Today’s post is a continuation of yesterday’s discussion. If you didn’t read it, you may want to catch up. I also recommend you read the links so we’re all on the same page.
I promised that I would explain further about the Smurfette Principle/Girls Are Special and how those tropes relate to Harry Potter, so let’s dive right in. I admit to being reluctant; I loved Harry before the books were cool. I first spotted Sorcerer’s Stone in Barnes & Noble (yeah, I know) and thought, That looks like an interesting book. I bought a copy. By that time, the second one had just come out, so I bought that one, too. I was hooked. So keep in mind that this is coming from a place of deep love.
The reason I’m bringing up the books in this conversation is that I think they’re a good way to analyze the problem from both sides. Many books (as readers pointed out in the comments on yesterday’s post) have lone female characters, and it’s easy to tell that they’re Smurfettes or Special for Being Girls. When there are no other girls or women (or they’re the Big Bad), the story automatically fails Bechdel. Princess stories tend to fall into this category, for example. But in the Harryverse, it’s not quite so obvious. After all, there are lots of women and girls–but only one girl who is central to the plot.
So let’s talk about Hermione. Don’t misunderstand–I love her. I probably love her for the same reasons that she embodies several tropes (and really, who wasn’t cheering for her when she slapped Malfoy?). But that’s important to acknowledge, because there’s a fine line between wanting all girls/women to fit into those categories and appreciating one who just happens to do so.
On the surface, it appears that Hermione is a pretty good example of a Smurfette. After all, isn’t she the lone girl having adventures alongside the boys? The other girls and women seem one-dimensional. Aren’t Lavender and Parvati just there to be pretty and flirtatious? And isn’t Ginny’s claim to fame that she’s Harry’s love interest? And isn’t Molly Weasley a stereotype of a stay-at-home mom (particularly of the religious sort), while Narcissa Malfoy is the picture of a trophy wife?
When one digs deeper, however, it’s obvious that this isn’t strictly true. In fact, the entire Harryverse is populated with some pretty amazing girls and women. They’re a diverse crew. Not all of them are nice, of course (and Bellatrix Lestrange is definitely an evil version of a Smurfette). Even so, they are there in vibrant colors–girls who are smart, fiesty, brave, caring, and a bit kooky. Even girls who seem shallow and uninteresting can sometimes turn out to be among the bravest.
The problem isn’t the girls in the Harry Potter books (though we could make a good case for the movies largely erasing most of them; there’s a big surprise). Where I notice it more is in the books that imitate the style. When it’s done improperly, all we find are stories driven by the adventures of boys and their one girl companion.
That makes me sad.
I think that a huge part of what leads to the belief that Women Are Special is the very thing that Hermione and Ginny and Luna and, yes, Lavender (and even bitchy Pansy) subvert. If men are the default, then everything about me–what I do, what I think, what I write–must automatically be in relation to men (or at minimum my identity as “not a man”). Girls in books exist either as lone beacons or as accessories for boys–even when hunting dragons. It would never occur to a girl to go on an adventure unless she was being rebellious against her femininity or she was helping a boy to win against the bad guys. Therefore, we would never see more than one of these mysterious creatures adventuring with her own kind.
But Harry’s friends aren’t like that.
Warning: Spoilers. Don’t read this if you haven’t read all 7 books but plan to and want to be surprised.
Although in the last book Harry, Ron, and Hermione go off on their own, she is typically not without help from other girls and/or women. This is particularly evident when Harry’s friends insist on accompanying him to the Department of Mysteries in the fifth book. His reason for not wanting them there isn’t because he’s afraid the girls are too weak and might get hurt; he wants to go alone so no one else gets into trouble.
When it comes down to the end of the last book, they all show up–every last one of the diverse crew of women and girls, including characters who hadn’t been seen in some time. No one tells them that they should take care of the wounded while the men-folk do the real fighting. No one asks them to defend their presence by making them show their Plucky Tomboy Princess credentials or assessing their motivation (is it a rebellion against gender stereotypes? is it to save the boys they love? is it to prove they’re as tough as any man?). They do what they need to do, and no one asks them why–it’s assumed that everyone is sharing a common why.
Motivation for heroic or selfless acts doesn’t have gender. A woman can write about these themes, and her characters can embody them, because they are universal–not because they belong to men and women are finally claiming them.
Tomorrow, I’m wrapping up the series with a discussion of how that affects what writers do and how we can avoid boxing girls in with narrow gender stereotypes and sexist tropes–and why it matters (including in regard to faith; you knew I’d get to that, right?). I hope you’ll stick around.