Gender Differences and Similarities in Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
Gender differences or similarities are not openly discussed throughout the series. Hogwarts is a mixed school were everything seems to be divided equally, everyone takes the same classes, they wear uniforms, play Quidditch in mixed teams, have mixed staff. Hogwarts is shown to be non-sexist because it shows both great witches and wizards working in the school (Eccleshare, 2002, p. 83).
In a chapter by Heilman and Donaldson, they discuss how men were put in a dominant position and how women are mere secondary characters. (Heilman, Donaldson, 2009, p. 139). They claim that female characters in the series were marginalised, stereotyped and even mocked (Heilman, Donaldson, 2009, p. 140). Feminist theories that analyse literary works focus on many theories, firstly starting with the narrative space devoted to each sex in a particular work of literature. In Harry Potter, male characters dominate the series. In the first four books there are 29 girls and 35 boys. By the end of the series there are 115 females to 201 males mentioned in the series (Heilman, Donaldson, 2009, p. 141). The characters, that are frightening, evil, or suspected of being evil, are overwhelmingly male in the first four books and primarily male in the later books (Heilman, Donaldson, 2009, p. 141). Even though that might be the case when we look at characters such as Voldemort, Draco, Wormtail, the Death Eaters; there are also female characters such as Bellatrix Lestrange, Rita Skeeter and Dolores Umbridge that are considered to be evil. Dolores Umbridge, a worker for the Ministry of Magic, uses physical punishment on students “Harry placed the point of the quill on the paper and wrote: I must not tell lies. He let out a gasp of pain… The words appeared on the back of Harry’s right hand, cut into his skin as though traced there by a scalpel.” (Rowling, 2003, p. 240) and despises everything related to Muggles. She was the head of the Muggle-born Registration Commission (Rowling, 2007, p. 250). She was in charge of taking wizards wands if they were not pure-blood which brought her great joy “The Patronus, he was sure, was Umbridge’s, and it glowed brightly because she was so happy here, in her element, upholding the twisted laws she had helped to write” (Rowling, 2007, p. 259).
In the first half of the books, important good female characters such as Hermione Granger, Mrs Weasley, and professor McGonagall are seen as helpers (Heilman, Donaldson, 2009, p. 146). Even though Hermione is considered to be the smartest of the trio, she rarely acts out of her own accord (Heilman, Donaldson, 2009, p. 146). The books often reference girls in groups, without really describing them as individuals; they are portrayed as giggly, emotional, gossipy (Heilman, Donaldson, 2009, p. 150). There are also a lot of references to female characters being worried about their looks, which can be seen through Hermione’s character. She is described as “a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth” (Rowling, 1997, p. 79), she’s often mocked by the girls from the Slytherin house, and is only seen as pretty when she changes her appearance, including her teeth for the dance in the Goblet of Fire.
“ She had done something with her hair; it was no longer bushy, but sleek and shiny…she was holding herself differently somehow…she was also smiling – rather nervously, it was true – but the reduction in the size of her front teeth was more noticeable than ever.” (Rowling, 2000, p. 360)
This is often a message portrayed in many works of literature – female characters have to possess beauty or go through a makeover to be seen and valued. There are also mentions of other female characters being worried about their looks, such as Moaning Myrtle due to her wearing glasses, Eloise Midgen because of her acne etc (Heilman, Donaldson, 2009, p. 152).
Rowling puts female characters in traditional positions of wives and mothers. The main female characters in these roles are Petunia, Mrs Weasley, Winky (the female house-elf) and Hermione (Gallardo, Smith, 2003, p. 193). Petunia fits the evil stepmother role, because of the bad way she treats Harry in comparison to her own son. Molly Weasley takes care of the household and all of her children which is her main role throughout the series, Winky (a house elf) nurtures Barty Crouch Jr. back to life and Hermione takes care of Ron and Harry throughout the series, saves them from trouble and eventually becomes a mother figure for them while they are on the search for horcruxes (Gallardo, Smith, 2003, p. 193). Most women in the series are mothers who take care of the household or teachers. There are rarely roles which could be considered very exciting taken by female characters in the first half of the series (Gallardo, Smith, 2003, p. 193). On the other hand, men have exciting roles such as Charlie Weasley studying dragons, Bill Weasley going on secret missions for Gringotts (Gallardo, Smith, 2003, p. 193).
Nikolajeva states that men can be seen as superior to women when we look at Professor McGonagall in comparison to the male professors, the humiliation of Professor Trelawney and the girls featured in the Gryffindor’s Quidditch team (Nikolajeva, 2009, p. 228). The girls who play Quidditch are not that memorable in the first half of the series and even the Gryffindor team captain, Wood, has to be reminded to include them while addressing the team “Wood cleared his throat for silence. Okay, men, he said. And women, said Chaser Angelina Johnson. And women, Wood agreed” (Rowling, 1997, p. 136).
The superiority of male characters can be seen in the final battle where Neville kills Voldemort’s snake, even though Hermione, Ginny and other female characters were very heroic in all of the battles leading up to that moment. That makes him equal to Harry, which creates further speculation about him being the Chosen One. Both Hermione and Ginny end up being married and taking care of their children. Their careers after school are not mentioned in detail, making their role of wives and daughters superior to the careers they possibly have (Nikolajeva, 2009, p. 238).
Rowling does not fully use the potential her female characters have. Even though most of them are intelligent and competent, they do not usually appear in leading roles “Rowling reverts to the patterns of children’s books before the mid-1950s which, with a few exceptions, invariably cast girls as either practical or sensitive” (Eccleshare, 2002, p. 87). The reason for this might be that boys do not usually read novels where leading characters are girls (Eccleshare, 2002, p. 88).
Eccleshare also claims that Hermione is not resourceful, humorous and capable of adapting herself to situations (Eccleshare, 2002, p. 87), which is not true. Hermione proved herself to be smart and resourceful multiple times throughout the novels. She is the one who solves most of the puzzles set in front of the trio at the end of the Philosopher’s stone. She helps them get away from a plant that is trying to kill them “She wiped out her wand, waved it, muttered something…In a matter of seconds, the two boys felt it loosening its grip” (Rowling, 1997, p. 202), the one who figures out that there is a basilisk in Hogwarts in the second book – she found a paper on which it said that basilisks are giant snakes, feared by spiders and she figured out that the Hogwarts basilisk is using pipes to get around the school, (Rowling, 1998, p. 215), the one who often uses reason and common sense before acting. She convinces Harry to check if Sirius is at home before they go to rescue him at the Ministry of Magic, where Harry thought Sirius was based on his dream.
“But…Harry, think about this, it’s five o’clock in the afternoon… the Ministry of Magic must be full of workers…how would Voldemort and Sirius have got in without being seen?” (Rowling, 2003, p. 645). “Harry, I’m begging you, please! Please let’s just check that Sirius isn’t at home before we go charging off to London” (Rowling, 2003, p. 648).
In the second half of the series, we see some developments happening around female characters. They are not just wives and mothers anymore – they participate in the battle against evil. For example, Molly Weasley, who can be seen as a housewife for the most of the series “Mrs Weasley was clattering around, cooking breakfast a little haphazardly…She flicked her wand casually at the washing-up in the sink, which began to clean itself” (Rowling, 1998, p. 31), proves to be skilful during battles. She is a part of the Order of the Phoenix, she took part in the first wizarding war and she takes part in the last battle in the series by duelling Bellatrix Lestrange “Molly’s curse soared beneath Bellatrix’s outstretched arm and hit her squarely in the chest, directly over her heart” (Rowling, 2007, p. 736). Ginny Weasley is also one of the characters who goes through a change in the series. In the first part of the series she is very shy, hardly talks around Harry due to her being in love with him “You don’t know how weird it is for her to be this shy, she never shuts up normally” (Rowling, 1998, p. 35) and later on she becomes a confident young woman, takes part in a lot of battles, becomes a great Quidditch player etc. Nymphadora Tonks is also a great example of a female character that is very important at the second half of the series. She is an auror, a profession usually only men have in these series, and a Metamorphmagus, meaning she can change her appearance (Rowling, 2003, p. 52). Even though she is very powerful, she also loses some of her character’s power in the series while having relationship issues with Remus Lupin “and the meaning of Tonks’s Patronus and her mouse-colored hair, and the reason she had come running to find Dumbledore when she had heard a rumor someone had been attacked by Greyback, all suddenly became clear to Harry” (Rowling, 2005, p. 582). Professor McGonagall takes on a role of a leader during the last battle of Hogwarts, protects all of the students, and gives out orders to other professors and acts as a protector of the school.
“Professor, we’ve got to barricade the school, he’s coming now!” “Very well. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is coming”, she told the other teachers. Sprout and Flitwick gasped; Slughorn let out a low groan. “Potter has work to do in the castle on Dumbledore’s orders. We need to put in place every protection of which we are capable while Potter does what he needs to do.”…. “I suggest we establish basic protection around the place, then gather our students and meet in the Great Hall. Most must be evacuated, though if any of those who are over age wish to stay and fight, I think they ought to be given the chance” (Rowling, 2007, p. 600).
All in all, gender differences are not that obvious in the series unless if the focus is put on the details surrounding female and male characters. There are female characters that in the series have attributes commonly associated with men and the other way around. None of the characters is one-dimensional, and the fact that there are more male than female characters could just be a coincidence. The books do not, in my opinion, lack strong important characters of both genders, whether they are good or evil.