February 14, 2014 by Brionne Powell
Late last month, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling revealed her regret about pairing the ginger and the brain in her saga’s final chapters. In an interview with Emma Watson, Rowling said she felt a relationship between Ron and Hermione would be fraught with problems, and the couple would need to spend a lot of time in counseling. She asserted that a relationship between Harry and Hermione would have made more sense. Fan response was instantaneous and wide ranging, from “I always knew it!” to “How could she do this? They were meant to be!” The opinions are as varied and as creative as some of the fan fiction.
The Harry Potter fandom has again demonstrated its ability to rise from the almost silent reaches of nearly-but-not-quite-dead fandoms (we didn’t go that far; we are after all, the fandom that launched a thousand fandoms — all due respect to the originals: Tolkien fans), but like the sounds of a dragon rustling in his sleep, the recent movement in the fandom has been subtle, but possibly important. The renewed debate raises an important question: Who the f— cares?
“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was first published in 1997, and for the past 17 years Hermione has been distinguished as a pro-feminist character that young girls could genuinely look up to without impunity. This character was a breath of fresh air. In a world that treats women like commodities, reducing us to our most basic ability to help men rule the world, Hermione held her own. At age 11 she cracked a seven-part riddle designed to stump the most talented of wizards. At age 13 she deduced and protected the secret of a beloved professor; she consistently excelled at her academics while founding and promoting the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare, maintained apparently healthy relationships with other female characters (no cat fights in the corridors), and was recognized by students and staff alike as incredibly smart and talented. In the final chapters of the series, Hermione made the tough calls, sacrificing her happiness with her Muggle family for the mission she committed herself to at such a young age. Hermione’s strength as a character, her value as a person, has never been tied to her relationship status. When 10-plus years of hints and suspicions were confirmed and she and Ron made it official, it was barely a blip on the radar for most readers, a sort of “sounds about right” moment among the many emotions stirred by the story’s end.
Hermione has been at the center of the “Potter-Twilight” debate as the most shining example of a well-balanced female character to contrast with Bella Swan’s (let’s be frank) weak, helpless, indecisive and self-pitying uselessness. Harry Potter was never a story about a love triangle; even the fans — who are notorious for disregarding canon in favor of their own understanding of characters’ motivations — respected the dynamic of “The Trio.” To be clear, for those of you who don’t know or remember, the days at Hogwarts were not without their drama; it’s a story of growth and maturity after all, but there were clear lines. Harry liked Hermione but, more importantly, he respected her; he even states on more than one occasion that they wouldn’t have come far without her.
Rowling’s decision to rethink Ron and Hermione’s relationship is nothing new; writers always find something they want to change, but why is this change such a big deal? Rowling’s statements come with her trademark lack of fuss. The fan reaction, however, has been troubling. To have such a strong, independent character reduced to her choice in boyfriend is a major step backward. Say what you will about the f-word, but feminists have warned against this type of reductionism for decades. Women talk about it in the context of every aspect of our lives, being reduced to sex objects for the entertainment of men, pawns for political gain in Washington, one dimensional props for fiction writers.
An example? In the latest Star Trek films, J.J. Abrams (the great film maker that he is) managed to take one of this country’s most openly progressive TV shows of its time and reduce it to a whitewashed, misogynistic joke for the sake of box office sales. The decades old standoff between Star Trek and Star Wars fans has often been summed up in the notion that Star Trek, notoriously slow and cerebral, was for the more philosophical viewers, while Star Wars was big, flashy and action packed; a summer blockbuster type for a wider, more diverse viewer. “Star Trek” (2009) and its sequel, “Star Trek Into Darkness” (2013), were Trek movies for Star Wars fans who think they know Star Trek; it even had the obnoxious scene with a half-naked woman. Star Trek has always had a tenuous relationship with critics and wider audiences but that was part of the charm of Gene Rodenberry’s universe: he wasn’t targeting billions of people. Star Trek (like many shows in the early days of television) was targeted for a niche audience, for the type of person who can sit through a one-hour morality lesson every week for nearly 40 years.
In the process of making a megahit, J.J. Abrams stripped Star Trek of that legacy of careful intellectualism in favor of fights on the bridge and half-naked women. My irritation at seeing my childhood reduced to the most basic and un-Trek qualities pales in the wake of my fury at Abrams’ treatment of his female characters. Setting aside for a moment the gratuitous changing scene with Dr. Carol Marcus, which the director himself later admitted was unnecessary and should have been cut, ignoring for a second the casting of a white actor for a role made iconic by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban (though British actor Benedict Cumberbatch’s chilling performance as Kahn is almost reason enough to let that slide), let’s talk about the writers’ and director’s treatment of women in this reimagined story. Lieutenant Uhura is a character that stands out to many fans for breaking the color barrier, refusing to let men fight her battles, and never (in the whole of Nichelle Nichols’ tenure in the role) being shown naked just for the sake of being ogled by male viewers (we don’t talk about the fan dance).
In 2009, Lt. Uhura is a beautiful, talented linguist who doesn’t take crap from any man, not even future captain James T. Kirk — as she should be. An hour later, a character that to my admittedly porous memory only had two kisses in four TV seasons and seven feature films — one of them by the power of an alien race — is reduced to a stereotypical female role: the girlfriend. Lt. Uhura is now in a relationship with Commander Spock, an interesting twist that I initially liked. I soon grew concerned about when I realized that the Enterprise bridge crew, which had been an ensemble, was now reduced to a buddy action film where the captain and first officer run off on their adventures while the remaining senior staff pipe up once in a while just to remind us that they are there. Also, the one speaking female character is deflated to a cardboard cutout to be stored away when the boys play and pulled out again, when it suits the needs of the men on the bridge. In the ’60s and ’70s Uhura contributed to the discussion on the bridge; her experience and her voice were valued.
In 2013, we return to the Enterprise to find the boys have once again run into a proper adventure while our towering example to all girls since 1966 is, in the space of three years, reduced yet again, this time to the role of the whiny girlfriend. You know the character I’m talking about: in the heat of the moment, when all the big strong men are plotting to save the day, she huffs loudly in a corner or makes snide comments under her breath until someone grants her enough attention to air her grievances, namely: “Why won’t you pay attention to me and our relationship Spock? I know we’re piloting into enemy territory and our deception is likely to fail, possibly resulting in our catastrophic death and the ruin of the Federation, but I think we should talk about our feelings!”
This type of character reduction is exactly what the narrative around Hermione had been structured to avoid for nearly two decades. She is singularly recognized and valued for her intelligence and contributions in and out of the classroom, yet she’s still a teenage girl. For several books she silently pines for a boy who doesn’t see her as anything more than an answer sheet for the pop quiz of life. Instead of rolling up in a ball asking the universe “WHY?” (ahem, Bella Swan, ahem), she expresses her hurt feelings with a childish bout of the silent treatment. Then Hermione does something amazing: she gets on with her life, she sees other people, she studies for exams, she puts some distance between herself and Ron, using the opportunity to spend more time with another group of friends. This process of navigating the murky waters of adolescent love is healthy, but more importantly, it’s real. Hermione is, figuratively speaking, real.
Some readers like a good love triangle, but the author has always been a fierce protector of Hermione’s integrity. For more than 15 years, the cast, fans, production crew, media, academics, even other characters cited Hermione’s consistent example of a character who was real, real brains, real heart, real quality, as her greatest quality. The fans even made their voices heard when it appeared producers of the “Order of the Phoenix” 3-D Imax posters decided to enhance actress Emma Watsons’s chest to a more “Hollywood appropriate” size.
The point is this: if the new Internet headlines were your first introduction to the character of Hermione, it would make sense to group her in with the other 2-D, boy-crazy, voiceless females in the world of fiction today; the most important question she would invoke would be which boy she will chose. But that’s not who she is; in fact she’s the exact opposite. Hermione’s integrity as a representation of real — albeit exceptional — girls must be protected. Research has shown that no matter how fictional, an idol is an idol, and little girls will imitate what they see is valued. We failed Lt. Uhura (and Nurse Chapel, poor thing); we let her become an accessory to the boy’s adventure instead of the asset to the crew true Trek fans know she is; we can’t fail Hermione too.
Brionne Powell is a sophomore political science major at Drexel University. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.