Sunday, December 15, 2013

Hermione Granger and the Double Standards for Women

Long-time readers of this blog probably know of my rather critical stance on the Harry Potter books, so this post should come as no surprise. For any casual readers, the gist of it is that the first three books were basically my life when I was a kid, the forth put me off, and I didn’t come back to the series until I was a jaded cynic with pre-set opinions about how Rowling should have done things better.

I’m a very flawed critic, I admit.

Over the past year, I thought I had used up my virol, though. I even wanted to publish a blogpost here saying how I was done harping on John Green, because really, what difference can I make in the long run and we could do with a little less hatred in this world (the reason why you won’t find this blogpost is that my resolution came just before he made his comment about the kind of mindset one must have while approaching a book for their opinion to matter, which… yeah, no. A world of no.) Still… even then, I’d say my reaction was more of detached disappointment than any passionate anger.

Turns out, though, that I have some of that left. And the thing that incited it was a little convo I had on Twitter about Hermione Granger. Specifically, how even she, the most famous and well-loved example of female badassery in YA literature, a trailblazer for strong female characters, is expected to conform to gender ideas for the sake of gender ideas.

Be nice, not because you want to be nice, but because girls must be nice.

Be gentle, not because you feel particularly gentle, but because that’s how girls are.

Hold the peace, not because you are peaceful, but because that’s what girls do.

Note: The following examples are not representative of the whole Hermione experience. One of the reasons why she’s such a strong female character is precisely because she’s got character traits beyond these limited experience, and lots and lots of different valuable relationships with other characters. But the examples are also indicative of a real-life double standard that women face every day, and I feel deeply pained that they are forced on Hermione because if she can’t be allowed to break through with them, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Note the second: My seething hatred of Ron as an example of male privilege in the series may or may not make me biased. But as Virginia Woolf says: “When a subject is highly controversial, <…> one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one’s audience the chance to draw their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.” (A Room of One’s Own)

With that out of the way, here are some examples from Hermione Granger and the Double Standards for Women. (Spoilers Ahoy)

Prisoner of Azkaban: Not once, but twice does Harry’s group fall apart. The first time is when Hermione tells Professor McGonagall about Harry receiving an anonymous gift. The second was when Hermione’s cat supposedly ate Ron’s rat. (Supposedly because no body was found. There’s a good reason why, as we find out.) In both cases, the boys shut Hermione down, with Harry making more token efforts than Ron the second time around because the second time around Harry isn’t directly implicated (more on that later.) In both cases, it takes external events for the boys to forgive her – the first time when Harry gets his gift (a sports broom) back, the second after Hagrid’s hippogriff Buckbeak is sentenced to death.

But let’s talk a little bit about Hermione’s “crimes” for a second. First, throughout the bulk of the novel (and the school year), Harry was considered the target of a dangerous serial killer, and the gift came without note of explanation. Hermione’s suspicions were not far off the mark, and the boys knew that, but they were more concerned with Harry’s ability to play Wizard basketball than they were for his safety… or their friendship with Hermione, for that matter.

In the second case, Hermione could have been negligent with her cat, but was Crookshanks really the only cat in Hogwarts, or Gryffindor tower? We only have Mrs. Norris to name, but cats are included in the school list as acceptable pets (rats are not), so it stands to reason there is more than one student who brought a cat. Are you telling me that, in three years, Ron was never worried his rat might get eaten? That he only just started freaking out after Hermione bought her cat?  How convenient.

Goblet of Fire: I’ve written before about the extent of girl hate that Hermione gets in this book when she starts to get romantically involved with Viktor Krum and a sensationalist journalist makes a mark of her, so I’ll let that stand on its own. Instead, let’s talk about the little role reversal in this book when Ron decides to throw a hissy fit because Harry got elected to participate in the Triwizard tournament. Much like the previous book, the group is split, with two notable differences. It’s Ron who does the split, and Hermione tries to mend the fences.

Ron splits, and he doesn’t have any justification for his behaviour beyond his youngest-son-inferiority-complex and having-a-famous-friend-sucks-itis. Hermione tries to get the guys to make up, and unlike Ron in the previous book, she doesn’t spend time trying to soothe Harry’s hurt pride or fuel the fire – she tries to get Harry to put himself in Ron’s shoes, and when that doesn’t work, gets him to focus on more important things. Like surviving his first task. Duh.

When Ron eventually comes around, it’s because he damn well wishes to make nice (coincidentally, after Harry has won his first task and is moderately more accepted as Hogwarts’ second representative,) not because he is forced by circumstances. Also, though Ron and Harry have a spat, it lasts a little over a month in book terms (if my math does not fail me,) while Hermione’s cumulative isolation in “Prisoner of Azkaban” went for a lot longer than that.

Also, Ron and Hermione have another spat over Christmas, because she had the temerity to not be available to serve as arm candy to her clueless friends, get a life separate from them, and take care of her looks. Harry forgives her faster, but again, Harry is not the one having pantsfeelings for her, so once again, he can grant Hermione the courtesy of forgiving her. Ron, however, has the pantsfeelings, so his reaction is a lot more based on this idea that, if a man shows interest in you (however brief and fleeting, since he did remember Hermione is a girl in the very last moment,) you MUST reciprocate out of politeness. In this case, Hermione does not do that, which is what I wish she did in the next example.

Deathly Hallows: Otherwise known as the Camp Trip From Hell. Also, the book where Ron criticises Hermione that she can’t cook like his mother.

Granted, Ron is an unbearable little shit throughout the book, and I imagine we’re meant to attribute some of that to Slytherin’s amulet. (Then again, it would be unbelievable in this 21st century to have a main character tell another main character that her place is in the kitchen, or do something similarly controversial, without some sort of evilinfluence/ reset button to justify it, amirite Joyce Summers?) However, Ron’s character has been consistently spoilt, cruel and sexist towards Hermione, and she has, for the most part, swallowed up her pride to make peace.

When Ron left in the seventh book, it was a relief to see him go, and I was glad that Hermione gave him a piece of her mind when he did return, somewhat more contrite. I wish, however, that the scene hadn’t shifted focus away from Hermione and to Ron and his feelings.

Ron was the one who left. Ron was the one who acted like a git (with some help, admittedly) but rather than focus on the consequences of his actions (like the fear and distress of his friends) the scene lets Hermione have a little bit of anger out and moves on. (And once again, Harry is the one faster to forgive. I suppose that the pantsfeelings make it more difficult for everyone.)

Here’s the thing: I’m not saying that Hermione should have broken out in a perfect rendition of “Not Ready to Make Nice” right there in the forest, but I don’t think her anger needs to be dismissed as loverdose, or worse, feminine hysteria. Out of the three, she’s the one who had to make the hardest decisions and actions in this book – erasing her parents’ memories herself to ensure their safety, then later being tortured by Death Eaters. She’s under a huge emotional and physical toil, yet she’s the one who has to make the compromises. Just her. Always her.

Isn’t it high time we let girls hold their grudges, to let them go when they see fit, without labelling them trouble-makers and difficult? I’m not saying that holding a grudge does people much good – the act itself is more self-destructive than self-fulfilling – but giving women the choice is not some luxury or a grand act of benevolence. It’s admitting that their feelings are just as real as those of men, and that women are within their right to feel hurt and defensive when those feelings are hurt.  

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