Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Fantasy Feminist

I promised Emily I'd write a holiday-themed post this year, but clearly that didn't happen. Instead of dedicating my mind to the intersections of feminism and Western holiday culture, I delved back into one of my favourite fantasy series: Harry Potter. And now, to make up for my sloth, I bring you some of the stray feminist thoughts that wandered through my brain.

First, I'm well aware that the Harry Potter series isn't the perfect feminist story. Its primary hero is male, most of the characters are White, cis, and able-bodied-and-minded, the only confirmed LGBQ character was outed after the series ended, many of our current stereotypes continue to exist in the book's alternate goes on and on. When I re-read that list, I feel like I should probably dislike the series a lot more than I actually do! So here are some of the highlights of the series and author that have kept me going.

Bitch Magazine recently had an article out about the strengths of JK Rowling's "non chosen ones"- her female characters, especially Hermione, Luna, and Ginny. While the article was a little superficial, especially about Ginny (her strong point is that she dates a lot of boys?), it did highlight the ways in which the female characters tend to make the series. Rowling once stated that "I find that all the time in the book, if you need to tell your readers something just put it in [Hermione]," which is telling when one considers that the character whose wisdom is most often recognized is Dumbledore. Add to that the strong social justice components to the books, from artificial distinctions between magical folk to the role of house-elves, and Hermione in particular shines as a strong role model for all readers- especially female ones. Another interesting tidbit I didn't know- apparently very few people were afraid that Rowling would kill off Hermione during the last few books, mostly because they "see her as someone who is not vulnerable." So while the other female characters on the list (and in the books) are definitely worthwhile, Hermione's character will always stand out.

Let me backtrack, though, to the social justice stuff. The Potterverse (yeah, I just used that word, so what?!) deals primarily with the whole Pureblood/Muggle-born concept- a thinly-veiled allegory for pretty much every blood-based "science" we've embraced in Western history, from racial distinctions to developmental distinctions- but gives many others the limelight, house elf rights probably being the most notorious of these. One of the least mentioned by critics, though, is how Rowling's characters generally refuse to be black-and-white in their thoughts and behaviours. Think about Dumbledore, and how manipulative and power-hungry he turned out to be. Or think about Snape, who was equally power-hungry but prepared to do the right thing anyway. Or even consider Sirius:

"Sirius is very good at spouting bits of excellent personal philosophy, but he does not always live up to them. For instance, he says in "Goblet of Fire" that if you want to know what a man is really like, 'look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.' But Sirius loathes Kreacher, the house-elf he has inherited, and treats him with nothing but contempt. Similarly, Sirius claims that nobody is wholly good or wholly evil, and yet the way he acts towards Snape suggests that he cannot conceive of any latent good qualities there." (from Rowling's website)

With the exception of Hermione and Voldemort (and even then I'm sure I just need to think harder), none of the major characters exhibit flawlessly aligned thoughts and actions. Even characters that we've been conditioned to hate- the Malfoy family or the Dursleys- behave ambiguously when push comes to shove. They make make "good" choices for selfish reasons, such as when Narcissa Malfoy saves Harry's life out of fear for her own son, but the point is that her negative ideology doesn't always prevail in her decisionmaking. Personally, the moral ambiguity of everyone made me love the series a lot more- if only because it's far more realistic to imagine finding global justice in spite of everyone's shortcomings than to imagine finding it when everyone's already perfectly good or evil.

Finally, as the Bitch article mentions, Rowling has sought to promote the fight for social justice in her post-Potter career. Her Single Mother's Manifesto, a scathing review of Tory campagin promises this past spring, ends on a particularly stirring tone when she discusses her sense of responsibility to repay the system that helped her out when she was financially strapped. In addition, she's spent a lot of energy drawing attention to the impact that poverty has on children, using her Potter fame to generate funding for organizations in the U.K., and uses her website as a way of reaching out to girls (presumably cis) about bodies and brains. I think a lot of people have been impressed by Rowling's "rags to riches" pre-Potter history, but I'm continually more impressed by what she's made of herself in the aftermath. And I'm looking forward to seeing what else she contributes to a more feminist-friendly future pop culture.

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