Finally, Reel Girl devours Harry Potter

I’ve only finished The Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, and I’m going to give you my bottom line first: I love the Harry Potter books.

The series is brilliant and engaging, suspenseful and so well plotted. Most of all, I love the characters. J.K. Rowling creates a magical world with heroes who readers can relate to and admire and also scary, evil villains who we passionately root against. Rowling does a great job of hooking the reader into these relationships. We see real friendships and rivalries form through a series of events that we were there for, that we witnessed and were a part of; that, for me, that is the most engaging aspect of the book.

So here’s my history with Harry Potter:

I saw a couple of the movies but had a hard time following them because I hadn’t read the books. Therefore, though they were beautiful to watch, I didn’t quite get what all the fuss was about.

When my daughter was in first grade, I started reading the books to her. But when reading time was over, she was rushing down into her bed, hiding under her covers with a flashlight, reading late into the night. The next day at reading time, our reading time, she would be 100 pages ahead. Left in the dust, I was lost. No matter how she tried to fill me in, I grew frustrated with the fragments that made no sense to me, and I gave up. Liberated, my daughter finished the series on her own (then went back and read the whole thing again and again.)

My third challenge with Harry, I’ve written about before on Reel Girl: I wish J. K. Rowling had made a female character front and center. Hermione is a great character, but she is there to support and help Harry on his quest. There are many other strong female characters but, still, I don’t feel the total gender equality in this imaginary world the way I do in The Hunger Games. Hogwarts is run by men (don’t get me wrong, I adore Dumbledore). So far, Harry’s main rivals: Voldemort, Snape, and Malfoy are also male. Not only that, but why is J.K. Rowling “J.K.”?

One more complaint so far, fat people don’t come off so well. Poor Dudley is portrayed as selfish, spoiled, and greedy, personified by his body and eating pattern which is constantly mocked. I don’t like Dudley, of course, but I feel sorry for him getting such a bad rap because he is fat. The reason I bring this up is because making fun of fat characters happens so often in kids’s books. But so far (I have to keep writing “so far” because there are 7 long books) it doesn’t seem that in the series fat equals evil with any consistency. I LOVE how J. K. Rowling mocks the vain and idiotic Gilderoy Lockhart. She wins lots of points with me here: I am happy to see a man be so in love with his reflection. As we know, mirrors and females have a long, long history in kidlit.

So while I have some issues, finally reading Harry Potter on my own– no kids, no movies– I cannot put it down! It is as good as I was told it would be. A boarding school for wizards and witches may be the best setting for a series of all time.

Reel Girl ratings are based on girlpower and I’ve only read the first two books: Reel Girl rates Harry PotterĀ  1 & 2***H***

11 thoughts on “Finally, Reel Girl devours Harry Potter

  1. I’m really enjoying this discussion… apologies if I’m commenting on your posts out of order. I’m reading them that way! :)

    You will find that, although Hermione is portrayed as a “sidekick”, she is every bit as powerful a character as Harry, and she definitely holds her own; stronger than he is in some respects, and providing a nice yin to his and Ron’s yang (is there a ‘third’ side of yin and yang? Because they compliment one another that way). If I had a daughter, I would be proud for her to look up to Hermione. And as for her “magicking away” her physical flaws… it is only ONE flaw that she does that with. The hair thing, well, she “magicked it” the same way the rest of us do – with products that last for one night, and then thought.. the heck with it, it’s too much bother!!

    Hermione also (again, TRYING to avoid spoilers) becomes a fierce defender of ALL those downtrodden… and she is equally admired and ridiculed for it. But it is part of her strong personality, and she stands by it until the very end.

    And I have to agree with Nicola on the topic of Dudley – I didn’t get that he was mean because he was fat, I got it the other way around. He is spoiled, lazy, gluttonous, and entitled, and *therefore* is fat. He is not portrayed “oh, he’s fat, therefore he’s mean and stupid”. It’s a fine line, I agree, but it’s there.

    And McGonagal, she is one wicked-tough witch. Doesn’t matter that she isn’t “head” anything, she’s still one of the strongest characters in the book – equally powerful as the men, and providing a calming and intellectual response in the face of some of Harry’s more temperamental moments.

    Stick with it, Margot, I think you’ll enjoy the character development.

  2. Margot, your instincts about unattractive appearance being equated with unattractive personalities are dead on. Look at how she describes the Slytherins: Pansy, Marcus, Crabbe and Goyle are all pictured as physically unappealing. The “Fat Lady” in the portrait is giddy and vain. Hermione starts out with bushy hair and big teeth, but midway through the series she learns to magic these features away, and she is suddenly “a pretty girl”. It’s true that there are good looking evil people (The Malfoys and probably Voldemort himself when younger) but Rowling relies far too much on the kids’s book cliche of ugliness.

    • Hi Lesley,

      Oh no, Hermione “magics” those features away in the books? I thought that was a Hollywood adaptation..

      I obviously get why writers use the ugly-evil cliche, from the men who wrote the Bible to J. K. Rowling, but I agree that its lazy. The real point is that if you love someone, they are beautiful to you, right? But its been simplified into a reversed metaphor that is bad for kids to read again and again.

      MM

      • I am sure you have found now that you have read the series, it’s not so cut and dried, as she magicked herself pretty. She uses a potion to do her hair (basically using “product”) for the yule Ball, and the next day when her hair is as wild as it ever was she says it was nice to do, but way too much for every day, and as for her teeth, her parents are dentists, they were (since we could not see i assume retainers) working on her teeth and felt strongly that dentistry and magic should not mix- when her teeth were magically elongated she let Pomfry “carry on a bit” to help in the process. (We generally don’t fault people for orthodontics.) i do tthink the movie played a big part on how we see the characters. I would have been fine with cute little Emma Watson, (she will always be Hermione, though so often I was infuriated by the movie adaptations for major plot changes) I never saw Hermione as unattractive just a bit big toothed and with wild hair- it was generally mean kids who described her super negatively, if only they had kept up the bushy hair- though they never got Harry’s hair right really either.

  3. They get better as you get deeper into the series, and you’ll notice good and bad female characters as well. No spoilers. But in books 1 and 2 you should see that Professor McGonagall is a pretty strong willed female teacher, and she’s high up in the school heirarchy if I remember correctly.

    • Hi Bridget,

      Professor McGonagall is a good character but not as good or as high up as Dumbledore; she is Depity Headmaster, he is headmaster and the greatest wizard of all time. Maybe McGonalgall will rise in position? But no spoilers please (dealing with my kids not revealing all is hard enough!) I am also curious if there is a Head Girl as well as a Head Boy? Tom Ridell (Voldemort) was Head Boy.

      MM

      • There is a Head Girl; the prefects and Head Boy/Girl system follows that of the traditional British boarding school.

        Regarding fat Dudley, my take is that he’s more reviled for being selfish and greedy (and, as a consequence, fat) than for simply being fat. He also gets some serious character development from book 5 onward.

        I agree with you on the prevalence of male characters. There are some really awesome female characters, like Hermione, McGonagall, and Mrs Weasley, as well as some female villains whom you won’t have encountered yet (one of whom many fans find more hate-worthy than Voldemort), but the protagonist, his mentor, and the series antagonist are all male. Additionally, supposedly she went by JK rather than her first name because she was told boys wouldn’t read the books otherwise.

        That said, I’ve always seen the magical world as being more gender-equal than our own. For a start, Hogwarts was founded over a thousand years ago by two men and two women, so when the muggle world was viewing women as property and guilty of Eve’s sin the magical world was entrusting their children’s education to women.

        • Hi Nicola,

          Happy to know there is a Head Girl but because I am a stickler about all this, why not just Head? The title of Headmaster has been switched to Head of School at most schools, right? As far as traditional British boarding school model, isn’t that a sexist one, in many ways?

          I went to boarding school and we had prefects. When I went, there were 5 Senior Prefects and one was female. Out of those 5, one was the head. My school had never had a female head Senior Prefect. My sister also went to boarding school, there had also never been a female head Senior Prefect, and the school, after she left, instituted the rule that there had to be one female head and one male head, because of that sexism. Wouldn’t it be great if Harry Potter’s imaginary world was beyond that?

          Looking back, I think my boarding school experience helped to make me into a feminist because it was there, in part, that I was exposed to sexism, racism, and classism. It was there that I first heard words like “spearchucker” referring to the few African-American kids, and also became aware if how the males (their sports events, their cliques) ruled the school, which was of course, my whole world. Of course, this was 25 years ago, and I didn’t last long– I was expelled sophomore year : )

          Regarding Dudley, I feel like the problem is that, in narratives, so often fat represents those characteristics of greed and selfishness. I am excited to see his transition, though.

          As far as JK, I totally believe what you wrote, and I’ve blogged before that if that is true, she probably made the right decision. She was a single mom, trying to make it as a writer. If using her initials could help her cross that sexist boundary, then do it, I guess. And maybe that is also why her protag is a male. I know she saaid he came to her that way in her imagination, but even if that is true, it doesn’t make it not sexist. In fact, that’s what my blog is about: sexism has colonized our imaginations.

          Agree Hogwarts is less sexist than our own, but that’s not saying much. I do love your point about Hogwarts being founded 1,000 years ago by 2 women and 2 men. That is radical, and I hadn’t thought about that. Though the two houses with the biggest roles in the book (Gryffindor and Slytherin) are the ones founded by males.

          MM

          • I actually kind of like that it’s a Head Girl and Head Boy. Part of the appeal of Harry Potter is that it blends the British boarding school genre of authors like Enid Blyton with high fantasy, and for that to work it has to follow the school set-up the audience would recognise. It *could* have a senior prefect, but that’s rarer than Head Girl and Head Boy in real life. It would be nice from a feminist perspective to see a gender-neutral role, but that would throw the realism of the school setting off. It’s not just a British boarding school that Hogwarts is reminiscent of, but an old-fashioned British boarding school; the Ordinary Wizarding Levels are a clear corrollary for Ordinary Levels sat by real-life Muggle students in their fifth year of high school from the 50s to the 80s.

            Alternatively, it just didn’t occur to JKR to have a gender-neutral role because she was modelling it on her real-life understanding of such schools and the genre, but either way I do think it adds to the verisimilitude of Hogwarts as a 20th-century boarding school.

            That’s a good point about Dudley. I think that JKR relies on stereotypes and tropes more in the earlier books, then as she improves as a writer she starts deconstructing them, hence Dudley being fat and greedy in book 1 but more rounded by book 5.

            But Ravenclaw’s the best house ;) I kind of think of the wizarding world as being a situation where the author tried to make it gender equal but JKR has a degree of ingrained sexism and didn’t quite succeed. The previous Minister for Magic was a woman and the world made no fuss over it, but then all the subsequent Ministers in the book, which are full characters and not mere names, are male. There are a lot of really great female characters in the book, but like you said her protagonist seems by default to have been a boy.

  4. About the “fat problem”… You will get to know better a character that portraits “fat” as loving, caring and generous: Mrs Weasley. She’s fierce, smart, a mama bear who will do anything for the ones she loves. And Harry points out that Mrs Weasley is the exact oposit of Mrs Dursley, who is thin and bitter. Mrs Weasley is made of sugar, spice and everything nice. :)

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