Feminist Literary Criticism and Harry Potter

I’m posting some of the papers from my senior portfolio. This is a paper that I wrote for my British literature class during the fall of my junior year. Since we would ideally take that class before literary criticism, we studied different literary theories in less detail to prepare us. I had actually already taken lit crit.

When we were given the option to write about any book we wanted using any theory we wanted, my choice is probably unsurprising, and when I was choosing which papers to include in my portfolio, I couldn’t resist having something about Harry Potter in it.

Feminist literary criticism explores the use of gender in literary works, although there are numerous different branches of feminist criticism that focus on different aspects of works. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling may not be immediately thought of from the perspective of feminist criticism because of its male protagonist, but gender can provide an interesting way to look at the Harry Potter series even if some allowances have to be made that it is not a perfect way of looking at the series.

Although some critics are hesitant to focus on an author when studying a work, feminist critics might find it interesting that the Harry Potter series is written by a woman who chose to write about a male protagonist. This could provide an interesting perspective to study as the story is told by a female perspective even though the main character is male and should have a male perspective. American feminist critics, in particular, might be interested in this as they often focus on female authorship (Bressler 154). If the critic was really willing to bring in outside information, they could also explore the fact that J.K. Rowling decided to go by initials because her publishers did not think boys would buy her books if they knew they were written by a woman. That raises interesting questions over how female authorship of a story such as the Harry Potter series is viewed.

Of the three main characters of the series, two are male and one is female. Feminist critics might be interested in studying the differences between the three characters, especially considering Hermione, the female, is the one who is considered smart and “uptight” about following the rules while Ron and Harry, the males, are more easygoing about both school and breaking the rules. A cultural feminist critic could analyze whether any of these differences in personality were a result of gender (Bressler 158).

Going outside of the main characters, feminist critics could study the gender of those in power in the novels through Kate Millett’s idea of sexual politics (Bressler 150). Many of the most powerful figures in the novel are male. Harry is “the Chosen One” who is tasked with defeating “the Dark Lord” who is also male. There are multiple Ministers of Magic during the series, and every single one of them is male. There are two headmasters of Hogwarts during the series that are male, although McGonagall takes over as Headmistress at the very end of the last novel. Feminist critics might find these positions of power interesting to study.

Expanding on that, there are female characters who are in positions of power underneath the males. McGonagall is deputy headmistress underneath Dumbledore. Umbridge has an important position at the Ministry of Magic and is very loyal to the Minister of Magic Fudge. Bellatrix is one of the Death Eaters that Voldemort seems to keep close, and she is fiercely loyal to him to the point that it is basically an obsession. All of these women are in relatively powerful positions, but they all answer to men. That would help deepen an analysis of the Harry Potter series that discussed sexual politics.

While few women are in top positions of power in the series, there is one position that is given great importance in the series and dominated by women: motherhood. The love of mothers is a powerful image through the Harry Potter series. Lily Potter died in order to save Harry’s life, and her sacrifice becomes a key aspect of Harry finally defeating Voldemort. Feminist critics might be interested in studying why Rowling decided to use Harry’s mother for this position instead of his father.

In addition to Lily Potter, feminist critics might be interested in studying Molly Weasley. Molly is a stay-at-home mother who is fiercely dedicated to her children. Although she does not have a job, she does join the Order of the Phoenix in the fifth novel, but her job there seems to largely revolve around making sure Grimmauld Place runs smoothly. Readers witness her fight for the Order, but it never seems to be her primary goal in the organization. Her position as a mother is her most note-worthy characteristic and what defines her throughout the series, which opens up even more the discussion of mothers within the Harry Potter series. Arthur Weasley is portrayed in a very different way, which could also contribute to the contrast between mothers and fathers throughout the series.

Magic itself could also contribute to an interesting discussion amongst feminist critics. Amazon feminism asserts that women and men are equal physically and would probably be interesting in studying the differences between men and women fighting in a war (Bressler 157). In Harry Potter, the war is fought with magic alone. There is no physical aspect. Whether or not men and women are physically equal becomes more or less irrelevant because physical strength is not how they overpower each other. This would no doubt provide an interesting way to compare the world in Harry Potter to reality.

At the same time, there are also a few problems with studying the Harry Potter series using feminist criticism. The biggest is that the series takes place in a fictional world with a social structure entirely different from real social structures. The culture in Harry Potter has no doubt been influenced by our own culture because of the author, but readers of the series cannot know the entire history and social context of that world. While it is true that most of the powerful leaders in the novel are male, maybe that just happens to be a coincidence. Maybe there have been plenty of females in power before but there just are not at the time of the novels. It may seem unlikely, but no one can really know for sure. There is no certainty that the wizarding world holds the same view on women in power that is common in our own culture.

While there may be a few cautions to keep in mind, studying Harry Potter using feminist criticism can provide valuable insight into the text. A female author writing about a male protagonist automatically opens up questions about the role gender plays in the series, and there are plenty of aspects of gender throughout the series that could easily be explored. Doing so could greatly enrich any interpretation of the novels.

Works Cited

Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice. Boston: Longman, 2011. Print

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