Hands off Harry Potter!

Have critics of J.K. Rowlings' books even read them?


Chris Gregory
March 3, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

Since Harry Potter first flew into the American landscape a little more
than a year ago, the unassuming lad and his rags-to-riches author
have received accolades ranging from the distinguished (the UK's National Book Award, the Smarties Prize and so on) to the barely heard (my 10-year-old neighbor, who
told me in an awed voice, "Those books weren't stupid"). Along with the praise came millions of dollars handed over by ecstatic children and equally ecstatic parents thrilled to be paying for anything with an intellectual range greater than Pokimon. The books were, everyone agreed, clever and funny and magical, and how nice that they were making a lot of money.

The backlash was inevitable.

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The three Harry Potter books tell the story of a young boy learning to become
a wizard at a magical school called Hogwarts. At first glance, nothing
here would seem offensive, especially given the comic tone of the books. (The third book has gotten a little darker, but only in comparison to an initial book that includes sentences like: "Professor McGonagall watched them turn a mouse into a snuffbox -- points were given for how pretty the snuffbox was, but taken away if it
had whiskers.") But in today's hypersensitive cultural climate, anything can be
found to have some offensive elements -- you just have to look hard
enough.

First came the conservative pro-family Christian groups, ignoring more
morally dubious -- but less popular -- works in a drive to remove the
Harry Potter books from classrooms and libraries. These parents are concerned that the cheerful depiction of magic will tempt young readers enthralled with the books to leave Christianity and follow paganism.

If modern paganism could teach me to do half the stuff in these books, I'd be its most fervent convert. The students learn fun stuff like shrinking potions (which would certainly have enlivened my chemistry class), how to make a pineapple dance across your desk (which beats algebra, hands down) and how to fly on a broomstick (which leaves regular gym in the dust).

Unfortunately, modern witchcraft bears as much resemblance to Hogwarts'
curriculum as my eighth-grade chemistry class did to Professor Snape's
potions class, with the possible exception that my chemistry teacher
was a lot nastier. Nor does Hogwarts seem to have any
particular religious leanings outside of the annual, and very secular,
Christmas party, and a few characters walking around with suspiciously
classical names. A more valid critique would be that the books
contain no trace of religion or religious observance whatsoever, doubtful at a time when the majority of us still do attend religious services.

It's worth noting also that the magic depicted by Rowlings does seem to have some moral sense attached to it. The few spells used to harm others usually backlash on the user in a riotously humorous or dreadful way. Thus, the evil Voldemort loses most of his powers after using magic to kill Harry's parents. And when Ron attempts to curse the
school bully, Draco Malfoy, his wand backfires, and poor Ron spends the
next few hours throwing up slugs. (Scenes like this explain why 10-year-olds love the books.)

Conservative groups have also expressed concern with the violence in the
books, which, when compared to the typical Hollywood PG movie,
seems terribly mild. Objections were also raised to the depiction of the Dursleys, the family that Harry has to spend his miserable summer vacations with. They are Muggles, people who can't do magic, and they are so awful that they become irresistibly funny. The Dursleys force Harry to sleep in a cupboard, constantly yell at him, hit him and prevent him from communicating with his friends. They give him a toothpick for a Christmas present. This is in marked contrast to the spoiling of their son, the nasty Dudley, who sobs on one birthday because he's only received 36 presents. His mother hastily comforts him with the promise of more gifts to come: "Dudley thought for a moment. It looked like hard work."

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It must be admitted that the Dursleys do not present a positive picture of the traditional
nuclear family. But the books also introduce us to the loving, nurturing Weasley family that has somehow managed to raise seven highly intelligent, charming kids. Unfortunately, they're also poor, barely able to afford their kids' school fees; their house ("it looked as though it had once been a large stone pigpen") is falling to pieces. And yet,
when Harry visits Ron's family:

"It's a bit small," said Ron quickly. "Not like that room you had with the Muggles. And I'm right underneath the ghoul in the attic; he's always banging on the pipes and groaning." But Harry, grinning widely, said, "This is the best house I've ever been in."

Find a better statement for "family values" anywhere.

And now liberals are attacking the books, not for any supposed paganism or violence or menace to the family, but because of another perceived threat: sexism.

In Salon, Christine Schoefer claims that the books are full of stereotyped characters following traditional male and female roles. Harry's world, she claims, is dominated by men, and women play only supporting roles. Some of her points are valid. Many of the
characters are stereotypes -- there's the school bully, the deadly boring history teacher (so deadly, in fact, that he's actually a ghost), the sports-mad captain of the Quidditch team and so on. That Rowlings uses these clichis for humorous effect seems to have escaped Schoefer's notice, but in our politically correct world, humor is not always a desired quality.
Safety is.

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On the surface, the wizard world might seem suspect because it is run by men. The only members of the Ministry of Magic whom we meet are men. The wise and beloved school headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, is male; Professors Binns, Flitwick (who teaches the dancing pineapple tricks) and Snape (the silkily evil Potions teacher) are male. The Defense Against the Black Arts professors are all male. And the very female and very funny Professor Sibyll Trelawney, who teaches Fortune Telling, is most certainly an incompetent idiot, even if her doleful pronouncements often steal the show.

But that's only half the story. The Ministers of Magic may be men, but they all seem to be blundering idiots. As it turns out, most of the Defense Against the Black Arts teachers, male or not, are complete incompetents or have shady pasts. Professor Snape is the most hated teacher in the school. Professor Flitwick squeaks. Frequently. Adult males are usually -- to
steal one of Rowlings' favorite words -- dunderheads. Indeed, the school's most respected and competent teachers are women. They include the tall, stern Professor McGonagall, who exudes authority but permits rule-breaking under certain conditions and harbors a
sneaking love for sports. There are also several other female teachers -- Professor Spout, Madam Pomfrey and Madam Hooch. They play only bit parts, admittedly, but it's worth noting that Madam Hooch is the sports teacher and is as obsessed by racing brooms as any other boy or girl.

Speaking of sports, what about those attractive members of the Griffindor Quidditch team -- Chasers Alicia Spinnet, Katie Bell and Angelina Johnson? (Quidditch is the wizard form of soccer, with two major differences: It's played high in the air, and instead of one ball, the players have to worry about four.) Quidditch isn't just about catching the Golden Snitch -- to win the Cup, those Chasers must put the ball through the Quaffle, which apparently involves a lot of spectacular flying, darting around other flyers and dodging big black balls called Bludgers. It's painful and bloody, and the girls certainly get their share of it.

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Granted, we don't hear much about Harry's distaff classmates Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil -- although Pavarti's few brief scenes do suggest that she has quite a fighting spirit. On the other hand, we don't hear a lot about Harry's other male classmates, Seamus Flannigan and Dean Thomas, either, even though they all sleep in the same dorm and
could conceivably be joining in more of the adventures. If these characters don't turn up too often, it seems more for the sake of limiting confusion by focusing on
only a few of the many students in the school. The only other classmates who do play a major role are the hapless Neville Longbottom, who can't even control a toad, and the school bully Draco Malfoy.

And, oh yes, two girls, Ginny and Hermione. Schoefer is dismayed by the portrayal of both girls, claiming that they reinforce stereotypes about girls -- they stay on the
sidelines and don't get to go on adventures. There is some truth to this.
Because the book centers on Harry, Hermione and Ginny play supporting
roles in the book, roles that force them to be offscreen during the
books' climactic moments against villains. But the same can be said for
numerous other characters, including Harry's friend Ron and the wise
professor Dumbledore. At the end of each book, Harry faces his enemies
entirely alone.

But this hardly keeps girls on the sidelines. Hermione in particular
accompanies Harry on nearly all of his adventures; as for Ginny,
Schoefer's complaints take several quotes made about the girl out of
context. The quotes Schoefer uses -- "Poor little Ginny," "the foolish little brat" and "all her pitiful troubles and woes" -- do indeed appear in the book, but they are all said by the villain, and the reader is not supposed to agree with or believe them. Other insults are made by Ginny's brothers and sound distressingly like the mean things brothers of that age tend to say. (I'll introduce you to mine, if you have any doubts.) Ginny, the shy younger sister of six boisterous older brothers, is one of the most touchingly portrayed characters in the books.

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Schoefer is also unimpressed by Harry's best friend Hermione, the
smartest kid in the school, claiming that Harry and Ron treat her like a
bossy sidekick until Book Three. Perhaps she missed Ron's saying in the
third book, "But will [the invisibility cloak] cover all three of us?" --
taking Hermione's presence for granted. And perhaps she missed that
Hermione, not Ron, was the last to leave Harry's side in the first and
third books.

Without the brave Hermione, it must be said, Harry would have been dead pretty early on. Hermione falters only once, when she first meets a troll who is planning to eat her; after that, she meets other monsters and evils with considerable aplomb. She outdoes her classmates in virtually every class, and far from trying to put her in her place, the
teachers go out of their way to accommodate her lust for learning and to turn her into the most powerful, intelligent witch that she can be.

Schoefer has also chosen not to see one of the books' nicest touches: the (almost) solid friendship between two boys and a girl. (The friendship does stumble when Hermione's cat appears to have eaten Ron's pet rat, but this is understandable, and has nothing to do with Hermione being a girl.) And, in Schoefer's need to find sexism, she has ignored another
wonderful touch: Harry and Ron accept Hermione Granger for exactly what
she is -- an often annoying, extremely intelligent and extraordinarily brave and quick-witted girl. Just the sort of person to have around when you have to smuggle a forbidden baby dragon across school grounds.

Neither Hermione nor Ginny are among my favorite characters: That prize goes to the villainous Professor Snape and the marvelously silly Professor Trelawney. (Ms. Rowlings, if you're reading this, please bring Professor Trelawney back in the next books. Please.) In the end, it seems that Rowlings is guilty less of creating stereotypical female characters than of writing a book centering on a boy, one of whose friends happens to be a girl. But who says women must write about female characters?

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Reading Schoefer's criticisms, I was reminded of one of the first sentences in
the books, one of my favorites:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say
that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last
people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious,
because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.

Of course, Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, by not holding with such nonsense, end
up missing all of the joys of Harry's world: the foaming butterbeer,
the paintings that move and talk and gossip with one another, the chance
to step from an ordinary train platform through a wall and onto a
marvelous red train that takes you to explore magic and adventure. Not to mention the chance to soar through the air on a broomstick.

Fortunately, Harry escapes his Muggle family every year at Hogwarts.
With luck, his creator -- and her readers -- may be able to wave a wand
and make all of the Muggle critics disappear.

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Chris Gregory

Chris Gregory is a freelance writer. She lives in South Florida.

MORE FROM Chris Gregory

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