This week marks the end of an era. A full decade ago, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone if you prefer) hit screens and brought J. K. Rowling’s immensely popular children’s series to the big screen. The plan was practically Herculean in scope – grabbing a 10, 11, and 12-year-old to star in a popular franchise that would take each of them to adulthood through an eventual 8 films. Unlike most franchises, which usually last no more than 3 installments before finding its audience diluted, the boy wizard has remained strong at the box office and offered a blueprint for 10 years of cinematic success, culminating with this week’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.
Female success, however, has not been so clear. Though not nearly as plagued with critical venom as The Twilight Saga, Rowling’s wizarding world has courted her share of unrest. As easy as it is to be charmed by Spectrespecs, Quidditch, Chocolate Frogs, and sucked into a world of inventive magic, it’s hard to ignore the very distinct placement of women in the series.
Ignoring characterizations and focusing on the placement and implementation of Rowling’s female characters, Harry Potter’s world is not socially progressive. For the most part, the women are mothers (Dursley, Weasley), caretakers (Sprout, Pomfrey), support for the men in charge (McGonagall, Umbridge, Tonks, Bellatrix), and of course, support for the boy hero (Hermione, Luna, Cho). Not one woman is seen in a place of power, and even the founding women of Hogwarts, Rowena Ravenclaw and Helga Hufflepuff, are founders of the lesser important houses shadowed by Gryffindor and Slytherin. When Dumbledore discusses facing “the choice between what is right, and what is easy,” it is advice Rowling could have taken herself, infusing her work with women in charge, and wider female characterizations.
The boys will play as the women stick to the rules. Hermione must be the rational balance to the capriciousness shown by Harry and Ron. Professor McGonagall is always thinking of the safety of the children. Mrs. Weasley must be the strict voice of reason as all of her boys – husband included – have a tendency to goof off. Each woman takes on quite recognizable, and antiquated, social roles and performances. Lily Potter is a strong and talented witch saves her son with her life, yet she has no lasting friendships that guide Harry as he grows, the stark opposite to the typical boys’ club of cinematic friendship of Padfoot, Moony, Wormtail, and Prongs. Though Rowling is a woman with two daughters, her world is focused on the men. Fans have noted the underdeveloped histories of Rowling’s female characters, and in the cinematic realm, the few who do have more full lives on the page remain a more mysterious supporting talent, namely Ginny Weasley and Nymphadora Tonks.
But there’s a reason that Potter doesn’t suffocate under volatile criticism like Bella, Edward, and Jacob. Even when marginalized and vague, the girls and women in Harry Potter are engaging characters in a beautiful world, who are easy to love, who are always capable (whether for the good, or the bad), and slowly find more prominence as the series moves forward.
Some, like Fleur Delacour, suffer more problematic appearances, her place as the sole female competitor in the Tri-Wizard Tournament being tarnished by her failures and tearful emotions, while others have wonderfully solid, if background, support. Tonks has little screen time but plays a dominant tough girl as the lone female auror to have boast a distinct presence and dialogue. Luna Lovegood might be labelled “Looney,” but she exerts strict loyalty and strength behind her wistful gaze and daydreams. Ginny Weasley quickly morphs from young looker-on and potential victim to powerful witch. And that’s to say nothing for the many female Quidditch players who skillfully play with the boys, and the upcoming Battle of Hogwarts that lets the women kick some Deatheater ass.
Though it’s a bit of a mixed message – women being so capable and never outwardly marginalized in the wizarding society whilst having no distinct positions of power – these are women we want to know more about. Their histories might be short, and their screen time is minimal, but these supporting women are wonderful characters who embody myriad traits that make it easy to wish for spin-off accounts where each gets their own starring chance to shine. Just as the magical world is full of rich creativity and wonder, even in small glimpses, these women easily shine and become favourites. Especially the ones below.
Harry Potter’s Five Female Scene Stealers
Played By: Emma Watson
Importance: The smarts behind Harry Potter’s success.
Skill: book smarts, rational thinker, plans ahead, knows many spells
It’s easy to look at all of Hermione Granger’s skills and wonder how she could be second-in-command, so to speak, instead of the lead heroine. If anything, Hermione is just too good. If she was in Harry Potter’s shoes, both he and Ron would be marginal support, able to offer up some skill, but none of the all-round knowledge that Granger studies up on. Still, her inner strength isn’t as widely explored in the films, save for the impressive moment when she wipes her existence from her parents’ memories, essentially orphaning herself in the fight against Lord Voldemort. She’s the perfect example of a rich and capable character who could lead a series on her own.
Played By: Bonnie Wright
Importance: Harry’s love, Ron’s sister, and powerful ally.
Skill: tough spells (esp. Bat-Bogey Hexes and Reductor curse), fierce protectiveness in the face of danger, killer Quidditch player (seen only briefly in the movies)
Her evolution is not fleshed out in the film versions of J. K. Rowling’s world, but nevertheless, Ginny’s strength and skill is shown again and again. When she practices with Dumbledore’s Army, her talents stun her brothers, friends, and Harry. She’s the out-of-nowhere pro, excelling at Quidditch and magic mainly by her own hand – secretly practicing as her brother were busy with their own lives. Her younger age makes her easy to ignore, until her skills make her presence loud and clear.
Played By: Evanna Lynch
Importance: Harry’s friend, eager to defeat Lord Voldemort.
Skill: calming, can see and bond with little-known magical beings (Thestrals), maintains whimsy in any situation, awesome Quidditch commentator (books)
Luna Lovegood didn’t pop into the movies until The Order of the Phoenix, but quickly commanded attention (and picking up award nominations for Lynch). In a series of films where the unique and otherworldy becomes normal, Luna is the off-the-dial balance. She doesn’t react to things as her fellow students do. While “Looney,” she’s also incredibly supportive, warm, loyal, and calming. She lives life according to her own standards, and though they have a laugh at her expense at first, Harry, Ron, and Hermione grow to appreciate her and the way she redefines typical notions strength.
Professor Minerva McGonagall
Played By: Maggie Smith
Importance: Ally of Dumbledore, teacher at Hogwarts, head of Gryffindor House.
Skill: animagus, master duellist (comes in handy this week!), many other magical skills
McGonagall is the strict teacher who keeps her Gryffindor children in line, while also earning their love and respect. Like Mrs. Weasley, below, she tries to protect the children from the growing danger, rather than preparing them. Though she reveals her skills as an animagus, we rarely see Minerva’s true power until she unleashes it in the Battle of Hogwarts. She is a bittersweet character – we get a glimpse of her potential early, and the all-too-brief explosion of that talent in the end. It’s a shame that she didn’t get to help during the hunt for horcruxes, or given the opportunity to fight in earlier battles.
Played By: Julie Walters
Importance: Weasley mother, pseudo-mom to Harry and Hermione, member of the Order of the Phoenix.
Skill: fiercely protective, adept at spells and charms (home & health), surprisingly skilled dueller
On the surface, Mrs. Weasley is the typical, quintessential mother figure. She stands in contrast to the ghastly Mrs. Dursley, caring for both her children and others with the same love. She stays home during battles, scolds the children when she’s unhappy, and is determined to keep them out of the fight against Lord Voldemort as long as possible. But she always displays a fiery intensity that builds as the danger increases, finally exploding out during the Battle of Hogwarts. If she wasn’t busy worrying about the kids, there’s a good chance she could’ve taken out some Deatheaters before the final battle.
Honorable Mention: Nymphadora Tonks, one of my favourite characters. Sadly, she didn’t have enough cinematic screen time to make this list.
Who’s your favorite lady in the Potterverse?
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