So after I post that in Harry Potter #5, female characters move closer to center, I get this comment from Emily:
Before I write one word about my thoughts on the fifth book in the Harry Potter series, Order of the Phoenix, let me be clear. I bow at the feet of J.K. Rowling. She is a masterful storyteller. I am already onto Book 6. I can’t stop. I should say that my nine year old daughter is appalled that is has taken me months to complete Order, a book she finished in three days. My slow pace has forever shattered her view of the talents and skills and grown ups. We have our limits, now she knows. In my defense, I’m always reading about 7 – 10 books simultaneously, but this fact means nothing to her. She just shakes her head at me, her eyes sad.
In this fabulous installment, Rowling addresses a few of my on-going gender complaints with the series: no female Dark Arts teacher, no female head of Hogwarts, no super evil female villain, and no female Quidditch captain. With the wicked, Dolores Umbridge, Rowling creates a villain so wicked that reading about her made me feel weak in my knees.
Umbridge fascinates, in part, because she takes on typical characteristics of femininity: she is often seen in pink, speaks “sweetly,” often with a ladylike “ahem,” before voicing yet another shocking decree. Umbridge’s office is sickeningly prissy:
The surfaces had all been draped in lacy covers and cloths. There were several vases full of dried flowers, each residing on its own doily, and on one of the walls was a collection of ornamental plates, each decorated with a large, technicolor kitten wearing a different bow around its neck.
Swathing this evil woman in fluff reveals that “sugar, spice, and everything nice” is a put on, not just for Umbridge, but no one can live up to this persona. Lace, kitties, and a quiet, “polite” voice is simply another studied costume.
When Harry insists Voldemort is alive, he is sent to Umbridge’s office for detention to do lines in a chilling scene:
“You haven’t given me any ink,” he said.
“Oh, you won’t need ink,” said Professor Umbridge with the merest suggestion of a laugh in her voice.
Harry pressed the point of the quill on the paper and wrote: I must not tell lies.
He let out a gasp of pain. The words had appeared on the parchment in what appeared to be shining, red ink. At the same time, the words had appeared on the back of Harry’s right hand, cut into his skin as though traced there by a scalpel– yet even as he stared at the shining cut, the skin healed over again, leaving the place where it had been slightly redder than before but quite smooth.
Harry looked around at Umbridge. She was watching him, her wide toadlike mouth stretched in a smile.
“Nothing,” Harry said quietly…
And on it went. Again and again Harry wrote the words on the parchment in what he soon came to realize was not ink, but his own blood.
Creepy! I had to put the book down at that point and go consult with my daughter on the high level of Umbridge’s madness and meanness.
Important, complex female characters in Order don’t stop with Umbridge. Luna Lovegood, the misfit, smart, intuitive girl who befriends Harry has a real, spiritual connection with him, so much so that I would call actually them soulmates, in a non-romantic way. One of my favorite parts of this series is how Rowling creates cross-gender friendships and partnerships with no romantic tension clouding the relationship.
And then, with Angelina, finally, we get a female Quidditch captain. I was psyched to see a female in this part, but I can’t say I was that impressed with Angelina. She whined a lot and didn’t do much to save the team. Similarly, I was disappointed with Cho, Harry’s romantic interest who devolves in this book into a hyper-sensitive, sniveling, annoying character. At the very least, I wish Rowling could’ve written a scene or two showing how good Cho is and how Harry is in awe of her skill, is attracted to her because she can play, not just because she is pretty.
Tonks is a new witch on the scene, but I have to say that her klutziness reminded me of one of my least favorite characters in kidfiction, the good hearted imbecile, Amelia Bedelia.
At the end of the book, we meet Bellatrix Lestrange, a horrific, terrifying character who murders the brave, loyal, but arrogant Sirius. Though sad at Sirius’s death, and so sad for poor Harry, I was pleased to see a female be so instrumental in the plot as clearly, that means Lestrange is a character who will stay important to the action of the book.
Chapter Thirty-Three, pictured above, shows an image rarely seen out of the Pink Ghetto in kidlit: two female characters to one male, and he is not in the lead. The opening text underscores Hermione’s important position:
Harry had no idea what Hermione was planning, or even whether she had a plan. He walked half a pace behind her as they headed down the corridor outside Umbridge’s office, knowing it would look very suspicious if he appeared not to know where they were going.
While I think Hermione’s role will always be loyal friend, I like how she got to play her part in this book. Hermione essentially figures out that Voldemort is luring Harry into a trap and she warns him, yet Harry refuses to listen. This is an important role in the story, and I’m glad Hermione gets to play it.
So bottom line: Order is the best book for females so far in the Harry Potter series. Still, as I keep writing, clearly, this is Harry’s world. The rest of us just live in it. Thank you, Rowling, for allowing us the visit.
Reel Girl rates Order of the Phoenix ***HH***
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***
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 Potter 1 & 2***H***