has this weird split between frilly princessy types and Strong Female Characters, and I don’t really relate to either- not that there’s anything wrong with girls being frilly and princessy, or with girls being more agressive and tomboysish- there’s nothing wrong with that at all! But there’s also nothing wrong with us more Neville-y girls; girls who aren’t really graceful or girly enough to be the former type, but much too shy, clumsy, awkward and insecure to be the latter type. I’m also not a genius like Hermione- I related to her a lot in elementary school, because I was a total goody-two-shoes, but in high school I’m incredibly insecure about my grades, and although I still do love learning, being “too smart” will never be something I struggle with (although I do realize that it’s something a lot of girls struggle with and if girls like Hermione make them feel better about their intellect, that’s great, because girls shouldn’t dumb themselves down to fit in). If male characters like Neville can be beloved for their vulnerability, women shouldn’t have to be held to some super-high Hermionian standard (and if they choose to rise to that standard, douchey, insecure people shouldn’t make them feel bad about it, because if that’s what they choose, then that’s awesome). Neville is also an excellent male role model- bravery and strength needn’t be accompanied by machismo and bravado.

    Basically, both Neville and Luna represent a kind of unisex, equal-opportunity heroism, that’s neither frilly and traditionally “girly” nor macho and patriarchal. And while there’s nothing wrong with being very masculine or very feminine, there are those of us who relate more to Neville and Luna’s particular style and brand of quiet badassery, and characters like them remind us that that’s okay.

    Basically this is just a really great piece and I really enjoyed reading it, and I’ll probably be quoting it a lot. Bravo!

    • Bravo Katie, your comment and perspective warms my heart. I, for one, definitely see more of myself in Neville than in any of the other characters, and Luna was one of the most personally intriguing characters I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know and can see a little of her characteristics in me as well. I could learn a thing or two from you!

  12. While I disagree about Neville’s non-vengeful attitude being strictly about his mother I can see the comparison to other male archetypal characters with the fiery hateful vengeance in their blood.

    Neville and Luna are both awesome characters who sort of “get their day”, especially Neville, later in the series.

    Luna, while she is viewed by most of the student body as being nothing but “Loony”, earns a great deal of respect from Harry and his allies, who see beyond the spectrespecs and realize how right-on she is in many ways about life; by the time the 6th book begins, one year after Harry (and therefore the reader) first meets her, her father’s magazine is selling out to the magical students and adults who support Harry. She has some of the most grounded, well-formed ideas about death and love that anyone could hope for, and she’s a teenager.

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