Feminist Concepts: Gender Roles Part II

Disclaimer: All contents of the Harry Potter books and related terms, phrases, materials and so forth belong to J.K. Rowling. I’m merely reproducing brief slightly modified extracts from the books here to illustrate a couple of points.

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR ALL SEVEN HARRY POTTER BOOKS ARE LIKELY

Key:
Helen Potter – Harry
Deirdre Dursley – Dudley
Veronica Dursley – Vernon Dursley
Peter Dursley – Petunia Dursley
Alberta Dumbledore – Albus Dumbledore
Apollo McGonagall – Minerva McGonagall
Ruby Hagrid – Rubeus Hagrid
Petra – Piers Polkiss
Denise – Dennis
Gerda – Gordon
Melanie – Malcolm

“Mrs. and Mr. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
“[…] Mrs. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. She was a big, beefy woman with hardly any neck, although she did have a very large moustache.* Mr. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which  came in very useful as he spent so much of his time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours. The Dursleys had a small daughter named Deirdre, and in their opinion there was no finer girl anywhere.”

*I kind of just find the idea of mustachioed Veronica Dursley hilarious. What do you want to bet Aunt Marge has a moustache too? Because as far as I can tell, the description of Aunt Marge as a female version of Uncle Vernon is supposed to be hilarious (she’s large, fat, ill tempered, unfeminine, and drinks WAY more than Petunia does). It also goes a long way towards cementing her position as a firmly negative character in the reader’s mind, because we invariably associate these traits in women with a particularly unsatisfactory style of non-conformity.

In the course of my exercise, what really struck me is that when I re-read the modified chapters, many aspects of them appeared jarring to me, when I’d given them barely a second thought when read in the original. A beefy, bullying Director Vernon and his thin, blonde, snoopy and gossipy wife did not evoke comment… but a beefy, bullying Director Veronica and her gossipy husband Peter straightaway falls into our trope of the butch, domineering female and her ‘whipped’ husband. A gossipy Petunia, while evoking mild contempt, generally falls under the radar because she conforms to the expected stereotype of a bored housewife. My knee jerk reaction to gossipy Peter on the other hand was that of extreme contempt.

It was only after I swapped their genders that I even realized just how much the portrayal of Petunia as OCD about cleanliness in her house, and wildly interested in celebrity divorces and neighbourhood goings on contributed to our negative impression of her. On the other hand, a Petunia Dursley who had a steady job, was more business like and didn’t really care about gossip would have evoked, I think, grudging respect even as she was being abusive to Harry.

[…] Mrs. Dursley hummed as she picked out her most boring tie for work, and Mr. Dursley gossiped away happily as he wrestled a screaming Deirdre into her high chair.

This method and line of logic informed my re-read of the series (I got as far as halfway through Chamber of Secrets) by rewriting the chapters. And the jolts and jars kept coming in steady profusion all the while.

  • “They didn’t think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters. Mr. Potter was Mr. Dursley’s brother, but they hadn’t met for several years. In fact, Mr. Dursley pretended he didn’t have a brother, because his brother and his good-for-nothing wife were as unDursleyish as it was possible to be. – Here, I was interrupted in my reading so I could wonder for a miniscule second why the brothers didn’t share a surname, whereas it would not strike one as abnormal for married sisters to have different surnames. 
  • Side note: Would a screaming one year old girl child be affectionately referred to as “little tyke” by someone as Dursleyish as Vernon is?
  • Also consider Deirdre Dursley, school bully, and her little gang of likewise bullies.
    “Helen was glad school was over, but there was no escaping Deirdre’s gang, who visited the house every single day. Petra, Denise, Gerda and Melanie were all big and stupid, but as Deirdre was the biggest and the stupidest of the lot, she was the leader. The rest of them were all quite happy to join in Deirdre’s favourite sport: Helen Hunting.”

This is obviously a nitpicky point – anyone wishing to write a realistic portrayal of our contemporary world will not do differently, and the problematic gender roles and characterizations herein are a reflection of our patriarchal life structures in general. That is to say, they’re not unique to Harry Potter. 

Now check out this introduction of three extremely important characters into the series:

“Nothing like this woman had ever been seen on Privet Drive. She was tall, thin, and very old, judging by the silver of her hair and beard which was long enough to be tuck into her belt. She was wearing long robes, a purple cloak that swept the ground, and high-heeled, buckled boots. Her blue eyes were light, bright and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and her nose was very long and crooked, as though it had been broken at least twice. This woman’s name was Alberta Dumbledore.”

“[…] She turned to smile at the tom(cat), but it had gone. Instead she was smiling at a rather severe-looking man who was wearing square shaped glasses exactly the shape of the markings the cat had around its eyes. His black hair was drawn into a tight bun parted severely down the middle. He looked distinctly ruffled.”

“But how is the girl getting here, Dumbledore?” He eyed her cloak suddenly as though he thought she might be hiding Helen underneath it.
“Hagrid’s bringing her.”
“You think it – wise – to trust Hagrid with something as important as this?”
“I would trust Hagrid with my life,” said Dumbledore.
“I’m not saying her heart isn’t in the right place, […] but you can’t pretend she isn’t careless. She does tend to – what was that?”
[…] If the motorcycle was huge, it was nothing compared to the woman sitting astride it. She was almost twice as tall as a normal woman and at least five times as wide. She looked simply too big to be allowed, and so 
wild – long tangles of bushy black hair and beard hid most of her face, she had hands the size of trash can lids, and her feet in their leather boots were like baby dolphins. In her vast, muscular arms she was holding a bundle of blankets.

McGonagall’s relationship with Dumbledore was one of extreme respect (practically bordering on reverence, as was the case with most of the adults around Dumbledore). While very much her own strong and independent person, there’s no doubt that McGonagall looked to Dumbledore’s lead in all things, and was willing, even if at times irritably so, to accept a great many of his perceived eccentricities on faith alone. This reverent respectfulness and acknowledgement when seen as coming from a distinguished man towards a woman who is possibly the most capable magic user in the world makes their dynamic – and these characters – infinitely more interesting than the original (standard trope) of a very, very distinguished, very well bearded Gandalf-figure looked up to by everybody around him, saving the day in the nick of time, blah blah bleh.

If I could read a story about an Alberta Dumbledore, the most reliable person in the magical world, the one everyone turns to for assurance that the day will be saved and the fight will go on… oh, how happy I’d be.
[But what about those marvellous Dumbledore-is-an-Asshole comics? How would they work for an Alberta instead of an Albus? Would she sound bitchy, like women in power are often perceived to be?]

These comics are done by the awesome http://floccinaucinihilipilificationa.tumblr.com/

Sidenote: An additional benefit of having an Alberta Dumbledore is that Harry’s Helen Potter’s second child wouldn’t have to bear the burden of a name that was probably lame two hundred years ago.

Similarly, the case of Ruby Hagrid, the wild, leather wearing half-giantess who is so the opposite of everything Olympe Maxime stands for. Every time I replaced my mental image of the Hagrid we all know and love with that of Ruby, I felt a thrill of excitement. Careless and excitable and irresponsible and fond of large and unwieldy and severely dangerous monsters… oh Ruby!
I know that a major part of Hagrid’s appeal is that mothering streak he has which is at odds with the fact that he’s male… oh, but think of Ruby wrestling Acromantulas!

Unlike Alberta, Ruby Hagrid and Apollo McGonagall are not perfect creations of the gender swapped method. In this I see not failure, but the influence of the perfection of the original creations. Jo Rowling bent those pesky gender roles quite a bit when it came to Hagrid and Minerva McGonagall, and that shows!

To Be Continued…

Up Next: Feminist Concepts – Gender Roles Part III

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