JILL RICHARDSON: Gender studies at Hogwarts
J.K. Rowling, author of the bestselling Harry Potter series, just made headlines for an epic tweetstrom condemning misogyny. Referring to women politicians, she tweeted, “femaleness is not a design flaw.”
I love J.K. Rowling. I love her books. I’ve read the entire Harry Potter series cover to cover more times than I can count. And I believe J.K. Rowling is a feminist.
But her stance on overt misogyny makes me feel a need to call out the much more subtle, covert forms that our society must address if women are ever to be equal to men.
Rowling could’ve pushed this agenda forward by, for example, portraying the world of gender equality she wishes existed in reality in her books. With so many millions of children reading (and re-reading) her books each year, the world of Harry Potter plays no small role in teaching children about gender roles.
Yet in the world of Harry Potter, men and women aren’t equal at all. Men dominate, by far.
All of the political leaders are male, as are nearly all of the headmasters. So are all of the villains, with the notable exception of Bellatrix Lestrange — unless you want to count Narcissa Malfoy, who remains mostly in a wife role in her evildoing.
Harry’s role models and parental figures are nearly all male too. The exceptions are his mother — a character who is never well developed, remaining idealized and practically saintlike throughout the series — and Molly Weasley, a shrill, overbearing nag.
The Weasleys, who become Harry’s adopted family, show readers a breadwinner-homemaker relationship in which the father works for the government while the mother stays home to clean, cook, and care for the kids.
The father is lovable, quirky, and not so strict with his children. The mother, Molly, runs the household and loves her children fiercely, but her approach to discipline portrays the worst stereotypes of women.
Hermione Granger, one of Harry’s two best friends, shows women in a positive light because she’s the top student at Hogwarts. But, like Molly Weasley, Hermione nags her friends to no end if she thinks they’re doing something wrong.
The women characters in the series are more likely to cry, whereas the men are more likely to lose control of their anger and resort to violence. And, when each wizarding school selects a pupil to compete in a competition, three boys and one girl are chosen. The girl loses to the boys badly.
This isn’t to say that all women are portrayed negatively, or all men are portrayed positively. But Rowling created a world in which most of the major characters are male and several major female characters conform to lazy or negative stereotypes of women.
Such gender stereotypes seep into our subconscious without our knowing. They don’t stand out, because they fit with the unequal treatment of gender we see in the real world.
We notice when Disney’s Moana is a princess who saves the day and doesn’t need a prince to complete her. But do we notice when the male lead in the movie, Maui, exhibits the worst traits of toxic masculinity? If Moana teaches little girls they can be heroes, what is Maui teaching little boys about becoming men?
Children learn about the world from the people around them, as well as from what they read in books or see in movies. Changing the real world is hard, but changing it in books and movies is easy.
Authors like Rowling could help socialize the next generation to treat women equally to men with a stroke of the pen.
OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.