Now that we’ve all had a week to cool down after the heated conversation about Ginny, I say we forge ahead in the gender discussion and talk about my favorite character, Hermione Granger.
At Prophecy (and later at LeakyCon) I did a presentation in which I contend that Hermione subverts many common expectations of femininity. What are these expectations? Let’s take a look at some of her classmates: Lavender and Parvati constantly giggle, gossip, and gussy themselves up. They dedicate their time to the “woolly” and “imprecise branch of magic,” Divination. Lavender is nothing if not melodramatic in her relationship with Ron. Parvati curls her eyelashes around her wand to impress the new “dreamy” Divination teacher Firenze. In many ways these two girls represent some of the most pervasive stereotypes of teenage girls: superficial and focused more on boys than their studies.
One of the most apt ways to describe Hermione, on the other hand, is logical and studious. She prefers Arithmancy and Ancient Rune; she almost always raises her hand in class and never apologizes for knowing the answer. She’s also able to express her emotions openly, if not always productively when it comes to Ron. Hermione is not a perfect character, nor does she attempt to be (outside of class anyway). And she’s not a stereotype; she is complex and refuses to be pigeon-holed by fellow characters and readers.
So where does the feminist part come into play? And what the heck does “third wave” mean?A quick feminist history aside should answer the latter question. Feminism, in all its glory, can be broken down historically into waves. The first wave generally covers the late 19th and early 20th century and dealt with de jure sexism. The first wave is most well known for suffrage efforts and getting the 19th Amendment passed. The second wave occurred during the 1960s and 1970s and addressed mainly de facto sexism and cultural perceptions of the role of women. Paid maternity leave, fair hiring practices, affordable childcare, equal pay (in theory), Title IX, access to family planning, illegalization of marital rape, “no fault” divorce laws, and many other social improvements of the time are thanks to second wavers. However, this wave focused mostly on the position of middle-class, straight, white women. In the 1990s many feminists argued for a new inclusive movement and questioned the essentialist definitions of femininity (The movement also arose as a response to the backlash against feminism that arose in the 1980s– but that’s secondary to this discussion). Feminists, especially women of color, wanted to negotiate a space within mainstream feminist thought for racial issues. The third wave looks at places where gender, race, class, and sexuality intersect. Also within this wave is a consideration of the space for girls (pre-teen and adolescent) in our society as well as how popular culture influences girls and the world at large through portrayals of women, people of color, and gays. It’s practically a post-modern, deconstructionist melange.
One of the most important spaces in which Hermione exhibits her third-wave feminist mentality is in Goblet of Fire. Ah, the plight of the house-elves. When the trio sees Winky in the forest after the World Cup, seemingly struggling to get away, Hermione identifies the house-elf’s situation: “It’s slavery, that’s what it is!” And when Ron regurgitates the centuries-old justification for enslavement, Hermione replies, “It’s people like you Ron, who prop up unjust systems…” Exactly. An unjust system. Oppression and privilege (because the two are inextricably linked) are not random occurrences in the world, they are encoded into every level of society. Hermione, who has Otherness on top of Otherness heaped on her, being Muggle-born, a girl, and an intelligent girl at that, can identify (with) the oppression the house-elves suffer simply because of their race and because wizards benefit from that oppression. But she doesn’t stop there; she founds a grassroots campaign (S.P.E.W.) to change the system, even when nearly everyone discourages her from doing so.
Another moment in which we see Hermione’s third-waver status also occurs in Goblet: the Yule Ball. To say that much has been made of this one scene is an understatement. When Elizabeth Heilman analyzed the moment of Hermione’s “transformation” she wrote: “The message to girls is: get a makeover. You are not okay.” Really? Really? Every time I read that line I have to do a double take. Because I’m pretty sure that “makeover” was temporary and too much trouble for Hermione to bother with the next day. I find this section of the novel to be a parody of most teenage, Cinderella transformations we often see in texts (did anyone ever watch She’s All That?). The cultural expectation implicit here is that a girl can either be pretty or smart, never both. But Hermione plays with her image and slips in and out of modes of presentation easily while the rest of Hogwarts figures out what to do with her.
The final example I want to present (and there are many more, please post them in comments!) is one of my favorite moments in Deathly Hallows. In a room at Shell Cottage with Harry, Ron, and Griphook, Hermione declares, “I’m a Mudblood!… Mudblood and proud of it!” Throughout DH, and the whole series since Chamber, racism has affected her life. When the last book opens with the murder of a “Muggle lover” you know there won’t be any mercy. Whereas Harry is targeted because of who he is, Hermione is targeted because of what she is; she becomes the poster-girl for all Mudbloods. When the trio reaches Malfoy Manor, Hermione is tortured by the most zealous racist among the Death Eaters. She loses not only her name (she’s only called “Granger” or “Mudblood”) but also her humanity. Recovering from this experience, she reclaims the term that has previously oppressed her and gives it new meaning. It is no longer derogatory, no longer has power over her, but instead is a marker of pride, like the scarlet knife wound on her neck.
I could go on and on about Hermione (50 pages long, in fact), but I’ll stop here and leave it to you, dear readers. What other examples of Hermione’s feminism do you see in the novels? Favorite character moments? Also, please feel free to ask questions about third wave feminism; it’s not the most easily explainable concept, at least if you want to do so succinctly. Just remember to keep it civil and friendly: your fellow pub patrons have feelings just as acute as yours. Because gender issues lead us to question many foundations of our society and ways of life, it’s often difficult to keep a level head and withhold sarcasm or vitriol. I don’t want to limit anyone’s voice or silence an opinion, but if someone can’t play nice I’ll consider deleting any hostile comments.