The Representation of Women in the Harry Potter Novels

Examination Thesis, 2011

66 Pages, Grade: 1,5


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Gender
2.1 SexandGender
2.2 Gender stereotypes
2.3 The construction of gender
2.3.1 Cinema
2.3.2 Television
2.3.3 Literature

3 Analysis
3.1 General Overview
3.1.1 Sexual Equality in the Wizarding World
3.1.2 TheTwoFemaleExtremes
3.2 HermioneGranger
3.3 MinervaMcGonagall
3.4 Molly Weasley
3.5 DoloresUmbridge
3.6 Bellatrix Lestrange

4 Conclusion

List of Abbreviations

Works Cited

1 Introduction

"Ijust write what I wanted to write. I write what amuses me. It's totallyfor myself.”

- Joanne K. Rowling

Harry Potter - quite a simple name that has become famous throughout the whole world within just a few years. Shattering numerous publishing records, the seven books of the series written by Joanne K. Rowling have, up until now, sold over 400 million copies worldwide; a sales number that is only topped by the bible (Dammann).

Starting with the release of the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, bookstores had Harry Potter events due to the high demand of the books. The world has never seen such a literary phenomenon before, especially considering that the series is originally aimed at young readers, who generally spend their free time with more modern things than books nowadays. Actually, the novels have touched and moved not only children but also adults. For a fair amount of time, the first three novels topped the New York Times bestseller list; a fact that urged the newspaper to create a separate bestseller list for children’s books because other novels did not have a chance to get on top of the list as long as there were Potter novels outthere (Smith).

Furthermore, the cultural impact Harry Potter has had becomes evident in the fact that Warner Brothers has produced highly successful movies out of all seven books. Their teen stars, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, who portray the novel’s heroes, have become world stars and are among the top 15 of Great Britain’s richest young millionaires (The Telegraph). In 2010, Florida’s Universal Studios even dedicated a theme park to Harry Potter. Visitors can have ‘butterbeer’ at the Hog’s Head pub, just like the characters in the books, and afterwards, they can even talk a walk through Hogwarts as the park features an imitation of the castle. It is therefore safely to say that Harry Potter has become not only a literal, but also a cultural phenomenon.

As always, where there is fame, there is criticism. The Harry Potter series does not only have supporters but also opponents who run the books down due to various reasons.

One issue that is often criticized is that the books promote witchcraft and are therefore not suitable for children, because while reading they get too caught up in a fantasy world that, in their view, stands against several religious views. To give an example, on, Michael Bradley writes that the Harry Potter series is a “lure from the dark side to entice and trap people not only into witchcraft itself, but also into some of other dark occult arts as well.” This is especially a topic in the United States where many devout Christians live.

Another matter that has been discussed frequently is the gender question. There are critics who say that, for the novels to be progressive and contemporary, Harry should have been a “Henrietta” (qtd. in Thompson 44). They accuse Rowling of undermining women because, according to them, women do not get important parts in the series since the person who is ultimately the most important of them all is Harry, a boy.

An interesting fact I would like to add here is that Bloomsbury, the English publishing company that agreed to print Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in 1997, urged Rowling to only publish her first name’s initials, J.K., for fear that boys, initially the books’ target audience, would not read a book written by a woman (Kirk 76). Therefore, the fame of the Harry Potter novels started out with gender discrimination, and, ironically, it is exactly this issue why the books are frequently under fire.

This controversial issue of female representation in the Harry Potter novels has caught my interest, and therefore, it is going to be the subject of this paper.

There certainly exist a lot of scholarly analyses about women in the Harry Potter books, especially feminist works. The problem with many of these is that several authors published their criticism before Rowling had finished writing the series. Thus, many authors did not judge the whole series but only the early books. In my opinion, it is important to take a closer look at the whole story before judging anything because otherwise one does not give Rowling the chance to let her characters or the world around them develop. This is why I intend to concentrate mainly on works that have been published after or at least close to the ending of the series in 2007. Two of these that I will often enlarge upon are first the essay “From Sexist to (sort-of) Feminist: Representations of Gender in the Harry Potter Series” by Elizabeth E. Heilman and Trevor Donaldson and secondly the book Females and Harry Potter: Not all that empowering by Ruthann Mayes-Elma.

A question that might come up at this point is the relevance of the topic I have chosen for this paper. Presumably there are many people who believe that the way females are represented in the Harry Potter novels is neither interesting nor important. I argue that this matter is definitely important.

The Harry Potter series has been read by approximately 400 million people all over the world since the novels have been translated into 67 languages (BBC News). When that many people read seven books that are constituted of 4224 pages all together, when they get that caught up in a fantasy series, the influence all those words have on them must be immense. That is the case especially with children. When children read or listen to Harry’s stories, they dive into a world they would most likely want to be a part of, and when that happens, it is vital in which ways gender is represented because most children will take that representation for granted and will not question it.

In this way, Rowling’s statement that she writes only for herself while at the same time she is aware of having nearly the whole world as an audience could be regarded critically. Is it not irresponsible to portray Molly Weasley mainly as a housewife? Or to give Hermione a leading role but only because of her cleverness must aid Harry in fulfilling his final task of killing Lord Voldemort? Will children not be influenced in a negative way when they start to identify with certain female characters? These are questions commonly discussed in hitherto existing literature on females in the Harry Potter novels. The purpose of this paper is to examine some of these assertions.

I will start my paper by giving an overview on the term ‘gender’ because it is crucial to know some basic theory before being able to analyze the Harry Potter novels pertaining to feminist matters. This overview will include a differentiation between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ because it is often not clear in how far they diverge. Furthermore, I will write about gender stereotypes. They are already hinted at in the first part, and even though most people could probably think of many gender stereotypes within just a few seconds, it is important to realize how they are generated and why they can impose danger on our society. This will lastly lead to an exposition of how gender is actively constructed by society, or, more precisely, by popular culture. Due to this paper’s main topic, I will also include information on how gender has been commonly represented in children’s literature of modern times, taking Astrid Lindgren’s Emil series as an example.

After my digression on gender, I will move on to the central aim of this paper, analyzing the representation of women in Joanne K. Rowling’s novels. This part will begin with a general overview that will first take a closer look on sexual equality in the wizarding world, especially regarding the treatment of women at school and in sports. Afterwards, what will be presented and discussed are two general and opposing images of women in the novels. Furthermore, it will portray the most powerful force in the novels that is actually female: a mother’s love.

What will follow then is the analysis of the representation of the most significant female characters in the Harry Potter series; Hermione Granger, Minerva McGonagall, Molly Weasley, Dolores Umbridge and Bellatrix Lestrange. I chose these characters on the one hand for their importance in the story, on the other hand because of their diversity and their different relationships to Harry. Hermione is one of Harry’s best friends and therefore one of the novels’ most important characters while Molly Weasley takes over the role of a substitute mother for the orphan Harry. McGonagall and Umbridge are both, at one point, teachers at Hogwarts. McGonagall is strict, but ultimately trustworthy and fair, whereas Umbridge comes close to the image of a ‘monster teacher’ nobody would like to have. After Umbridge, Bellatrix Lestrange will be a second female from the ‘evil side’ worth looking at.

After having analyzed all of these matters and characters in detail, I will conclude this paper with a personal judgement of how women are portrayed in the Harry Potter novels. I will attempt to address some of the criticisms of the female characters in the novels and will try to illuminate some of them from a differentangle.

2 Gender

In order to be able to examine and understand the significance of Rowling’s representation of women accurately, it is vital to begin this paper with some basic background knowledge on the term ‘gender’. This will first include a definition of ‘gender’, juxtaposing it with the similar term ‘sex’. Moreover, what will be of interest is how society actively constructs gender and in how far gender stereotypes affect the public’s opinion on how women and men should behave.

2.1 Sex and Gender

‘Sex’ and ‘gender’ are often used interchangeably in everyday language, even though they refer to completely different issues.

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines sex as “the state of being male or female” (Hornby 1391) whereas “the fact of being male or female” (Hornby 644) is how it describes gender. Standing by themselves, it seems hard to differentiate between these definitions. To make the difference clearer, the two words will be put in direct opposition to one another in the next paragraph.

A simple distinction between sex and gender would be that “sex is biological, whereas gender is social” (qtd. in Mayes-Elma 39). In other words, humans are born with a certain sex, male or female, but gender is something they obtain over time, depending on the society they grow up in. Furthermore, gender “may also refer to society’s evaluation of behavior as masculine or feminine [gender role]’’ (Basow 23). Mayes-Elma gives a clear example of the difference between sex and gender: she writes that a child becomes gendered for the first time when it is given clothes in a certain colour, blue for boys, and pink for girls (Mayes-Elma 41). Another situation in which a child receives gender is when it is given “girl toys”, i.e. dolls, or “boy toys” like toy cars and trucks (Mayes-Elma 41). In most cases, a girl would not be given toy cars or blue clothes, because it is not what society has decided a girl should do or look like.

All the same, a boy would not receive pink clothes or dolls, because it would not be suitable for a boy.

In her essay simply titled “Gender”, Myra Jehlen argues that gender is defined by “culture, society, [and] history”, not by nature. In other words, she states that a person’s sexual identity does not necessarily have to correlate with that person’s actual sex. Transsexuals, who generally feel trapped inside the wrong body, often describe this condition.

A more complex distinction between sex and gender is made by Teresa de Lauretis in The Technology of Gender, which is the introduction to her book Technologies of Gender 1989. She proposes that gender should not be equalized with sexual differences, and that gender, following Michael Foucault’s theory of sexuality as a “technology of sex” (de Lauretis 2], is a “product of various social technologies, such as cinema [...] as well as practices of daily life” (2]. Moreover, she finds a connection between the “social” understanding of gender and the “grammatical” gender, which refers to feminine, masculine, and neutral articles of words in Romance or Germanic languages. The connection she establishes is that in both cases gender is “the representation of a relation, that of belonging to a class, a group, a category” (4]. Based thereupon, de Lauretis makes a statement about gender similar to Mayes-Elma’s, though she does not believe that a child becomes gendered when it is given pink or blue clothes for instance, but that instead it acquires a gender right when it is signified as a boy or a girl, because in grammar, the world “child” is neuter [it] while “girl” is feminine [she] and “boy” is masculine [he].

De Lauretis goes even further deconstructing the term ‘gender’ by examining in how far it is possible to put “gender” on a level with ‘ideology’. The word ideology derives from the Latin idea (image, form, idea] and logos (discipline, system of thought]. It can be defined as a “system of beliefs common to a particular group” (Hodge]. Examples for such a group are political parties. They have certain beliefs and opinions, which constitute their ideology. If people vote for a certain party, they usually have the same or at least similar beliefs and opinions, which they would like to see as common sense in the city or country they live in. The reason de Lauretis sees a connection between gender and ideology is a statement by Louis Allhusser saying that “all ideology has the function [...] of‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects” (qtd. in de Lauretis 6). De Lauretis argues that Allhusser’s statement is still valid when “ideology” is substituted by “gender”, because “gender has the function [...] of constituting concrete individuals as men and women” (p. 6], which is basically the same definition Allhusser gives for ideology, with the exception that de Lauretis includes gender whereas Allhusser does not. Another author recognizing the relation between gender and ideology is Michèle Barrett, who states that “ideology is a primary site of the construction of gender” (qtd. in de Lauretis 7]. This statement can be visualized by taking the Republican Party of the United States as an example. Its ideology, among others, contains the vision of a true family consisting of a husband as the family’s provider, a wife as the family’s caretaker and children. They do not approve of other varieties of families.1 Thus, what they do is precisely constructing gender through their ideology because they tell women as well as men what their role in life is supposed to be.

It is important to add that this interpretation of ideology relies on “the notion of patriarchy as a given in social reality” (de Lauretis 7). This seems logical, considering the fact that every reader would have been surprised if the example just given had been the other way round, i.e. the wife as a provider and the man as a caretaker. Though this development is seen more often today than in former times, it is generally the man rather than the woman who provides for his family and thus climbs on to higher steps of the ladder of success. In other words, the given interpretation of ideology is only valid in a society in which women are oppressed by men.

What this chapter describes are basically prejudices about men and women that seem to have implanted themselves into the minds of our society over a long period of time. In order to be able to fully understand the roots and effects of such ideas, the following passage will take a closer look at these so-called gender stereotypes.

2.2 Gender stereotypes

The construction of gender has its roots in deeply stiffened, seldom queried stereotypes. After initially offering a definition of the word stereotype itself, I will briefly depict where gender stereotypes come from and how they affect men, women and children.

In Gender Stereotypes (1986), Susan Basow defines stereotypes as “relatively rigid and oversimplified conception^] of a group of people in which all individuals in the group are labelled with the so-called group characteristics” (3). To fulfil the aim of this paper and furthermore to put the focus on gender stereotyping, the only groups I will concentrate on are women and men.

It is quite difficult to describe the bases of gender stereotypes. Similar to the popular question ‘Which came first, chicken or egg?’ it is hard to decide whether stereotypes result from men and women’s behaviour or whether their behaviour results from gender stereotypes. However, Basow points out that “most of the gender stereotypic traits [are] indeed oversimplifications and exaggerations of minor group differences” (12).

An important aspect of stereotypes is that they are usually common belief among a society. Thus, it is very hard to fight stereotypes, even when they do not apply, although Basow notes that in general, stereotypes are “unlikely to be true” (3), not only for a specific member of that group, but also for the whole group. For example, a common sex-role stereotype is that men show more aptitude in natural sciences than women. This surely accounts for a fair number of males in the “men” group, but it certainly does not apply to every men. However, being scientifically skilful is an expectation the general society puts on men. Similarly, girls are expected to perform well in arts, for instance. It is quite hard to fight gender stereotypes because they result in what Basow calls a “self-fulfilling prophecy” (13). Since children are usually raised according to their role in society, they are taught from early on what a boy or a girl is supposed to be like. They adopt this way of thinking so intensively that when asked why they choose to perform in a specific way they simply answer “because I’m a girl [boy]” (Basow 116).

A further example of a common stereotype associated with girls and women is that of nurturance. It is widely believed that women are better caretakers and better helpers than men. This assumption derives mainly from the fact that the ability of bearing children is exclusively reserved to females. Actually, though, studies have proven that men and women “have been found capable of equally nurturant behavior” (Basow 64) and that this common belief is the simple result of a stereotype that society has been accepting as the truth for centuries.

So far this section has pointed out how stereotypes have developed and in how far some of them come close to reality. What will be the object of the next paragraph is in how far society is affected by gender stereotypes.

Society, or, more explicitly, parents have different expectations of their sons and daughters. These expectations have their roots in gender stereotypes. For example, “fathers will roughhouse with their sons but not their daughters” (Mayes-Elma 41) and “with boys, parents encourage and tolerate more anger, whereas with girls, parents encourage and tolerate more fear” (Mayes-Elma 41). Moreover, studies have found out that “daughters are expected to do more housework than sons” (Mayes-Elma 41/42). In general, children learn how to act from what their parents exemplify through their own behaviour. “If the mother is the one who does all of the cleaning and cooking and the father is the one who mows the lawn and pays the bills, this models for the child what roles women and men perform” (Mayes-Elma 42). It becomes the norm, and other behaviour will seem weird and abnormal to them. It is obvious how dangerous such attitudes are as they might make children intolerant and unable to adapt to alternative lifestyles, which might have great effects on their later lives as adults. Parents are not the only ones who have the power to gender children, though. When they are not at home, they are generally at school, with their peers, or using the mass media. All these engagements have equal, if not even more power to influence children than their own parents.

At school, it has been observed that teachers have different expectations on girls than on boys. While girls often seem to be ‘allowed’ to have trouble understanding math and other sciences, boys are expected to excel at them, which is another gender stereotype. On the other hand, it is often ‘okay’ for boys to only receive average grades in languages and arts while girls are counted on mastering them well. Mayes-Elma points out that this stereotype has its roots in the early forms of gendering a child receives: when a boy plays with toy cars and similar items, he develops his “visual-spatial abilities, problem-solving skills, and creativity more than girls” (Mayes-Elma 41). It is exactly this type of development that will likely make boys more capable of solving mathematical problems than girls. On the other hand, girls train their language and creative skills while playing with dolls in a ‘fantasy world’, so that they are more likely to succeed and, more importantly, more encouraged by teachers in reading and writing classes than in science classes. Naturally, this type of behaviour of teachers shows the children “where they are ‘supposed’ to excel” (Mayes-Elma 42) and where their place at school is.

What Mayes-Elma identifies as the greatest influence on children are their peers. “Kids [...] take an active hand in constructing gender, and ... collective practices -forming lines, choosing seats, teasing, gossiping [...] -- animate the process” (Mayes-Elma 44). Most of the time, children will act the way their friends do in order to avoid becoming an ‘outsider’ in class. For boys, it might be ‘uncool’ to dislike football, so the vast majority of boys in Germany plays it (Deutscher Fußball Bund), even though some might actually be much more interested in engaging in different activities like playing the piano or drawing pictures. Girls, on the other side, might be looked down on if they do not wear clothes of a certain brand that is considered fashionable. Consequently, girls are forced to be into that brand even though some might dislike its clothing, and some families might actually not be able to afford it. However, research has found out that “boys encourage ‘masculine’ behavior much more than girls encourage ‘feminine’ behavior” (Mayes-Elma 45). Furthermore, it has shown that to boys, what matters is who criticizes them. They “responded to pressures from other boys; however, they largely ignored girls and teachers” (Mayes-Elma 45). This finding is proof of the fact that it is indeed peers who exert the largest influence on children; and more precisely, peers of the same sex.

2.3 Theconstructionofgender

In the paragraphs above I pointed out that gender is commonly constructed by a state’s ideology, but also by a state’s popular culture. There are several branches of popular culture that obtain the power of ‘implanting’ gender perceptions into people’s minds. This paper will concentrate on three of these branches: cinema, television and, due to its main topic, children’s literature. How these subdivisions of popular culture construct gender will be described in the following.

2.3.1 Cinema

Teresa de Lauretis depicts one important “technology of gender” in the introduction to her book; cinema. Cinema has been a popular cultural apparatus for many centuries. Thus, it has great influence on what people think a ‘real’ woman or man should look like, or what they should do. Since it is usually women who are disadvantaged in a society, most studies that have been made are about the representation of women in films. For years, feminist film theorists have been preoccupied with the construct of “woman as image, as the object of the spectator’s voyeurist gaze” (de Lauretis 13). Taking a look at Marilyn Monroe’s film The Seven Year Itch (1955), for example, it becomes evident what is meant by this. The most famous scene of the film features Monroe standing above a New York subway funnel, the air streaming out of it blowing up her dress as high as the viewers could almost see her underwear. In the 1950s, that was considered scandalous. Moreover, it was only another step of turning women into symbols of sex. What that scene did was constructing gender because it turned Monroe into an object for men to “gaze” at. The problem critics saw and still see is that in society, there is an “identification of the sexual with the female body” (de Lauretis 13). Consequently, women are frequently not seen as actual human beings but rather as objects men can fantasize about. This is achieved through certain cinematic techniques such as lighting, framing and editing, but also by putting female characters in certain roles, like the seducer of men or the ‘servant’ of men, being a housewife who must always be available when her man desires her, for example. Furthermore, the cinematic apparatus has had the effect that society perceives sexuality as “an attribute or a property of the male” (de Lauretis 14), not the female. “Active, spontaneous, genital” and “easily aroused” (14) are attributes commonly used to describe male sexuality. Female sexuality, on the other hand, is usually regarded as a “projection of the male’s” (14) and has only been defined “both in contrast and in relation to the male” (14).

Naturally, the representation of women on the big screen has slightly changed over the years. After women gained more power and equal rights throughout Europe and the United States in the 1970s, there have been several films showing women in roles contrary to what is expected of them, taking for example Boys Don't Cry (1999). This movie tells the true story of Brandon Teena, a transsexual who was born a woman but innately felt he was a man. Acting against one’s preset role in society is as well picked out as a central theme in the British film Bend It Like Beckham (2002) in which a young Indian woman pursues her passion for playing football in spite of her traditional family wanting her to act more ‘like a woman’. Though these are only two examples of many films acting against common female stereotypes, what should be kept in mind is that the majority of such movies are independent films without much success at the box office. Blockbuster movies that reach a high number of people often still promote the image of women as sex symbols today. Examples for such films are the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider or James Bond movies.

All in all, we can say that (especially early) cinema has not made a very positive contribution to the perception of women in society. On the contrary, it has been used to promote and standardize a patriarchal structure in which oppressing women and exposing them as sex symbols is not questioned in people’s minds.

2.3.2 Television

Another part of popular culture that influences people’s perception of gender is television. It is viewed even more often than cinema. The JIM (Jugend, Information, Multimedia) study of 2009 showed that 97% of German households owned a television.2 Furthermore, 60% of all teenagers even possess one of their own and another 63% of them watch TV on a daily basis. Obviously, then, the way women are represented in this branch of popular culture is very significant because it affects the attitudes of these high numbers of people who watch.

Since television is a very broad field, too large to examine as a whole in the framework of this paper, this depiction will mainly set eyes on a TV scope that is often not counted as such, yet audiences around the world watch it all the time: commercials.

Commercials have been part of television as long as one can imagine. Especially private channels broadcast adverts lasting more and more minutes each year, forcing viewers to see them, even when they switch channels. In fact, the average adult viewer spends one and a half years of his or her entire life watching commercials (Ingham). Consequently, the way they represent women exerts an ample influence on the viewer.

Since their advent in the 1940s, commercials have mostly shown women in ads for beauty or cleaning products. Another branch in advertising that usually features women is childcare and cooking. It becomes evident that commercials usually put women in the role of the domestic housewife. Ingham remarks that when ads show women in positions of power, or even just as having an occupation, they are portrayed in a negative way and sometimes even punished for not being at home. Thus, commercials frequently make use of female stereotypes. They also sometimes use women in order to give their ads a sexual touch even though the product they advertise comes from a completely different sector. A perfect example for this kind of ad comes from Germany. Wick, a company that produces cough drops amongst other things, advertises one of their drops by showing a busty, beautiful woman sliding it into her mouth. Wearing swim wear only, she is surrounded by water, and one can see the water drops dripping down on her breasts. Further, her lips are oftentimes shown in a close-up. As if those pictures did not convey this ad’s message enough, the slogan they use for the drops is “Jetzt wird’s feucht im Mund”.3 This statement is highly sexual. All in all, the Wick commercial presents women as a means that can turn anything into a sexual item, even cough drops. Obviously, this portrayal is neither progressive nor realistic. Just like cinema, commercials frequently depict women as sexual objects.

Of course, it is not only because of advertising that television exerts such great influence on the audience’s perception of women. Other popular formats, such as sitcoms and (reality) shows contribute as well to our society’s attitude towards women. For example, NBC’s Friends (1994 - 2004) featured three women in leading roles, all of whom were heterosexual, beautiful, chatty women obsessed with having coffee at a nearby café and going shopping as often as possible. This depiction obviously hits various female stereotypes at once. Though there surely are counter examples, i.e. shows and sitcoms which do not necessarily show women in roles society expects of them, the majority of TV programmes does make use of stereotypes, and even often plays with them in order to create funny scenes. Friends was highly popular around the globe during the ten years that it was on air. It is only one example of a sitcom that worked with stereotypes, reaching millions of viewers who will have probably adopted some of its points ofviews and attitudes.

This is only a short digression of how television influences people’s perception of gender. It is included here in order to demonstrate how powerful popular culture, in its several facets, actually is. The branch that is of more interest for this paper is whatthe next paragraph will be about: literature. Due to the Harry Potter books belonging in the category of children’s literature, it is this section thatwill be examined in detail.

2.3.3 Literature

Children’s literature as we know it today did not begin to spread until the beginning of the nineteenth century. In preceding times, books were only used as a “vehicle for children’s learning” (Mayes-Elma 11). They taught them about grammar, religion, and about how to lead a moral life.


1 This information is taken from the 2008 Republican Platform. It can be accessed online at (53].

2 The JIM study is available online at Studie2009.pdf

3 Ad accessible on

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The Representation of Women in the Harry Potter Novels
University of Paderborn  (Kulturwissenschaften)
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Nina Kayser (Author), 2011, The Representation of Women in the Harry Potter Novels, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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