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Harry Potter & Women: Are Women Treated Equally in Harry Potter Stories?

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Many critics have alleged that J.K. Rowling has done the female readers of her Harry Potter series of books a serious disservice by portraying a world where women are ostensibly equal (there are no formal rules that prohibit equality) but nevertheless remain in positions of inferiority. Men are in charge everywhere; women hold secondary positions at best. This supposedly sends the message that a social system which lacks forced inequality, but in which inequality is nevertheless pervasive, is normal and acceptable.

Others, though, argue that female characters are very important in the Harry Potter books and, even if they aren’t the primary characters, the books give no indication that women are inferior to men. Women are portrayed positively throughout the books and thereby provide positive role models to both male and female readers. Every fictional story has to have some primary and some secondary characters; the fact that the primary characters happen to be male while the secondary characters happen to be female is not necessarily sexist.

The question about whether the depiction of women, gender, and family in the Harry Potter books is more conservative or more progressive has received much less attention than other debates, for example whether the books promote witchcraft or immorality. This may be because the most vocal and organized critics of Harry Potter are conservative Christians who, if they even notice conservative trends in the books, are more likely to agree with them than to raise complaints. Leftist critiques of the books are more infrequent and rarely receive much media attention.

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All adults, not just parents, have an interest in how children’s books portray gender roles and families because they become part of the cultural fabric for succeeding generations. Ideas matter: when children are consistently faced with one way of structuring social relationships, it can become difficult to imagine that things could be any different. That, in turn, makes future social change more difficult.

Children’s books are supposed to open up worlds of possibility and inspire children’s imagination about what could be. To the extent that children’s books merely reflect the dominant cultural patterns and structures around us, they fail to accomplish this goal.

In Harry Potter's World, Elizabeth E. Heilman argues that how children’s books portray men and women matters because:

    “...adolescent girls read in a realist manner, texts represent a dangerous seduction. Girls tend to read romance texts as preparation for the romances they foresee as part of their immediate future.”

British research Susan Darker-Smith has found that girls who grow up with and enjoy fairy tales like Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast are more likely to become submissive adult women and, even worse, become victims in abusive relationships. Such stories create “templates” of girls’ expectations of themselves and their partners. Michael Townend, senior lecturer in psychotherapy at the University of Derby, commented:

    “We know that storytelling is an important way that children form beliefs about themselves and relationships.”

The Harry Potter stories are not so extreme as traditional fairy tales, but it is clear that books which depict women in subordinate roles and who are focused on providing emotional support for men in their lives help prepare female readers to adopt such roles themselves later in life. If it’s true that the Harry Potter books are ideologically conservative, then both the books themselves as well as the wider cultural phenomenon should be read more critically.

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