I loathe Neil Gaiman with a flaming and stark passion, but I must give him due credit: The title of this piece is taken from his short story, ‘The Problem of Susan,’ which challenges the treatment of Susan Pevensie in the Narnia books. The essay sparked conversation across the internet, from those defending it as well as those who disliked it, and even attracted commentary from J.K. Rowling, who referenced it in an interview with Time. Susan Pevensie is an outlier character in the Narnia books, the character who is separated at the end, who does not go ‘further up and further in’ to the presumed heaven that the other characters reach, and Gaiman noted that this seemed to have a lot to do with her transition out of childhood (innocence) and into adulthood (sin).
It’s curious to see Rowling referencing the essay, as Hermione Granger actually has a number of textual problems in both the Harry Pottery books and, more overtly, the films — and while I have a fierce adoration for Hermione, I’m not afraid to admit those problems, and to ask why Rowling chose to make some of the choices she did. Hermione, like Susan, is an outlier, the odd girl out in the trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but her outlier status isn’t just about her girlhood. Rather, it’s about something more complicated.
If I had my druthers, I would have made Hermione the heroine of the series, as she’s clearly much smarter and much more interesting than Harry, whether or not he’s the chosen one. Rowling could have made a really fascinating narrative choice by showing Harry’s life through the lens of Hermione’s experiences. Sadly, she was writing in an era before the explosion of female heroines in YA and MG pop culture; arguably, Rowling brought about that wave, and revived the passion for English-language children’s literature across the world.
But Hermione. Here’s what we know about her at the start of the series: She’s ‘shrill,’ she has frizzy hair, she’s generally described as unattractive (as though, at 11, your looks should be a paramount concern — curiously, neither Harry nor Ron is subjected to such close scrutiny), she’s a bit of a swot, and she’s stuck up. Over the course of the books, these traits evolve, with some being smoothed over, some vanishing entirely, and others turning into advantages rather than drawbacks. It is Hermione’s skill and abilities that rescue Ron and Harry time and time again over the course of the books, which some readers point to as evidence that she’s a ‘strong female character’ and that her presentation is solid.
But it’s notable that even a ‘strong female character’ cannot escape criticism for her looks. Her frizzy hair is a repeated subject of commentary, and, notably, Emma Watson’s Hermione very quickly acquired smooth, glossy, movie-star locks over the course of the film releases. It’s a big deal when Hermione is seen putting effort into her appearance for the ball, and it’s telling that she’s viewed as unrecognisable — ugly ducking Hermione, made into a swan. While she dismisses the praise she receives, saying that putting in that amount of work is too much for every day, it’s telling that she’s singled out as attractive here, as, suddenly, a girl worth Ron’s romantic interest in a way that wasn’t nearly so overt before. The moment when she fixes her teeth is also an important one in the text, as it marks an instant when she uses a magical shortcut to get around having to wear braces (ugly, time-consuming) and have perfect teeth (pretty, approved by society).
Ron may have a bond with Hermione, but it’s the moment he sees her at the ball that it crystallises. Not the many instances in which she turns her amazing mind to solving problems, not the times she saves him and Harry from various untoward fates, not the moments of friendship she continually gives. No, it’s specifically when she’s pretty, and dating someone else, that she suddenly becomes interesting to Ron. It’s a troubling trope indeed for young women to encounter, the idea that they won’t truly find someone who loves them until they put in an effort and provoke jealousy.
It’s not just her looks, though. It’s the characterisation of her as almost excessively feminine, with stereotyped traits like a high voice, hissing instead of whispering; Hermione is caught in the double-bind many women are, where she should be pretty but not too feminine, especially if she’s going to insist on being smart. Rowling, like other authors, has a tendency to use adjectival forms in dialogue — ‘She croaked’ ‘He whined’ ‘They whispered’ — and looking at which forms she uses provides a great deal of information about how she views her characters, and how she wants to present them to the world. Hermione is, in many ways, undervalued for displaying feminine traits: Not for nothing is her increasing maturity accompanied with a dwindling of shrieking and shrilling and hissing, and an increasingly more physically attractive body. Women are to be looked at, and should keep their voices moderate and subdued.
Hermione at times becomes almost a pretty tool: Yes, she’s smart. Undeniably so, and she plays a critical role in the text. But, at the same time, other characters don’t treat her quite like they do her male counterparts, and there’s an undercurrent of reminders that Hermione isn’t viewed as a full adult until much later than Harry. Harry is treated as exceptional because of the circumstances he’s in — Hermione is just his friend, despite the fact that she’s much smarter, more capable, and more resourceful than he is.
Is Rowling making a critique of gender and culture? Hermione’s treatment could certainly be read that way. But the decision to reinforce her transition to pretty girl=figure of respect in the films, which were very much made with Rowling’s blessing, troubles me. Could Rowling have pushed back harder on the prettywashing of Hermione, put her foot down and insisted that the character be allowed to simply be who she is?