Prisoner of Azkaban and the subtle patriarchy of Harry Potter

First things first: I loved Prisoner of Azkaban. I could not put it down. I am onto book 4. That is a big deal for me. Since I started Reel Girl, I have read the first book of many series, because I want to get a good idea of what is out there. It is rare that I keep going and going, but with Harry Potter, I cannot stop.

Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite book so far, and I loved the first two. For me, reading Harry Potter is like being in an incredible relationship where you fall more in love everyday.

Part of the reason I was so into this book was the dementors, terrifying and compelling new characters. J. K. Rowling’s description of them is one of the scariest I have read in kidlit:

Standing in the doorway, illuminated by the shivering flames in Lupin’s hand, was a cloaked figure that towered to the ceiling. Its face was completely hidden beneath its hood.  Harry’s eyes darted downward and what he saw made his stomach contract. There was a hand protruding from the cloak and it was glistening, grayish, slimy-looking, and scabbed, like something dead that had decayed in water.

But it was only visible for a split second. As though the creature beneath the cloak sensed Harry’s gaze, the hand was suddenly withdrawn into the folds of its black cloak.

And then the thing beneath the hood, whatever it was, drew a long, slow, rattling breath, as though it were trying to suck something more than air from its surroundings.

An intense cold swept over them all. Harry felt his own breath catch in his chest. Th ecold went deeper than his skin. It was inside his chest. It was inside his very heart…

The scabby hand looking like it had decayed in water! EEK.

So are we clear, I love Harry Potter?

Not only do I love it, J.K. Rowling is the writer. She can call herself the androgynous “J.K.” if she wants to, for God’s sake. And, if she wants to create an imaginary world that is a patriarchy, it is her right to do so.

But this is what I want to write about it: Harry Potter’s world, both the Muggle one and Hogwarts, are patriarchies. Before I read Harry Potter, I was often told that the series is populated with strong females, and it is. But the females are sidelined to the males, and it’s important to recognize that there is not gender equality in this popular series the way there is in the The Hunger Games. The reason this inequality is important to acknowledge is because the imaginary world, 99% of the time, is sexist. If we cannot imagine equality, we cannot create it.

Okay, have I qualified my criticism enough?

Here we go. I am going to point out how the sexism of Hogwarts and the Muggle world that I have already referred to in previous posts is further advanced in Prisoner of Azkaban.

First, the book cover:

The cover shows Harry riding Buckbeak, the Hippogriff, with Hermione clinging to his back. How many times have you seen this image of male in front, girl behind? It’s all over kidlit, in movies and in books, and my God, its all over the grown up world. It’s everywhere on the streets when you see a guy on his bike, the woman behind him. Do you ever see a female alone on her dragon? What about a dragon that is also a female, like in for example the reverse of “How to Train Your Dragon,” which features a male rider and male beast. Do you ever see a female rider with the male behind her, clinging to her back? This gendered, repetitive image sends the message that the male drives while the female is along for the ride. It’s a powerful message and it’s everywhere in the imaginary world. I was disappointed to see it in Harry Potter.

Then there is Lupin. I loved Lupin, but he is the third male Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, the most important class at Hogwarts.

Sirius Black is a great character, but also male. I loved discovering the history of friendship between Harry Potter’s dad, Lupin, Sirius, Peter Pettigrew, but they are all male. Lily, Harry’s mother, apparently hung out with the group, but she wasn’t an animagus. She was the only female.

Mrs. Weasley and Mrs. Dursley are both homemakers while Mr. Weasley and Mr. Dursley have careers that factor into the plot.

Percy Weasley is the Head Boy. For a while, I couldn’t even figure out if there is a Head Girl. I have, now, seen the Head Girl referred to, but I don’t know her name or what she does. She has no role in the book so far.

The Minister of Magic is male and the headmaster of Hogwarts is male. Hogwarts was started by two males and two females 1000 years ago and that is progressive, but the two houses started by the males, Gryffindor and Slytherin, dominate the series.

Chang Cho, the Ravenclaw seeker, is the only girl on the team. Would there be a Quidditch team with only one male? Is there a female captain? So far the rivalry between Slytherin and Gryffindor is between two male captains.

To me, it seems like Quidditch is a boy’s game in which girls are allowed to play. I feel the same way about the series.

18 thoughts on “Prisoner of Azkaban and the subtle patriarchy of Harry Potter

  1. In the Inheritance series (beginning with Eragon – by Christopher Paolini) the dragon is female. Ridden by a young man, but still, female. And though the first book is named for the male character, the dragon has a major role in the story & is really his other half.

  2. Hi,
    Being a major fan of the Harry Potter series myself (being a Potter-head for almost four years) it did not really get brought to my attention about the way that the characters were positioned. Being a feminist myself, I believe that stereotypes should not be assumed on people, however when you see that it is Harry riding Buckbeak (aka Witherwings) and not Hermione, it seems to make more sense considering that Harry is the lead role of the series.

    As the time moves on throughout Hogwarts, I think that the women develop stronger characters, being more successful. I can tell you a female does captain the Gryffindor team at some point through the series (sorry for the spoiler) and that a lot of the women become more important and portrayed in a stronger light. I think Mrs Weasley in particular has a very fierce persona when needs be. I like the use of strong women, though I suppose it would improve the series if they were mentioned more.

  3. “Buckbeak, the Hippogriff, with Hermione clinging to his back. How many times have you seen this image of male in front, girl behind?”

    It’s also good to remember the many times (though not in Harry Potter) accompanying scenario. The “guy riding, girl clinging on him” is often used in a scene where he takes her to experience something she’s never seen before, opening her mind and changing her perspective on life, or on a central issue, realizing he’s right.

    Think “Alladin” where Alladin takes Jasmine to see the world like she always wished but couldn’t achieve on her own, with the appropriate theme “A whole new world”. Or think “How to train your dragon” where Hiccup makes, with a sudden ride, Astrid see the dragons the way he learned to do on his own after several weeks.

    It’s also very common that the girl has to cling on the guy physically or emotionally. In Alladin, when she closes her eyes, possibly overwhelmed, he reassures her kindly “don’t you dare close your eyes”. In “How to train your dragon”, after a quick turn Astrid has to strongly hold on Hiccup so she won’t fall, and it’s at that moment we first see her showing attraction to him.

    Of course, these are just two examples, but they are everywhere. I’m sure you can find many more. These scenes, though visually beautiful, comply with the long held idea (for those that don’t believe this, just do some research) that a woman can count on a man to bring excitement and inspiration to her life, or even put her in the right track. Which is an unfair message to men and women, women because they’ll be disappointed to find men have their own lives to take care of first, and men because they shouldn’t be burdened with a responsability that isn’t theirs.

    • Hi Aninha,

      Yes, and I get this image, and think also, in the grown up narrative, the romanticized “bad boy” can play that role, taking the female off for the start of adventure, but its too much. Jasmine, or some females, should be able to fly the carpet and take Aladdin– or whomever– along for the ride. The way it is now, the message is girls need boys to wake up, if they get to wake up at all. Whereas for males, females are most often the prize or boon they win on their quest.

      MM

      • Absolutely, that was exactly my point. I’m glad to see you think the same way. And indeed, to be honest, I cannot think of one example of a girl riding on her own or similarly waking a guy up.

  4. i thoroughly understand your point, but aren’t there quite a few female quidditch players? angelina, katie, and alicia are all on the team.

    • oops, i see now. you were citing cho as the only female player for ravenclaw, not the only female player period. nevermind :)

  5. Shall I share with you the moment when I learned to loathe Kerouac? This is it (from “On the Road”):
    “In the empty Houston streets of four o’clock in the morning a motorcycle kid suddenly roared through, all bespangled and bedecked with glittering buttons, visor, slick black jacket, a Texas poet of the night, girl gripped on his back like a papoose, hair flying, onward-going, singing.”
    Familiar image? What happened was two people went past; what they saw was one person plus accessories.

  6. While I agree that it would be great to see a female-themed series, an author must choose one or the other if there is to be one main character. So, if the books were all titled “The Adventures of Hermione Granger and…” (which, don’t get me wrong, I *would* love), I’d expect to see Hermione featured, and it would make sense to have her as center on every book cover. With the books titled about Harry, it would seem a little strange to have Hermione featured front-and-center and Harry on the sidelines. I do find it interesting how Hermione and Harry are contrasted in the books – Hermione is very clever, and an excellent student and very capable witch (but is also loyal and brave); her skills lie in spell-casting, charms, and remembering incredible amounts of information (and being able to use it even when under pressure!). Harry, while also very good with magic, is not as clever, and not as able to remember facts. He, however, excels at flying, which then also translates to his being more comfortable flying on the hippogriff (though even he, I believe, prefers flying on a broom!) than Hermione. So, having read the book, the cover art makes sense, but you are right that it does, unfortunately, reinforce sexist stereotypes. In this particular case, though, I don’t think Rowling is trying to imply that girls are weak and boys are strong.

    Like many English (probably most?) boarding schools, Hogwarts is segregated by sex, so all the boys are in one dormatory within Griffindor (and I think you meant Griffindor, not Hufflepuff), and the girls are in another. I think it’s probably pretty reflective of real life that Harry’s dad’s close friends when he was a young teen were mostly male (whether this is due to societal pressures or just natural gravitation towards the same sex for friendships as one grows up could be debated – keeping in mind that emotional development occurs at different rates in boys and girls, and that a certain amount of seeking-out-like-minded-individuals is probably natural in looking for close friends); it is more unusual and interesting, in my opinion, that Harry has *Hermione* as a close friend (and not as a love interest!) as well as Ron. We do learn more about both Harry’s mom and his dad in later books.

    Regarding quidditch, you are quite correct to point out that the captains of Slytherin’s and Griffindor’s teams are male (and that, sadly, most of the Slytherin and Ravenclaw players are boys – I can’t remember about Hufflepuff). If you recall, though, all three chasers on the Griffindor team are female (at least in the first book – I think that’s true for later books as well, though I don’t remember when some of the girls graduate) – that’s 3 out of 7 players, not a bad ratio. And the chasers are the ones who score all the points aside from catching the snitch.

    I don’t object to your classifying the series as patriarchal; it clearly is so! I think the structure of it probably closely mirrors real-life British society and government, which is also patriarchal (female monarch aside). And I would welcome a kid-lit fantasy series featuring a girl! In addition to the Harry Potter books, I’ve been reading Pippi Longstocking books to my daughter, and she loves them. They were quite popular when I was young, though not as sensationally popular as the HP books.

    All in all, a thought-provoking post. Thank you!

    • Hi Suzanne,

      I agree the cover art “makes sense” given their characteristics. Narrative are constructed so that the gender roles “make sense” for the plot. That is why I try to focus on the narrative and how it is structured. For example, it “makes sense” for so many plots that such-and-such a female would be the creaming victim in trouble and such-in-such male would need to save her. I would like more narratives and character traits where different gender roles “make sense.”

      From a writer’s perspective, Hermione’s encyclopedic knowledge fills an important role, she is there to provide information necessary to the plot because she has read it and she remembers it. Brilliant of J.K> Rowing IMO.

      Yes, I meant Gryffindor! Thanks, someone else corrected that for me. I love that Harry and Hermione are BFFs, not romantic. You are right about the female/ males and that’s only not bad given the sexism, especially with the total players.

      MM

      • “I agree the cover art “makes sense” given their characteristics. Narrative are constructed so that the gender roles “make sense” for the plot. That is why I try to focus on the narrative and how it is structured.”

        I’m not sure what you’re trying to say here, but you seem to be saying that these characters conform to gender roles, and this gives JKR an “excuse” to have Harry fly Buckbeak. To an extent I suppose they do; Hermione is the one most likely to panic, for instance, and Harry is the athlete. On the other hand, Harry is more likely to give into his emotions (a stereotypically female trait) while Hermione often tells Harry and Ron what to do. Hermione ordering Harry and Ron around, even though she’s “the chick”, makes sense just as much as Harry flying Buckbeak, because she’s the knowledgeable, book-smart, one of the three. IOW, I think the extent to which they fit nicely into gender roles is just a part of their rich characterisation because, to be honest, most men and women exhibit *some* of the traits assigned to their gender.

        As for Lily not being an Animagus or close with the Marauders, well, read book 5 and then come back to it, K? I’ve got plenty to say on this topic but don’t want to spoil it for you.

          • I was mulling this over last night, and something occurred to me regarding Hermione being secondary to Harry. That’s not something that can be separated from the fact that JKR chose a male protagonist and tells the story from a single character’s perspective; likewise the argument could be made that the male characters are sidelined in The Hunger Games. That doesn’t mean it should necessarily be ignored, just that it’s something to bear in mind; if this had been the story of Harriet Potter and her friend Hermes riding the Hippogriff, you can bet that Harriet would be the one flying Buckbeak. The issue then is that the protagonist is male, which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing (50% of its audience are male), but is only an issue because male protagonists form a much larger percentage than 50% in non-gender-specific children’s fantasy, and thus by default female characters tend to be pushed to the side.

            On the other hand, I think you can more fairly compare the roles of Ron and Hermione, because they’re both in the position of sidekick/best friend. I find this interesting because in a way they actually subvert gender stereotypes. Personality-wise, Ron is more masculine and Hermione is more feminine. I would argue, though, that their in-story roles are the opposite of their gender. Ron is the “heart”, a more commonly feminine role, in that his strength is not in his ability to lead or his strength, but his loyalty and love for his friends. Hermione is, in a strange way, “the big guy”. She’s not physically strong, but that’s not the strength that matters in the wizarding world; it’s magical strength, and she has it in spades. Of course, Harry’s the leader, and he gets to be the one who can do Patronuses and such, but I still think it’s interesting that Hermione and Ron’s sidekick roles are gender-flipped.

            That was a lot longer than I’d meant to write. The tl;dr version is that there’s a natural gender imbalance based on the protagonist’s gender, in this case male, so comparing Hermione and Harry’s roles isn’t comparing like-for-like the same way comparing Hermione and Ron’s roles is. The former can’t be isolated from the choice to have a male protagonist, but the latter can, as can for instance the fact that the antagonist and mentor are male, not female.

          • Hi Nicola,

            Yes, she chose a male protag and she chose to write about a patriarchal imaginary world populated by many strong females and it is her right to do all of that.

            MM