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.