Monday, July 30, 2007

The REAL Problem With Potter

Evil? Pro Occult? Hardly. The REAL problem with Harry Potter is that it should have been called Hermione Granger. Harry, bless his heart, is a bit of a dullard, and it is really Ms. Granger who keeps things on track.

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven't read Deathly Hallows, you may not wish to continue further.

If you have read my previous Potter post, you will know that I am new to the Potterverse. I just started reading the books this summer, but I have marched my way through all of them, and now that I know the whole story, I have some definite opinions about the books.

Harry Potter, though an entertaining story, is, for a lack of a better word, conventional. Too conventional, I am afraid. After hearing all of the hoopla the Religious Right was spewing, I really thought the Potter stories were going to be a bit transgressive, perhaps even downright revolutionary. They aren't.

In no way does Potter disappoint more than in its treatment of the sexes. Most obviously, there is Harry himself. Now, I am quite sure Ms. Rowling chose a male protagonist for the reason many authors of kid lit chose male protagonists- the beliefs that boys won't read about girls, but girls will read about boys. In order to reach the widest possible audience, it is seen as advisable to have male protagonists. My take on this: no duh! Because, you see, you have just made a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you reinforce stereotypes, they stay strong. I wish Ms. Rowling would have defied the stereotype, because she had a character who I think would have appealed-- does appeal, as a matter of fact-- to both sexes. Hermione, who, from day one, was the real brains of the operation.

Not only does Ms. Rowling not make Hermione the main protagonist, she makes her the victim of much sexist malfeasance in the books. Not only is Hermione smarter, and better at magic, but she is just a better friend than Ron. She gives real advice, shows real loyalty, and has the confidence to get things done. In Deathly Hallows, this is made clear when Ron leaves Harry in his hour of greatest need because he succumbs to the influence of the horcrux. Hermione, too, felt the power of the horcrux, but she resisted it because she knew Harry needed her loyalty. It was do or die time, and per usual, Hermione wasn't about to play dead. Despite all of this, it is always Ron who is portrayed as Harry's "best mate", and his preference for Ron is made clear on multiple occasions. And, perhaps even more insultingly, Ms. Rowling makes Ron Hermione's love interest throughout, and in that travesty of an epilogue in Deathly Hallows, features them as a married couple. Hermione is simply too strong, too smart, and too capable to be chained to a liability like Ron. A male character of Hermione's caliber would never be paired with such an unworthy love interest.

It is no wonder Hermione can't catch a break- the Wizarding World itself is not set up to be kind to women. Just think about that phrase, oft used throughout the books. Wizarding World, though women are constantly referred to witches, and their magic is witchcraft, not wizardry. The use of these two words- wizard and witch- are suspect to start with, as witch has by far the more negative connotation, which Ms. Rowling couldn't help but be aware. She has no problem making up a totally new name for "regular" folk- Muggles- so why does she stick to such sexist old terms for the magical folk, instead of creating new ones? And though the Wizarding World is ostensibly equal opportunity, we have men running all of the shows- Headmaster Dumbledore, Ministers of Magic Fudge and Scrimgeour, acting Minister Shacklebolt. You do, of course see women in power- they just never have as much of it as the men. The fountain Harry sees at the ministry tells the tale- a Wizard, standing tall, flanked by a shorter witch, an adoring House Elf, and a respectful Centaur. Though Rowling makes much of the subservience of the other magical beasts, she never points out the fact the witch is overshadowed, too.

Ms. Rowling also indulges in a lot of sexist prattle in the books. From the insulting bits about Ron rejecting "ugly" girls as possible dates to the Yule Ball in Goblet of Fire, to Harry's clearly disdainful treatment of Cho when she showed her vulnerability about Cedric in Order of the Phoenix, to the constant "Girls are SO inscrutable" crap, we see sexist stereotypes reinforced again and again. The pickup book Ron gives to Harry in Half Blood Prince? That was real forward-thinking, wasn't it? Ron's retaliatory "snogging" of Lavender Brown, who was made out to be a first class airhead and bore? Great. I mean, what better messages to send to a young audience? String one girl along to make another jealous- after all, they are just girls.

Women, in Rowling's world, are stereotypes. We have the spinsters- prim and proper McGonagall, "toad like" Delores Umbridge, whiny fake Trelawney( a closet boozer who drinks that most feminine vice, cooking sherry), castrating bitch/wannabe gangster moll Bellatrix Lestrange. We have our resident housewives- Molly Weseley, that "fabulous" cook who knits embarrassing sweaters for her offspring, never misses a chance to nag, and gets all bent out of shape the moment one of her "brood" might be in trouble, Petunia Dursley, that mean-spirited Muggle with a mania for cleanliness and a blind eye for the faults of her only offspring, Dear Dudders, and Narcissa Malfoy, cold-blooded society matron who only melts at the thought of her son, Draco. Then we have the Madonna herself, Sainted Lily Potter, who's one act worth remembering was saving her baby from the dastardly Voldemort. We also have the pining Nymphadora Tonks, morose self-pitying "Moaning Myrtle", giggly Slytherin sycophant Pansy Parkinson... Rowling paints a lot of unflattering pictures of men, too, but only her women hew so closely to expected gender stereotypes. She even has "hags" as a class of magical beings unto themselves...

The last, and greatest insult, is the epilogue in Deathly Hallows. It's nineteen years later, the kids are all grown up, and guess what? They are all married... with children. Children, who, of course, act in stereotypically gendered ways. And by the amount of time devoted to the kids respectively, you just know who the movers and shakers are going to be (Surprise! The boys!)If the sexism of that tableau isn't enough to nauseate, the heteronormativity is.

I guess it was naive to expect too much from a child's story, but darn it! Children's literature is exactly where we need to be tearing down these stereotypes! Sure, the story maybe sweet going down, but that's because its just so much treacle.