F is for…. a feminist reading of Harry Potter?



By Ellen Davis-Walker



I was asked by a dear friend, and a fellow F Come writer, to write a piece on feminist role models in Harry Potter. This was not a coincidental decision on her part. Said friend may or may not have been present at a now infamous Harry Potter themed-event, during which the true extent of my geekery was revealed.  I dressed up as a snitch in a floor- length, gold gown, accessorised with wings, glittery face paint and a very visible sense of disappointment that nobody had agreed to come as a quaffle with me. During the “friendly” trivia quiz, whilst everyone else was finishing off their spell-themed cocktails, I attempted to climb on to the table in order to be within optimum shouting distance of the quiz master. I may or may not have screamed at my assembled friends to “get their heads in the game.” I won’t even talk about what happened when we lost by ONE point. The memory is still too painful.


Why begin by divulging some of the more embarrassing aspects of my personality, you may ask?  The answer is simple. I adore Harry Potter. From the age of 8 I have been captivated by Rowling’s rich textual world. I can remember Harry Potter spells more clearly than my times tables. If I were mayor of London TFL would be contractually obliged to play soothing excerpts from The Philosopher’s Stone every time there was a fault on the Piccadilly Line.  I will defend the value and literary merit of the Harry Potter series for as long as I draw breath. But I am nonetheless reluctant to label Potter as a wholly feminist text: unsure as to whether the female characters should, or indeed can, be considered role models (sorry, Lilia). As with everything in Rowling’s work, female characters are dogged by a degree of subtle, perhaps deliberately cunning, socio-literary complexity.


Although the magical world in many ways exists in binary opposition to its ‘muggle’ counterpart, it is not entirely impervious to the gendered behaviour dynamics of the latter. Female characters in Harry Potter are viewed through the same reductive prism that influences so many of attitudes in the ‘real’ world. Just like their muggle comrades, witches frequently fall prey to tired, overly-simplistic identifiers that wouldn’t look out of place in the pages of OK magazine (or indeed in a Youtube algorithm). Hermione remains boring “little miss know it all”, too brainy and independent to be considered attractive, until the day that she manages to get hold of some hair serum, a tight dress, and Victor Krum. One of the things Harry admires most about Ginny Weasley is that, unlike other girls, “she was never weepy” (generously attributing this stoicism to the fact that she’d grown up “surrounded by boys”). Parvati Patil and Lavander Brown are basically Karen and Gretchen from Mean Girls, only with less overt bitching and a worrying admiration for a fraudulent middle-aged psychic with a drinking problem. Mrs Weasley remains a slave to mundane domesticity (treacle tart and freshly ironed socks, anyone?) until she finally loses it with Bellatrix Lestrange. Even Professor I am-a-Scottish-badass-don’t-fuck-with-me McGonagall is scuppered by her innate female fragility in the end, getting knocked out by stunning spells in the final battle. This is ironic really, given that she of all people had the power to transform Voldermort into something trivially inconsequential like an overweight hamster, or maybe an elastic band. And then there are the Veela: celestial figures, whose sole purpose seems to be to ensnare men with their effervescent beauty. Think Mob Wives, or Striscia la notizia for Italian readers.


But despite these all too familiarly gendered intrusions, the transformative power of Rowling’s world should never be underestimated.  Hogwarts is a place where girls can fight trolls, set fire to a teacher’s set of robes, fly broomsticks, break in to banks and bring down tyrannical leaders. Hogwarts provides a space that is immune to the image-conscious expectations of contemporary popular culture. None of the female characters have eating disorders, nor are they ever labelled as being too fat or too thin, too muscular and not “feminine” enough. They do not #eatforabs or #girlgains. They do not starve themselves either. Although characters may show fleeting of self-consciousness about “rabbit teeth” or acne, Rowling never allows these issues to take root. Personality, humour, and one’s role in a wider narrative will always take precedent on her page. Girls may be desired, longed for at times, but masculine desire in Harry Potter remains tentatively uncertain. Relationships are confused, often quite child-like, and certainly left un-consummated at school (sex is never spoken of or indeed openly referred to. Ever.). In the liminal space between childhood and adulthood, Rowling’s girls remain consciously un-sexualised,  neither objectified by their peers nor dismissed by their superiors. They are part of a world where being a girl is not a barrier to success.


So whilst I am reluctant to single out individual female role-models in the Harry Potter series, we should never lose sight of the possibilities it presents us. Although undoubtedly flawed, the magical world is nonetheless a place where friendship and solidarity allows peace to triumph over injustice. Where a mother’s love provides the greatest protection of all. Where the dead remain so very close to the living, held tenderly in mirrors and dreams, and immortalised in talking portraits. It is a world where girls are free to soar, literally and figuratively, and where their strength of spirit will always lead them to triumph in the end.  It is a world that is precious in all of its unbound fragility: a fleeting promise of what might be, if only we allowed ourselves to believe in magic.