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We Still Need a Female Hero: Revisiting “In Praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger series”

“In Praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger series” was all over my social-media @-replies a few weeks ago. Again. This has happened often, in the four years since I wrote the piece. Freelance writers crank out lots of posts; most of them, you publish, then forget. But “Hermione,” I remember; it was the culmination of a long-held fantasy, my chance to re-write Harry Potter the way I thought it should have been, with the series’ great hero in the spotlight, and that dopey kid with the glasses kicked off the stage.

And “Hermione Granger” keeps coming back. When I wrote it, I thought I was venting. But the reception — it took off on Reddit and social media; it wound up breaking this site’s traffic record; years later, people still bring it up — seems to indicate that my fantasy was shared by more people than I knew. And why not? Hermione is so great. Hermione is so much more competent than anyone she knows, including not only Harry and Ron, but most of the adults. Hermione so obviously comes up with all of the heroic plans; she is obviously the one who saves the day; she clearly deserves to be the one with her name on the cover. If “Hermione Granger” means anything to me, it’s as a reminder that there is value in stating the obvious.

But to understand why the post landed, I think, you have to understand the structure of Harry Potter itself. Its biggest failures stem from the same source as its greatest successes. It’s said that good writers borrow and great writers steal. And (let’s pause while I find the most charitable way to say this) by that definition, J.K. Rowling is a great writer.

Less charitably, Harry Potter is cobbled together from dozens of very identifiable sources: Everything from Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci books to Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (LeGuin’s Ged even has a scar that hurts whenever his enemy is nearby) to, most damningly of all, the original Star Wars trilogy, whose central plotline, conflicts and characters Rowling recreates nearly note-for-note over the course of her seven books. The similarities have been mapped out dozens of times (Luke and Harry are both raised by an aunt and uncle, told they’ve inherited magical powers from their deceased real parents, tutored in these magic powers by a wise old bearded man, forced to watch him slain before their eyes by the living embodiment of the Dark Side who is also a former student, etcetera) so there’s no need to rehearse them all. But it’s not over-stating the case to point out that Harry, Ron, Hermione and Voldemort are essentially Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and Darth Vader with the trademarks filed off, the family trees changed, and Han’s IQ dropped by several dozen points.

And yet: It works. Both Star Wars and Harry Potter are faithful retellings of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” which Campbell would tell you is the basic structure of any great story, and most religions. It’s the structure of growing up: You leave home, acquire new skills, face off against the previous generation and overthrow its authority (the previous generation tends not to like this, hence all the murderous patriarchs and teachers) and return home, having become an adult. You can complain about unoriginality, but the fact is, by using these elements — like the story of Jesus, Moses, or the Buddha — Harry Potter became the defining myth of its generation, just as Star Wars was the defining myth of the generation directly before it. Both are stories you have to know, simply to understand how people of a certain age see the world.

Effective as it is, the structure has problems, which are easier to spot in the twenty-first century than they would have been in 1977, when the first Star Wars movie was released, or (for that matter) in 1949, when Campbell advanced the theory. For one thing, it is the Hero’s journey, and only his. He can have helpers, but one person has to be the star. For another, as Campbell initially outlined it, and as most of his followers have continued to insist, the Hero is male. It’s not that you can’t use a female lead — Joan D. Vinge’s The Snow Queen and Buffy the Vampire Slayer give it a shot — but the theory was created to center a male perspective. Third: The Hero? The star of the show? He is almost never the most interesting character.

Ask 100 Star Wars fans who their favorite character is, and none of them will say “Luke Skywalker.” They like sexy, rebellious Han Solo, or fiery Leia, or Yoda, or even Boba Fett. Never whiny, dull Luke. Similarly, Buffy on Buffy could seem like dead air, compared to the more vital, unique characters around her. The reason for this is simple: The one, defining feature of the Hero is that (paradoxically) he’s not special. He’s always an ordinary guy who falls ass-backward into adventure, because Destiny wants it that way. Harry Potter fits this to a T.

The problem (I would argue) is that, in having Harry fall into Special status, Rowling winds up making him seem wildly over-privileged in comparison to his talents. Most of these heroes wind up finding that there’s something special about them — some magical heritage or Chosen One status — but they usually also have some fight they must win before they can reap the rewards of their Specialness. Luke has to overthrow an Empire. Buffy has to graduate Muggle high school. But by the time we’re a quarter of a way through the first book, Harry Potter is wealthy, famous, popular, a star athlete, a Chosen One, receives some fairly blatant favoritism from the school’s Headmaster (those poor Ravenclaw kids, working their magical little asses off, unaware that success comes down to which teenagers Dumbledore feels like hanging out with) and, last but not least, has fucking superpowers. He gets all of it, all at once.

There’s a reason authors usually hand out these rewards at the end of a story, not the beginning. When everything a person could want has fallen into your character’s lap, without him having to work for it, he can never complain again without sounding like an entitled brat.

That’s harsh. But it certainly does seem like the universe cannot stop trying to either (a) kill Harry Potter, or (b) do Harry Potter favors. If he wants something, a mysterious benefactor gives him a gift. If he gets in trouble, an adult swoops in to rescue him. If he has to form a brilliant, heroic scheme to save the day, he… Well, we all know who comes up with those schemes, don’t we? We all know that, when Harry Potter is facing certain death, Hermione Granger is always approximately two feet away, telling him exactly what to do. In some ways, Hermione is just one more gift the universe gives Harry. But it’s also why I was able to envision “The Hermione Granger series,” and why so many people agreed: Hermione does not just help the hero. Hermione is the hero, in this Hero’s Journey. She does all the work that a hero is meant to do. Harry just has the Destiny, and gets the credit.

It’s the one place where Rowling’s reliance on traditional structure really hurts her: She stuck to the pattern, and provided us with a white, male, ordinary hero. But she then created a perfect hero — a unique, vivid, once-in-a-lifetime sort of character; the kind of character kids remember for the rest of their lives, or for generations — and made her a girl. And she stuck her on Princess Leia Duty (sidekick, spunky, initially hostile but warms up quickly, gets married to the other sidekick eventually) because there was nowhere else for her to go.

It’s not just that Hermione does the work. It’s that, in a book full of archetypes, she is the liveliest, most human character. Only Snape comes close to being so well-drawn. She is a genius, who her teachers admit is possibly the most brilliant person alive before she’s even graduated high school. She lives with the pain of racism; in fact, Voldemort’s cause is wiping her race (“Mudbloods,” people with non-magical parents) off the face of the earth, giving her a more personal connection to the villain than even Harry. She is compassionate, strong, and principled (she tries to free the enslaved House Elves, which Rowling unaccountably finds ridiculous). She is a model of hard work and triumph over adversity. As I pointed out in the first piece, destiny doesn’t make Hermione special; wealth or parentage don’t make Hermione special; Hermione makes Hermione special. And she is capable of heroic sacrifice. Harry lost his parents, but Hermione lost hers, too: She erased herself from her own parents’ memories to save their lives. Harry Potter is a nice kid, but in a world without magic, he’d just be another affable high-school jock.
Hermione Granger is the stuff of legend.

I’m glad Hermione exists. But I wish I lived in a world where she was the center of the story. The real problem with all these white, male heroes, and their Destinies, and their being treated as “special” without having demonstrated any special qualities, is that in the real world, we have a system that works exactly like that. It’s called sexism, and white privilege. White, straight, cisgender men, from the very day they are born, are told that they have more Specialness, and more meaningful Destinies, than anyone else in this world. And if they can’t get grand outcomes themselves, whole systems swoop in to make sure they land on their feet. (Hell, even Ron does okay, and that guy can barely tie his own shoelaces.) Meanwhile, the Hermiones slug away in the background, doing better, working harder, for half the reward and none of the credit.

Why my fantasy about “The Hermione Granger series” resonated, I think, was the fact that I wrote it as if none of this were true. It’s a dispatch from an alternate universe where Hermione is a generation-defining hero because of course she is; where bright, kind girls who endure racism naturally compel the world’s attention and praise; where an author would never be asked to change her name from “Joanne” to the gender-neutral “J.K.” to sell books. And imagining that world matters, for reasons that are far bigger than Harry Potter.

In the real world, girls of color are less likely to be acclaimed as geniuses and heroines than they are to be thrown across the room for staying in class too long. But that’s not the world most of us want. It’s not the world we would give our children, if we had the choice. And we do. There are very few things more powerful than a great story. If we want more Hermione Grangers — and more Hermione Grangers — then, more than anything, it is time to choose a new myth.

6 thoughts on “We Still Need a Female Hero: Revisiting “In Praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger series”

  1. Just come across the original post while helping my 12 year old daughter research the influence and inspiration of Hermione. One thing that has sprung to mind while reading is the undeniable impact that Hermione as a character will have had on boys as they grow up. They’ve been carefully guided throughout a series of boy centric books to view Hermione as intelligent, daring, uncompromising and brilliant. They’ve grown up with a firm image in place of a girl and woman who is every bit their equal and probably their superior, and encouraged to understand that this is a good thing and a normal thing. They will have been successfully conditioned with a world view of equality and strong women, and this will form a fundamental part of their outlook on life. The journey to gender and race equality will be long and slow but will be won across generational lines rather than through short battles. As part of that journey don’t underestimate the importance that Hermione has had in not only providing a strong direct role model for girls, but also a powerful figure for boys to understand and admire in their formative years. True equality requires people to view each other as equal, which means It is just as important for boys to learn the lessons of equally as it is for girls. Hermiones position within the Potterverse was a defining role for a lot of those boys and will continue to be so as they grow into men who view women as their true equals.

  2. One of the things that most irritate me about Rowling’s HP work – and Rowling herself – is that she didn’t have the courage of her convictions for all those years while she was writing Harry Potter. On twitter these days she’s all about ‘social justice’ issues like gender/race equality and such. Even six months after she’d finished the last HP book she told a crowd at Carnegie Hall that “she’d always thought of Dumbledore as being a homosexual”.

    But she didn’t have the courage to embody such beliefs within her actual books. Not a peep of such concepts there. As you pointed out, her hero is a safe male. Dumbledore’s sexuality is never addressed, not even the slightest clue. No, she waited until the books had all sold and she’d made her millions before publicly discovering her convictions.

    I *love* your comment about Rowling’s ‘greatness’. I hadn’t thought much about the parallel between Star Wars and HP, but it always seemed painfully clear that Rowling stole/borrowed practically everything she needed from popular myth and other sources. Magic, arch enemies, wand-wielding wizards, brownies (house elves), centaurs, giants, you name it. Even the one thing that many people think was actually her own invention – the embedding of magic within a contemporary school setting and the ‘magical whimsy’ of it all – wasn’t hers. Two of the ‘The Worst Witch’ books were published while Rowling was in school and the movie adaptation came out when she was 21 years old. No way the young Rowling wasn’t all over the books and movie in her formative years. But all those Americans who lauded Rowling’s ‘world building’ and originality knew nothing of The Worst Witch and so assumed those concepts were all Rowling’s.

    For the record, my favourite Star Wars character is Luke. 🙂 One reason is that Luke *does* have to ‘work for it’ in the movies. He trains. Hard. He faces his worst fears. He loses his hand. He’s way ahead of Harry Potter in the hero stakes; Luke is an active hero, a hero who sweats and exerts himself. Harry is utterly passive, following Rowling’s/Dumbledore’s asinine and simplistic plot like a ping pong ball, being shoved around with little initiative of his own. One of the biggest failures of Harry-as-a-hero in the HP books is how, after the end of book #5, when his enemy has come back to life … Harry meekly goes back to school and *does absolutely nothing* to prepare for the oncoming war. *So many* fan fiction stories had our ‘hero’ ramping up for action; but that was not the case for Rowling’s Chosen One.

    That’s why Hermione is the heroine of the HP books – she *works hard* to make the world a better place. Every way she can. I’ll take the hard-working active-but-undeclared ‘hero’ over the facile and inert canon version any day.

  3. Matt – I’m not sure too many young boys would have seen Hermione in the glowing light that you’ve taken pains to nurture for your daughter. I don’t think they would have been so ‘carefully guided’ to have such a ‘firm image’ of Hermione and Girl Power when reading the books on their own.

    In the same way that Rowling kept her designated ‘hero’ passive and had most of what he needed gifted to him by plot conveniences and lazy writing, so too were her child readership similarly impaired. Rowling didn’t make her readers *work* while reading her books; all the answers were similarly ladled out with a spoon, no thinking required. Indeed, every single one of her books had a penultimate chapter where Dumledore would hold the stage and painstakingly tell the readers everything that Rowling needed them to know to make sense of things and sort through all of the plot holes. He even came back from the dead to do this in the last volume!

    Who is the hero? Why, the name of the boy on the cover. Why? Because he was granted all of the cool things – the scar, the magic, the deus ex machina stick (aka the Elder Wand), could fly really really fast and so forth. Why did he win in the end? Because of a lucky accident. Did Hermione Granger have anything to do with that? Uhm, no.

    To see Hermione as a ‘powerful figure for boys’ I think those boys have to be led to the conclusion, as you have done for your daughter. Rowling’s writing is *consistent* with such a belief … but doesn’t engender it independently. Any such germ of a concept is drowned out by the limelight shining on the ‘Chosen One’ who gets all the luck and attention.

  4. I’m sorry but I have to disagree with pretty much everything in this article. Geez, you bashing of Harry and Ron in an attempt to elevate Hermione is staggering, especially the part where you seemed to imply that Ron is a stupid douchebag. Sure, he was not as book smart as Hermione but that does not make him useless or that he can only bare tie his shoelaces no matter what you think. Perhaps if I should gave a few examples now to illustrate what I mean.

    In PS, it was Harry and Ron the boys whom you seem to dismiss as mere sidekicks to goddess Hermione. In PS, it was Ron who knocked out the troll with a spell that Hermione taught him (even though in a really haughty way) and Ron told Hermione when they were facing the Devil’s Snare that Hermione didn’t need wood to light a fire because Hermione does have a tendency to freeze up in scary situations. It showed that Ron and Hermione worked together really well as a team. It was Ron who played an amazing chess game with no help from Hermione to get them through the Philosopher’s Stone.

    In CoS, he and Harry went into the Forbidden Forest to confront his worst fear to find a way to cure Hermione. Amazing, they were still able to function properly despite the fact that they were facing human-sized spiders around them. I don’t know about you but this sounds pretty brave to me. They also went down to the Chamber of Secrets together knowing full well the Basilisk could kill them. Then you complain about Harry receiving outside help here, really? Do you seriously expect any 12-year-old kid including Hermione to singlehandedly defeat a 60 feet serpent with no outside help?

    In PoA, it was Ron who shoved himself in front of Harry before a known mass killer in PoA and told Black if he wanted to kill Harry he would have to kill him and Hermione too.
    There are actually too many examples to list here but the point you don’t seem to get is that just by going on these dangerous adventures when he doesn’t have to (since he was not a target for Voldemort because he’s pure blood) shows someone who is extraordinarily brave and who didn’t mind serious injury or worse in his attempt to help his friends.

    Hermione does not have a great sense of humour. In case you think it’s unimportant, remember life is made up of more than dangerous adventures and how important laugher is in the HP world and in the real world even though you might not agree with it.
    In everyday life, Harry resents Hermione’s bossiness and nagging not because sometimes he is too hot-headed for his own good but also because Hermione a lot of times does not know how to convey a message tactfully or to . It was Ron who stepped in to moderate the tension between Harry and Hermione either to Hermione to drop the nagging in his own ways, or to get each other to see the other’s point of view. In case you think it’s just Harry and Ron’s fault, remember that she made plenty of mistakes in that department from offending Lavender over her rabbit in PoA, the elves in GoF and OotP, Luna in OotP (if I remembered correctly the only time Luna ever got angry with anything despite all the rude things said to her by other people was over what Hermione said) the centaurs in the forest in OotP that provoked them into nearly attacking her and Harry.

    Finally have you noticed how much Hermione fell apart when Ron was not around like during the cat-rat fight in PoA or when Ron wasn’t around in the camping trip in DH? Please don’t forget how much Ron cared for her personal life and asked her questions about it throughout the books.

    Please note I’m not bashing Hermione. In fact, she’s my favourite character and Ron is every bit worthy of Hermione contrary to what you might think. I also don’t think Hermione is a goddess or Harry and Ron are not important to the story.

    1. Hmm, sorry I didn’t make the clarification earlier but are you referring to the HP movie or book characters in the article? If you’re referring to the movies, then you do have a point since Hermione was basically promoted as a perfect goddess who could do no wrong there. If you are meant to talk about the books as I assume you are, then all my points stand.

  5. Apologies for my earlier comment about the movies and the books, for I was truly confused as to how you could present Hermione who has done everything which struck me as being based on the movie Hermione which was nothing like her book counterpart. I feel I really should clarify on what I said earlier which may came as harsh.

    While I agree with some of the points you raised about Harry being favoured and constantly the centre of attention the rest of your article seemed to consist of lots of personal opinions presented as indisputable facts.

    I could have accepted this article made about Hermione if you did not twist and distort Harry and Ron’s characters or the comparison to Star Wars. For example, the fact that you said Ron cannot tie his shoelaces just made me realise your article cannot be taken seriously. Yes, he has flaws no doubt about that, but being dumb is not one of them. I could go on with the examples of the smarts things he did in the books but if you wish.

    As for Hermione being the liveliest, drawn out character except for Snape while everyone else is being dreadfully dull, really? Harry and Ron has both grown up a lot over the course of the seven books and are very different people to who they started out with. Please don’t go around making this baseless assertion without providing any facts to back it up.

    Finally, with your star war analogy is a fail because there ARE lots of people who like Luke and they like him despite the flaws he has that you pointed out.

    If you actually planned to write a satirical article as I seemed to think you are, it might be nice to have it based on the reality as present in Rowling’s world through the seven books. Feel free to challenge me on anything I said here.

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