Saturday, June 30, 2007

Harry Potter and feminism: strange bedfellows?

Like the rest of the world, I am a huge, geeky, mega Harry Potter fan. Love the books, love the movies, just love Harry. Seriously, I find myself depressed because I know I'll never go to Hogwarts or be a witch. It bums me out.

I was actually a latecomer to the series. I remember when the books came out and started to gain popularity. However, I was a high school student and MUCH too cool to read KID'S books about WIZARDS. Then someone gave me book one for Christmas and I was sucked in. No point denying it.

Aside from the fun, magical world created, there is also the pure joy of reading something clearly inspired by a progressive thinker. Author J.K. Rowling writes of the struggle between good wizards and witches and those following Lord Voldermort. Voldermort's followers are obsessed with power, being "pure-blood", as well as race and class issues.

The villains in Rowling's books hate "mudbloods" (those who have parents or relatives outside the wizard world) and half-breeds like Hagrid (whose mother was a giant). They use fear and hate to spread messages of evil. Sadly reflecting reality, they often have positions of power and are aided by copious amounts of money.

In Book 5, "Order of the Phoenix", which is set to come to the big screen in a few weeks, Harry and other good wizards and witches fight against a corrupt Minister of Magic who is in the back pocket of some of the more devious wizards. They also have lost the Daily Prophet, a once respected newspaper-- which now only prints the story after it has been "spun" by people in power. *ahem* Sound familiar?

In "Order of the Phoenix" an eerie exchange between Rita (a reporter) and Harry's friend, Hermoine reveals the depth of corruption going on with the media. Rita admits that the Minister of Magic is controlling what the newspaper prints but adds,

Rita: "Nobody wants to read it. It's against the public mood. People just don't want to believe You-Know-Who is back."
Hermoine: "So the Daily Prophet exists to tell people what they want to hear?"
Rita: "The Prophet exists to sell itself, you silly girl."

Chilling how I can imagine this dialogue happening in any major news room...

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore says:

Voldemort himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back.

I don't care if she's writing about wizards or not, that is brilliant. And it applies to so many of our global situations today-- not just politically but when you looks at the religious right and their contempt for those they find "outside" of their approved moral sphere. Read: homosexuals, feminists, immigrants (legal or not).

Harry Potter has themes of ending racism, classism & corruption. These are all ideas feminists hold dear-- possibly why I enjoy the books so much.

I never realized (until I was reading this article) just how much feminism has influenced Rowling. When she first became successful in the writing world she could not escape comparison to an older, successful, MALE children's writer:

According to a June 1997 article in an English newspaper, "The Herald":

If there is a downside to Rowling's story, it is the distinct danger she will be called 'The New Roald Dahl,' which would be an albatross around her slender shoulders."

Do we often comment about male author's shoulders? I don't recall...

When she was first published, even her female name was an issue (emphasis mine):

Philosopher's Stone" was released in England during business hours with a tiny first printing. Bloomsbury suggested that Rowling use initials instead of her real name, Joanne, out of fear that boys wouldn't read a book by a woman.

Cause nothing could frighten little boys more than realizing that women have creative minds and are writing some of their favorite books!?

WEIRD. And that was in 1997!!! Reminds me of this unbelievable rejection letter sent by Disney in the 1930s which basically states that women aren't hired by Disney to do drawings-- because-- well-- WOMEN AREN'T CREATIVE, YOU SEE! At least that was in 1938! What was the excuse when it came to Rowling?

I hope boys and girls take notice -- after all, one of the most successful novel franchises in history was created by a young, single mom! Meaning that we can all do great things, regardless of class, gender or life situation-- surely a theme we see reflected in Harry's modest background as well. He was an orphan raised by family determined to hate and abuse him. But rather than becoming bitter and cruel, Harry rose above it. He found friends, worked hard at his education and joined the resistance to Voldermort's cruel plots.

The final book comes out in weeks. I'm praying JOANNE ROWLING --:) gives us a happy ending for our hero.

Extra: below is the aforementioned insulting Disney letter. Click to enlarge.


Sarah said...

I think I'm the only person in the entire world who can not stand Harry Potter. That Disney letter irritates me.

Joie said...

I agree that the themes of HP are all about ending inequality and discrimination, but Rowling writes really bad female characters for me to comfortably call her a feminist. I don't mean to hijack your post, but I mention HP in a paragraph in one of my recent posts about misogyny in children's literature.

Adrienne said...

Reminds me of SE Hinton.

E-Visible Woman said...

I know this is over a year old, but I just wanted to say the The Herald is a Scottish newspaper!

Muggle and Proud said...

You do realize that magic is transmitted by blood (even muggle-born wizards, according to JKER have some magic blood) and that the books never question the fact that the old houses basically run the wizarding world, so long as those houses aren't on the "wrong side." Hogwarts is a Posh school that picks those it consider worthy because they have special blood that lets them do special things. It's Eton. They live in their tower, cut off from the "muggles" and wage their own little wars, play their own games, have their own banks, even. The Weasley's aren't even poor- their fallen money that is returned to it's throne when good triumphs over evil (not that they need tell the muggles of anything - they wouldn't understand). Harry Potter is full of classism, not to mention racism and entitlement. I don't know which books you read.