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Messages of gender embedded in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
The works of JK Rowling have enjoyed truly wild popularity during the past several
years and have certainly earned her a reputation of the best children fiction writer. However,
Harry Potter books were also put under some severe criticism concerning primarily its
alleged witchcraft promotion and secondly, which is a more recent trend, the way women are
treated in the books. Thesis Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is riddled with gender
stereotypes and can be considered sexist in some aspects. Some extensive research has been
done on this topic, including works of Andreas Ramos (Ramos, 2000), Christine Schoefer
(Schoefer, 2000) and Eliza Dresang (Dresang, 2002). While some of the assumptions they
make may seem a bit overrated there is a grain of truth in what they preach. In this essay, I
am going to look at gender messages contained in the first book of Harry Potter series.
Starting from the first pages of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone we can
clearly see women stereotyped as unpleasant.
For example, on the very first page Rowling introduces us to Mrs. Petunia Dursley,
Harry's aunt, and describes her as "thick and blonde and [having] nearly twice the usual
amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over
garden fences, spying on the neighbors" (Rowling, 1997, p. 1). Rowling portrays Mrs.
Dursley as housewife who does nothing but caring for Vernon, her husband and Dudley, her
extremely spoiled son. When she has some free time she spends it gossiping with her
neighbors. Other mother figures from the novel are rather flat. Harry’s natural mother is dead,
he just gets to see her when stumbles by chance upon the Mirror of Arised, which lets anyone
see one’s heart’s secret desires. Harry sees that "she was a very pretty woman" (Rowling,
1997, p. 208), which is one of the most favourable descriptions of women in the novel.
Naturally, Harry tends to idealize his mother but this idealization stems from his desire for
her to resemble him and not the other way around: "She had dark red hair and her eyes – her
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eyes are just like mine, Harry thought, edging a little closer to the glass. Bright green –
exactly the same shape" (Rowling, 1997, 208). Another mother figure for Harry is Mrs.
Weasley, the mother of his best friend. Her behaviour is rather controversial: she attempts to
guard him from excessive interest exhibited towards him by others but she is still curious to
find out his past. For example, she asks how Fred, her son, found out it was Harry Potter and
then does not let him speak about Voldemort when Harry is around, "As though he needs
reminding of that on his first day at school" (Rowling, 1997, p. 97). Further Mrs. Weasley is
mentioned as a homebody sending a knit sweater to Harry - she traditionally maeks those for
her sons at Christmas.
Apart from these mother figures, Rowling introduces us to women who are foolishly
doting, loud-mouthed and overweight, simpering and immature, wild and crazy and finally
plain old. Examples would include Ginny Weasley who just like other young witches on th
platform begs "oh, Mom, can I go on the train and see him, Mom, oh please" (Rowling, 1997,
p. 97). Dudley knocks down Mrs. Figg "as she crossed Privet Drive on her crutches"
(Rowling, 1997, p. 31). During Harry’s visit to Diagon Alley he turns his attention to "a
plump woman outside an Apothecary [who] was shaking her head as they passed, saying,
‘Dragon liver, seventeen Sickles an ounce, they're mad" (Rowling, 1997, pp. 71-72). The
dressmaker helping him fit his school robes, Madam Malkin, is presented as "a squat, smiling
witch dressed in mauve" (Rowling, 1997, p. 76).
Another episode with a clear gender message is the procedure of sorting. The new
students are gathered and led into the Great Hall where the older students are sitting
according to their House—Slytherin, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Gryffindor. Hufflepuff is
traditionally considered a place for losers and even Hagrid has described members of this
house as “a lot o'duffers”. Nevertheless, the first girl called to the Sorting Hat "a pink-faced
girl with blond pigtails" who "stumbled out of line" is placed in this house, same as "Bones,
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Susan" (Rowling, 1997, p. 80; p. 119). After being placed as Gryffindors Harry and Ron go
to their new house and find it guarded by "a portrait of a very fat woman in a pink silk dress"
(Rowling, 1997, p. 129). They must pronounce the correct password to get in and hope that
the “Fat Lady” as they call her is not away wandering or sharing a cup of tea with the other
painted characters in the castle.
Casual conversations demonstrate that fine and strong women cannot be found. When
Harry gets acquainted with his classmates Seamus Finnigan tells him literally the following:
"'I'm half and half,' said Seamus. ‘My dad's a Muggle. Mom didn't tell him she was a witch
‘til after they were married. Bit of a nasty shock for him'" (Rowling, 1997, p. 125). The
reader is left to decide whether deceiting is more common to females or non-Muggles. The
popular game of Quidditch and the scenes accompanying it are almost entirely written in
gender language. For example, Angelina Johnson is a chaser for the Gryffindor House team,
however, Captain Wood addresses the team as men and is corrected afterwards. When Lee
Jordan, another student who is commenting the Quidditch match, pays her a compliment on
her chasing ability he immediately adds a remark "rather attractive, too" (Rowling, 1997,
As for Hogwarts professors, we can see the same situation repeated. In juxtaposition
to Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts loved by all, we find Professor Minerva
McGonagall who is a cat when she first emerges on the book’s pages but when she turns
herself back into a woman Rowling describes her as "severe-looking" with "square glasses
exactly the shape of the markings the car had had around its eyes" and looking "distinctly
ruffled" (Rowling, 1997, p. 9). As for her demeanour, it is repeatedly called cold or piercing.
When Harry has the first meeting with her at Hogwarts, she is described as "a tall, black-
haired witch in emerald-green robes [. . .] She had a very stern face and Harry's first thought
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was that this was not someone to cross" (Rowling, 1997, p. 113). Some time later, during
Harry’s first class with Professor McGonagall, this impression is reinforced:
Harry had been quite right to think she wasn't a teacher to cross. Strict and clever, she
have them a talking-to the moment they sat down in her first class. "Transfiguration is some
of the most complex and dangerous magic you will learn at Hogwarts," she said. "Anyone
messing around in my class will leave and not come back. You have been warned."
(Rowling, 1997, pp. 133-134)
Professor McGonagall shows no favoritism towards her house, Gryffindor, unlike
Professor Snape who always protects Slytherin students. The Quidditch referee and flying
coach is a female - Madam Hooch having “short, gray hair, and yellow eyes like a hawk" and
mostly quick tempered (Rowling, 1997, p. 146). Madam Pince, the librarin has only one line
in the book, and that is an angry one, "You'd better get out, then. Go on – out!" punctuated by
a feather duster (Rowling, 1997, p. 198) Similarly, "Madam Pomfrey, the nurse, was a nice
woman, but very strict" (Rowling, 1997, p. 301). As for the herbology teacher, Professor
Sprout, she is "a dumpy little witch" (Rowling, 1997, p. 133). We should also note that Snape
and some of the other male professors are frequently portrayed in an unflattering light as
well, but Dumbledore and Hagrid are always there as positive role models for Harry to look
Moreover, the animals in the book also carry distinct gender messages. Hedwig,
Harry's owl, is a female whose only job is to deliver letters and the caretaker of the castle,
Filch has a female cat: "Filch owned a cat called Mrs. Norris, a scrawny, dust-colored
creature with bulging, lamplike eyes just like Filch's. She patrolled the corridors alone. Break
a rule in front of her, put just one toe out of line, and she'd whisk off for Filch, who'd appear,
wheezing, two seconds later [. . .] it was the dearest ambition of many [students] to give Mrs.
Norris a good kick" (Rowling, 1997, p. 133).
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Naturally, the central figure of gender messages in the book is Hermione Granger –
who is the only girl of Harry's male friends circle including Ron and Neville. During her first
meeting with Harry on the Hogwarts Express, she is portrayed by the author as having "a
bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth" (Rowling, 1997, p.
105). After several minutes of talking to the boys, her snottish attitude is reinforced: "'All
right – I only came in here because people outside are behaving very childishly, racing up
and down the corridors,' said Hermione in a stiff voice. ‘And you've got dirt on your nose, by
the way, did you know?'" (Rowling, 1997, p. 110).
When the first-years arrive at Hogwarts, Hermione immediately earns the reputation
of a bookworm and teacher's pet of the class. She has already notified Harry and Ron that she
has read all of the books for the term and done extensive additional research to prove that she
is worthy of a Hogwarts education. It is not clear why she has done so: whether because she
is a girl or a Muggle. In the course of the first lesson with Professor Snape who challenged
Potter to answer several questions, ended up not getting any answers and accused him of
being a fool afterwards, "Hermione Granger was on the edge of her seat and looked desperate
to start proving that she wasn't a dunderhead [. . . she] stretched her hand as high into the air
as it would go without her leaving her seat" (Rowling, 1997, p. 137). However, the
knowledge of magic, potions, spells, and herbs seems daunted by the more physical lessons
taught at Hogwarts:
Hermione Granger was almost as nervous about flying as Neville was. This was
something you couldn't learn by heart out of a book – not that she hadn't tried. At breakfast
on Thursday she bored them all stupid with flying tips she'd gotten out of a library book
called Quidditch Through the Ages. Neville was hanging on to her every word, desperate for
anything that might help him hang on to his broomstick later, but everybody else was very
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pleased when Hermione's lecture was interrupted by the arrival of the mail. (Rowling, 1997,
As we see these lectures were ignored; besides, Hermione was quickly stigmatized as
a pest and a rule-stickler. When Harry and Ron try to secretly get out of the castle to meet
their enemy Malfoy for a midnight duel, Hermione makes an attempt to stop them "wearing a
pink bathrobe and a frown" (Rowling, 1997, p. 155). She follows them out of the tower, nags
and pleads them to return and then ends up in a trap when the "Fat Lady" in the Gryffindor
tower portrait goes "on a nighttime visit" leaving Hermione with no one to tell the password
to. She is deserted by even the women of the castle (Rowling, 1997, p. 156).
The inner strength of Hermione is predominantly based on her reading and in practical
situations her knowledge becomes useless. When Ron calls Hermione "a nightmare," she
goes off to the bathroom to cry, only to be trapped there when a troll is let loose in the castle.
When the boys find her and try to make her move towards the door, "she couldn't move, she
was still flat against the wall, her mouth open with terror" (Rowling, 1997, p. 175). After
Hermione has "sunk to the floor in fright," Ron who has actually never been able to
successfully use his spells in Charms class suddenly performs a perfect "Wingardium
Leviosa!" on a club knocking out the troll. Interestingly, after this incident Hermione is able
to finally attain respect and friendship from Ron and Harry. However, it is not because they
accept her for who she is –a bookish Muggle who wants desperately to belong somewhere –
but because she lies to protect them from the Professor McGonagall’s wrath by saying:
I went looking for the troll because I – I thought I could deal with it on my own – you
know, because I've read all about them." Ron dropped his wand. Hermione Granger, telling a
downright lie to a teacher? "If they hadn't found me, I'd be dead now. Harry stuck his wand
up its nose and Ron knocked it out with its own club. They didn't have time to come and
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fetch anyone. It was about to finish me off when they arrived." Harry and Ron tried to look as
though this story wasn't new to them. (Rowling, 1997, pp. 177-178)
As a result Hermione loses Gryffindor House points while Harry and Ron receive
points for the House because of their heroic efforts in saving the girl. After the three of them
gather in the Gryffindor common room, they all say thanks and "from that moment on,
Hermione Granger became their friend. There are some things you can't share without ending
up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them" (Rowling,
1997, 179). After that Rowling describes Hermione's behaviour as "more relaxed," and this
attitude is connected to her having finally broken the rules, even though as we find further her
transformation is not complete (Rowling, 1997, p. 181). When she discovers that Harry has
been secretly leaving the dorms in his invisibility cloak each night, she is "torn between
horror at the idea of Harry being out of bed, roaming the school three nights in a row (‘If
Filch had caught you!'), and the disappointment that he hadn't at least found out who Nicolas
Flamel was" (Rowling, 1997, p. 215). With finals looming on the horizon she starts "drawing
up study schedules and color-coding all her notes. Harry and Ron wouldn't have minded, but
she kept nagging them to do the same" (Rowling, 1997, p. 228).
The stereotyping persists until the end of the novel. In the last of the puzzles leading
up to the Philosopher’s Stone, Hermione and Harry are faced with a riddle that Hermione
immediately solves. The solution provides them with two potions: one will take the drinker
on into the inner chamber while another will allow the drinker to go back the way they came.
Harry asks Hermione to go back and send an owl for Dumbledore to help them; and when she
warns him that he may have to face Voldemort, Harry answers, "Well – I was lucky once,
wasn't I?" (Rowling, 1997, p. 286) Such bravery cause Hermione's lip to quiver and for her to
burst out, "Harry – you're a great wizard, you know" (Rowling, 1997, p. 287). At which
point, Harry pays her the ultimate compliment, "not as good as you" (Rowling, 1997, p. 287).
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While it may seem that the character was finally rewarded and credited Hermione herself
exclaims: "Me! Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and
bravery and – oh Harry – be careful!" (Rowling, 1997, p. 287) Even though it is true that
there are more important things in life than books and learning, this line shows that Hermione
is not that self-confident as she may seem.
However, this behaviour is viewed in another way. This view has been offered by
Eliza T. Dresang in Hermione Granger and the Heritage of Gender. Dresang traces the
heritage of Hermione with the help of her name, which begins as the female form of Hermes:
"Hermione [. . .] is immortalized in Greek mythology as the daughter of Helen of Troy and
Menelaus, King of Sparta" (Dresang, 2002, p. 213) However, even this mythical predecessor
of hers is "a daughter and a wife whose destiny is in the hands of her father and her two
husbands" (Dresang, 2002, p. 213). Rowling refers to the Hermione of Shakespeare's The
Winter's Tale who finds her life forever changed by a husband declaring her unfaithful
(Dresang, 2002, p. 214). In spite of this history, Dresang declares the novel feminist,
explaining it by her distinction between caricature and stereotype:
A caricature is a representation in literature or art the implies somewhat ludicrous
exaggeration of the characteristics or features of a subject [. . .] On the other hand, a
stereotype is something conforming to a fixed or general pattern, a mental picture that is held
in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion or an
uncritical judgment, and sometimes is associated with a negative prejudiced attitude [. . .] A
stereotype is based on a group, not an individual. (Dresang, 2002, p. 221)
She admits that sometimes Hermione exhibits stereotypical pre-teenage girl behaviour
but describes this character as self-reliant with reference to the author herself.
Dresang also insists the Minerva McGonagall is an independent and fair woman, even
though the book describe her as stern. But apart from Hermione and McGonagall, she also
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has to admit that "the female landscape at Hogwarts (or in the magic or Muggle world
beyond) is somewhat bleak [. . .] Many of the background characters are stereotypes"
(Dresang, 2002, pp. 235-236). She concludes by writing:
If a feminist novel is one that sets up a world to which readers can aspire rather than
one that more or less reflects the existing social order, Rowling does not write a feminist
novel. She reflects a patriarchal, hierarchical world. Some of the females have the
opportunity to be assertive, to take leadership positions, and to be heard, but the males are
dominant and are in charge – at least for the time being. The social structure of this magical
world as it relates to gender is closer to reality than it is to a vision of a better world – at least
through the end of book four. Rowling tells a good tale, but so far it is not a story intended for
reformation based on gender issues. Thus, when I take an overall look at gender issues in the
Harry Potter series, I conclude that in a general sense it will represent for future generations
the far less than ideal reality of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. (Dresang,
2002, p. 238)
Summing it all up, I should say that in my opinion Harry Potter and the
Philosopher’s Stone does carry some gender stereotypes. However, these stereotypes should
be attributed not to the author herself but rather to the world that she has created. The world
with rich heritage and deep roots is inevitably patriarchal in Western perspective and this is
the most important stereotype she has transferred to the pages of her novel.
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Dresang, Eliza T. (2002) "Hermione Granger and the Heritage of Gender." The Ivory
Tower and Harry Potter. Ed. Lana A. Whited. Columbia: U of Missouri P. pp. 211-242.
Duckworth, Lorna. (2001) "Children's Books Still Portraying Women Negatively."
The Independent 5 July 2001: 11.
Ramos, Andreas. (2000) "The Trouble with Harry Potter – Teaching our Children
Sexism." Advancing Women 30 October 2000. Available at:
Reid, Melanie. (2001) "Potter Sidekick a Feminist Icon or Goodie-Goodie?" The
Herald 6 October 2001: 3.
Rowling, J.K. (1997) Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury
Schoefer, Christine. (2000) "Harry Potter's Girl Trouble: The World of Everyone's
favorite Kid Wizard is a Place where Boys come First." Salon 30 October 2000 Available at: