/ Naomi Horn / 4 am Fri, Sep 12 2014
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  • What's right with Hermione

    What's right with Hermione

    14-year-old Naomi Horn says the heroine of JK Rowling's Harry Potter series remains a depressingly rare example of a fictional female respected for her education and intelligence. In Hermione’s world, being smart is what makes her important.

    I first read Harry Potter at six years old, because my mom wanted me to come with her to the bookstore midnight release party of Deathly Hallows. She felt it would be unethical to take me without having provided any exposure to the series. So I became obsessed, reading all the books as quickly as possible.

    I was a fangirl. Over the years, I’ve read the Harry Potter series more times than I’d like to admit. When I was younger, the magical adventures were what drew me in, but as I’ve gotten older, it's the characters that keep me coming back for more. Their complexity, honesty, and nonconformity are rare for the genre, even now.

    An outspoken, bookish, fluffy-haired kid, I was immediately drawn to Hermione Granger: clever, smart, and, best of all, appreciated for her nerdiness. The other characters accept the fact that she raises her hand in every class, reads textbooks for fun, and can always be found in the library. They sometimes tease her, but she knows that, in the end, they love her for it. In fact, Hermione’s knowledge saves their lives, many times over. In the last book, as the characters are on the run from the evil wizard Voldemort, its her learning that protects them. Without her spells, quick thinking, and command of a magical artifact, their story wouldn't have ended so well.

    In my sixth-grade Advanced Math class, my teacher often gave us assignments before we started a new chapter in our textbook--a test to see how much we knew already. The class was very small, with just three student, and I was the only girl. Usually I was able to complete these assignments just fine, but occasionally I didn’t understand any of it. That wasn’t a problem in terms of my learning (because our class wasn’t expected to know the material yet), but the boys took it asa n opportunity to make fun of me. Clearly, they said, I hadn’t understood it because I was a girl. I blew off their teasing as obnoxiousness, but it still bothered me. What did being a girl have to do with anything?

    There remains a stigma surrounding smart girls that stems from the age-old stereotype of the “damsel in distress”. There is still a surprising amount of media, targeted at girls, that expects us to identify as fluttery princesses--all in in order for boys to like us. This logic is flawed. Boyfriends are not our priority.

    Worse, it's often accompanied by the message that “smart” means “ugly” and “antisocial,” a message underlined by franchises such as Mattel's Monster High. This property looks like fun at first glance: the characters are supposed to be the daughters of various famous monsters placed in a modern high school setting. With names such as "Draculaura" and "Frankie Stein", you get the drift.

    Most of the characters, however, are very negative about education, talking about how boring the school is and how they just want to flirt with the monster boys. The only girl who seems to care at all about schoolis a character named Ghoulia. Gholia doesn’t talk. Instead, she moans and screams. While all the other characters wear miniskirts, Ghoulia wears plain slacks. Her character is designed to emphasize the idea that intelligence is undesirable.

    Hermione sends the opposite message. Admirably smart, she remains a positive role model for all of the girls, like me, who spent their recesses curled up in a corner of the playground with a book they couldn't wait to finish. In Hermione’s world, being smart is what makes her important.

    In my English class last year, I quickly earned the reputation of being the one who found the mistakes on our worksheets. I’ve been lucky enough to have had a teacher who appreciated my argumentativeness, but there have been moments where I realize that I’m annoying everyone who would rather not discuss the finer points of comma usage. But when someone catches me dwelling too much on a small detail, I’ll laugh it off as a “Hermione moment.”

    In addition to being an academic role model, Hermione's a ground-breaking female character in terms of her love life. Generally, female sidekicks are either oversexualized or completely ruled out as anyone’s love interest, but Hermione is the rare middle ground. Her best friends are guys, and while she does end up married to one of them, Rowling avoids the soap operatic cliché of a love triangle. She has crushes and boyfriends, but her entire existence does not depend on them--especially in the books.

    Hermione sends a positive message to girls about what they are capable of. Being smart is something to be proud of. As a seven-year-old child at the Deathly Hallows release party, what idea could I have of the impact Hermione would have on my life? Some people say that you embody the traits of your favorite characters; I can only hope that that’s true.


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    Notable Replies

    1. I've seen more than one extended joke about how Hermione is the real hero of the Harry Potter series. The thing is, it's true. Harry's in the foreground most of the time, but Hermione's the intelligent one, the one who actually masters magic, the moral leader, and frequently, the practical leader.

    2. This is better writing and analysis than most adults are capable of.

    3. not only is this an excellent analysis, it is also tragically true.

      i teach 6th grade science. i have had many opportunities over the years to encounter my former students. although i think most of them, both boys and girls, romanticize the quality of my instruction only the girls tell me i am the last good science teacher they had. they describe being ignored when trying to volunteer answers or volunteer to do things in class. they describe having less capable boys put in charge of groups for group work. they describe teachers accepting the word of boys in groups that it was the girls who were to blame for bad results or poor measurements. these tendencies are attributed to both male and female teachers.

      i rarely have contact with the junior high science teachers but when i do i try to suggest that they have some really talented girls coming up and i hope the teachers will encourage them. i'm generally blown off as being a bleeding-heart liberal or an affirmative action man. i regard it all as a sad waste of talent.

    4. Hermione is wonderful, especially in the books, and so is Molly Weasley.

      Mrs. Weasely has chosen to be a homemaker, true, but she clearly is the dominant personality in the entire extended Weasley clan, and can do whatever she chooses. She's one of the most powerful sorcerers in the Potterverse - in the league of Voldemort and Dumbledore - able to use killing curses with impunity, and capable of violating well-known fundamental limitations of the basic laws of magic routinely (Hermione tells us that Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration says you cannot create food with magic, but then Ron points out that his mother does it all the time, and in Goblet she actually does so).

      I like the way that Rowling shows that you don't have to flagrantly reject every part of the stereotypical "woman's role" in English society in order to be your own person - it's the old-school Women's Lib concept of being self-actualized, rather than being restricted to a binary state of either totally conformant or totally nonconformant to some preassigned role. We can see Hermione ending up doing research in some tower while Ron nannies the kids, or indeed having no children or homelife at all, but Molly Weasely enjoys being a homebody (even though she uses her powerful magic to avoid most of the drudgery) and she's going to do whatever she likes, and do it well on her own terms. The contrast between the two allows a richer appreciation of the many admirable qualities that they share, I think.

      Hmm, I guess that was a pretty potter-geeky post. I am revealed as a trufan.

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