I’ve been re-reading the Harry Potter series, which I do from time to time, but also because I was specifically prompted by a conversation I had with Zack Stentz about Dolores Umbridge, when he noted that Stephen King identified her as the greatest villain since Hannibal Lecter in his Order of the Phoenix review. As we chatted about her role in the books, we both definitely agreed: She’s the worst villain of the series, and also, in many ways, the most accessible to young readers. Voldemort is abstract, terrifying, cruel, and awful — have no doubt about that — but he’s also not quite relatable, because the number of youth who will be assaulted by a wizard shouting ‘avada kadavra’ is relatively small. Umbridge, also, is cruel to be cruel, vicious because she can be, the epitome of evil. Voldemort is an example of how circumstances breed evil — which doesn’t excuse who he becomes, but makes him a more complicated character, which if anything makes him less relatable, because you look to people who endure similar circumstances but didn’t become supremacist killers and wonder why Voldemort couldn’t do the same.
Umbridge manifests a very specific, very real-world kind of evil that’s particularly identifiable and painful, I suspect, to a lot of children experiencing child abuse, as well as abuse survivors. Rowling says that she based the character on a teacher she loathed, but to dismiss her as ‘just a mean teacher’ isn’t fair, because she runs much, much deeper than that. She’s an embodiment of a particular kind of pernicious evil that besets children, and one that many adults aren’t conscious of and don’t recognise when it’s happening.
Setting aside the fact that Umbridge clearly loathes children and has been put in place at Hogwarts for political reasons, and setting aside the fact that she constantly abuses her power, she derides and belittles the children under her ostensible care, making it clear to them at every moment that she thinks they’re subhuman and beneath her. As a teacher, of course, she reduces their classes to little more than a thought exercise, refusing to provide students with the education they deserve and punishing those who attempt to challenge her. That plays into her larger characterisation as someone who works to undermine children by constantly attempting to devalidate their comments and experiences.
The physical abuse she metes out is also notable, of course — the scene with Harry Potter writing out punishments with a pen that draws his own blood is gruesome, but it speaks to the horrific and casual physical abuse children are subjected to by authority figures. It illustrates another familiar phenomenon: Umbridge smiles and smiles, smugly telling him it’s for his own good. This is am incredibly common thread in child abuse, with authority figures declaring that children need to be punished to learn, that they’ll modify their behaviour if they understand the consequences of not following orders, that children need to be hardened to survive. This ‘it’s for your own good’ mentality positions the adult authority figure as an expert and doesn’t just harm children. It also entrenches intergenerational abuse, because children who experience it are more likely to perpetrate it on classmates and, eventually, their own children — it’s how they were raised, it was done ‘for their own good,’ and they turned out okay, right? Umbridge is building up a new generation of abusive people, which in turn cements the notion that child abuse is normal, instead of abhorrent and unacceptable.
She also utilises her role against other adults who speak out to protect the children, another really common tactic in child abuse situations. Children are taught to go to an adult when they need help, but when the adults they ask for help are powerless to aid them, or refuse to do so, it contributes to severe mental health repercussions, making children feel isolated and alone. Children are completely subject to the adults around them, depending on them to meet all of their needs, including the need for safety and protection. When they witness compassionate and ethical adults being punished for trying to help them, it sends a very clear and unmistakeable message, and the same holds true for cases of collusion between child abusers, in which adults support and praise each other for being cruel to children.
Another classic characteristic is, of course, the constant changing of the rules. Children will never be good enough for Umbridge because she’s moving the goal posts all the time with an escalatingly complex and byzantine series of rules. Even those who earnestly want to try their best for her, whether they want to avoid punishments or out of a respect for authority, are doomed to failure from the very start. It’s a very common tactic in abusive situations, as people rely on it to maintain control of their victims — something that’s acceptable under the abuser’s metric one day is suddenly not okay the next, leaving people feeling highly unstable and anxious.
I’m not the first person to have these thoughts, of course, but I’ve been thinking about Umbridge a lot, about her accessibility as a villain, about how her patterns of behaviour speak directly to some readers. And I’ve also been thinking about how the ultimate triumph over Umbridge and her ilk sends an incredibly empowering message to young readers that I think sometimes gets missed. This isn’t just about getting one over on the mean teacher, but about speaking truth to power, about fighting back against an abusive person — this is punching your rapist in the face, this is escaping domestic violence, this is fleeing child abuse, this is getting out of a huge range of abusive situations and doing so in a really powerful way. That’s something we should be exploring as we talk about Umbridge, for while much of Harry Potter takes place in a fantastical world, this is something very much grounded in immediate reality. These books were never just escapism, and this illustrates why.
Image: RosieTulips, Flickr