J.K. Rowling, author of the astronomically successful Harry Potter series, has certainly not been wanting for praise over the course of her career. She has been lauded for her sharp prose, for the dazzling and immersive world she created, for her ability to turn millions of children into voracious readers. But in honor of Rowling’s 50th birthday, allow me to add an additional—and often overlooked—accolade to the list. Although Harry Potter hinges upon the magical adventures of a boy wizard, Rowling has gifted the world with a wonderful source of entertainment for girl readers.
I should note that the series has come under fire for what some have deemed a “sexist” representation of women. Writing for Slate in 2000, Christine Schoefer asserted that“[f]rom the beginning of the first Potter book, it is boys and men, wizards and sorcerers, who catch our attention by dominating the scenes and determining the action.” Others critics have pointed out that Harry has an entourage of female admirers who do little more than giggle; that Professor McGonagall consistently defers to Dumbledore; that Hermione—the only female of the Potter triumvirate—is whip smart, but also terribly annoying.
There is some truth to these assessments, but they are not entirely apt. For one thing, there is much to be said about the redeeming qualities. She is determined and courageous. More than once, she comes to the physical rescue of her male friends. Her smarts are consistently valued over her appearance.
Those are all positive messages for girls to absorb, but there is really no need to justify Hermione’s more irritating side. In Harry Potter, Rowling packs her narrative with textured female characters—characters who aren’t consistently nice, or mean, or likeable, or despicable. They aren’t easy to parse, in the same way that real girls and women can’t be slotted into neatly defined categories.
Consider Narcissa Malfoy—mother of Draco—whose devotion to Voldemort is belied by a maternal tenderness. Consider Fleur Delacour, who is beautiful and vain, but not delicate. She is the only female to compete in the rigorous Triwizard Tournament, and during the epic clash of forces that closes out the series, she jumps into the fray.
But this perhaps, is the most admirable quality of Rowling’s books, and the most important one for young female readers: in the world of Harry Potter, there are no spaces that are strictly delineated along gender lines. Girls play Quidditch. They join both Dumbledore’s Army and Voldemort’s malevolent movement. They fight and die alongside men. The series hinges on Harry’s experience, and that’s OK. Because in Harry Potter, there is more than one riveting character, and many of them are female.