Brains vs. Beauty: The Women of Harry Potter

Welcome to another Expanded Universe column where I feature essays from authors and editors of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as from established readers and reviewers. My guest today is Maya Sapiurka. Sapiurka is a graduate student in neuroscience whose main hobby is yelling excitedly about fandom on the Internet. She’s pretty sure her dissertation work isn’t going to start the zombie apocalypse, but no guarantees. You can read her science writing here and here, explore Harry Potter headcanons on her Tumblr, or follow her Twitter for the full science-fandom mash up experience.

Maya Sapiurka

Maya Sapiurka

Let me start by establishing my Harry Potter credentials: I was given the first book by my parents in 1998 for my birthday and was hooked instantly. My fondest memory of sleepaway camp is getting to read Prisoner of Azkaban before it was published in the US because a bunkmate’s dad had gotten her a copy in the UK. I’ve read (and written) fanfiction, participated in sorting communities on LiveJournal, run a headcanon stories Tumblr, and traveled across the country to spend my 24th birthday at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I often joke that Harry Potter is in my soul, but that’s not entirely hyperbolic; I wouldn’t be who I am today if I didn’t love these books the way I do.

So when I say that J.K. Rowling’s latest tales from the Wizarding World make me never want to read another word she writes about it, you can understand the depth of my disappointment.

Since the debut of Pottermore in late 2011, Rowling has been posting small tidbits about different aspects of the wizarding world; topics have ranged from how the Dursleys met to the unique properties of wand woods. Most recently, Rowling released a four-part series on the history of magic in North America as a prelude to the November release of the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film. These four stories encompass the history of magic in US from the 14th century to the 1920s. Of course, no short stories could ever encompass that amount of history, but Rowling’s efforts fall dramatically short of their mark. Far more knowledgable people than I have written about the problematic nature of the stories — particularly surrounding the portrayal of Native American history and culture  and their reception by the fandom was lukewarm at best. For me, the most disappointing part of these tales was Rowling’s continued reliance on some unfortunate literary tropes; in particular that of the Brainless Beauty.

It should not be a shock to any readers here that in literature, a woman’s looks often correlates with how smart, kind, or worthy she is. The HARRY POTTER series is no different. The Slytherin girls Pansy Parkinson and Millicent Bulstrode are portrayed as unintelligent but cruel bullies, particularly towards Hermione. Pansy is most often described as “pug-faced” while Millicent is not just “ugly”, but compared unfavorably to a picture of a wizened hag. On the other end of the spectrum, we get Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil — two pretty Gryffindor girls who are usually described as giggling, gossiping, and concerned with “girly” things that the trio (and particularly Hermione) scoff at; their favorite class is Divination, a notoriously wishy-washy subject that everyone else in the books shows contempt for. Compare this treatment to Hermione, our female lead. We constantly hear about how she’s the “brightest witch of her age” in almost every class, but is considered plain (if not ugly) by almost everyone, dismissing makeup and hair products as “too much bother for every day.” Ugly bully, giggling girly-girl or frumpy genius — it seems these are our only options.

In Rowling’s stories of American magic the Brainless Beauty trope is taken to a horrifying level when JKR writes about the enforced segregation of wizards and Muggles (leaving aside the inherent problems with discussing segregation in an American context). These laws came about after Dorcus Twelvetrees, the daughter of an American wizarding official, fell in love with a man named Bartholomew Barebone. Dorcus is described as being “as dim as she was pretty” and interested only in “her clothes, the arrangement of her hair, and parties.” Bartholomew, it turns out, was raised to hate and hunt witches and wizards; to that end, he convinced Dorcus to trust him and give him information about wizarding society. He then took this information (stealing her wand along the way) and used it to try to scare the Muggle* community into hunting down and killing all witches and wizards.

Bartholomew himself was arrested before anyone was harmed, but apparently the blame for the incident fell heavily on Dorcus. The piece describes her as being “totally oblivious,” “indiscreet,” and taking her beau’s interest in her abilities “at face value.” Apparently “many in the magical community campaigned to have her imprisoned for life or even executed,” and though she spent only a year in jail, she lived the rest of her life in seclusion with a mirror and a parrot to keep her company. And how is she remembered? With the word “Dorcus” used in wizarding society as slang for an idiot.

So what was Dorcus’s crime? Being more interested in feminine things than magic? Trusting someone she loved? Sharing who she was with the beau who was curious about her and where she came from? Not all monsters look and act like Lord Voldemort — they can be sweet and loving and easy to trust. Dorcus could have known all the spells in the world and she still might have fallen for Bartholomew. She was used and manipulated by the man she trusted, and her whole world condemned her for it.

Of course, we’ve seen all this before. If you read fantasy, it’s likely you know the problem of Susan. Susan Pevensie, once Queen Susan the Gentle of Narnia, is not present in the final Chronicles of Narnia book The Last Battle. It’s explained that she is no longer “a friend of Narnia,” being more interested in lipsticks and parties and the human world than her childhood adventures in Narnia. Of course, it’s not just that she isn’t present; the Pevensie siblings and their friends and families have joined the last battle because they have all died in a train crash, one that may or may not have killed Susan as well. But Susan, being pretty and feminine and not as intelligent as her other siblings, is no longer deserving of Narnia. Her punishment for growing into a woman is unimaginable loss.

And here’s the kicker: Rowling knows all of this. When asked in 2005 about Susan Pevensie she said, “There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that.” And yet now we have Dorcus Twelvetrees, who discovers sex and love and lipstick and is lost to the Wizarding World because of it. Another Susan Pevensie, left behind by friends and family, expected to learn the lesson that comes from becoming the wrong kind of woman.

I will always love the Harry Potter books — even as an adult, I’m finding new meaning in the familiar words. But just because I love them doesn’t mean I won’t criticize things that I believe deserve it. Being an adult means that I can identify with Hermione, yes, but also with Lavender and Pansy, Millicent and Parvati, Fleur and Dorcus and Susan Pevensie. I can be plain and brilliant and gossipy and bullying; I can put on lipstick and get a PhD. The women of my world are more than their looks or their IQ; why shouldn’t we expect the same from Harry’s?

*JKR has said that the American term for non-magical people is “No-Maj”, but that is a terrible word and I refuse to use it.

Readers, what common SFF tropes or archetypes get under your skin? One lucky commenter will receive a book from our Stacks.


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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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6 comments

  1. I guess I can live with or learn to enjoy any tropes as long as the story is well written. Having said that, I dislike (first things that pop into my mind):
    – Near-perfect characters
    – Characters who can master a new skill in a few weeks, especially a new language.
    – Female protagonists who are defined by their male companions.

  2. Von Berry /

    Villains who want to take over the world. It is just so cliche.

  3. First of all, I want to say, Maya, you had me when you said you read the UK version of an HP book before it came out here!

    One of my least favorite tropes is the “good woman who dies so the hero can be motivated.” I thought this had vanished, but I’m reading a new release just now, a very good book, and sure enough, that’s the trope. And honestly, the female protag whose husband was murdered to give her motivation is just as bad. Can we go back to losing the family farm/fortune/chicken salad recipe? At least those haven’t been done in a while.

  4. Von Berry, if you live in the USA, you win a book of your choice from our stacks.
    Please contact me (Marion) with your choice and a US address. Happy reading!

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