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Rowling recently came out as a radical feminist, but the book series she is famous for seems to have some problems from that perspective.

For instance, the main character is a male, anointed as the chosen one. (He even bears a stigmata, a tiny scar, but nothing extreme like Sparrowhawk's horrific scarring from Earthsea that would make Harry not cute to the opposite sex.)

My take on radical feminism is that it is a response to conditions like violence against women. (I think of works like the SCUM manifesto.)

  • How does the Harry Potter series fare when viewed through a radical feminist lens? Through a non-radical feminist lens?

This question was inspired by a re-read of Earthsea, including Tehanu, which hadn't been written when I first read them. (It was apparently considered controversial for being feminist when it was first released, and is arguably the greatest of those novels in stature in terms of social critique, which tends to distinguish the most important speculative fiction.)

Also note that feminist literature extends back at least to Euripides, with his Trojan War plays & the Medea.

  • Harry Potter is a series of 7 novels in which the main characters move through their teenage years. Although I haven't read the books, I can imagine that radical feminist interpretation would throw a different light on each of the seven volumes. Do you want your question to cover the whole series (making your question very broad) or just one specific volume? – Tsundoku Aug 25 '20 at 8:19
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    @Tsundoku I think this is answerable for the whole series. In fact, I was doing a bit of research on a possible answer and I think it would be harder to answer for one specific novel. I'll wait until this question is clarified before continuing. – Matt Thrower Aug 25 '20 at 8:44
  • @Tsundoku whole series is fine. Looking for a general assessment from various feminist perspectives, with an emphasis on radical feminism. – DukeZhou Aug 25 '20 at 22:39
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    I don't agree with the implication associated with the definite article in "the radical feminist take" that there is only one generalizable and commonly shared "radical feminist take". I don't think that is close to the reality of how people who identify as (radical) feminists feel and write about such topics. Of course your words in the body of the question with phrases such as "through a radical feminist lens" make more sense to me. – Eddie Kal Aug 26 '20 at 19:22
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    @EddieKal fair point, but let's agree I was being informal. Very good point about the spectrum of views! – DukeZhou Aug 26 '20 at 23:58
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Defining flavours of feminism is difficult, but let's go with the Wikipedia definition:

Radical feminism is a perspective within feminism that calls for a radical reordering of society in which male supremacy is eliminated in all social and economic contexts.

It is very difficult to see Harry Potter in this light. Indeed it's been a source of fierce debate whether Harry Potter is feminist at all. We'll return to this but in terms of radical feminism, the books make clear that the wizarding world is male-dominated. Most figures of wisdom, power and seniority in it are male. At the end of the books, this remains intact, having been saved by a male wizard (Harry). This is simply not compatible with radical feminism.

This is also hard to square with a more generalist reading of feminism. However, digging into the plot and characters of the novels it is possible to discern some more feminist leanings between the lines.

For starters the hero, Harry, although male has some distinctly feminized characteristics which have likely helped to give the series its wide appeal. He often shows his bravery in the form of caring for his friends rather than physical "toughness", for example. His greatest power stems from the fact he was saved by his mother's love. There are parallels to be drawn between Harry and the "Cindarella" motif in mythology - cruel parents and siblings, desertion etc. Harry is also an object of attraction in his world, as women are in the real world. In this sense, Harry's struggles shed light on the everyday struggles of women in society.

Then there is, of course, Hermione. At first, she represents an archetypical "awkward" female: bossy, unpopular and over-emotional. However, her entire character arc across the novels is extremely positive. She goes from this weak starting point to one where, by the climax of the series, she is wise, resilient and very powerful. Indeed given her contributions it's not too much of a stretch to argue that she is instrumental in Harry's victory, far more so than the relatively useless Ron. From this point of view, the world is saved not really by a male but a female working in concert with a feminist ally.

Hermione is also the lynchpin of another motif of the series which is the reversal of oppression in all its forms. She begins this with her awakening to the unjust situation facing the House Elves. But by the end of the books, the fight against oppression has widened to all magical species who are maligned by Lord Voldermort's narrow view of magical "purity" as well as "half-blood" wizards. It is worth noting that this, in particular, prevents the novel from being read as radically feminist since its focus is on all forms of oppression, not just male oppression.

Finally, male oppression is very much a real thing in the wizarding world and the novels do reflect on how much misery this causes. Voldermort himself is driven to evil partly due to an abusive, uncaring father. Snape is perhaps the archetypical "Incel", a lonely man made angry and bitter by his one-sided pursuit of a woman who rejects him. There are various other examples such as Lockheart and the family history of both Sirius Black and Dumbledore.

As to why the author of a series of novels which are quasi-feminist at best has come out as a radical feminist, this is no great difficulty. Rowling herself has said that although she identifies as a feminist there was no conscious effort to make her novels a feminist mouthpiece. And Rowling's radical feminist views have only become prominent over the last couple of years, a decade after the novels were complete and plenty of time for someone to take on new, or more radical views.

References:

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    Good answer. It does seem like Hermione can be interpreted as "it will take a woman's sensibilities to fix things." For me the disconnect is that the series fares very poorly from a radical feminist perspective (see my answer on the mythological implications & assumptions about audience) but I noted that Rowling hasn't denounced it. Also worth noting that LeGuin, who has great stature partly for social commentary in her novels, stated her intention was not to produce a feminist work with Tehanu, but simply to tell womens' stories. – DukeZhou Aug 27 '20 at 22:37
  • Your point about the house elves liberation doesn't quite stick - it is never treated in the books as anything but a joke. – user10704 Aug 31 '20 at 21:43
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I'm going to approach this from a mythological perspective to show how the series strongly reinforces the idea of patriarchy via symbolism.

  • Harry is an "Athenian" hero

Here I mean in the sense of the goddess Athena. This connection is explicit in that his familiar is an owl, the bird of Athena. Like Athena, Harry grew up without a mother. For Athena, this condition is held as one of her rationales for her tie-breaking vote at the trial of Orestes, where the son was acquitted for the murder of his mother. (One of the Apollo's arguments at the trial is that:

"The mother of what is called her child is not the parent, but the nurse of the newly-sown embryo. The one who mounts is the parent, whereas she, as a stranger for a stranger, preserves the young plant, if the god does not harm it. And I will show you proof of what I say: a father might exist without a mother. A witness is here at hand, the child of Olympian Zeus, who was not nursed in the darkness of a womb, and she is such a child as no goddess could give birth to."

This is one of the most misogynist statements in western literature, supports the modern anti-choice stance, and strongly reinforces the idea of patriarchy: the outcome of the trial is that the old powers of the Goddess (the Furies) are disempowered such that the new male hierarchy is affirmed, a reflection of the Olympian Zeus' usurpation of Gaia's powers (Titanomachy, Gigomachy).

The Metis/Athena myth is literally that unrestrained female wisdom threatens the established patriarchal order, such that Zeus tricks and swallows the Titan, giving birth to Athena from his head. Thus, wisdom/craft/skill is safely subjugated. (And, without Metis' intervention, Zeus never would have prevailed over Cronus.)

  • Dumbledore is a retreat to paternalism

Essentially, the idea of comfort of having a father figure looking after one. There is no strong mother figure for Harry. (Mrs. Weasley does play a role as an ancillary mother figure, but, although she plays an important part in the Wizarding War, she is portrayed mainly as a traditional housewife. Note that the name Molly is almost certainly a reference to the magic plant moly, associated with the witch Circe in Greek mythology.)

Dumbledore is a "sky father", and a reflection Odin, the "first wizard". (The wizard's staff and pointed hat come from descriptions of Odin in his guise as wanderer, who undertook to various quests to gain magical powers. He was also the template for Gandalf.)

Norse mythology also reflects the usurpation of the feminine powers & attributes in that the Vanir, fertility gods of the earth, are subjugated and incorporated into the Aesir, often understood as skygods. Freya still has highest honor, but is subject to Odin's rule.

It's also been noted that Rowlings' take on the House Elves is a reprise of Kipling's White Man's Burden, which is as paternalistic as it gets.

Note that the chthonic wiki here is inaccurate in that chthonic powers are absolutely associated with Gaia, in that they literally exist within the earth, her body. Gaia gave birth to the Titans, Cyclopses & Giants, who were the nemeses of the Olympian order. Fertility goddesses such as Demeter are later additions, after the usurpation of female power, and function within the Olympian patriarchy.

Voldemort returns from the dead (underworld). He has a giant pet snake. [See Jörmungandr & Python]. The slaying of the Python is a prime example of usurpation of female power—in slaying it, Apollo becomes the god of prophecy. The priestesses are still women, but subject to Apollo. Similarly, most of the monsters in Harry potter are distinctly underworldly, as is mistrusted Slytherin in relation to the sky oriented, heroic Gryffindor.

This has the effect of reinforcing the idea that feminine powers are dark & evil, such that women can only be seen to acting in a socially productive way within the framework of patriarchy. (Athena as a prime example.)


Market Forces & Commercial Assumptions about Audience

It's no surprise that the central character of the series is male, as the general assumption until very recently has been that the fantasy audience is male dominated, and that even girls prefer male protagonists.

In fact, despite the international popularity of Pippi Longstocking, the OG "strong girl", one is hard pressed to find female protagonists, or even females with agency, in best-selling fantasy literature. (Notable exceptions are the Golden Compass, and Lucy Pevensie, who is the catalyst for the Narnia cycle. It is Lucy who opens the world for the Pevensie children via her own agency. Hunger Games is also a paragon, though technically science fiction.)

Hermione is a decidedly modern female fantasy character in that she has agency, and is an essential helper to the hero, but her role is subordinate to Harry's. There are many heroic, and villainous, women in the story, but all within the structure of patriarchy, whether good or evil. The Potter series at least is hopeful, casting the world as a fairly egalitarian society, where women have opportunities. To this end, Minerva, (the Roman name of Athena,) succeeds Dumbledore as headmaster of Hogwarts, even if the entrenched system is maintained.

It's notable that this condition surely influenced A Wizard of Earthsea, in that, when Le Guin was commissioned, there seemed to be no question the central character would be male. Le Guin did use this as a jumping off point to cast a female as the central character of the second novel, Tombs of Atuan, and eventually drove the series to explicate the history behind the disempowerment of women in Earthsea, which also functions as relevant social commentary. (One of the critiques of Atuan was that it was a female character within a male dominated hierarchy, but that was part of the point. Le Guin even rejected the characterization of Tenahu as "feminist", stating that she merely wanted to tell a woman's story involving womens' issues.)

The market significance of casting the Rey as the central character in the final Star Wars trilogy may be the upending of the trope that female protagonists in speculative fiction "don't sell".

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