Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Hermione Granger and the Failures of Feminism

Hermione Granger is JK Rowling's feminist presence in the Harry Potter series, and she is a triumph. Hermione is a wonderful feminist character: smarter than anyone, brave and shrewd and assertive and just. As a Muggle-born witch, Hermione faces marginalization because of her birth and sex, but her concern about oppression extends beyond her own experience. Chally Kacelnik at Bitch wrote that Hermione "cares about social justice, as particularly embodied in her commitment to house elf rights where most of the wizarding world wouldn’t think twice about their status".

But Hermione is not just a reflection of the wonderful things about feminism. In her work on behalf of the equality of magical people, Hermione often flaunts her human privilege and unintentionally enforces the oppression of the house-elves, giants, goblins, trolls, and centaurs she claims to support.  In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in particular, Hermione ignores or minimizes house-elf and non-human magical beings' opinions and autonomy, though she claims to have their best interest at heart. With SPEW, Hermione participates in the grand feminist tradition of devaluing, disregarding and silencing oppressed classes while centering herself and her opinions on their marginalization.

Hermione isn't wrong to advocate for the rights of house-elves. Her interest in their oppression was ignited when she saw high-ranking Ministry official Bartholomew Crouch abusing his house-elf, Winky, at the Quidditch World Cup. Hermione identified this particular injustice while she was herself vulnerable to the rioting of the Death Eaters. On page 139 of Goblet of Fire, in response to Barty Crouch's dismissal of Winky, Hermione said: "The way they were treating her!... Mr. Diggory, calling her "elf" all the time … it was like she wasn't even human!" Though her outburst is brave, there is still an exercise of privilege here; she makes humanity the norm and standard for deserving fair treatment. However, Hermione does correctly identify the endorsement of abuse and mistreatment of house elves from magical humans who thought that it was their right to mistreat and neglect elves; she thought outside herself in a situation where she was personally in great danger. This is a just and good impulse delivered, as with many of her well-intentioned acts, without a whole lot of inconsideration and privilege.

Speaking out against her peers' devaluation of house-elves is a brave move befitting the best parts of Hermione's character. Hermione faces a lot of discrimination and danger because of her marginalization as a Muggle-born and a woman (though the latter is played down in the magical world, as I hope to discuss in the future) in the series. But in forming SPEW, she uses her oppression as license to act as an authority, as a leader for folks who experience oppression she did not. This is a grave mistake common to people of privilege in social justice movements: she centers and prioritizes her skewed and unsuitable vision of what house-elf protection means over the concerns of house-elves; in return, the elves reject her leadership and seek their own glory.

The formation of SPEW in Goblet of Fire is rotten at its core because it is led by a witch rather than an elf. A movement for the advancement of an oppressed class must be centered on and led by members of the oppressed class. Supporters can play a helpful and even vital role, but as with Hermione here, they can also be hurtful. Hermione fails to understand that as an ally, she must remain in a supportive role, promoting their protection and welfare without dominating the conversation. Though it is repeatedly demonstrated that house-elves have autonomy to an extent and have powerful magic of their own, Hermione considers them lesser creatures who need protection. When Ron compares the discrimination against trolls to that against elves in book four, she says that “goblins don't need protection”. This is a condescending and presumptuous idea that reflects her own biases and her own assumptions about the powers and possibilities of a race of creatures she doesn't bother to credit.

When Hermione formed SPEW, she crossed a boundary many feminists (including myself) find themselves on the wrong side of. Hermione goes from defending an oppressed class to appropriating their struggle. She goes from promoting the worth of Winky and Dobby to ignoring the wishes of the house-elves at Hogwarts. While trying to advocate for the equal rights and fair treatment of house-elves, she engages in rhetoric and behavior that devalued their autonomy and existence.

Had Dobby started SPEW and Hermione supported it, this would not be a problem - but Dobby's voice and contributions seem to matter little to Hermione except as an example of how some elves do want freedom. She devalues his often-successful support of Harry by saying that “Dobby's plans aren't always that safe” on page 388 of book five, attributing a human error of Lockheart's to Dobby. Her devaluation of Dobby, the only elf who actually wants what she seeks, is reflective of her erasure of the wishes and words of all house-elves.

But SPEW in and of itself is downright harmless when compared with Hermione's malicious actions towards house-elves in the name of their protection in Order of the Phoenix. In this book, Hermione finds that house-elves do not regard her as their glorious liberator witch, better than all the other witches. Dobby and many other house-elves directly tell her in books four and five that they do not want or need her help, saying “they do not care for clothes” on page 385 of book five. They could care less about her vision of their liberation; they are happy where they are, in a place where they feel safe and where their work is appreciated, where they do work they enjoy.

When Hermione realizes that house-elves are not sufficiently appreciating and participating in the movement she so helpfully designed for them*, she decides to remove them from their homes and employment by force. In the HP universe, house-elves are set free when they are given clothes. So, Hermione decides to take up knitting so that house-elves can be freed, by her ignorant definition. Hermione's past-time - her hobby - is trying to eject house-elves from their lives against their consent.The house-elves roundly reject this;  those who find her clothes refuse to accept her direction of their life and simply avoid Gryffindor castle. Once again Dobby proves a knowledgeable and enthusiastic foil to Hermione's plans, even as she's trying to make him her justification. Dobby tells Ron and Harry, “[other house-elves] find them insulting” on page 385 of book five, but he is happy to take the clothes he loves for himself, having already gotten his freedom and needing no help from some human girl. This complete erasure of the explicitly expressed wishes of the house-elves is the most striking and most hateful example of Hermione's bossy nature; the assertiveness that serves her so well throughout the series she uses here to violate the safe space of the creatures who have done nothing but support her.

*Big sarcasm here.

House-elves - who want to work for no pay and at time desire enslavement - are not parallel to actual people who experience real oppression. House-elves are a problematic metaphor for actual oppressed people because the eagerness of the house-elf to be servile robs actual people of their very real agency. Furthermore, the larger spectrum of non-human beings are often used as points at which to explore oppression. Rowling also examines privilege through magical humans, obviously, but her more nuanced exploration of inequality is often focused on non-humans: this is rather dehumanizing to the actual people who experience the exploitation and discrimination she metaphorically describes. While goblins and giants push back actively against human oppression and privilege, Rowling's focus on house-elves creates a straw oppression that adds depth to Hermione without raising too many difficult questions about the many different forms oppression can take.*

*This is a bigger issue than a single paragraph can really acquit, and one I haven't totally grasped yet. Apologies for the lack of nuance.

Hermione did not only exercise her human privilege against house-elves, but also against giants, centaurs, and goblins. When Firenze is hired as a teacher in Order of the Pheonix, Hermione reacts by saying she “never really cared for horses” on page 599 of book five – a serious insult to Firenze, who is frequently called “horse” or “nag” as a slur by those who seek to de-legitimize his authority. She is less obvious about her devaluation of giants: she assumes that Grawp, Hagrid's brother, is unable to learn English, and mocks his attempts along with Ron and Harry.She frequently speaks out against giant and half-giant oppression, which is valuable - but again, that doesn't really make up for anything. She uses another creature's perceived stupidity as a slur, calling Pansy Parkinson “thicker than a concussed troll” in book four. Her transgressions against non-elf non/part-humans are less aggressive and more rhetorical, but they are still there.

To Hermione's credit, she seems to recognize the error of her ways and correct her actions without abandoning her efforts. She never discusses abandoning SPEW, but her mentions of it taper off after Order of the Pheonix. When Kreacher tells her not to touch him while telling of Regulus Black in book seven, she respects his space. Though Kreacher invokes her oppression by calling her “Mudblood”, she does not make it all about her, but instead continues to listen to his story; she recognizes and vocally critiques his mistreatment and devaluation by Voldemort. In her after-Hogwarts life, JK Rowling said that she went into magical law and advocated for laws to protect Muggle-borns and non/part human magical beings. This is an appropriate use of her privilege; she has prioritized non/part human being oppression as she does oppression she experiences firsthand, making a difference through existing power structures without invading spaces and conversations that are not hers to inhabit.

Hermione's exercise of oppression is not immediately apparent. She herself is the most major character who experiences the focal point of oppression in the books: as a  Muggle-born, she is in constant danger because of her birth. She is also a woman, and though sexism seems to be a less-than-significant problem in the magic world, as a girl raised partially in the Muggle world she is acutely aware of sexism, and she frequently counters Ron and Harry's sexism. But she confuses the authority with which she speaks on these experiences with authority on all oppression, and uses that confidence to silence house-elves. Like many of us who experience and fight both sides of inequality, she uses her privilege to enforce another form of the system of oppression that implicates us all, kyriarchy.

10 comments:

  1. This piece is really, really clever. I'm really glad that you wrote it and included so much careful detail because I often blank out on criticizing texts/movies/tv shows that I read a lot when I was younger. My brain just doesn't seem to 'go there' when I think about them and I really, really appreciate when other people do the hard work and point this stuff out to me. I'm really glad that you made by brain take the jump from "Oh man, Hermione needs to stop speaking for those house elves" to "what Hermione is doing is actually really problematic." Really love your fatness and Harry piece too - I reread the first book recently and cringed whenever JK dwelled too long on Uncle Vernon's puffy face. She really hammered in that dichotomy of skinny, hungry, good Harry and fat, greedy, bad Dudley at the beginning too.

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  2. Hi!

    I Love this piece and totally recognize the validity of everything you are saying. However, there is a small part of me that immediately rushes to defend Hermione here, just a little. She is a teenager after all. That doesn't erase the problematic aspects of her actions, but I think her characterization would be less realistic if she was a perfect advocate for non-humans in her mid-to-late teen years. This is especially true because she only truely encountered non-humans at and after the age of 11.

    An amazing, well-written, and accurate analysis! Thanks for sharing!

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  3. First, thanks to everyone for their kind comments! :) I worked REALLY hard on this piece, so I'm very pleased to see it doing so well.

    And in response to Molly - I absolutely agree! No one can be a perfect activist at any age. And as I tried to express in my penultimate paragraph, I think that she eventually listened to the elves and learned from them, which is what one needs to do after making mistakes :)

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  4. RMJ, this was yet another instance in life where I get to read/hear/view something from a Hollins friend and feel insanely proud to call so many amazingly clever, brilliant women my friends. This piece is amazing. Like. Damn girl. I am so proud of you. :)

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  5. Hermione's exercise of oppression is not immediately apparent. She herself is the most major character who experiences the focal point of oppression in the books: as a Muggle-born, she is in constant danger because of her birth.

    Don't you mean "because of her conception"? This idea that we originate at birth marginalizes a great deal of already marginalized infants. Wouldn't want to do that...

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  6. Usually I wouldn't let a pro-abortiony comment through, but Austin's made me smirk so ... way to go, Austin.

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  7. I adore this article. It pointed out in a concrete way a part of Hermione that really, really bothered me for so long. I've gone from being a completely Hermione fan (after accepting certain aspects about her) to neutral, if not hostile. I just don't see Hermione as this beacon of feminist power. A few word choice nitpicks...shouldn't it be "couldn't care less" since the house elves don't care at all? and I believe it's Gryffindor Tower, not castle.

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  8. diestarcrossed: To nitpick your nitpick, 'could care less' is a totally standard and widespread way of expressing that, coming out of ironic use which became turned into an idiom.

    RMJ: I love this to pieces. I love to see examples like this, because they show that the model of oppression holds generally, and they're just generally pretty interesting perspectives.

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  9. Very interesting post. I've always viewed the elf matter as some kind of (most likely unintended) anti-Tom ingredient to the story. It's not very far-fetched to compare the elf situation to things that occur in what we usually refer to as the real world. Wizards have used elves as slaves. White people have used black people as slaves. So what do you say by saying that elves like to be slaves? This is of course only one way to interpret this, and though I don't believe it is the one Rowling intended, I think it is an obvious one. Then of course you can always read it as a parody of such views. And then there is the question of why the elves prefer slavery. Is it because they are used to it, or simply because they are elves? That question is of course unanswered and open for interpretation.

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