There were a number of happy things about the recent holidays for me, and among them was reading all of the Harry Potter books again, from start to finish. It took a long time, but was a delightful exercise in experiencing something old in a new way. Some books I’d read multiple times; some only once. Years had separated my reading of each book before, just as the years have changed me since my last reading of them.
The first thing that took me by surprise was in one of the early books when Neville Longbottom’s parents are first mentioned. It’s noted that Frank Longbottom was an auror and that he and his wife were both tortured into insanity. I immediately put down the book, confused. Frank the auror and his wife? I had been under the impression that both Frank and Alice were aurors. Not to mention, I was now noticing, besides teachers, no women in the books seemed to have careers. Not Mrs. Weasley, not Aunt Petunia, not Mrs. Malfoy, and, apparently, not Alice Longbottom. It’s enough to make one wonder if Hermione should stick around as the smartest kid at Hogwarts, or just drop out and wait for her turn to sit around The Burrow, staring at the Weasley clock, awaiting Ron’s arrival home from whatever job he will certainly grow up to have.
I get a little sensitive about these things. I’ve always had some feminist arguments with HP, including, but not limited to, Harry being a boy and Dumbledore – as well as every other mentor of Harry’s – being a man. But overall, the books are just so great, so unique and so well written, I’ve never been able to hold their male dominance against them. The Alice Longbottom thing gave me pause though, because I was so sure she, as an auror, was one of those female exceptions.
In fact, in future books, the Longbottoms are indeed described as a auror duo. It seemed clear to me, however, that this was not case upon their first mention. It appears to be a decision J.K. Rowling made later on. Likewise, other elements enter the books as they go along that give the story a more enlightened, feminist feel, such as the appearance of Luna, a female character that doesn’t exist only in relation to someone else, Tonks, the development of Ginny’s character, and the pivot that occurs around book five when the entire wizarding world stops basking in the glory of how much Harry is like his father and realizes how much more he is like his mother. These things are nice touches, and I genuinely appreciated them.
Not everyone gets the chance to make the dramatic and deep impression on the world J.K. Rowling did, and fewer still get to do so over the course of several thoughtful years. It seems clear to me that by the last book, Rowling applied serious feminist thinking to her characters and plot development that either wasn’t present at the beginning or she didn’t feel free to express.
As someone who spends a lot of time analyzing and criticizing so many people’s public expressions for their gender biases, it’s helpful for me to see the kind change that can happen within someone’s work. Coming out of the gate, we’re unlikely to be perfectly enlightened in every way in which we’d like to be. Failure to fairly and equally represent both genders in one’s body of work is a particularly easy thing to do; we are so mired in generations of thoughtless bias.
Criticisms and reminders of misogyny are certainly important, and there’s little chance I’ll stop calling them out wherever I see them. But it’s good to remember not to demonize the people themselves, as we all need time and experience to grow and evolve. The proof of that is as difficult to ignore as seven ginormous books for kids that can bewitch an adult for three solid weeks, even when she really needed to get back to work.