Representations of women in Harry Potter
On Friday 23rd February 2018, we ran a seminar titled 'The Psychology of Harry Potter' here at the University of Northampton, supported by The British Psychological Society's East Midlands Branch. The event was well attended by students and staff of the University, and other attendees from across the Midlands. The three of us (including Luke and Tanya) have been asked how we'll be making the content from the session available online, so in the first instance, we'll be sharing our talks through a series of blog posts. As my talk concentrated on representations of women in the series, I'll be exploring that and providing some points to think about here.
There is a plethora of wonderful research that explores how women are represented in film more generally, and for the most part, it's perhaps not going to be too surprising - women often make up the support roles for men in films. They'll hold sometimes pivotal roles, but still involve a man in the storyline to make it complete.
Whilst the same can be said for Harry Potter, I don't think this should take away from what the female characters in the series have done for 'our' generation who grew up on the books or the films (a caveat to this post: I do switch between representations in the books and in the films interchangeably). Rowling based some of the female characters on women who has influenced and supported her in her own life, and the way that these women are represented shows variety, as well as showing how significant women are in our lives (and how important their roles are). In line with the talk, I've split up this post with the women I focused on in the talk.
Molly Weasley. Molly is the housewife, the carer of the children (not just her own) and her life revolves around the children and the household. Given the current society we are in, the housewife is often positioned as background, not important, and perhaps not as inspiring as other central characters. Whilst in this role, Molly sits at almost the other end of the spectrum in relation to Hermione for example (more on this coming up), Rowling did not see the role as mother and housewife as anything less that extraordinary. Molly is portrayed as empowered through her role - looking after the household, the children, and ultimately, defeating Bellatrix. This battle carries so much symbolism in respect to what it means to be a mother - Molly has many children, Bellatrix has none. Molly defeats Bellatrix, literally demonstrating strength in motherhood. Molly's triumph over Bellatrix positions motherhood as strong.
Narcissa Malfoy. I included Narcissa as a point of contrast for Molly, but in a similar vein, she is almost 'redeemed' as a character, through her role a a mother. If you think about it, she has a pretty integral role in the story - if it wasn't for her lying to Voldemort about Harry's state, it would have all been over there and then in the forest. Despite the prejudice and racist nature of the Malfoy family, in the film, Narcissa's role as Draco's mother ultimately stops her from being seen as villainous as some of the other women. Again - motherhood prevails, and is seen as a 'good' thing for women in the series.
Dolores Umbridge. Umbridge was the character everyone loved to hate. She is in fact one of my favourite characters of the series, and represents quite a complex (but stereotypical) woman. In the series, she is presented as a 'bad' example of what it means to be a woman: she's unattractive (described as a toad in the books); incompetent as a teacher; she hates Harry (so of course, we shouldn't like her); she exceeds her authority; and she's stupid (being duped by the children in the forest). Umbridge goes above and beyond what is 'right' for a woman - she has a high-ranking position as undersecretary to the Minister of Magic, but she exceeds her authority, going 'too far' as a woman. (this is in stark contrast to Minerva McGonagall, who a few attendees asked me about after the talk - McGonagall represents everything 'right' about a woman - academically intelligent, has responsibility but does not exceed this, follows orders, and has respect of the students).
Hermione Granger. Hermione is a complex character. And actually, the more reading I did, the more of a rabbit hole I fell down (I think we all experienced the same when researching the seminar!). She navigates numerous roles - as feminist (and anti-feminist), as warrior, as activist, and as 'mother'. The main thing that the film does well is show Hermione from her perspective, rather from the perspective of Harry (as in the books), so we get to see much more of these complexities. There are a number of things she does across the series that cements her as a 'good' example of a young woman, of course, providing a role model for many girls and women reading the books. She excels academically, she confronts Harry & Ron's sexism, and she starts a political movement to protect the house elves (one of her noted downfalls of the series - there is plenty of writing that talks of the parallels between this and feminists who are trying to help but ultimately end up oppressing others). The thing that becomes so striking about Hermione is the linking of identity between character and actress - Emma Watson is also a feminist, activist, and excels academically. The cross-over makes the role seem less of a fantasy, and more something that is achievable. Her journey is one of independence and agency, from the start to the end of the series. She embodies 'strong' femininity, physically (through punching Malfoy) and emotionally (resistance against Bellatrix's torture). Specifically thinking back to Deathly Hallows part 1, if it wasn't for Hermione, there would be no story - she carried both Ron and Harry through the difficult patches that they were struggling with. She became the maternal figure, especially to Harry, showing sacrifice (literally erasing herself from her family) in order for him to complete his journey. Hermione's strength is a testament to 'good' representations of women.
So overall, the main thing to take away from the representations of these women is the power that they hold - power over others, being empowered, and power with others. Power is positioned as an as enabler for these women - and that you can be a 'good woman' if you make the 'right choices'.
Tell me your thoughts! @CharlotteJD