Instead of the author's context it is the reader's context that is examined from the feminist perspective […]
It is not the intention of this paper to enter into an extensive discussion on the theoretical validity of these different viewpoints. Suffice to say that it is the less extreme and more open -- ended and integrative form of feminist critique that is considered to be the most appropriate theoretical trajectory to this analysis and which best informs a comprehensive reading of the works of J.K. Rowling. Taking this viewpoint into consideration, the following is a brief overview of the central theoretical facets of an interpretation of the women characters in the novels, leading to an assessment of their importance in the novels as a whole.
On the one hand we have the fairly common critique that, "Many people have complained that there is a serious lack of quality feminist role models in the Harry Potter Series."
One could refer to critics such as Elizabeth Heilman in this regard. Briefly, from this point-of-view the novels are to be interpreted and critiqued in terms of their portrayals of women as stereotypes; thereby reinforcing the view that women are essentially inferior and less capable than men.
This type of critique has serious ramifications in view of the popularity and influence that these works have on young minds. However, as this dissertation will attempt to show, an extreme view of the female characters as serotypes does not conform to an in-depth analysis of the women in the novels. One could once again refer to the informing quotation of this dissertation in this light.
She gave you a lingering protection he never expected, a protection that flows in your veins to this day. I put my trust, therefore, in your mother's blood. I delivered you to her sister, her only remaining relative." ( Dumbledore)
From the very first pages of the first novel in the series, it is clear that women, and particularly the mother figure, play an important if not crucial role in the themes and meaning of the works. Women are not seen as symbolic adjuncts to the other characters but should rather be interpreted a dynamic and active part of the moral and ethical intentionality of the novels.
Those who critique the novels from a radical feminist perspective claim that in essence this series of novels reinforces positive male role models and emphasizes weaker, negative female role models. This perspective will form a central locus of discussion in the analysis of the central female characters, especially the figure of Hermione.
Female stereotypes tend to portray women in terms of conventional gender roles, which "[…] cast men as rational, strong, protective, and decisive […] cast women as emotional (irrational), weak, nurturing, and submissive […]."
Engstrom ( 2006) refers to feminist critic Shoshana Felman, who writes that, 'From her initial family upbringing throughout her subsequent development, the social role assigned to the women is that of serving an image, authoritative and central, of man: a woman is first and foremost a daughter/a mother/a wife'.
These views form the basis of the more extreme forms of feminist criticism, and this theoretical stance has been directed at the female characters in the Harry Potter books. Many critics claim that from a gender perspective, the books tend to diminish the importance of women and that their identity and value are not acknowledged in the books. From this point-of-view the books therefore generate an increase in the negative stereotyping of women. These critics view the novels as projecting a view of women as weak and defenseless and secondary to the male characters.
This theoretical trajectory is one that has been noted by many critics in the history of literature and in numerous literary genres. 'Throughout literary history, authors have portrayed women in a negative light showing them as trophy wives in search of a man to set their fortunes'.
This view of the works of J.K. Rowling can be understood in literary criticism as being based on the critiques by De Beauvior, who sees women as being 'defined exclusively in her relation to man ...she is an idol, a servant, the source of life, a power of darkness; '
A typical feminist reading of the female character in the Harry Potter books is as follows.
Harry's fictional realm of magic and wizardry perfectly mirrors the conventional assumption that men do and should run the world. From the beginning of the first Potter book, it is boys and men, wizards and sorcerers, who catch our attention by dominating the scenes and determining the action. Harry, of course, plays the lead. In his epic struggle with the forces of darkness -- the evil wizard Voldemort and his male supporters -- Harry is supported by the dignified wizard Dumbledore and a colorful cast of male characters. Girls, when they are not downright silly or unlikable, are helpers, enablers and instruments. No girl is brilliantly heroic the way Harry is, no woman is experienced and wise like Professor Dumbledore. In fact, the range of female personalities is so limited that neither women nor girls play on the side of evil.
There are many examples given of this critique ion terms of the way that the female characters are presented in the books. A trenchant example is as follows.
Halfway through the first book, when Harry rescues her with Ron's assistance, the hierarchy of power is established. We learn that Hermione's bookish knowledge only goes so far. At the sight of a horrible troll, she "sinks to the floor in fright ... her mouth open with terror." Like every Hollywood damsel in distress, Hermione depends on the resourcefulness of boys and repays them with her complicity. By lying to cover up for them, she earns the boys' reluctant appreciation.
The only female authority figure is beady-eyed, thin-lipped Minerva McGonagall, professor of transfiguration and deputy headmistress of Hogwart's. Stern instead of charismatic, she is described as eyeing her students like "a wrathful eagle." McGonagall is Dumbledore's right hand and she defers to him in every respect. Whereas he has the wisdom to see beyond rules and the power to disregard them, McGonagall is bound by them and enforces them strictly. Although she makes a great effort to keep her feelings under control, in a situation of crisis she loses herself in emotions because she lacks Dumbledore's vision of the bigger picture.
This type of critique has led to strong sentiments being expressed about the possible negative effects that these stereotypical female characters could have on young minds and especially on female self-esteem. As one critic remarks;
'But I remain perplexed that a woman (the mother of a daughter, no less) would, at the turn of the 20th century, write a book so full of stereotypes'.
However, as the discussion in the following sections will show, these views do not conform to a comprehensive and in-depth analysis of the female characters in the context of all the works as a whole
On the other hand there are many studies and commentaries on the novels that strongly disagree with this theoretical stance. Many claim that if we analyze the female characters in the Harry Potter series we find that they are by no means subservient or stereotypical in any sense. As one commentator notes;
I believe JKR to be different in her approach. In the Harry Potter series, she pens strong female characters such as Minerva McGonnagall who stands up to her male counterparts and proves to be formidable and intelligent addition to the series.
This is a view that is much more in line with a rationale and comprehensive in-depth analysis of the central female characters. As will be discussed, characters like Hermione cannot be adequately understood or interpreted as one-dimensional stereotypical figures without ignoring most of the books content, as well as ignoring the important aspect of the developmental growth of the female characters as the works progress.
It is often the case that the female characters grow and change in response to their environment and the demands of the community in which they live. While in some instances one might with a degree of validity isolate some stereotypical aspect of a character, this aspect often morphs and changes as the character develops and as the novels progress in complexity and depth.
On the one hand feminist critics refer to female characters such as Sybil Trelawney as depicting a weak and incompetent image of women. She is portrayed as a "[…] willowy, drunken coot who goes about the castle making false predictions. She is the punchline of many jokes and is often seen as a fraud."
However, this ignores the compassion and insight that the character brings to the novel and, I would suggest, tends to ignore the deeper moral dimensions of the works.
To counter the more negative appraisal of the female characters in the novels we can refer to numerous references of the centrality and influence…