LIFE

How Hermione Granger Went From Literary Witch To Powerful Feminist Symbol

Twenty years later, Hermione persists.

17/06/2017 4:13 AM AEST | Updated 17/06/2017 4:13 AM AEST
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost Photos: Alamy/Getty/Scholastic
Hermione Granger has become a timeless hero. 

The Women’s March on Washington was littered with references to Hermione Granger.

“When Voldemort is president, we need a nation of Hermiones!” read one sign, which was posted on Twitter on Jan. 22, 2017, the day after more than 3.5 million people around the nation marched in solidarity with women’s rights.

“Without Hermione, Harry would’ve died in book 1,” read another.

In 1997, readers were first introduced to the brilliant and bookish character in Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone ― a young witch born to Muggle (non-magical) parents, with lots of “bushy brown hair and rather large front teeth.” In 2017, Hermione’s face is on protest signs around the world. She’s been reimagined as the center of the Harry Potter series, tasked with battling the patriarchy. You can even purchase posters, T-shirts and embroidered crafts on Etsy that ask “What Would Hermione Do?” 

Over two decades, the young British witch from J.K. Rowling’s eponymous Harry Potter series has grown from a literary smart girl into a powerful feminist symbol.

To understand the enduring appeal of Hermione, take a look back at what made the character connect to readers in the first place. Before Emma Watson portrayed the literary character on the big screen, forever entwining her own image with that of Hermione, Hermione Granger was a description on a page ― one that millions of children (and adults) felt drawn to. 

The first thing that makes Hermione so special is that the role she plays in the Harry Potter series defies certain literary tropes; tropes that articulate the role girls should play in boys’ lives, both on and off the page. 

“Usually when there are two boys and a girl, the girl is kind of the sidekick, and as they get older the boys fight over her attention,” Dr. Cecilia Konchar Farr, a professor of English and Women’s Studies at Saint Catherine University told HuffPost. “And what was very powerful was that Hermione was always so much a part of the trio. Hermione’s not just a sidekick, she’s a central character.” 

When The Smart Girl Gets To Save The Day

Instead of centering Hermione’s beauty or male-approved desirability, J.K. Rowling always centered Hermione’s brains, compassion and morality. There aren’t very many references to Hermione’s looks in the books, but readers of the Harry Potter series are constantly reminded that Hermione works harder and performs magic better than nearly everyone around her. This means that, not only is she consistently at the top of her class, but she is also an invaluable part of both the resistance against Voldemort and a key (and equal) member of the Harry-Ron-Hermione trio. After all, on more than one... or two... or three occasions, Hermione saves both Harry and Ron’s lives.

Her contributions and equal standing with the two male protagonists provide readers ― both boys and girls ― with a way to understand and relate to feminism. And Hermione’s “mudblood” status provides an avenue through which to explore deeper issues of racism and oppression.

“[Hermione ] displays a kind of feminism that is accessible to people for whom the term feminism has been sort of systematically demonized,” said Dr. Christopher Bell, a professor of Communication at the University of Colorado and editor of Hermione Granger Saves the World: Essays on the Feminist Heroine of Hogwarts.

Hermione’s appeal was always rooted in her ability to be a stand-in for smart, hard-working girls ― girls who yearned to see those qualities rewarded and valued in a world that still largely determines the worth of women and girls by their looks. As a girl who grew up being infinitely more confident in my academic and oratory abilities than my physical skills or looks, reading about Hermione was a form of wish fulfillment. What a world it would be if the smart girl got to save the day standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her male peers, and be celebrated for her accomplishments. 

Rowling has been vocal about the real-life inspiration for Hermione, calling the witch a caricature of her younger self. (“I wasn’t that clever. But I was that annoying on occasion,” Rowling told TIME in October 2000.) 

She has also said that putting her female protagonist’s abilities and cleverness front and center was intentional. 

“I know that Hermione is incredibly recognizable to a lot of readers and yet you don’t see a lot of Hermiones in film or on TV except to be laughed at,” Rowling told Wonderland Magazine in 2014. “I mean that the intense, clever, in some ways not terribly self-aware, girl is rarely the heroine and I really wanted her to be the heroine.”

So the heroine she is. Hermione uses logic to solve Snape’s riddle at the end of the first book, deploying skills that most wizards quite simply don’t have. (”This isn’t magic — it’s logic — a puzzle. A lot of the greatest wizards haven’t got an ounce of logic, they’d be stuck in here forever,” she tells Harry and Ron.) She successfully uses a time-turner. She organizes a movement to free Hogwarts’ enslaved labor force of house elves. She starts Dumbledore’s Army. Without hesitation, she agrees to leave school to help Harry hunt down horcruxes. She does all of these things while maintaining her values and integrity. 

The longevity of Hermione’s appeal has dovetailed with the mainstreaming of feminism. In 2007, when Emma Watson told Scholastic she was “a bit of a feminist” during an interview ahead of the release of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” most celebrities were still scared to even associate with the term. Today, celebrities are shamed if they reject the label. 

So, What Would Hermione Do?

Perhaps the greatest lesson that Hermione teaches us is how valuable it can be to take risks. After all, saving or changing the world often requires some form of sacrifice, danger and facing down the forces of evil. 

“What would Hermione Granger do? A lot,” wrote HuffPost’s Chloe Angyal, a week after the presidential election. “She’d take real risks, lots of them, and endure a great deal of uncertainty, fear and suffering. We’re going to have to do the same.”

When our own world begins to feel darker and in need of saving ― from terrorism, bigotry, or even the leaders of our own government ― it’s only natural to turn to pop culture for inspiration. And who better to emulate than Hermione Granger, the clever, idealistic young woman who uses her brains rather than brawn to create lasting, widespread change? (The fact that Emma Watson has become an outspoken feminist, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and HeForShe spokesperson since finishing the Harry Potter franchise makes the political associations we have today with Hermione even more potent.) 

The 2016 presidential election created the perfect storm for Hermione Granger symbolism. Here was a smart, hyper-competent, over-achieving woman facing down a cartoonishly unqualified man who spewed hatred at women, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, and disabled people. She would surely triumph, right? That’s how this story is supposed to end. 

But we live in America, not the magical underbelly of England. 

“When the woman who was so strong, who worked so hard, who colored inside the lines and did everything you were supposed to do, when she was defeated ― not by a really competent, wonderful man, but by a man that every feminist would object to and [many] who wouldn’t even call themselves feminists ― that was really hard,” said Dr. Farr. “So we go back to Hermione, because it’s the fantasy world where the smart girl triumphs, where the smart girl wins.”

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s election and inauguration, women and men were activated, ready to make that fantasy world a reality. The first major action of what we now know as “the resistance” was the Women’s March.  

Dr. Bell recalls seeing a variety of female heroes being used to convey a message of political solidarity during the marches ― Princess Leia, Wonder Woman, Kamala Khan a.k.a. Miss Marvel, and Hermione Granger. But he believes that there’s one thing that sets Hermione apart from the others. 

Kamala Khan, Wonder Woman, and even Princess Leia for the most part, are physical heroes,” Dr. Bell told HuffPost. “Hermione is not a physical hero. Hermione wins because she’s smart. And Hermione doesn’t just win because she’s smart, she wins because she works harder than everybody else... We sort of discount her labor and praise her innate qualities, which is what we do to girls and women all the time. I think all of those things combine to make Hermione sort of a perfect symbol for young American feminism.”

Women don’t need Hermione Granger to teach them to persist in the face of great challenges, but it’s nice to have her around when we need some inspiration. After all, when times get tough, smart girls know there’s only one thing to do: get to work

From June 1 to 30, HuffPost is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the very first “Harry Potter” book by reminiscing about all things Hogwarts. Accio childhood memories.

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