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Iconography: Harry Potter and the Girls Who Weren’t Chosen Ones

The series may be barely over, but we all knew from about the fourth book on that Harry Potter is the children's literary icon of its time. Let's take a look at its author, J.K. Rowling, and the young ladies of the series.

J.K. Rowling is called that because her publishers insisted that boys wouldn't want to read a book written by a woman. Jo Rowling's story is a famous one, of writing in cafes while trying to take care of her daughter by herself. She's now the only person in the world to have become a US dollar billionaire through writing books. She's well known for her charitable work, particularly in aid of children in poverty, and for being extremely nice to her fans. And never mind her fiction, Rowling's The single mother's manifesto is one of the best things I've read this year.

Rowling said something in an interview with O Magazine in 2001 which I think really rather telling:

I had been writing the first book for six months before I stopped and thought, 'Why's he a boy?' And the answer is, He's a boy because that's the way he came. If I had stopped at that point and changed him to Harriet, it would have felt very contrived. My feminist conscience is saved by Hermione, who's the brightest character.

The hero of the piece is a boy, fair enough. He doesn't have the most heroic qualities–he can be petty, selfish, and so forth–which is pleasantly unusual and realistic. It's not Rowling's fault in particular, but she's playing into a pattern in which even the most unheroic boys in children's fiction get to be the main character rather than the most fitting of girls. Even the most heroic girl characters get shoved to the sidelines, because girls are a specialty but everyone can relate to boy characters, right? In the case of Harry Potter, some of the most iconic characters are the girls surrounding Harry, Hermione, Ginny and Luna in particular.

Hermione Granger is Rowling's feminist presence in the novel, of course. We're continually hit over the head with how clever she is, and it's Hermione's intelligent thinking that so often saves the day. Hermione is always guided by a strong set of ethics: She cares about social justice, as particularly embodied in her commitment to house elf rights where most of the wizarding world wouldn't think twice about their status. She nurses a passion for Ron, her best friend with Harry, but never loses her dignity for it. (Her "Just because you've got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn't mean we all have" line will never lose its punch.) And she's brave. Hermione has a fierce kind of commitment to the fight for peace and justice running through the series, even when that means modifying her parents' memories and sending them to Australia so they will be safe. She made it cool to be smart and forthright for a lot of girls.

Where Hermione has to fight the stigma of being a Muggleborn (of non-magical descent), this is a world Ginny Weasley was born into. That doesn't mean she has it easy: She's the only girl in a family with six older brothers. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, she's possessed by the evil Lord Voldemort and is forced to hurt her classmates. She comes out fighting, and develops into a mature, savvy young woman. I love that she's in charge of her own sexuality, unapologetic about dating other boys when she decides to leave her feelings for Harry be. Of course, she ends up with him eventually, but where Rowling could have so easily gone with making Ginny a pathetic character, hopelessly in love, Ginny is her own person. She's sporty, practical, and sharp. As a shy young girl, I related to her a lot, and loved seeing her develop as the years went on into the kind of person I hoped I'd be.

Luna Lovegood is the strange girl in all of us who doesn't fit in anywhere. There's a hilarious sequence in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in which she temporarily acts as the Quidditch commentator–except she tends to comment on things like cloud shapes rather than the actual game. She doesn't have many friends, as she frequently points out, to Harry's discomfort. She believes in the weird and wonderful, and Luna's incisive insights cause a few disagreeable yet clarifying moments for the other characters. My favorite Luna scene is when she dances by herself at a wedding in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which perfectly captures her absolute disregard for what anyone else thinks. Wandering about with her wand tucked behind her left ear, she's an independent sort, and pretty cool for that.

It's the girls of Harry Potter who make the magic happen for me!

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Comments

32 comments have been made. Post a comment.

This is spot on :)

This is spot on :)

Let's not forget Minerva

Let's not forget Minerva McGonagall! Never have I rooted for a teacher like I've rooted for her.

Oh absolutely, I loved

Oh absolutely, I loved Professor McGonagall. There are a number of strong or 'different' female adults in the novels too - I love Tonks. Another aspect that I enjoyed is the way that Quidditch teams aren't split down gender lines, and Hogwarts generally seems to be an equal-opportunity kind of place, which makes it differ markedly from real-life exclusive schools!

I LOVE McGonagall! She is my

I LOVE McGonagall! She is my favorite!

OMFG, PROFESSOR MCGONAGALL! I

OMFG, PROFESSOR MCGONAGALL! I EFFIN' LOVED HERRR!!! <3<3

i read this book when i was

i read this book when i was younger. as a smart womyn i felt identigied by dome of the characters: how the brainy ladies get to kiss the boys and how some of the older witches are described as wise and interesting looking(the main lady professor and that other young witch that could change her hair color??? dont remeber the names sorry!)however, i only remeber one appearance of a character of color. i wanted to identified with the characters but i couldnt do it completly! because none of them were non-white.

I can recall several, but the

I can recall several, but the thing that always bothered me (and, again, this is is not exclusive to Rowling) is that a character of colour might be specifically described as such where white characters never are. Then again, I know there is at least one character in the books who Rowling thought of as a character of colour, but never described as such, and he's coded as white in the films...

I agree. I was always

I agree. I was always bothered by the fact that race as mentioned only if the character was of a non-white color- but hey, at least it was mentioned- otherwise there might not be any "colored" characters in the films (lol). The Patel twins were not described as Indian I don't think.....Is that who you were referring to? What about Tonks?

No, I think it was one of the

No, I think it was one of the Gryffindor boys, but I can't remember who!

Who was this?

I'm curious to know which character this was...

Dean Thomas

I'm almost certain it was Dean Thomas. Jo Rowling wrote on her site that the producers of the movie were surprised when she told them he was Black. I love that she never mentioned it in the books and only brought it up when she kind of had to for the movie. I wish she didn't need to but apparently White is the default when race isn't mentioned.

I don't think she ever really mentioned Cho's race either, but it was assumed from her name.

Funny, because I always

Funny, because I always pictured Dean Thomas as black whenever I read the books (and I've read them several times, I started reading them when the third one was published, and then read them all in sequence before the newest one came out) but I do recall her describing him as a "tall black boy taller than Ron" or something of the other.

Actually, there are several

Actually, there are several characters of color, including Kingsley, Cho Chang, the Patil twins, and Lee Jordan.

they did not play any major

they did not play any major roles though...

They weren't the main

They weren't the main characters, but they did add to the story's development, their roles were quite significant in that they actually had a "voice" (POC are usually in the "background," if you get what I mean and they don't have voices at all), and they were written in a positive light, not based on negative, racial stereotypes. I felt they were very "human" and that there wasn't anything different about them. I hate how, whenever there are POC in stories, it's like such a big deal and people emphasize their ethnicity a lot, but J.K Rowling made them "normal" like the rest of the other kids in Hogwarts so I didn't think twice about reading about a person of colour in her stories.

Yes, exactly. I saw this

Yes, exactly. I saw this too.

Also, they were shown as being romantically desireable characters--this doesn't often happen for background characters of color. The Patil twins were said to be "the best-looking girls at the dance" or something like that in Book 4, Cho Chang was Harry's big crush for several years (and dated Cedric), Fred Weasley was attracted to Angelina Johnson (he went to the dance with her, at least), and Ginny dated Dean Thomas for nearly a full year. There aren't too many portrayals of interracial romances in fiction, so Rowling writing a few was awesome.

In Rowling's world, there seems to be little if any racial conflict in the way that we Muggles often see it. The Mudblood-vs-pureblood (or pureblood-vs-giant, or pureblood-vs-anyone) conflict stands in for pretty much everything that we have in the real world. It would've been nice if a character of color had been one of the main-main characters, but even though they weren't, she was still outside the norm when it came to their portrayal.

George Weasley married

George Weasley married Angelina Johnson and they had 2 children.

Hogwarts population is a microcosm of UK's

I read an explanation once that Rowling had carefully selected all her Hogwarts characters (named and unnamed, mentioned and unmentioned - because she had boxes and boxes of backstory that never made it into the books) so that they would reflect the ethnic and racial makeup of Great Britain. [Sorry, I googled to try to find the story again and couldn't.] The percentages of English, Scotish, Irish and Welsh, of black and white and Asian, of rich and poor, among other identifiers, supposedly are a perfect match for the country as a whole. (It's always rankled that there are no gay students - and an after-the-fact, "Oh, Dumbledore is gay, didn't you know?" totally didn't make up for that.) And Rowling intended her books, above all other things, to be British. I thought it was fascinating to see the amount of thought she had put into the demographics of her student body.

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Part of what I love about

Part of what I love about JKR's ladies is that, shock of shocks, there are MORE THAN ONE. I don't mean just population. Hermione, Ginny and Luna are all very different girls, even though they all share common fantasy heroine traits like attractiveness, intelligence, daring, emotional insight, and the ability to problem-solve in unique ways and in unexpected situations. In other fantasy novels (Eragon is coming to mind, and Lord of the Rings, though I haven't read either in years), even where there is more than one female character, we tend to get this Princess Zelda notion of general competence and beauty except when the hero has to step in. Rather than populating itself with shrieking Faye Wray clones, which are much easier to spot, sometimes I feel like modern fantasy, sci-fi and YA fill their worlds with the same stock girl who gives us little to complain about except being vaguely peripheral.

It's great to see girls who look differently, dress differently, act differently than each other, who fight amongst themselves because of personality clashes rather than boys or other external factors. (Remember how none of the other girls could stand Fleur, and it was a little because she was pretty but mostly because acted like the airhead she wasn't all the damn time?) I do sometimes wish older women had been more developed in the series; McGonagall and Mrs. Weasley are two of the only older women we delve into, though Pomfrey and even Sprout also make their presence known. Tonks is the only adult who isn't old that we ever see, and she's got some issues, but jeez, even rattling off this list of female characters of different ages, situations, personalities, values etc., FROM THE SAME SERIES, makes me happy.

Of course, they're all white, they're all straight, they're all able, and they're all (except maybe Luna, though this is an iffy exception) devastatingly attractive to boys around them.

So I guess this was a rambly way of saying I loved the article and you're right about everything, but, like all the other pop culture I consume, it could stretch much further. :D

OMG, I love Ms. Weasley, too!

OMG, I love Ms. Weasley, too! "NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU B****!" Hahaha! MY FAVOURITE LINE FROM HER!!

I think Hermione is supposed

I think Hermione is supposed to be an iffy exception as well. She wasn't portrayed as devastatingly attractive appearance-wise until the Yule Ball and she wasn't portrayed as devastatingly attractive personality-wise until she took blame for that troll... and I think that was only for us readers, not to the boys. (Though I fell in love with her immediately for her brilliance.) Of course this is all subjective. And in the movies it was all changed. Emma Watson is beautiful, but I remember being frustrated that she seemed to have fewer lines in the movies than Hermione does in the books, even compared to the dialogue of the rest of the characters! And in the latest movie, she wasn't supposed to be topless when she kissed Harry--I feel like they just wanted an excuse for that. It was a bit infuriating.

Girls & Women in Harry Potter

Throughout the series, I always felt that in a sense, Hermione was a chosen one. She should have been a shoo-in for Ravenclaw, yet she ended up in Griffindor and it always seemed to me that she was put there because she was destined to be Harry's great support -- the brains behind the One Who Lived. Dumbledore's legacy to her reinforced that impression but I did hope it would be expressly stated at some point in the series.

agreed!

I totally agree with you on this one. Hermiones Gryffindor traits were never shown as explicitly as in Harry, perhaps because Hermione never was a true Gryff. Yes, she had amazing courage and strength of character, she's my favorite character to this day. She stands up for what she believes in, never backs down and is self-sacrificing, perhaps to a fault.
However, what Hermione is known for, teased for, and remembered for is her intelligence. No one would have looked at even second or third year Hermione and said, "Oh yeah, she's one of those brave Gryffs." They would have said something akin to, "Oh yeah, she's that know-it-all from potions class".
I always considered why it must have been that Hermione was placed in Gryffindor, especially as intelligence must have been her major character trait before entering Hogwarts, and I think it was always due to her role in Harrys life. She was always going to be there to talk him down and use kindness and tough love to set him straight, and certainly, her intelligence got put to use and was a huge part in Harry winning against Voldemort.
She was definitely chosen for Gryffindor and for Harry, even though Ravenclaw was a much better fit.

You do know what they say,

You do know what they say, behind every great man there is an even greater woman (presumably rolling her eyes).

Initials for female authors

I'm actually not terribly familiar with the HP series, having only read the first one (which I enjoyed), but I was struck by the alteration of Rowling's name for marketing purposes. This was also the case with K.A. Applegate, who wrote the Animorphs, Everworld and Remnants series. Those three sets were all fantasy and science fiction, and she was credited as "K.A." However, for her Making Out series, which is about the romantic lives of teenagers and is marketed to girls, she is credited as "Katherine." In some ways, I feel that while it's important that the content of these books features a diverse cast of strong characters, we're still doing something very wrong if publishing houses hold the opinion that a female name will drive down sales because of the idea held by the public that a fantasy book written by a woman will not be as good as not expressly written by a woman. (I'd also like to point out that it's problematic that a gender-neutral name/initials is still assumed to be male.)

Thank you for writing this

Thank you for writing this Chally! It's very thoughtfully written and I enjoyed reading it very much (and kind of squealed in delight when I saw it.) I love the way you've described the different personalities and compared them to each other. Jo Rowling has single-handedly portrayed a great amount of depth in her female characters both within themselves and in comparison with each other--something that is annoyingly lacking in most of our media.

Ginny...

I actually really don't agree with the inclusion of Ginny on a list of girls in Harry Potter who were interesting and thought provoking. Perhaps I missed the point of the article, but to me Ginny started out (for about 4 books) as a Harry-Worshipping Fan girl. Then she dated other guys, still in the background, and made her triumphant and poorly plotted entrance as Harrys love interest. I never liked the way that panned out and feel that Ginny should have been replaced in the article with a character with more substance, like McGonagall or even Bellatrix (just as a flip side.. kind of the chosen female of the dark side).
Perhaps it's just because I have never shipped Harry/Ginny, but she never impressed me and Harry ending up with a fan girl never made any sense in my mind.

I gotta disagree...

...I don't think that you could have paid attention to the series very well if that's what you have to say about Ginny's character. If she ever was a "fan-girl", it was in the first two novels. As she grew through the series, we saw as she provided sharp and biting wit (especially toward Ron at times), and she was highly featured as being instrumental for the Gryffindor quidditch team when Harry wasn't allowed to play. When it came time to try to save Sirius as Harry was led to believe he was in danger in the 5th novel, Ginny served Harry a verbal slap when he tried to keep her from joining. Ginny was fierce, man.

oh, Ginny...

Okay, let's not pull the "you didn't read very closely did you?" line. I've read all of the books multiple times and have a strong sense of what was going on in them. That being said, everyone reads and interprets them differently. Ginny as a character always rubbed me the wrong way, so many of her actions which may have seemed 'heroic' or 'witty' to some seemed annoying and nosy to me. I've never read Ginny as a crucial character in any of the books and her role in the movies polarized her to me even more. (yes, I know, the books are way better and the movies are just a cheap imitation).
Maybe you and I just see Ginny differently, and that's okay. I read Hermione and was instantly won over, her character time and again bulldozed all female counterparts in the scenes she was in. Perhaps Ginny annoys me because she's the kind of girl I don't like to spend time with in real life; perhaps that isn't fair to the character. But, as the seventh book is long published, it's a bit late for that to change. Ginny always felt like a tag-along, attaching herself to the trio, just there and 'friends' with them because Jo wanted to be able to justify the romance between her and Harry. But, hey, that's just how I read it.

Did you have any Harry Potter character just rub you the wrong way?

Hrrrmmmmmm...

Honestly, Harry rubbed me the wrong way several times in Order of the Phoenix, I rolled my eyes at him quite a bit, and a few times wanted to reach into the book and give him a good shaking. This was his somewhat "emo" phase, if you will. Like his rash feelings, anger toward Dumbledore, and how easy it was to piss him off; but I had to keep reminding myself that Rowling is writing a 15 year old BOY, hellllooooo, Alexia! Plus, I like how she made Hermione put Harry in his place after sniping at her. Christ, I love the hell out of Hermione. HELL, I love the hell out of J. K. Rowling. I saw how realistic it was after a 7 month stint teaching art at a high school.

I'm not sure I agree... I

I'm not sure I agree... I always viewed Ginny as shy and intimidated by Harry. She was, after all, 10 when she met him, and him not only being famous, but also a friend of her brother's, but also terrifying. Girls from 10-13 are like that around boys. I was shy and intimidated around my older brother's friends through high school. For those reasons I wouldn't call her a "fangirl."

OMG!!! SQUEEE!!!

I'm smack dab in the middle of my annual Harry Potter Series Revisit! I just finished The Goblet of Fire this morning!

What I LOVE and ADORE about the series isn't just that Rowling wrote several female characters and characters of color, but that she wrote them realistically and in a way that wasn't totally contrived. I have to say, I've been an avid reader since I first started learning in kindergarten, and over the years such British-based fantasy stories as the unabridged versions of The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, the Narnia Series, and the Hobbit/LOTR series became my absolute favorites, but when I first started the Harry Potter series my junior year in high school, my heart seriously quickened as I read her descriptions of Harry's fellow students and colleagues of color. Oh hell YES I kept count. Angelina Johnson, Dean Thomas, the Patil sisters, Lee Jordan, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Cho Chang, and even the Slytherin Blaise Zabini. As I'm re-reading the series, I am marveling afresh at the depth of even the background female characters such as Ginny and Luna, and the depth of the background colors of character because I had NEVER seen it before. It's a true reflection of our contemporary world, and Hogwarts seems like the kind of diverse environment that I've been used to dwelling in ever since pre-school.

I remember how that Rowling revealed how producers were taken aback when she informed them that Dean Thomas was black. I was like, "Did these stupid-heads even BOTHER reading the books?" He's been described as black since the first novel, Angelina Johnson as a tall black girl with long braids also. This is one of the several reasons I watched only the first film and that's it.