Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter, and the gender matrix

Before I go into the gender issues of the fourth Harry Potter book, Goblet of Fire, as usual, I want to say: the book is great. I am going straight to the next one: Order of the Phoenix.

I didn’t love this Harry Potter as much as the others; this is the first time I’ve read a new one and not adored it more than the last. The first chapter was great and terrifying. But after that, 200 pages of Quidditch and Ministry politics bored me. Too many names and characters. Of course, it also annoyed me that the Quidditch heroes and ministry bigwigs are all male.

If it were not for the last 150 pages, I would be giving the book a harsher review right now. But that last section, oh my God, it is terrifying. The plot twists are so boggling and compelling, I reached multiple level of shock. I watched the movie last night and thought it was good, but there is just no way the film can replicate the complexity or the terror of these pages.

Here’s a passage describing Harry’s first look at Voldemort:

It was as though Wormtail had flipped over a stone and revealed something ugly, slimy, and blind–but worse, a hundred times worse. The thing Wormtail had been carrying had the shape of a crouched human child, except that harry had never seen anything less like a child. It was hairless and scaly-looking, a dark, raw, reddish black. It’s arms and legs were thin and feeble, and it’s face–no child alive ever had a face like that–flat and snakelike, with gleaming red eyes.

The thing seemed almost helpless; it raised its thin arms, put them around Wormtail’s neck, and Wormtail lifted it. As he did so, his hood fell back, and Harry saw the look of revulsion on Wormtail’s weak, plae face in the firelight as he carried the creature to the rim of the cauldron. For one moment, Harry saw the evil, flat face illuminated in the sparks dancing on the surface of the potion. And then Wormtail lowered the creature into the cauldron; there was a hiss, and it vanished below the surface; Harry heard its frail body hit the bottom with a soft thud.

Eek. Chills. And this goes on, relentlessly, for pages of scary shit.

As far as the rest of the book and my thoughts on it, the Harry Potter gender matrix remains firmly intact. Mad-Eye Moody, a character I loved, is the fourth Dark Arts teacher to be male. Will we ever get a female?

Bertha Jorkins, the only female Ministry official I’ve noticed, is present in her absence as deconstructionists would say.

The villain of the book is male. I can’t name a female Death Eater.

Winky and Rita Skeeter are new female characters with key parts. Winky’s part is small but important.

Mostly, I am pissed about Fleur Delcour. The only female champion to compete, one out of four. Not only did she suck as a competitor, in the book and the movie, but the male competitors, Krum and Cedric, have much bigger parts. And Fleur is half-Vela? What is up with the Vela? They’re supposed to be sirens?

I actually felt like the whole Triwizard tournament was contrived, a plot device. Why would Hogwarts create danger when there is so much danger already? When Dumbledore apologizes to Harry at the end for putting him in danger, I said to my TV “You should be sorry.”

I continue to love Hermione, but it annoys me how she is always above it all. Ron gets pissed at Harry for getting all the attention. I am pissed at Harry for getting all of the attention. But Hermione, she’s OK with it. Why? Obviously, when she waves her hand in the air, wanting to be called on, she is desperate for recognition.

Hermione doesn’t care about Harry’s stardom, because that is the role of the female, specifically the Minority Feisty, in kidlit. She is brave, she is smart, she is strong, but her purpose, and this could not be more true with Hermione, is to help the male on his quest.

Why is being the designated “helper” a bad thing? Helpers exist in all myths, be they fairy godmothers or talking animals. They exist in myths because they exist in real life. Anything we accomplish, we don’t do alone. That is not to say that helpers don’t turn into betrayers or monsters later in the story; that can happen, but helpers are always there; no one accomplishes anything without help. Recognizing that and opening up to it, helps dreams come true. But too often, females are cast in the role of helper, not quester. So who supports females as they risk taking actions to accomplish their dreams? Whether in the form of a cheerleader, a smiling/ applauding first lady, or a Hermione, men are shown, if they dare to achieve, they will have support. Women, not so much.

One thing I did like about Hermione– and this may surprise you– is her transformation into “beauty.” I liked that Rita Skeeter called her pretty before she turned against her and that Hermione won the admiration of Qidditch stud, Victor Krum. The reason I liked this take on Hermione is because I could not be more sick of the smart/ mousy-beautiful/ dumb dichotomy females are forced into. The ugly feminist and dumb beauty queen are flip sides of the same coin; stereotypes that keep all women down. What if women didn’t have to choose? What if we could be smart and beautiful? Think more women would run for office or become CEOs? Women are taught the more success they achieve, the more unattractive they will become. Men are told the opposite. How do you think that affects ambition and motivation? With Hermione in this book, J. K. Rowling broke out of the gender matrix, and I applaud her for it.

My nine year old daughter read most of the last third of the book with me. It was kind of funny because she kept telling me she didn’t want to listen until I got to the underwater part and I can totally see why. That girl has good taste. Later, when I complained about it, she told me later that she had no idea what happened it the beginning of the book. It’s true, it’s a confusing opening after the first pages.

After we finished, my daughter drew this.

It’s adorable, but, aside from some exceptions as mentioned above, I feel like this series is such a lesson in, a replication of, the gender matrix. There it is in her picture: 2 boys, 1 girl; boy is the lead; the text celebrates his competition and victory.

Look at the cover:

It’s not so much J. K. Rowling that I take issue with, but all the people that told me this is a feminist series. It’s not. Yes, it has more female characters than most, but it has a lot of characters. These are 7 books, some over 500 pages. As I keep writing about it, this is a great series, but it’s Harry’s story.

Reel Girl rates Goblet of Fire ***H***