Since my most popular post so far was an English essay, today I am sharing another from my seminar class on JK Rowling's Harry Potter series with Prof. Bill Thompson in the fall/winter of 2009. I'm sharing this one because Emilie asked me to, and because it's an essay I'm proud of. As you may already know, I'm a feminist and being a feminist means that I have a penchant for analyzing gender construction in media - particularly literature (especially young adult and children's literature; I wrote my thesis on Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness Quartet and Suzanne CollinsHunger Games trilogy). As an intersectional feminist, I'm not just concerned with representations of women and girls, but also of men and boys. Now that I have a son myself, I'm passionate about deconstructing masculinity and exposing him to a contemporary masculinity that allows boys and men to exhibit and freely display a full range of human emotion and interests. If you're interested in this topic, or in issues of gender, check out The Representation Project who did a poignant and powerful documentary called The Mask You Live In that explores the damaging impact of the restrictions we impose upon men and boys in the name of masculinity. You can also read two stellar articles about parenting boys here and here; in fact, I just bought Judy Y. Chu's book, When Boys Become Boys which is based on a two-year study that explores boys' development (I'll write about here soon). 

Interestingly, nearly eight years after writing this essay, I've learned that Rowling herself is also a feminist, which further illustrates the points I make in this essay. Check out her twitter feed for her scathing and sarcastic take down of gendered stereotypes and inequality. So without further ado, here is the essay:

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is undeniably male-dominated; women hold subordinate positions of power and are confined to stereotypes (Molly and Minerva) or restricted by their gender roles (Hermione). Similarly, the males in the series are often held to stereotypes (Arthur and Sirius) or ridiculed for not being masculine enough (Neville). Consequently, Rowling has received plenty of criticism about gendered representation, mostly feminist perspectives attacking the series for further perpetuating demeaning stereotypes and limiting female characters (Billone, Cherland, Heilman). Others fault the books for encouraging hegemonic masculinity by way of its male-dominated world and through discouraging inferior or subordinate masculinities (Heilman, Billone). However, under closer scrutiny, it becomes apparent that Rowling’s series is not only a reflection of the patriarchal, male-dominated society of the Western world, but the books also applaud a new, unconventional masculinity over traditional, hegemonic masculinity. Rowling illustrates the flaws of traditional masculinity through her villain and exemplifies the advantages, and thus, superiority, of contemporary masculinity through her hero. A thorough discussion and contrast of both Voldemort’s and Harry’s gendered identities will reveal the absolute triumph of contemporary masculinity; a triumph made possible by the power of love.

To begin, the Oxford English Dictionary defines masculinity as: “The state or fact of being masculine; the assemblage of qualities regarded as characteristic of men; maleness, manliness.” Clearly, ideas of masculinity fluctuate, growing and changing as society grows and changes as well as varying between individuals. However, traditionally, hegemonic masculinity has been the ideal. In her book Gender Harriet Bradley paraphrases Robert (Raewyn) Connell’s definition of hegemonic masculinity:

…the form of masculinity we refer to as ‘macho’: tough, competitive, self-reliant, controlling, aggressive and fiercely heterosexual. Connell states that ‘hegemonic masculinity is always constructed in relation to various subordinated masculinities as well as in relation to women.’ (47)

Because the Harry Potter series is considered children’s literature, and the text does not deal with issues of homosexuality, the emphasis on being “fiercely heterosexual” does not specifically apply (although Rowling did announce that Dumbledore was gay after the full series was published), but both Voldemort and Harry will be discussed using Connell’s definition as a guide. Moreover, Michael S. Kimmel, in his book The Gendered Society, asserts that “we learn the ‘appropriate’ behaviours and traits that are associated with hegemonic masculinity…. and then we each, individually, negotiate our own path in a way that feels right to us” (15); Voldemort and Harry, thus, are largely responsible for the masculinities they have chosen to perform.

Lord Voldemort is the epitome of evil within the Potter books, and the first introduction to a resurrected, self-reliant, and fully formed Voldemort is given in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:

The thin man stepped out of the cauldron, staring at Harry … and Harry stared back into the face that had haunted his nightmares for three years. Whiter than a skull, with wide, livid scarlet eyes, and a nose that was as flat as a snake’s, with slits for nostrils … (558)

In appearance, Voldemort is frightening rather than attractive, as hegemonic masculinity typically dictates, even so, his image emanates power, especially in contrast with his subordinate, Wormtail, who cut off his arm to revive his master (556-557) and who “sobbing and moaning, still cradling his mutilated arm, scrambled to pick up the black robes from the ground” (558). In her article “Blue Wizards and Pink Witches: Representations of Gender Identity and Power,” Elizabeth E. Heilman agrees, stating that “Hegemonic masculinity is straight, strong, and domineering and it oppresses not only women but also the many men excluded from it” (231). Voldemort fits this gender ideology perfectly: his Death Eaters are mostly inferior men who call him “Lord” or “Master.” Furthermore, Heilman says of Quirrel and Wormtail, Voldemort’s pawns: “Their physical possession by Lord Voldemort emphasizes their lack of masculinity” (233), in effect, stressing Voldemort’s dominating hegemonic masculinity. The relationship between superior and subordinate masculinity is clearly evident in Goblet of Fire when Voldemort torments Wormtail, making him wait to be rewarded for sacrificing his arm (559-563), and when the rest of the Death Eaters “[approached] Voldemort on [their] knees, and [kissed] his robes, before backing away and standing up, forming a silent circle” (561).

Not only are men inferior to Voldemort but women are as well. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when his most loyal Death Eater, Bellatrix Lestrange, expresses her pleasure at having him in the family home, he replies with flattery, puffing her up, making her flush, and then proceeding to mock and humiliate her by mentioning the marriage of Tonks, her niece, to Remus Lupin, the werewolf (16). After the laughter ceases, Voldemort manipulates her again by easing the blow, ensuring her continued admiration and devoted loyalty (17). In this manner of holding his power, regard, and unpredictable violence over his subordinates, Voldemort displays the strength, power, and domineering control of a hegemonic male. His relationship, or lack thereof, with Bellatrix also demonstrates self-reliance as a component of Voldemort’s hegemonic masculinity; she is clearly in love with him, but he keeps her at a distance, alternately praising and humiliating her. Annette Wannamaker’s article “Men in Cloaks and High-Heeled Boots, Men Wielding Pink Umbrellas: Witchy Masculinities in the Harry Potter Novels” states that “Voldemort is portrayed as evil precisely because he is a loner” (142). Moreover, self-reliance is also exhibited in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince through Dumbledore, who intimates that the Death Eaters are unaware of Voldemort’s Horcruxes (469), and speculates: “Voldemort likes to operate alone, remember. I believe that he would have found the thought of being dependent, even on the Elixir, intolerable” (469).

The two attributes of hegemonic masculinity that are most vigorously present in Voldemort are competition and aggression, specifically violence. First, Voldemort is extremely competitive and prides himself in being the most powerful wizard, as he says of himself: “the immensity of my power” (Goblet 562); “mightier than any wizard living” (Goblet 562); and “I, who have gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality” (Goblet 566). His blindly competitive nature is most obvious in his obsession with destroying Harry Potter:

‘You see, I think, how foolish it was to suppose that this boy could ever have been stronger than me,’ said Voldemort. ‘But I want there to be no mistake in anybody’s mind. Harry Potter escaped me by a lucky chance. And I am now going to prove my power by killing him, here and now, in front of you all, when there is no Dumbledore to help him, and no mother to die for him. I will give him his chance. He will be allowed to fight, and you will be left in no doubt which of us is the stronger.’ (Goblet 571)

Yet the most powerful evidence of Voldemort’s hegemonic masculine nature is his penchant for violence, specifically torture. Kimmel asserts that “male violence is a way to prove successful masculinity” (316) and points out that “violence is a form of masculine emotional expressiveness, as if the only legitimate emotion a man could express was rage” (316-317). Voldemort uses violence to express both joy and rage; he tortures his minions simply for the pleasure it brings him:

One of the men suddenly flung himself forwards, breaking the circle. Trembling from head to foot, he collapsed at Voldemort’s feet.

‘Master!’ he shrieked. ‘Master, forgive me! Forgive us all!’

Voldemort began to laugh. He raised his wand. ‘Crucio!’

The Death Eater on the ground writhed and shrieked; Harry was sure the sound must carry to the houses around…let the police come, he thought desperately…anyone…anything… (Goblet 562)

Voldemort kills to demonstrate his power, as when he kills Muggle Studies teacher, Charity Burbage (Hallows 18), and he kills casually when someone has served his or her purpose as with Bertha Jorkins (Goblet 569) and Severus Snape (Hallows 527). Mostly, though, he kills and tortures when he is enraged, to punish those who have wronged or disobeyed him, as when Ollivander’s advice fails him (Hallows 75), and when both Gregorovitch (Hallows 232) and Grindelwald do not have the Elder Wand (Hallows 382). His ability to kill casually and without remorse reveals a hegemonic male that is clearly detached, aggressive, self-reliant, controlling, and competitive. Undeniably, Voldemort embodies a gendered identity that epitomizes traditional hegemonic masculinity, a masculinity that Rowling clearly vilifies.

Most feminist criticism centres on Harry’s masculinity, mentioning his “feminist” tendencies, but ultimately disregarding any unconventional traits. Wannamaker says, “These unconventional forms of masculinity are masculine characteristics, not feminine, even if they do not fit the mold of hegemonic masculinity” (144). Yet this idea of males performing femininities persists; for example, Amy Billone’s article “The Boy Who Lived: From Carroll’s Alice and Barrie’s Peter Pan to Rowling’s Harry Potter” dismisses Harry’s “feminine traits”:

True, although Harry is a boy, he does have some conventionally feminine traits…He has his mother’s eyes, her gentleness, her sensitivity, her carefulness not to hurt other people’s feelings. Significantly, however, Harry Potter is a boy, and in every respect (with the exception of his eyes) he remarkably resembles his father. Therefore, even though Harry’s personality contains both traditionally masculine and feminine qualities, masculinity still surpasses femininity in his makeup, forcing him not only to take on the literal shape of a boy, but also grounding him in a universe dominated by men. (179)

Billone’s argument, however, fails to accurately display Harry’s character or the unconventionality of his gendered identity, merely faulting him for being a boy, as though his masculinity determined his sex. Heilman, too, displays aspects uncommon to traditional masculinity and then dismisses them:

Harry’s status is interesting. At first he appears to be an outsider and thus is neither dominant nor powerful. He is a skinny boy with tousled hair who is trying to find his place. And yet, as the stories progress, he obtains significant status. He becomes rich and famous. He has some of the best stuff such as a top quality broom and an Invisibility Cloak. He is also a school sports star able to get a date with one of the prettiest girl in the school. I think that part of Harry’s appeal comes from the fact that he is introduced to us as a skinny, orphaned outsider and yet he goes on to have success in every important venue of masculinity. (231-232)

Heilman’s argument, while accurate to a degree, focuses on the material and superficial. While Harry may have “some of the best stuff” or get dates, he does not have a real home, his parents are dead, and neither money or fame mean anything to him, as displayed when he gives away his Triwizard winnings (Goblet 635) and in his embarrassment at being idolized by Colin Creevey (Chamber 75-77). While Harry may encompass some traditionally valued aspects of masculinity, those, in combination with unconventional masculinities, reveal Harry to be far from the traditional, hegemonic male.

A large part of Harry’s appeal is that his gendered identity is an amalgamation of various behaviours, some traditionally considered masculine and some traditionally considered feminine, which is an accurate representation of today’s young males who, according to Wannamaker, struggle with trying to conform to the hegemonic ideal (122). To begin, Harry does embody some traditional masculinities. First, he becomes the Seeker, the key player, of his house’s Quidditch team in his first year at Hogwarts (Stone 112-113), a clear display of stereotypical interests and hegemonic prowess and competitiveness. Further, as Wannamaker notes, he often suffers injuries playing Quidditch which he brushes off (139) – another sign of traditional, tough, masculinity. Stereotypically, boys tend to be disinterested in studies, which Harry exhibits for the most part, often leaning on Hermione to correct papers or to supply answers. However, Harry does show interest and talent in Defence Against the Dark Arts, even teaching it to fellow students in his fifth year, and he does receive seven out of nine O.W.L.s (Half-Blood Prince 100). Harry’s most dominant aspect of traditional masculinity is a desire to be self-reliant: in The Philosopher’s Stone he intends to seek out the stone on his own (197); in The Chamber of Secrets he goes alone in search of Ginny (225); in The Order of the Phoenix he intends to head off alone to the Ministry to save Sirius (670-671); in The Half-Blood Prince he breaks up with Ginny because he says, “I’ve got things to do alone now” (602), he tries to deter Ron and Hermione from helping him to seek out the Horcruxes (607), and, lastly, in The Deathly Hallows, he alone enters the forest to face Voldemort (554). Yet Harry’s desire to be self-reliant is continually thwarted by his friends, Ron and Hermione, who are “with [him] whatever happens” (Prince 607). Harry’s ability to accept the support and assistance of his friends negates his desire to be self-reliant, contradicting the traditionally masculine trait and enabling him to succeed.

In contrast to his traditional masculinities, Harry contradicts the hegemonic ideal in myriad ways. The first major indicator of Harry’s unconventional masculinity is his heart’s desire. Unlike other boys who long for new broomsticks, dress robes, or popularity, what Harry desires most is a loving family. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Harry finds the Mirror of Erised and sees, for the first time, his parents and extended family (153). Later, Dumbledore explains to him that the mirror, “shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts” (157). Harry’s desire for familial love and connection is further demonstrated through his relationship with his godfather, Sirius Black, who he loves fiercely. His devastation over losing Sirius, his capacity to feel that devastation, is shown as a strength when Voldemort possesses him in the Ministry of Magic:

Blinded and dying, every part of him screaming for release, Harry felt the creature use him again …

If death is nothing, Dumbledore, kill the boy …’

Let the pain stop, thought Harry … let him kill us .. end it, Dumbledore … death is nothing compared to this …

And I’ll see Sirius again …

And as Harry’s heart filled with emotion, the creature’s coils loosened, the pain was gone; Harry was lying face down on the floor, his glasses gone, shivering as though he lay upon ice, not wood … (Phoenix 720)

Clearly, Harry’s desire for family and love is a demonstration of contemporary masculinity that prevails over Voldemort’s hegemonic masculinity. Karen E. Westman’s article “The Weapon We Have Is Love” confirms Harry’s strength, a “goodness that is ‘agony’ for one so evil as Voldemort to touch” (194).

While Harry is competitive, unlike Voldemort, he does not need to be the best or the most powerful. Instead, he strives to be fair, which is most distinct throughout the Triwizard Tournament in The Goblet of Fire. In an effort to be fair, Harry shares imperative information with fellow Hogwart’s competitor Cedric Diggory (298). Furthermore, rather than triumph at the second task, Harry chooses to rescue his opponent’s sister as well as Ron (435-436). Lastly, in the third task, both he and Cedric aid each other and Harry suggests that they both grasp the cup simultaneously since they could not have made it to the finish without each other (550-551).

Next, unlike Voldemort who oppresses those considered subordinate, Harry aligns himself with them. Ron Weasley, for instance, his best friend, comes from a poor family that is subjected to emasculating ridicule from arrogant bullies like Draco Malfoy who says things like, “My father told me all the Weasleys have red hair, freckles and more children than they can afford” (Stone 81). Harry’s other best friend is a girl, Hermione, which Kim Becnel comments on in her article “Literary Contexts in Novels: J.K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone”:

While Harry is in some sense a traditionally masculine hero, Rowling makes him, and her novels, more modern by having Harry regard Hermione as an equal and by making the ability to nurture relationships with Hermione and others a big part of Harry’s strength. (5)

Wannamaker agrees: “[Harry’s] heterosocial relationships with Hermione, Luna, and Ginny set him apart from the traditional heroic male with his male sidekick(s)” (143). Another friend of Harry’s that is considered subordinate (because of his heritage and poor wizarding skills) is Hagrid, who Wannamaker describes as both “manly and motherly” (137). Hagrid is a massive man, half-giant, who can be extremely aggressive, especially when those he cares for are threatened. For example, Hagrid assaults Karkaroff in Goblet of Fire when he accuses Dumbledore of treachery (487-488). But in contrast, Hagrid is an extremely emotional man who cries at the loss of his dragon Norbert (Stone 175), cries at the pending death of Buckbeak (Azkaban 161), and cries at the death of the spider Aragog (Prince 451).

Not only does Harry align himself with supposed subordinates, but he exhibits a genuine concern and care for them, especially Dobby, Neville, and Luna. Unlike Voldemort, Harry sees house elves as equals, not inferiors, so much so that he frees Dobby (Chamber 248) and maintains a friendship with him throughout the series, a friendship so valuable to Dobby that he sacrifices himself for Harry (Hallows 385). Harry confirms his friendships with both Neville and Luna on the Hogwart’s Express in The Half-Blood Prince when Romilda Vane says:

‘Why don’t you join us in our compartment? You don’t have to sit with them,’ she added in a stage whisper, indicating Neville’s bottom, which was sticking out from under the seat again as he groped around for Trevor, and Luna, who was now wearing her free Spectrespecs, which gave her the look of a demented, multicoloured owl.

‘They’re friends of mine,’ said Harry coldly.

‘Oh,’ said the girl, looking very surprised. ‘Oh. OK.’

And she withdrew, sliding the door closed behind her.

‘People expect you to have cooler friends than us,’ said Luna, once again displaying her knack for embarrassing honesty.

‘You are cool,’ said Harry shortly. ‘None of them was at the Ministry. They didn’t fight with me.’ (132-133)

This exchange is only one of many examples of Harry’s loyalty and sensitivity to his unusual friends. Harry, being unconventionally masculine himself, a bit of an oddball with his perpetually messy hair, round glasses, and clothes that are always too big for him, is a champion for the people, always defending those under attack by the hegemonically superior.

All of the combined masculinities that make up Harry’s gendered identity also make him a leader. Unlike Voldemort, who coerces, forces, and imposes himself on his followers and enemies, Harry collects friends, supporters, followers, and admirers because he embodies a masculinity that encourages love, respect, and belonging. Harry’s unique leadership cultivates the last and most important facet of his unconventional masculinity which reinforces his desire, his capacity to love, and his role as champion: his self-sacrifice. While his friends and supporters fight the Battle of Hogwart’s, Harry realizes that in order to defeat Voldemort he must die, he must sacrifice himself for the greater good; he does so quietly, wandering alone into the forbidden forest to face Voldemort (Hallows 560). But again, Harry is not alone; through the Resurrection Stone, he is accompanied by his lost loves: his mother and father, Sirius, and Lupin who stay with him until he addresses Voldemort (Hallows 563). Not only does Harry’s sacrifice demonstrate his unconventional masculinity, so very different from Voldemort’s, but it is exactly what saves him from absolute death, enabling him to truly defeat Voldemort. And even in that final battle, Voldemort’s own curse is what kills him (Hallows 596); Harry never gave into the violence of hegemonic masculinity, never uttered a killing curse (Hallows 595), even offered Voldemort the opportunity to express remorse (Hallows 594). Undeniably, Rowling’s series displays the triumph of unconventional, contemporary masculinity over traditional, hegemonic masculinity.

Despite claims that Rowling’s work is sexist or anti-feminist, the text itself reveals a progressive depiction of gendered identities. Wannamaker agrees:

Rowling’s novels open up more possibilities for boys, portray broader definitions of what it means to be masculine, acknowledge a readership able to grapple with contradictions, and give readers characters and situations that test and contest the constructed borders of gender. (145)

Because Rowling depicts Voldemort as a traditional, hegemonic male, and Harry as the opposite, she asserts the value of a new, unconventional masculinity. Furthermore, Rowling’s novels provide readers with that new vision of masculinity, one that promotes sensitivity, teamwork, and affection in combination with bravery, competitiveness, and leadership. Through Harry and his unconventional masculinity, Rowling gives her readers a genuine and imperfect character to whom they can truly relate.

Works Cited

Becnel, Kim. “Literary Contexts in Novels: J.K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone.’” Literary Reference Centre. EBSCO. Web. 6 Nov. 2009.

Billone, Amy Christine, 1972-. "The Boy Who Lived: From Carroll's Alice and Barrie's Peter Pan to Rowling's Harry Potter." Children's Literature 32 (2004): 178-202. Project MUSE.

Bradley, Harriet. Gender. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007.

Heilman, Elizabeth E. “Blue Wizards and Pink Witches: Representations of Gender, Identity and Power.” Harry Potter’s World: Multidisciplinary Critical Perspectives. Ed. Elizabeth E. Heilman. New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2003.

Kimmel, Michael S. The Gendered Society. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 1998.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2007.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2000.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2005.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2003.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 1997.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 1999.

Wannamaker, Annette. “Men in Cloaks and High-Heeled Boots, Men Wielding Pink Umbrellas: Witchy Masculinities in the Harry Potter Novels.” Boys in Children’s Literature and Popular Culture: Masculinity, Abjection, and the Fictional Child. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Westman, Karin E. ""The Weapon We Have Is Love"." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 33.2 (2008): 193-199. Project MUSE