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How much gender equality can Harry Potter conjure?

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Published on 15 November 2016

How much gender equality can Harry Potter conjure?
How much gender equality can Harry Potter conjure?

With more than 420 million books in print worldwide, the Harry Potter series is a literary phenomenon that has enchanted people of all ages for over a decade.

But closer scrutiny of the children's books by a University of Sunderland graduate has discovered more than magic lying within the pages. Amy Mason argues that gender stereotyping is evident in the language between the three main characters – Harry, Hermione and Ron.

For her research Amy focused specifically on the main female protagonist Hermione Grainger, an intelligent young girl and an adventurer in her own right, yet whose behaviour is often portrayed as a traditional female character, in the way she becomes "hysterical" and "powerless" in the text.

Amy explains: "Given that the Harry Potter series is essentially about Harry, both Hermione's and Ron's actions, as his sidekicks, are aimed at helping Harry survive and achieve his goal. The existence of Ron means that Hermione can be appropriately compared with him, as their equal roles as Harry's sidekicks are comparable. However, my analysis shows the way in which Hermione and Ron (and Harry too) are portrayed is extremely different. Hermione ‘shrieks', ‘squeaks', 'squeals', ‘whimpers' and similar, but Ron and Harry are never described in this way."

She adds: "Harry is evidently the brave one, the hero, with the most processes. Both Ron and Hermione do similar things as Harry's sidekicks, yet the words which describe Ron's speech (e.g. ‘yell') are considerably more powerful than those used to describe Hermione (e.g. ‘screams').

"Consequently, these stereotypical words used to describe Hermione tremendously undermine her, not only as a female but as a powerful witch too."

The findings were the result of Amy's research for her final-year dissertation of an English Language and Literature Degree at the University of Sunderland, which led her to achieving a First Class Honours and being presented with an award for best overall course student.

For her dissertation Amy focused on one particular book - the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book of the series, where she believed there was plenty of action to test the three main characters.

Explaining why she'd chosen the dissertation subject, Amy says: "In the third year of my degree I'd really enjoyed modules around gender and children's literature, and wanted to pull the two together.

"What's interesting about the Harry Potter series, is that it has been written against a decade of social change in regards to both gender roles and relations. Though Hogwarts demonstrates equality, from mixed teams in Quidditch to students studying equal subjects, gender stereotyping has repeatedly been identified and documented by other researchers."

Amy says her analysis has shown how the passive female character, often found in fiction is still prominent, even in contemporary children's fiction.

She adds: "Throughout the course of the chapter I analysed, Hermione is not often involved; she is rather passive with very little of her processes affecting others. The same cannot be said for the boys who are evidently more dynamic. Given the huge popularity and readership of Harry Potter, it is alarming that such gender stereotypes exist within the series."

However, Amy adds: "As a work of fiction, Harry Potter is built upon, and offers, a realistic view of contemporary society with its changing domestic, cultural and social patterns. To some extent, the Harry Potter series is progressive in regards to gender, reflecting post feminist ideologies; Hermione is an intelligent young girl and is an adventurer in her own right.

"But it is hard to ignore how the books are still oddly traditional in other aspects. Hermione only exists in the narrative, after all, as she is Harry's female sidekick, and as such, Hermione will (and always will be) subordinate to Harry. As one of Harry's sidekicks, Ron being the other, Hermione should be equal to Ron, which is evidently not the case."

While Amy says the series can be read from many contradicting opinions, given its popularity and adult readership, and will endlessly interest critics and feminist researchers, her own analysis has shown how "underlying gender disparity still exists within fiction, and, most importantly, it exists within one of the most highly acclaimed and loved works of children's literature of modern times".

Prof Angela Smith, a lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Society, said: "It was a real pleasure to supervise Amy's dissertation. She came up with some very interesting findings in her research. There has been a lot of work carried out on the Harry Potter series, and Amy's dissertation offers an additional contribution to the way in which gender is represented in these books. By looking at the language used in relation to these three main characters, she was able to uncover features that other researchers had only touched up. It's great to see our students come up with original ideas for their dissertations."

Click here to read the full research document.

Speaking about her University of Sunderland experience, Amy, 21, from Sunderland, said: "Studying this English Literature and Language degree has been one of the best experiences of my life so far. I enjoyed every module and was truly inspired by the academics and fellow students around me.

"Having made a mess of my A-levels in photography, art and history, I was really unsure about what the next step would be, but knew I loved English at school and wanted to go back to the subject I knew best. I also wanted to study locally, which financially made sense. After securing a place on the Sunderland course, I was determined to make the most of every opportunity I was given. All the effort paid off when I was awarded a First Class Degree and achieved an outstanding student award from my course leaders when I graduated in the summer."

Amy, who tutors in English to children in her spare time, is planning to study a Masters degree at the University of Sunderland in Human Resource Management.