By Stephanie Cole
Growing up with the young and old characters of the novels and films, and knowing that the most successful literary series if all time was written by a woman, it was natural that I would pay close attention to Harry Potter’s female characters. Luckily, J.K. Rowling did not disappoint. While Rowling didn’t approach her narrative with an overtly feminist agenda, she populated her novels with an abundance of women and girls, each a well thought out and thoroughly unique in character.
I stand by the opinion that Harry Potter’s greatest strength lies in its characters. Rowling has a Dickensian talent for creating memorable and complex personalities for even her most minor characters. As a result, the women of the novels both avoid stereotype and sexualization, while embodying a wide range of personalities.
Hermione Granger is the obvious place to start. She is the smart (ahem, genius), independent, brave girl among the big three. She is immediately introduced as unabashedly proud of her intelligence, and it is insightful of Rowling to have Harry and Ron initially dislike her as a result. Through this, Rowling inserts some subtle commentary on society’s refusal to like blatantly intelligent women. Hermione proves to be a thoroughly satisfying character, independent but emotional, and Harry’s pillar of strength by the seventh book, even as she remains a sincerely non-romantic friend. On that note, Hermione’s relationship with Ron, thoroughly established from the outset of the series, remains genuine, never undermining her character’s strengths.
For young girls who want an alternative to Hermione’s confident brains, Rowling gave readers someone truly inspirational in the endearingly odd character, Luna Lovegood. Her depth goes way beyond her unabashed weirdness, though there is much to be said for creating a character that is different in a completely unconcerned way. She speaks her mind without being confrontational, and she is incredibly perceptive, alerting characters and the reader to hidden truths and unexplored points of view. She dares to venture outside of Ravenclaw for her friendships, and she approaches loyalty as a given in human interaction.
Rowling does great work with her young characters, but there is much to be praised in the adult women as well. Professor McGonagall is an obvious choice. She is a strong, intelligent, seemingly inapproachable but surprisingly warm leader, second only to Dumbledore in authority. But I must admit I have a certain affinity for the baddies, and even when constructing female villains, Rowling delivers. Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange is certainly certifiable, but I love how action oriented and passionate she is, all while being witty enough to be snarky and entertaining in her interactions with others.
I also appreciate that Rowling made her most memorable and frightening Death Eater a woman. Narcissa Malfoy, Bellatrix’s sister and Draco’s mother, is a late-introduced baddie who is granted surprising complexity. Materialistic, racist, and elitist, she’s also devoted, loving, crafty, and one of the bravest characters in the books. Her lie to Voldemort at the story’s climax arguably saves Harry’s life.
However, Rowling did do some injustice with her female characters. Ginny Weasley had a promising introduction, but by the later books, it seemed as if she was just playing the role of Harry’s love interest. Anyone Harry falls for seems to suffer an uninteresting characterization; Cho Chang was no exception. But Ginny was a shame, because her character had a lot of potential. Rowling kept her development in the dark, probably because the books were from Harry’s point of view, and he was supposed to be surprised by his sudden attraction to his best friend’s sister. Unfortunately, this made her sudden blossoming seem forced and insubstantial. While I appreciate the fact that Rowling threw every feminist trait she could think of on Ginny (smart, independent, athletic, brave), a lack of development simply made it all very unbelievable.
This list of characters merely scratches the surface, but I think that Rowling’s commitment to a large population of unique female characters was one of the things that made the Harry Potter novels so great. It’s a rarity to find a comparison in other works of the traditionally male dominated fantasy genre.
Although Harry Potter still dominates cinemas and boasts legions of fans today; the young adult literature world is mostly made up of Twilight-inspired fantasy romances that place women in male-controlled, relationship-centered positions. The best thing about the women of Harry Potter is that they gave female readers lots of options. They were great characters first and their gender came second. And by choosing to focus on their minds and personalities, J.K. Rowling subtly taught women, girls, and everyone, that those qualities are what matter most of all.