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

Feminist Concepts: Gender Roles I

A few months ago, when the latest edition in the Twilight series (bearing the barely-connected-to-anything-really title Life and Death) was announced, I was intrigued enough to end up conducting an experiment of my own.

twilightandlifeanddeath.jpg

Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last ten years, you’ll know of the enormous amount of criticism the Twilight series has faced. This criticism has been founded on multiple grounds – being severely un-feminist, glorifying abusive relationships, providing impressionable young people with terrible role models, bad grammar and sentence structure, as well as tackiness and general bad taste all around.

Twilight also bears the blame for spawning the severely horrifying Fifty Shades series, which took everything that was bad in Twilight, laminated it, and hung it under a bright spotlight (with a ribbon on it). FSOG was a bald illustration of just how horrible Twilight really was, because it took away the fantasy elements and the teen softness that had served as a buffer between the book’s central and subliminal messages, and the reader’s conscious brain.

fsog.jpeg

If the average reader wasn’t roundly insulted by Twilight (because, SUBTLETY) then they really ought to have been when FSOG came around. Surprisingly (or not, really), the series had the opposite reaction. Women loved it. It hogged the top of the bestseller lists for so long that all the Ian McEwan books came together to plot its gruesome demise. [Citation needed].

The books were hailed as a revolutionary (and positive) expression of female sexuality – finally, we could bring it out into the open and admit that yes, we get turned on sometimes.

Riiight.

Since I’m not here to bitch about FSOG today, I’ll save that for later. Coming back to the criticism faced by Twilight series author Stephenie Meyer, I suppose it’s not entirely surprising that an author should become slightly defensive when her work is burned at stake so thoroughly. But then she went ahead and attempted to have the last laugh – to prove her detractors wrong by showing that there is no sexism in the Twilight books. Her argument was that the only reason Bella Swan is such an incorrigible damsel-in-distress is because she’s dealing with a superpowered family of vampires, around whom, duh, a human would be significantly powerless. She also decided that the best way to prove this would be to swap the female gender for the male and vice versa, and release a new version. This new version would show the female vampire, Edythe Cullen, as powerful and as always rescuing the hapless Beau Swan. Presumably.

It’s not a bad idea, really, assuming that EVERYTHING ELSE in the original book is left as is. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Changes were made, which have been discussed in detail in this video by Youtube vlogger marinashutup:

Stephenie Meyer however, did give me an interesting idea when she made her announcement. I asked myself – how would other books fare if given the same treatment? I chose none other than the most ambitious project for my newly conceived ‘Meyer Test’:

hp17coverafts
YEAH. I WENT THERE.

The results of my little experiment were…

Shocking and creepy.

Yes, you read that right. I was saddened, of course. Jo Rowling is one of the last people you’d name as a symbol/ proponent of misogynistic patriarchy. [I wasn’t really surprised though, I mean, it’s impossible to be surprised if you’ve read her Cormoran Strike series.] And yeah, regardless of all of this, I’ll still be reading HP on my deathbed. Nothing and no one is perfect, but HP comes pretty damn close, I’ll say.

I’ll detail my findings in the next post, but first a few words on gender roles and why they’re problematic.

  1. They traditionally don’t take into account the non-binariness that is the true nature of ‘gender’. We have forever divided all of humankind – and animals and everything except for algae and stuff (and even they’ve had a close shave) into ‘male’ and ‘female’. Primarily distinguished, of course, by the ability of one of these ‘genders’ to produce (in one form or another) the next generation of the species.
    Pure stuff and nonsense, I gotta say, but it’s so deeply ingrained in us that we find it difficult to think outside of these boxes.
    Also thanks to said box, I’m going to limit the rest of my points within the traditional discourse of the gender binary – I just don’t know enough to talk about it more than that.
  2. The ‘males’ are traditionally designated as the protectors, the defenders, the hunters and providers. They’re the warriors, the brave, the powerful and the ones capable of hardness/ strength (used interchangeably, of course).
  3. The ‘females’ are traditionally designated as the weak and defenseless ones that require protection, along with the offspring they produce. They take care of the ‘home’ front – turn the raw material brought in by the ‘males’ into stuff usable for the comfort and utility of everyone in the home. They produce and bring up the children and are considered sensitive, loving, kind, compassionate etc. All these qualities are considered essential for someone who needs to ‘mother’ young ones and safely bring them into adulthood.
  4. I’m already getting a headache talking about this.
  5. These gender roles are now a lot less strictly enforced than they used to – took a couple of world wars to bring that about, by the way. But even in today’s world, they’re quite evident, quite omnipresent. Women do go out to work – but they’re typically paid less, perceived as less competent, and also as a liability because of the dual nature of their responsibilities. This is because even though they now go out of the home front, all home front matters are still firmly placed on their shoulders.
  6. Representation of the genders – in our culture and media, as well as in real life – is skewed in line with these gender roles. More males are portrayed as the main protagonists of extremely popular fiction. More females are portrayed as mere love interests, damsels in distress, and – if they’re lucky – less competent sidekicks. STEM professions, as well as those that require ‘logic’ and ‘hard-headedness’ are typically filled with more males. Conversely, males taking up jobs that are seen as requiring compassion, sensitivity and caring are roundly made fun of. [See male nannies and nurses].

Well… that’s enough talking. Next post reflects on the effect of a gender swap on the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

Until then, here’s another post by marinashutup raising a few questions about the Hogwarts houses that never occurred to me. (Have they occurred to you?)

Up Next: Feminist Analysis of The Effect of A Gender Swap on the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Book Review: The Dark Tower #3 – The Waste Lands

Title: The Waste Lands
Author: Stephen King
Year of Publication: 1991
Series: The Dark Tower
#: 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.22
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

You’ve Been Warned: Watch For Spoilers

the waste lands

Plot Description: Roland, Eddie and Susannah travel along the path of the Beam until they meet up with Jake Chambers, the boy whose death Roland had allowed to happen in The Gunslinger. Then they search for Blaine the insane monorail, who might be able to get them to their next destination.

What is it about this book? I almost feel like a failure for not liking it so much. Goodreads is filled to the bursting with glowing reviews. I also have a sneaking suspicion that I might have liked it more right after I’d read it, but since I binge-read the entire series at a go (and these are BIG books), the ending of the series as a whole spoilt most of the books that came before it. The only real exception to this rule is Book No. 4, Wizard and Glass. 

After all of the world building and game-board setting that the reader had to endure in The Drawing of the Three, Roland’s ‘ka-tet’ is almost complete – with the exception of Jake Chambers and Oy the billy bumbler, to whom we are introduced in this book. [The creation of the billybumbler? Pure genius]

The Waste Lands is a roadtrip book. The characters are constantly on the move, and their journey is peppered with notable incidents – gunfights, mental battles, even the odd sexual battle. (Yeah, that was pretty odd). It’s not a bad book, but it’s far too long and could have done with some paring down. It also ends on a cliffhanger, which as I understand it, wasn’t resolved for about a decade after this? That’s awful, and I’m glad I wasn’t a Stephen King fan living in the 90s.  Waiting two years for the next Harry Potter was torture enough, not to mention my current love-hate relationship with G.R.R. Martin. If you can look past the mangled language (or inexplicably happen to love it), and you don’t mind settling in for a long journey, then this is definitely the book for you. I’ve also begun to classify anything strange within the books as the natural consequences of Stephen King’s penchant for horror.

Next Review in this Series: The Dark Tower #4 – Wizard and Glass

Next Review: Bloodlines #4 – The Fiery Heart

Next Up: Feminist Concepts – Gender Roles Part I