Harry Potter & Women: Are Women Treated Equally in Harry Potter Stories?

Many critics have alleged that J.K. Rowling has done the female readers of her Harry Potter series of books a serious disservice by portraying a world where women are ostensibly equal (there are no formal rules that prohibit equality) but nevertheless remain in positions of inferiority. Men are in charge everywhere; women hold secondary positions at best. This supposedly sends the message that a social system which lacks forced inequality, but in which inequality is nevertheless pervasive, is normal and acceptable.

Others, though, argue that female characters are very important in the Harry Potter books and, even if they aren’t the primary characters, the books give no indication that women are inferior to men. Women are portrayed positively throughout the books and thereby provide positive role models to both male and female readers. Every fictional story has to have some primary and some secondary characters; the fact that the primary characters happen to be male while the secondary characters happen to be female is not necessarily sexist.

The question about whether the depiction of women, gender, and family in the Harry Potter books is more conservative or more progressive has received much less attention than other debates, for example whether the books promote witchcraft or immorality. This may be because the most vocal and organized critics of Harry Potter are conservative Christians who, if they even notice conservative trends in the books, are more likely to agree with them than to raise complaints.

Leftist critiques of the books are more infrequent and rarely receive much media attention.

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What's at Stake?

All adults, not just parents, have an interest in how children’s books portray gender roles and families because they become part of the cultural fabric for succeeding generations.

Ideas matter: when children are consistently faced with one way of structuring social relationships, it can become difficult to imagine that things could be any different. That, in turn, makes future social change more difficult.

Children’s books are supposed to open up worlds of possibility and inspire children’s imagination about what could be. To the extent that children’s books merely reflect the dominant cultural patterns and structures around us, they fail to accomplish this goal.

In Harry Potter's World, Elizabeth E. Heilman argues that how children’s books portray men and women matters because:

  • “...adolescent girls read in a realist manner, texts represent a dangerous seduction. Girls tend to read romance texts as preparation for the romances they foresee as part of their immediate future.”

British research Susan Darker-Smith has found that girls who grow up with and enjoy fairy tales like Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast are more likely to become submissive adult women and, even worse, become victims in abusive relationships. Such stories create “templates” of girls’ expectations of themselves and their partners. Michael Townend, senior lecturer in psychotherapy at the University of Derby, commented:

  • “We know that storytelling is an important way that children form beliefs about themselves and relationships.”

The Harry Potter stories are not so extreme as traditional fairy tales, but it is clear that books which depict women in subordinate roles and who are focused on providing emotional support for men in their lives help prepare female readers to adopt such roles themselves later in life. If it’s true that the Harry Potter books are ideologically conservative, then both the books themselves as well as the wider cultural phenomenon should be read more critically.

Women in Harry Potter: Equal

The most important female character in the Harry Potter books is Hermione Granger. She is also one of the most important characters overall and is based upon J.K. Rowling herself. All of the books develop her close friendship with Harry Potter and Ron Weasly, the other two main characters. There is never any indication that she is regarded as inferior, either by her close friends or by anyone else, simply because she is female.

In fact, she is often depicted as superior when it comes to wielding magical powers. She knows more than Ron and Harry and is often called upon to perform spells which they cannot. She is confident in her own skills, doesn’t depend upon male characters to defend her, and stands up for herself whenever necessary. She is, overall, a very positive image of what it means to be a girl for both male and female readers.

Hermione is not the only positive female role model in the books. Other girls who appear in Hogwarts school are treated as equals by both students and staff — at no point is there any indication that girls are considered inferior. When battling the Death Eaters at the Ministry of Magic in Order of the Phoenix, the girls play an equal role with the boys and do just as much to defeat the evil witches and wizards.

Equality also extends to the adults in the Harry Potter books. The second-in-command of the school is a female professor, Minerva McGonagall.

She as well as other female professors are depicted as strong, knowledgeable, and caring. Negative female characters like Rita Skeeter and Bellatrix Lestrange are not portrayed as being inferior simply because they are female.

Women in Harry Potter: Unequal

Superficially, women in Harry Potter seem to be equal to the men but a closer reading reveals that they are not.

At every stage, women are depicted in secondary positions of power and authority — women are never in charge in their own right or on their own terms; instead, their power is entirely secondary to that of the men.

Hermione Granger may be an important character, but she is still secondary to Harry Potter. At times she stands up for herself, but in the very first book she is depicted as frozen and unable to fight a troll which had entered Hogwarts; Harry and Ron, however, are able to act. Hermoine is portrayed as smarter than others, but her knowledge is used primarily for the benefit of others, not herself.

Professor McGonagall, too, holds a secondary position of power below Professor Dumbledore. Nowhere in the Harry Potter books are we introduced to a woman who is in charge of something. The closest examples of a woman who is in charge are the women who are in charge of their homes. Closely conforming to traditional cultural patterns, J.K. Rowling depicts just two family households: the Dursleys and the Weasleys. Both have a woman as housekeeper without a known career while the man is the breadwinner.

Subtle characterizations of men and women reinforce cultural stereotypes. Women, when not frightened, giggling, or generally emotional, are described as comforting, consoling, and providing emotional support to the male characters.

They are also frequently insecure about their looks and how men will see them. Successful men, on the other hand, are consistently portrayed as brave, overcoming obstacles, and self-confident. Weak men are portrayed as failures, effeminate, and generally lacking the attributes of true masculinity.

Where It Stands

It is true that books do not explicitly say anything about female characters being inferior and there is no hint as to the existence of rules that would keep women in a subordinate status. That, however, is not the final word on whether men and women are equal. There are no longer any formal laws or rules which force blacks into inferior roles in American society, but it would be hard to argue that therefore blacks and whites in America are equal. There is more to equality than formal rules and laws.

Because of this, critics of the Harry Potter books have focused on the differences between how male and female characters are portrayed. Men are aggressive and adventurous, women are passive and afraid; men are self-confident, women are self-conscious about their looks; men are bread winners, women maintain the household; men act in leadership roles, women act in support of men’s leadership; men take risks, women comfort and console; successful men embody masculine qualities, inferior men are effeminate and/or failures.

These generalizations are not true 100% of the time, but they are true far more often than not. The world of Harry Potter which J.K. Rowling has created is very close to our own in terms of culturally conservative gender ideology. Indeed, it’s likely that part of the pleasure of reading the books stems from how comfortingly familiar they are — they don’t challenge or question people’s notions about what is appropriate for men and women.

Elizabeth E. Heilman writes near the end of her essay on the portray of gender and family in the Harry Potter books:

  • “Certainly, books such as these help to normalize a world in which most childcare workers and secretaries are female and most world explorers, engineers, and firefighters are male.”

The absence of anything that challenges traditional assumptions means that the Harry Potter books serve to perpetuate stereotypes of both men and women.