The Gendered Language of Harry Potter

As you may have guessed from my recent Dolores Umbridge post, I’ve been re-reading and reconsidering Harry Potter, which is something I do now and then because there’s a reason these books are such classics, and I want to explore that. Something about the series is enduring and compelling, the thing that made it appealing to an entire generation of readers that’s growing up right now and becoming writers, editors, and other publishing professionals — the number of young people in publishing who love Harry Potter and say it plays a big role in their lives is actually quite large. We’re also starting to reach another important tipping point as people who grew up with Harry Potter are reaching the age where they’re having children of their own and preparing to introduce the books to them.

The Harry Potter books are crafted in a way that’s designed to be timeless — their connection to the Muggle world is loose, rather than being fixed, and while some aspects will feel dated over time, the fantasy world won’t, and that’s part of their delight. It’s in fantasy that we really slip into Harry Potter’s home environment and it’s here that the vast majority of the action takes place, with the exception of snippets and brief bookends at the beginning and end of most of the texts.

Other readers have observed that many of the dialogue tags in Harry Potter are rather gendered, and it’s something that I particularly noticed this time around, especially with respect to Hermione, who is described as ‘shrill’ and ‘hysterical’ in a fair number of instances — when she’s not ‘hissing,’ usually because she disapproves of something Harry is doing. Most commonly, this language is being used in a context where readers are supposed to think that Hermione is being irritating. She’s being bossy, she’s ruining Harry’s fun, she’s fussing over something she should be calm about. The takeaway is that she engages in these highly gendered speech patterns when she’s at her worst — that by extension, femininity is a bad thing, and ‘girls’ are weak and annoying.

It’s not just Hermione, though. Dolores Umbridge is another really strong example of a character who is repeatedly described with gendered language markers, and not in a favourable way. She’s the epitome of evil in the books, and her voice is repeatedly described as ‘simpering’ and framed using other dialogue tags that, again, we associate with cloying femininity. (Not to mention the fact that she’s surrounded by pink and feminised notions like doilies and plates with kittens on them — girls, don’t act girlish, or you’ll be like Umbridge!) Readers take away that idea that to be feminine is bad, that to inhabit traditional expressions of femininity is wrong, and it’s strikingly antifeminist for a series that many people claim is highly feminist.

It’s also worth noting that such coded language is used in descriptions of male characters as well. But in this case, this isn’t about parity and an attempt to claim that anyone can be shrill (technically true) or could hiss (also technically true). Because men in the books who are tagged with these markers tend to be on the side of evil, not the side of goodness or even neutrality. The takeaway again here is that feminine men are evil, with Rowling emasculating them to underscore how small and petty they are, knowing that eventually Harry and the side of right will prevail. It sends a truly dangerous message to readers of all genders, but young men with femme tendencies are really going to be hurt by them when the only men who look, move, and act like them are bad guys (or incompetent — look at the foppish Lockhart, a figure of mockery and hilarity because he’s obsessed with his appearance).

There’s a lot to love about Harry Potter, but there’s also a lot to criticise. This a series in which there are some complicated social things going on and this is one of them, that gendered markers are used to quickly convey information to readers. Dialogue tags are often used this way — one reason authors are often encouraged to use them with caution so they won’t become distracting and so that they will carry more weight when they are used. Conveying information about a character’s tone of voice or how she says something helps set a scene for a reader in addition to providing readers with more context for characters themselves — Eeyore is lugubrious, Tigger is peppy. This becomes an important part of their personalities, making dialogue tags that contrast with their usual mannerisms stand out (e.g. when Tigger is sad, we know that it stands out to the other characters).

Because dialogue tags are used sparingly, the ones that are used matter rather a lot. When Hermione responds to fear, frustration, concern, or stress in highly gendered ways, it implies in some senses that she’s a weak character. When an evil character is described in gendered ways, it carries the additional weight that feminine people are by nature suspect. Part of Umbridge’s evil is conveyed in her personality, which is heavily feminised, and the way she speaks and treats other people is highly distinctive — readers would be hard-pressed to come away from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix without some internalised sexism, between Umbridge oppressing Harry and Hermione shrilly and hysterically trying to keep Harry in check right and left.

No work is perfect and the fact that we can engage this deeply and dig in says a great deal about Harry Potter as a whole, but these issues are particularly relevant at the moment as Rowling frantically retcons to make her books look more diverse as she senses that ‘diversity’ as a buzzword is a new priority in publishing. Before she attempts to add things that weren’t there in the first place, she might want to take a look at what’s already there.

Image: Harry Potter, Carol Smith, Flickr