Natalie Gadbois: Thank you, Jo Rowling

Warner Bros.

By Natalie Gadbois, Daily Gender & Media Columnist
Published October 30, 2014

J.K. “Jo” Rowling, God bless her, can’t seem to get over “Harry Potter.” Despite making millions off the series, and releasing two critically-appreciated detective novels in the years since the beloved series ended, she is still just an extra-special Muggle living in a wizarding world. She's currently working on a theatrical adaptation of the series to premiere in London’s West End, and in Warner Bros’ epic PR dump last month it was revealed that spinoff “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (Rowling’s screenwriting debut) would be made into a trilogy. All that, and then the news came last week that J.K. (Joanne Fucking Kathleen!) was releasing a short story on Halloween, with new Harry Potter secrets to add to the lore. J.K. hasn’t gotten over Harry Potter, and thank goodness, because neither have I.

During my two years at The Michigan Daily I’ve had the self-control to avoid publishing anything related to HP. But people know: I was and always have been that person, the one who read the whole series 16 times, who showed up at the movie theater early in the morning and waited over 12 hours to get the best seats (and who was featured on the local news for those efforts — thanks WZZM-17!). I’m the girl who referenced Dumbledore in her senior quote. Harry Potter is the reason I love writing, the reason I connect so deeply with the characters I read, the reason I want to live in London someday. Harry Potter is also the reason I’m a feminist.

No, this children’s series is not a strident feminist manifesto, nor an unblemished social commentary. In an effort to simplify and moralize, Rowling often glossed over identities, and that can’t be ignored. The few minority characters are barely expanded upon (Dean is Black and an artist! Kingsley Shacklebolt is a deep-voiced badass! Padma and Parvati are Indian ... and exist?), and even her most progressive admission — that headmaster and deity Albus Dumbledore is gay — was made in an interview long after the series ended. Furthermore, despite comprising over 1 million words, the series barely passes the Bechdel test (a feminist litmus test that basically requires female characters in a film to a) Talk to each other about b) Not boys). Rowling’s social agenda is certainly disjointed. But throughout the series she also developed her female characters beyond archetypes, allowing them to be living, breathing, imperfect role models for impressionable little nerds like me.

Take Professor McGonagall. At first glance, she comes off as harsh and shrewish, the overly strict, asexual teacher archetype. (Think of Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton, the “boner shrinker.”) But throughout the series McGonagall grows, proving herself to be both fearless and caring, opinionated but fair. She is fiercely protective of her students, but not as a cookie-baking, grandmotherly doll. She showed that women could be strong without being sexualized, caring but not soft. In later stories released by Rowling, we learn that McGonagall had had one great love, a Muggle boy who she was forced to leave because by law she couldn’t tell him about magic. While this melodrama is typical of a Rowling backstory, it grants McGonagall even more emotional complexity. Not a woman scorned or a sad old maid, but someone who had to make deep sacrifices to keep her integrity.

In a completely different vein, Molly Weasley is archetypically motherly without ever losing her power or agency. She could have been depicted so differently – a harried stay-at-home mother of seven, with a tendency towards shrillness and excellent cooking skills. Molly had the makings of a one-dimensional, June Cleaver type. But Jo knew better. Molly took care of her children, doing the laundry, making their lunches, but in the fifth book she also was the glue holding together the entire Order of the Phoenix operation. She humbly did the work no one else thought to do; cooking and cleaning and organizing — but also was never afraid to put grown men in their place and make them help. In her most badass moment, Molly jumps in to protect her daughter when she is dueling Bellatrix Lestrange (an interesting Rowling female in her own right), screaming, “NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH.” It’s a humorous bit during a particularly tense fight scene, but shows that Molly is not a simpering wife or back-broken mother — she is a force to be reckoned with. In an apron.

And of course, Hermione. Rowling has said in interviews that if she had seen Emma Watson before being cast as Hermione, she wouldn’t have picked her. Hermione wasn’t supposed to be so cute. I could go on for days about how book Hermione and movie Hermione deviate, how Rowling on some level perpetuates the beauty ideal and how the filmmakers do so shamelessly. But in reality, Hermione is one of the most positive female characters in children’s literature. She is by now pretty ubiquitous, and requires little explanation – whip-smart, unafraid to speak up, a leader and activist. She doesn’t simper or submit; her best friends are boys but she never is a tomboy or a “Cool Girl.” Out of these female role models she changed the least from beginning to end of the series, and that’s a good thing. Hermione is distinctly who she is at 10 years old, and stands by that as she matures. She made it OK for other precocious bookworms to feel good about themselves, and I will forever be indebted to Rowling for that.

This wasn’t the investigative critique I usually strive to write; the reason I’ve avoided writing about Harry Potter for so long is because I do recognize my own bias. I know these representations are imperfect, and for every empowering quality these women possess, we could dig through the pages and find an instance in which they falter in their feminism. But Rowling’s impact is evident everywhere, most recently in comments made by the actors who played her beloved characters.

In September, Emma Watson gave a speech before the UN about gender inequality that went viral and received nearly universal praise. And just last week Daniel Radcliffe in an interview was asked about his status as an unconventional romantic lead (news to me, since he has been a personal sex symbol since sixth grade, but whatever). Instead of playing the question off and moving on, he directly called out those (read: everyone) who began sexualizing Watson at 16. So it’s not just me who found their feminist awakening through Harry Potter. We can only hope that as Rowling keeps building her world, she continues to develop such complex, valuable female role models. Until then, thanks Jo. Happy writing.

Natalie Gadbois can be reached at gadbnat@umich.edu and on Twitter @NatGadbois