By Grace Wydeven
And that’s what’s so cool about Rey, Katniss, and Supergirl: It’s impossible to ignore them. They are female protagonists in properties that boys are encouraged—expected, even—to watch. For the first time young boys are being asked to empathize with female leads the way girls have long been expected to empathize with male ones. After all, I may have loved Hermione, but I spent 3,000 plus pages inside Harry’s head.
Despite Healy’s near-perfect imitation of Hogwarts itself, I have not encountered as many die-hard Harry Potter fans as I would have thought stepping onto this campus. Some of you have “seen the movies” while others couldn’t make it past the pesky fifth installment (which I happen to believe is one of Rowling’s best, but that’s for another blog). Whether you’ve seen the bits and pieces of ABC Family Harry Potter weekends (like my dad) or you’ve read the entire series at least 3 times (like my mom), there is certainly one female character that you haven’t been able to forget and certainly can’t ignore: Hermione Granger.
From the first run-in with Ron and Harry on the Hogwarts Express, one can tell that this girl is no ordinary witch. Quick, brilliant, and dissatisfied, Hermione is one of the only characters to never settle for mediocrity and to vehemently refuse to be boxed in by the expectations of others. She is the female heroine the series needed, the character whose development was central not only to the advancement of the plot, but also to conclusion of the series as a whole. (It’s of course only fitting that her real-life counterpart happens to be currently working her own brand of magic in the U.N.: feminism)
But as Caroline Siede suggests in her article entitled: “Female heroes are even more important for boys than girls,” Hermione’s role stretches far beyond her Polyjuice potion plot and House elf activism. She is the female lead who demands respect, despite both her gender and her magical “race” (as a person of non-magical blood, a Muggle). She aces her exams, wears her frizzy hair naturally, keeps Ron in line, and maintains Harry’s sanity. Hermione proves herself as a force to be reckoned with, not as damsel in distress.
Surely characters like Hermione, (and as Siede also mentions, Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games Trilogy) provide a wonderful, though fictional, blueprint for female empowerment. Heroines who can cast a hex or fire an arrow without batting an eye provide a strong counter-narrative to the traditional Sleeping Beauty/Cinderella archetype. They show girls that being exactly who you are is the best way to be— regardless of your gender.
But perhaps an even more important audience for strong female leads are young boys. In Hermione’s case, the impact is two-fold. Harry and Ron’s respect for Hermione as an equal, and in many aspects a superior, (who else would have known how to save them from the Devil’s Snare?) demonstrates a new kind of masculinity, one quite different from the reality of our Muggle world. Instead of encouraging the idea that young boys are meant to be the stronger, tougher, intellectual superiors to young girls, Harry, Ron and Hermione’s relationships prove quite the opposite. They’re on a level playing field, each with individual talents and endearing (or not-so-endearing) character traits. Harry is brave. Ron is loyal. Hermione is brilliant. Their ability to be good friends to one another, clever students, and successful wizards has nothing to do with their gender and everything to do with their character. Hermione’s intellect is no accident, and certainly not inherently tied to her female identity.
A character like Hermione moves eve beyond her ability to demand respect and not be limited by her female gender; she also helps highlight the need to deconstruct traditional ideas about masculinity. Hermione makes herself available as an emotional outlet for Ron and Harry, not allowing them to bottle up their feelings. She pushes each of them to express themselves and encourages them not to give up—whether in a Quidditch try-out or an epic quest for Horcruxes. Because of Hermione, Ron and Harry are not crippled by expectations of traditional “masculinity.” In Hermione, the two male leads find not only a strong woman to be respected, but also a friend who accepts and encourages them, not allowing them to fall short of being wholly themselves. Not to mention the fact that she punches Draco Malfoy square in the jaw. Strength and perseverance are not innately male characteristics; emotional expression and tenderness not only female. Hermione illuminates the important idea that neither boys nor girls should feel tied to an identity that has been pre-determined for them.
Hermione Granger is just one example of a heroine breaking with tradition and aligning with reality—a single character whose story counters our own construction of what it means to “be a girl” and also what it means to be a boy. With the newest Star Wars also featuring a female lead, one can only hope that this trend doesn’t fade into the category of a fad and instead cements itself as a staple of media, film, television, and fiction in our culture, because as Hermione’s character proves, these women are of the utmost importance to girls and to boys. The Hermione Grangers and Katniss Everdeens of the world show girls that it’s ok to be who you are, independent of someone else’s idea of who you should be. And as a result, they help show our boys the same thing.