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The Further Adventures of Hermione Granger

Posted on Tuesday, July 26th, 2011 at 10:46 pm

Author: Feature Writer

Gc contributor: Sady Doyle

It would be fair to say that neither I nor anyone else expected the sheer volume of the reaction to last week’s piece on Hermione Granger. It was a silly idea, one I submitted to my editor almost as a joke; I was surprised when she asked me to write it up, and substantially more surprised that people actually read it. But, then, I shouldn’t have been; I’ve learned since writing the piece that I am hardly the only person to find Hermione heroic, or to be disappointed with how she’s treated by Rowling’s narrative.

Of course, there are plenty of people who feel that Severus Snape is the real hero of the story, or that Neville Longbottom is the actual Chosen One; everybody can construct a defense of why their favorite characters are the best. But people’s feelings about Hermione are different, and strangely personal. She’s not just a character we love; her story inadvertently taps into many women’s real-life frustrations. When we read about Hermione, a lot of what we see is an old, frustrating story: The girl who works twice as hard, twice as well, for half as much credit.

So, before we move on to some non-Harry-Potter related discussions, it seems worthwhile to deal with some of the reactions to last week’s piece. Most of them have been positive, and I’ve appreciated them greatly. Others, well. Let’s just say that they raise questions worth answering.

Let’s deal with the easy questions first. Why haven’t I written my own blockbuster book series about wizards? Because I don’t want to. Why do I think J.K. Rowling and/or Harry Potter and/or Harry Potter fans are bad people? I don’t, and I hope you don’t, either. Have I even read the books? Yes, indeed I have. I have also attended the movies. Sometimes at midnight screenings, where people wore Gryffindor scarves.

Other questions are a bit more complicated. For example: Aren’t I just projecting my own feelings, desires, and agenda onto Hermione, like any fan? Am I really suggesting that a series “has to be about girls to be feminist,” or that the series itself is sexist because the author took an androgynous pen name? Do I really think that Harry Potter, the most universal and beloved children’s series of recent years, should have been re-tooled to appeal only to girls, and do I really want boys to have to choose between (a) never reading a single book for pleasure or (b) humiliating themselves by reading something about a lady?

Okay, so that last question is more ridiculous than the others. Still: I should admit that I really did find Harry to be the least interesting part of Harry Potter. Even after I got over the initial knee-jerk snobbery that made me complain about “adults reading children’s books,” and learned to appreciate the series for what it was, he stood in my way. Things just seemed to come too easily to Harry; he received too many game-changing magical artifacts, had too many kindly and powerful mentors, and solved too many problems by waiting around until one of his friends came up with a plan. It was hard not to notice that there was one specific friend who came up with most of the plans, that she was the only major female character for a very long time, and that she was largely rewarded by people rolling their eyes at her and complaining about what a swot (“nerd,” for Americans) she was.

Sure: I’ll cop to an identification with Hermione. That’s because she’s a massively identifiable character. When I see her hand go up first every time a teacher asks a question, I remember my own nerdy, awkward childhood, and I feel an instinctive fondness for her. But it’s hard to imagine that a socially clumsy, book-loving nerd with a good heart is an unfamiliar or unlikable character to anyone who’s spent their free time reading a 4,000-page series about wizards. If bookish, overeager boys would truly refuse to read about a bookish, overeager main character, simply because she was female… well, that says as much about contemporary gender relations as anything else. And what it says is depressing.

Of course it’s not automatically sexist for a book to have a male hero. But when that male hero is noticeably less effective than a female supporting character, it hits a little too close to home. It makes one wonder whether bright, assertive girls will ever be good enough to be anything other than helpmates and friends, whose intelligence is alternately scoffed at and taken for granted when useful. And, of course, it’s not automatically sexist for a female writer to choose an androgynous pen name, or to make compromises for the sake of sales — especially not when she’s writing, as Rowling was, to escape bad financial circumstances. But it’s still damn sad that, when faced with Harry Potter, one of the most effective money-making machines of the past two decades, publishers thought that having a woman’s name on the cover would be enough to tank the project.

I don’t think that a Hermione Granger series would be impossible. There are plenty of young adult novels with female leads, and some of them — like The Hunger Games or His Dark Materials — are both successful and critically well-regarded. But I also don’t think that a Hermione Granger series would be anywhere near as ubiquitous, well-beloved, and highly praised as Harry Potter has been. I think we needed a male lead to pull that off. And that saddens me.

Still: We’ll always have Hermione. And, to those who love the Harry Potter series just as it is, I’m happy for you. Books were what pulled me through my own swotty, often lonely childhood. Bookish, fiery, imaginative girls like Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables, or Jo March in Little Women, or even Sara Crewe in A Little Princess, made it possible for me to believe that I might be a worthwhile person, and that my life might hold good possibilities. I can’t read through those books now without noticing their problems, political or otherwise. But when I felt friendless, these girls were my friends. I’m glad to add Hermione to that list; I’m glad to believe that she will always be there, ready to befriend and help other bright, bossy, awkward girls.

It’s just, you know, if her name were on the cover, that would help.

Front page photo: The Glinfannan Viaduct, by Nicolas Benutzer, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

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  1. Pingback: In praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger series

  2. Thank you for writing this! I’ve often felt the same way and I’m glad you voiced my feelings in a much more eloquent way that I even could. I love the Harry Potter series but I really wish that the hero could at least be more self sufficient.

  3. I haven’t re-read the series in three years and I used to be a huge fan. But I agree with you 100%. The way Rowling treated Hermione made me mad, and then, when she casually tossed her aside with Ron who didn’t deserve her, I was severely pissed me off.

    Because, like you said, plenty of us girls who were kind of nerdy in school identify with her. Hell, she’s Rowling’s self insert. So it’s kind of sad that she’d treat herself like that.

  4. I agree that Harry is one of the least interesting (and least tolerable) elements of the HP series (of which I’m a colossal fan, by the way).

    However, apart from Hermione not being the protagonist, I disagree that she was underrated in the novels (which I’ve read more than ten times each, so I remember them very well). Maybe my perception of this is partly colored by the movies, which have, in my opinion, taken this sentiment way too far by removing all Hermione’s flaws, accessibility, relatability, and likability, and making her beautiful and glamorous to boot. A perfect heroine is just as bad as an underutilized or stereotyped one, if you ask me, as it shows the same laziness of writing and lack of regard for her characterization. In my opinion, we NEED the other characters to call her out for being annoying, bossy, or a know-it-all, whether or not she deserves it — not only because it’s realistic for kids their age, but because without it, Hermione runs the risk of becoming a Bella Swan (the ultimate anti-Hermione), whom everyone loves and fawns over when in real life, clearly not everyone would. This isn’t Rowling treating the character badly; it’s really just honest writing in this case. And it’s not like Rowling didn’t also take dozens of opportunity for characters to point out how clever she was and how dead they would be without her. If that’s all we heard from anyone, though (as in the movies — sorry to keep picking on them), Hermione would lose the better part of her appeal.

    However, I agree wholeheartedly with how sad it is that these books would undoubtedly not have done as well with a female protagonist. Here’s hoping The Hunger Games movies do very well, ideally planting the idea in people’s minds that stories with female protagonists can be just as exciting, epic, and broad in their appeal (if not more so) as anything starring a male.

    /ramble

  5. You’re 2x spectacular. I love both the articles. The concept of Hermione as the main character hadn’t occurred to me before, but I think that next time I read the books, I’ll have a rather different angle of observation.

    I love seeing this kind of thing said, if only to provoke discussion. You’ve gone above and beyond that. Kudos to you.

  6. I’ve been rereading these and being really struck by the points you’ve made. And bravo for finding such an engaging way to do it.

    Hermione is, in fact, the progressive face of the books. And what Rowling is telling the children of half the world, is that being progressive is foolish and futile – if cute in a naive way.

    No doubt Rowling’s older, wiser Hermione is kind to house-elves, but accepts that they wouldn’t know what to do with their freedom. Only an outlier (possibly mentally ill) elf would actual relish it.

    The women as canny (or simpering) supporters of powerful men, the failure of any of the non-white characters – besides an ethnic stereotype – to move the story forward actively (while presenting an out-of-date picture of a largely conquered form of racism with the werewolf metaphor), the mindless interfering government, and the paternalistic ruling-class stewardship of a helpless underclass that doesn’t understand and resents their efforts…

    Not necessarily useful patterns of thinking for this century.

  7. My biggest peeve with Rowling is not the way Rowling was treated or some other female characters – for example, I believe Luna was a fascinating, underused character; Bellatrix was even more terrifying than Voldemort himself; and even Narcissa had some wonderful moments. My biggest peeve is Ginny Weasley, the most boring, one-dimensional character in the series. She is written as being perfect, with no flaws at all, to the point that I was expecting Rowling to have some big surprise at the end for us – for example, that she was actually a secret death eater all along. That would have added an interesting twist to what was otherwise a frustratingly boring and horribly “perfect” character

  8. I love how succinctly you have expressed all of the issues with the treatment of Hermione. I wonder who her best pal would be if she did have her own series? Because – as we good, bookish, nerdy girls know – we’re not likely to get into trouble on our own.
    It’s hard to find books with strong female protagonists who are justly rewarded. I hated Pullman’s series because Lyra essentially gets everything she had – her talent and her love – taken from her, and she will never get either back. I have just started reading The Hunger Games.
    Have you read Diane Duane’s “So You Want to Be a Wizard” book series? I love the main characters, Nina and Kit. Nina finds an eponymous book, takes the oath therein – and is on her way to learning wizardry, which means to serve Life. They’re not perfect, they make mistakes, and their relationship continually evolves. Another one of my favorites is Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “A Fistful of Sky.” The main character, Gypsum, is a nice girl from a family of witches who likes has no power herself – until it is revealed she has the power of curses. Both Nina and Gypsum qualify as friends (along with, as you’ve noted, Anne, Sarah, and Jo). Also Meg Murray, from “A Wrinkle in Time.”
    Not enough books – but at least they’ve given me immortal friends.

  9. I love this and the piece before. LOVE. And thank you for your timing, because my tween girl is not taking off with the series and feels bad about it. Thank you.

  10. Pingback: Hermione Granger Rules The World | Memoranda

  11. I think you missed the mark on a lot of this.

    For example, I really don’t see how the pen name is what-so-ever-at-all a criticism of either the books OR her. You said that previous commenters asked “or that the series itself is sexist because the author took an androgynous pen name?”

    I would sincerely hope not, because Rowling has specifically said that she changed her name because she was asked to. Like ten seconds of google research would have lead to the better question, “is it sexist for publishers to ask female authors living on welfare to change their name to sell their books?” (Yes.) Or even, “is it sexist for authors to ask female authors to change their name to appeal to a male audience even though the young boys clearly had no problem reading Harry Potter?” (Yes.)

    She’s pretty cavalier about why she changed her name now. She’s open about how it was sexist and ironic that they asked the best selling author of the last decade to change her name because none would buy books from a female author. I really think blaming someone who wanted to have her books sold for doing what her publishers asked is a pretty shallow criticism.

    As far as Harry is concerned, this might just be a difference of opinion. But Harry had to be nobody. He had to be no one abnormally gifted. Harry’s “greatness” was that he was willing to sacrifice himself for his friends. That was Dumbledore’s whole plan for him. I could go on about this, but it might just be something that we disagree on.

    What I really really don’t understand, however, is the Ginny hate.

    “Unbelievably, even Ginny Weasley got an actual personality”

    You might have been a bookish nerd, and could therefore relate to Hermione. I was pretty bookish, too. I was ALSO a redheaded sporty girl who stood up to bullies and was from a lower class family who had to wear hand me down clothes. So Ginny was hella relatable to me.

    This is a character who openly and loudly refuses to get slut shamed, who is kind to the socially awkward kids, who excels at a sport that she’s really interested in, and who (like her twin brothers) is kind of a hilarious trouble maker.

    http://feministing.com/2010/11/22/an-unabashed-love-letter-to-ginny-weasley/

    That pretty much sums up my love of her.

    I also think that the way you mention Harry’s fortune inheritance sort of misses the mark. I thought it was a great way to show the difference between being born and raised with little economic privilege, and having economic privilege in a completely different world. The way he’s treated vs. the way Ron is treated really shows people’s attitude about the working poor.

    Oh, and Ron finally does come around about the S.P.E.W. and the house elves. It’s why Hermione ends up kissing HIM in the end. JK has also said that after Hogwarts, that’s what Hermione is doing for a living.

    I normally love your stuff, and maybe it’s Harry Potter fandom bias, who knows. But I think this really misses the mark on a lot of the series.

  12. Thanks for writing this – and writing it so well.
    Another great series that just happens to have a female lead is “Tomorrow when the War Began” by John Marsden – loved by girls, boys and their parents everywhere.

  13. I do notice that Ron’s name did not appear on either of these lists. Just wondering what was the author’s opinion of that particular character — that he was too unimportant to even mention, or something else?

  14. Loud cheers for both your articles. Hermione Granger was definitely the heroine of the series, the character who *actively* tried to get things done. Whereas Harry was almost totally apathetic, passively waiting for things to fall into his lap, as you’ve noted. His most proactive act was to spend several months moving from camp site to camp site … waiting for something to happen.

    It’s weird to me how why Rowling kept Harry mired as a barely competent wizard. But she seemed determined to do so, even pulling him back slightly from the middle books. I remember fans arguing that Harry was a ‘powerful wizard’ and myself taking the negative position – dodging spells shows quick reflexes, not magical prowess. Sadly I was proven correct with the last two books; Harry fails in everything he tries in book 6 – he doesn’t work out what Draco is doing, he can’t even *engage* Snape in a duel – and then in the final novel he and his friends win the day with fifth year spells and an invisibility cloak. The entire wizarding world dumbed down to suit Rowling’s averageman ‘hero’, rather than the latter smartened up.

    (And, sadly, his best friend and advisor Hermione Granger wasn’t allowed to shine or give the boy a kick to get moving. Not like she did in the earlier books.)

    Magimpalor – it’s amusing to to read your description of Ginny, which can only survive if you deliberately blind yourself to the majority of her less attractive canon qualities. For example:

    This is a character who openly and loudly refuses to get slut shamed

    And who does so by betraying her best friend, telling Ron that Hermione kissed Krum, just to get Ron off her back … even though her betraying Hermione’s secret starts off the whole sorry mess of jealousy and fighting that runs throughout most of HBP.

    - who is kind to the socially awkward kids -

    After mocking them behind their backs first.

    - who excels at a sport that she’s really interested in -

    That she wasn’t interested in until book 5 (Ginny falls asleep after the GoF world cup match I believe, and certainly shows no great excitement at the match).

    - and who (like her twin brothers) is kind of a hilarious trouble maker.

    Where ‘hilarious’ means ‘hilarious if you’re a Weasley’, but ‘painful’ to the victim.

  15. Thanks for writing this and your original article – loved them both – and thanks to your editor for urging you to write it up to begin with.

  16. Hermione Granger – unlike the other characters does everything for the sole purpose of being recognised. There is no heroism in that and I feel sorry for any girl / woman who actually identifies with her because – frankly – you don’t know what heroism is.

  17. Wow, you really summed up a lot of the problems I had with the series.

    I am a huuuuuge HP fan. Not a Harry fan – no. While obviously sympathetic to his horrible childhood, by the third book I was alternating between thinking him annoying, obnoxious, or just plain boring.

    But Hermione…oh, what a character, and what potential. An incredibly intelligent, empathetic, extraordinarily hard working, loyal, sarcastic, loving character.

    Anyways, this is why I read fanfiction. Most of what I read if Hermione centric, and she has awesome adventures, and ends up with totally random people, or nobody at all. That’s okay though, cuz she’s Hermione, and therefore awesome.

  18. This text and the one before underline everything that is wrong in the HP-series. Ok, in the last book Ron starts to appreciate Hermione for example saying “we wouldn’t last a day without her” while talking about the hunt for horcruxes, but most of the time Hermione is the only thing standing between death and Harry Potter and it isn’t even acknowledged.

    Couple of facts I find interesting and that are loosely related to this topic: Th 8th HP-movie does not pass the Bechdel test: http://bechdeltest.com/ and Harry Potter is replaced by a girl, Angelica Button in the Simpsons Harry Potter-parody: http://simpsons.wikia.com/wiki/Angelica_Button_%28series%29

  19. Both of your texts are fantastic. And made me (a fan) see the books in a new way. Thank you!
    For what it’s worth, I’ve always seen the books as being about friendship first and foremost. All of the characters being equally important.

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