Is Harry Potter Feminist? (pt.6) Sorting Hats and Stereotypes


Okay, welcome to my last post on Harry Potter! I have to admit that I am really, really bored of writing about this now. But I felt kind of obliged to finish it since I’d promised. Plus all the research was already done anyway (I wrote a lot of this stuff in my PhD thesis). So, this last post is on stereotypes in Harry Potter. As you can see from the jaunty alliterative title, I’m feeling pretty merry about moving onto another topic tomorrow. I have no idea what yet, but I’m sure I’ll find some inspiration between then and now. Alternatively, if you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them. So: on with the stereotypes!

Heilman and Donaldson believe that “the Harry Potter books, like many popular books for children, mostly reinforce gender stereotypes” (2009, 139). They’ve been careful to say ‘mostly’, but I still disagree. I’d argue that it’s the opposite; that they mostly refute gender stereotypes, though admittedly some do linger on the pages. Expectations of gender are concerned with appearance, occupation, behaviours, and attributes. While the already discussed familial roles in Harry Potter are stereotypical (see my other Harry Potter posts), many other aspects of the books refute standard expectations. The ‘sorting hat’ is an example of this. This hat is placed on the head of every new student to attend Hogwarts School. Being magical, it can instantly see inside each student’s mind and their traits, attitudes and behaviours are visible. Using this knowledge, it places each student into one of four separate houses. One of these houses is Gryffindor, “where dwell the brave of heart” (Rowling 1997, 118). Bravery itself is stereotypically masculine; we often see the trope of the vulnerable simpering girl in literature who is rescued by strong and capable men. Think of all those old fairytales with princesses being rescued by brave knights, who then win the girls’ hand in marriage as a reward. It’s only in recent years that literature and films have been playing about with these roles. If this stereotype were the case in Philosopher’s Stone, then Gryffindor House would be filled only with boys. Gryffindor is instead filled with an even mix of girls and boys. The same can be said of Ravenclaw House, known to attract “those of wit and learning”. Rowling has allowed her female characters the same possibility as the male ones. In a mixed sex boarding school, the pupils are placed in the same classes and given the same opportunities. It is the female protagonist Hermione who shines academically, rather than the two boys. Cunning Slytherin and stoic Hufflepuff focus on attributes stereotypically deemed masculine, and Rowling again undermines these expectations with even male/female ratios. As Camacci states, “vitality, strength, stoicism and success are traits often coded masculine. […] J.K Rowling creates dynamic male characters that simultaneously display both traditional and non-traditional masculinities, and in turn, challenges the reader to reconsider their normative assumptions about hegemonic masculinity” (2016, 32).

Rowling consistently undermines binary expectations of gender, and lauds stereotypical femininity as strongly as she does masculinity. Although some critics such as Mayes-Elma believe that the Harry Potter series is “not all that empowering” (2006), the books are largely in line with current feminist values and ideologies. Although certain areas of the text do conform to stereotypical norms, there is enough disturbance to ensure that stereotypes are challenged without portraying a world of unrealistic equality which would be far removed from the everyday pressures which children face. The careers they aim towards are ungendered, and roles not in existence in the muggle world are made available to both sexes of the magical community. The existence of this world allows Rowling to reflect the society which children can see around them, yet subvert certain elements to offer new prospects and provide her female characters with new possibilities. Issues such as gendered violence also become less apparent in the wizarding world. Due to the use of magic, physical strength becomes unnecessary, men and women have the same possibilities. Gallardo-C and Smith claim that “though the magical world, like the muggle world, suffers from gender stereotyping and sexism, it is a world in the process of change. [The series] engages in self-reflective critique on many levels and therefore belongs to a ‘new’ type of children’s literature that interrogates and deconstructs traditional expectations of gender roles” (2003, 203).

Since “reading fiction is a social practice through which children seek to understand their own places in the world” (Cherland and Edelsky 1993, 42), Rowling’s disruption of many gender stereotypes can be seen to offer children a different path which is still relatable to their current lives. In creating a magical world connected to the ordinary one, Rowling was able to reflect contemporary issues while still offering possibility of change. Although this arguably led to “multiple, contradictory, and even transgressive representations of gender” (Heilman and Donaldson 139, 2009) many of the messages prevalent in the series reflect contemporary understandings of gender.

An overall conclusion? Harry Potter might not be perfect as a feminist text, but society is not perfect either. So with that in mind, the series is pretty much as feminist as it could be.

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