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Harry Potter v Twilight: Neither is good news for women

HarryPotterThe Twilight books might have damaging depictions of women, but the Harry Potter series is dominated by male stories and lacking in female characterisation, writes Elyssa Feder.

13 December 2010

Cinemania: How do you compare Harry Potter with Twilight?

Bonnie Wright (who plays Ginny Weasley in the Harry Potter films): They’re completely different. The way J.K. Rowling writes is way more superior to that of the author of Twilight, besides the story has more different layers and subplots that address different topics.

Harry Potter is also more universal and it reaches people of a wider range of age, which starts from little children. Twilight is more for American teens, especially girls.

They’re two different stories, really, but I think that the best thing of both sagas is that they have motivated kids and young people to read. They have opened a whole new universe. I remember before kids didn’t even read a book of more than 10 pages and look at them now.

Cinemania: Which other books do you like?

Bonnie: Well, not the Twilight ones.

I think that Harry Potter is better than Twilight by miles, but I also think that what Bonnie says here is something that merits discussion.

She says, “Twilight is more for American teens, especially girls,” which, yes, it is, but I’ve been thinking about chick flicks and chick lit lately and it’s got me wondering about the genre in general.

Now, women (statistically speaking) read more books and see more movies, but if women take prominent roles in the text they are generally (though not always) labelled or transformed into chick flicks/lit and the merit of those narratives is immediately expunged.

Twilight is a terrible series, in my opinion, but the absolutely ubiquitous nature of the text says something about a lot of gender coding in the US in terms of what girls and, more disturbingly, their mothers expect, wish, and hope for from a gendered system, as well as simultaneously pointing to a serious desire for women to have other women as main characters in major narratives.

Which leads me to Harry Potter. Because I recognize that Harry Potter is this godsend to our generation but it has some serious gender problems that no one talks about because, at least in my experience, Harry Potter is a policed event.

You have to have read it or there’s something wrong with you; you must think it is perfect; you must identify it as the marker of your childhood. But Harry Potter as a marker of our generation is problematic, because the gendered components of that narrative consistently focus on the men, and markers instead of characterization generally define the female characters.

Harry Potter speaking as the definitive book of our generation effectively translates to men’s stories speaking as the definitive book of our generation, which is simultaneously erasing for women’s stories and, as is too common with literature, the equation of men’s experiences to universal experiences (and, incidentally when it comes to Harry Potter, white people’s experiences to universal experiences.

Twilight has a whole conglomeration of race issues as well that are of far more gravity, in my opinion).

I recognize this viewpoint of flat female character in the Potterverse is not a popular one, but it is one I find cogent and consistent throughout the books.

Hermione’s characterization seems the best one to examine since she is the most visible woman in Harry Potter. Now, I love Hermione. I am Hermione. But the point is that most women can function as Hermione because Hermione is flat.

She functions in archetypes like smart, loyal, brave, and the base of her characterization is never explored. We never see her home life and don’t even know her parents’ names even though we have been given great exploratory detail of the histories of most of the men in the books.

The basis for her characterization is never explored and we rarely see inside her world for very long—incidentally, I think this is why the ship wars come at this from such radically different places, because the fandom is mostly women and since Hermione doesn’t have particularly good characterization, we can all project onto her or off of her whatever we wish or whatever we think she should be, rather than what she is because, honestly, what is she?

Now, Hermione gets more characterization in book seven (which is a nice change from book six which made her narrative about being jealous about Lavender which is just kind of offensive to me to be honest because, really now), and so I love her in that book beyond measure.

The other books mark her as intelligent and loyal to Harry, and while most people in the books are marked by their loyalty to Harry, as lead female Hermione should have more to her than just that.

She doesn’t. I don’t know what motivates her, I don’t know why she is as she is, I don’t know her background, I don’t know the whys of her. What is her operating procedure? I don’t know.

On the other hand (whilst being no less problematic) Ginny Weasley, who is arguably the second most prominent female character in the plot, barely gets any page time.

She is most prominent because of her relationship to Harry, not because of much action she takes on her own that we see. She does a lot. She does an entire Deathly Hallows worth of stuff, but it’s never shown to us, and instead she is constructed as the damsel Harry must worry about while he is away fighting a different war.

Her main placement as the hero’s love interest is also extremely problematic because I don’t have any exposition of her motivation other than that she has always idolized Harry from a young age, and while that does operate as a baseline framework for her affections it is an extremely problematic understanding of celebrity culture and fangirl fantasies because it never moves beyond that.

The other women in Harry Potter get even less in terms of characterization.  In many ways, Harry Potter is foundational upon motherhood myths because Harry’s strength and protection comes from Lily dying for him which wouldn’t be a problematic trope except that I don’t know much about Lily either except that she died and she was best friends with Snape (which gave her an actual narrative and clear demonstration of who she is and what she stands for) and then she wasn’t and then somewhere in there she fell in love with James Potter but we never see that.

It reads like the jock who gets the girl he has always wanted without any rumination on her side of the relationship.

Molly Weasley too occupies a problematic motherhood space, and her main characterization consists of worrying and lecturing and fretting the way mothers must (whilst being heavily desexualized), and her great moment of shining glory comes from the utter shock of having Molly Weasley call someone a bitch.

“Not my daughter” would not have the same echoes as “Not my daughter, you bitch.”  Look at that feisty Mrs Weasley, actualized for the first time while still operating within a motherhood fantasy.

Evil women, in my opinion, actually end up the ones with most characterization. I understand their violence more than I understand any of the good women, but even therein these women operate under the frameworks Laura Sjoberg discusses in her text on women’s global violence: the Mother, the Monster, and the Whore.

Narcissa Malfoy should operate outside of her status as Mother (and Wife), because the Black family is the best family, but she rarely does.

Dolores Umbridge, who I personally think is the most developed female character in the book anyway, functions in large part as the Monster, an evil woman who is transformed into an ideological maniac without redemption or reason.

Finally, Bellatrix functions simultaneously as the Monster and the Whore, as her evil is consistently tied up in her status as “crazy” and through her overtly sexualized affection for Voldemort, which, while consistently presented as creepy and demonic, is also one of her most prominent characterization points.

Bellatrix does as she does because she is a crazy woman in love with a demon. That’s her motivation. That’s a problem.

Now, again, I’m not saying Twilight is a good book or that Bella Swan is a good character. It’s not, and she’s not.

But I think that the framing of this constant Harry Potter versus Twilight debate has continuously missed the part where Harry Potter is a narrative about men: it is The Boy Who Lived who frames the narrative; it is Voldemort (who escapes being sexless by being an object of Bellatrix’s desire; which actually is a really interesting complication) who is the main villain; it is Ron who is Harry’s best friend and his characterization is consistently expanded upon and explained; it is the surrogate fatherhood of Remus, Sirius and Dumbledore that give Harry the most strength; it is the fraternity of the Marauders that in many ways is the foundational back story of the plot with Lily functioning as either prize or wife depending on what stage you’re in or how you look at it; it is male stories that are told while women linger in the background.

Amongst that scenery, I’m not at all surprised that a well-marketed supernatural romance novel starring a woman is as popular as it is. I wish it weren’t because there are better books out there, but marketing is marketing and pushing Twilight as this ‘New Harry Potter (For Chicks!’) series has been very effective, even though their narrative structures are obviously eons apart.

But Twilight remains a popular fantasy series that cares about women’s stories, however poorly written, and that is not something that should be discounted.

Instead, it is something that should be understood, and a more positive form of womanhood (and, for that matter, romance and adulthood and everything else wrong with the Twilight series aka every word of it) should be put in its place.

But to discount it as “stupid” while following with “but harry potter is so much better” is, to my mind, to miss a very interesting and very scary vision of popular culture.

Because when the choice for women and girls is between a narrative that does not have their stories and a narrative that has Bella Swan and Edward Cullen creeping from your window, we all have a problem.

Elyssa Feder is about to graduate from The George Washington University in Washington, DC, where she studies international relations and women's studies.  She is currently writing her senior thesis on sexual violence in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

Image via Warner Bros.


0 #4 Penny 2011-01-24 10:43
To the American Woman Boycotter: THANK YOU!!!!!!!
Please, PLEASE boycott me and every other American Woman I know and love! And while you're at it - boycott all non-American women I know and love, too.
By boycotting us, you are performing a Great Service to American Womankind.
Gratefully Yours!
A Happy American Woman
0 #3 Boycott American Women 2011-01-04 09:39
Why American men should boycott American women

I am an American man, and I have decided to boycott American women. In a nutshell, American women are the most likely to cheat on you, to divorce you, to get fat, to steal half of your money in the divorce courts, don't know how to cook or clean, don't want to have children, etc. Therefore, what intelligent man would want to get involved with American women?

American women are generally immature, selfish, extremely arrogant and self-centered, mentally unstable, irresponsible, and highly unchaste. The behavior of most American women is utterly disgusting, to say the least.

This blog is my attempt to explain why I feel American women are inferior to foreign women (non-American women), and why American men should boycott American women, and date/marry only foreign (non-American) women.

0 #2 Betty F. 2010-12-13 08:49
Personally, I think we know plenty about Hermoine from what we are given in the text. She doesn't come from a wizarding family, and she's motivated by her nature as an outcast to be the best in the wizarding universe. True, we don't meet her parents but once. But, to say that because the series isn't focused on Hermoine exclusively Harry Potter isn't female-friendly is presumptuous, I think.

I wish the author had addressed the fact that women wrote both of these series, because frankly I think that's the more interesting aspect. Over-analyze the characters and the fan fiction universe all you want. At the end of the day, these are both insanely popular series, for better or for worse, and both were written by women. I wish the author had focused on the gender issues that invokes...
+1 #1 Elisabeth 2010-12-13 02:11
I find this a very insightful article. Applause to the author.

I've never understood the need fans have to compare the two series; they are extremely separate pieces of fiction. No, Twilight is not as good as Harry Potter, but is it necessary to fight over that? I am glad this piece largely sets that aside and focuses only on the failings in Harry Potter; we've heard Twilight deconstructed a million times, but one barely reads such a major criticism of the Potter series.

I've never really thought about the books in this way. Most people would dismiss the allegation of Harry Potter being an almost solely male narrative by pointing to Hermione and saying, "Look! One of the three main characters is female, so it has to be gender neutral." As the author explains, this is simply not the case. One may argue that we never learn about Hermione's home life because her parents are Muggles, but shouldn't that almost make it more important that we are told about them? Hermione doesn't come from a wizarding family like Ron, so how did she decide to go to Hogwarts, a school she knew nothing about? What about her life brought her to that point? Shouldn't JK Rowling using Hermione's back story as a way to draw in all of us Muggles that are reading?

Ginny may be even worse. Although the entire second book revolves around her actions, we don't find out about them until the end (for obvious plot reasons). After we learn she was the perpetrator, however, we are told almost nothing about how the events affected her. She was controlled body and soul by Voldemort and we aren't told about how that made her feel? Her account isn't analyzed to the last detail by Harry in order to try to gain any information he can on Voldemort?

The rest of the female characters are a yawn and seem only present to add depth to the male characters. We learn more about why Ron wants to break free from his family by his over protective mother. The only important thing we know about Lily is that she died for her son, thus saving Harry and putting the events of the plot in motion. Bellatrix serves to show what lengths his followers will go for Voldemort, but not much more.

Most members of the Harry Potter fandom would balk at the subject of this article at first; hopefully it will open some eyes. Thank you for a thought-provoki ng read.

Note: Please excuse me if I made a factual error about minor plot points. While I have read both series, I am not a scholar in either.

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