In the last post I covered some of the more obvious problems with the world building. This one will focus on some of the ethical problems. I will focus on issues with sex and gender, not only because that’s generally my beat, but also because Rowling is being hailed as some sort of feminist icon, when her works don’t even show what I would call “house and garden” feminism that you can see in many so called “gender critical feminists”. In fact, the politics of sex and gender in Harry Potter are deeply troubled.
Strong women: When Harry Potter was first published, it was lauded for its inclusion of so many “strong women”. “Strong women” are seen as the opposite of the “Damsel in distress” and sure, we got lots of capable women or girls showing agency: McGonagall, Hermione, Ginny, ehm, did I say “lots”? Yes, those women are shown as capable, more than equal to their male counterparts, yet they are also absolutely exceptional. We don’t get a female Ron, let alone a female Neville, a girl who is just average in about all aspects and who is still an important member of the group.
Women are either mothers, nuns, or evil: If we look at the women in the Harry Potter universe, there seem to be just two types. Mothers and evil women. Let’s start with Harry’s own mum. She is portrayed as the best person we could ever meet. She stood up to bullies at school, and she loved her son so much that she sacrificed herself for his sake, as a mother’s proper role demands. I could go on and on about dead mothers in fiction, but that’s probably for another day. Her role was not that of Harry’s dad, who valiantly defends himself and his family, but that of a sacrifice, who dies so her son could live. This is seen as an especially motherly deed. It is a mother’s love that protects Harry, not a parent’s love.
The next woman we get is Molly Weasley, who is the archetypical SAHM. She’s got seven kids and is the perfect homemaker, who keeps everything tidy for her husband and children and makes ends meet with very little money. She is being portrayed as a wholesome character whose only little flaws is that she’s a bit overbearing and overprotective. In other words, she’s an ideal mother. Yet, you got to wonder: what is that woman doing all day? When we first meet the Weasleys she’s got exactly one kid left at home, by book two that number comes down to zero. Most household chores can be done by waving a wand (and still she longs for an enslaved creature to do them for her) and in line with the upper class boarding school setting of the novels, large parts of raising the kids has been passed off onto other people. From the first book on we know that money is more than tight (5 underage kids do cost a lot of money), yet working outside of the home is apparently considered a no go. This is repeated in Ginny, who we learn has a great career as a Quidditch player until she ends her career to raise her family.
The only mother who is somewhere in between is Narcissa Malfoy, but even with her, her motherly instincts are her redeeming feature. Her childfree sisters gets no such chance. She is just pure evil, with a flavour of madness to it (well, she’s been tortured by the “good guys” for over a decade, so madness seems kind of understandable). Aunt Petunia would feature somewhere in between as well, but I’m limiting myself here to the wizarding world.
The nuns are, of course, the teachers. Because teachers (did I mention that the numbers don’t add up again? That’s not enough people to teach in a school the size of Hogwarts. Even with only two classes each year, no teacher can teach ALL classes in a certain subject) need to be pure beings without their own family or lives. While this holds true for all teachers in Hogwarts, there’s no denial of the gendered history of female teachers being expected to be chaste and celibate. Many countries had laws that banned married women from teaching, while married men were, of course, ok.
And then there’s the evil women. They are not necessarily evil as in working for Voldemort, but they are clearly portrayed as bad characters. The two most prominent ones are Rita Skeeter and Dolores Umbridge. There have been speculations about whether Rita Skeeter is supposed to be a trans woman, as she’s described as having “mannish hands”, but I’ll leave that in the realm of speculation. What is true is that Rita Skeeter is an ambitious woman who is also apparently single. The same holds true for Dolores Umbridge: the thing she wants most in life is power over others. There seems to be no other motivation to her actions. She sells her work to the highest bidder and enjoys abusing her power. It’s important to mention that this sadistic person was first allowed to mistreat kids under the “good guys”. There’s another thing both of them have in common: They are coded as extremely feminine. I don’t think any other character’s attire gets mentioned that often. Rita is portrayed as trying to be attractive, probably trying to finally get herself a man, while Umbridge is trying to look cute and sweet. She likes kittens and bows. Clearly that makes her evil. Let me say it clear and loud here: shaming women for being feminine isn’t feminism, but patriarchy in a feminist wrapper.
There’s one more important woman, Merope, but I’ll come to her in a separate point.
Women are prizes to be won. I must say, the struggles through adolescence were some of the more enjoyable parts of the books. Especially in book 4, where Harry is such a self-centred prick as only adolescents can be, and with adolescence comes the awakening of romantic and sexual interests and that’s completely ok. Only that of course it’s all damn heteronormative, with the girls being passive creatures that need to be pursued by the boys. In book 5 we get the feeling that Hermione fancies Ron, yet she is unable to ask him to the Yule Ball. Harry pursues Ginny, yet he makes the decision to drop her for her own good. But in the end, both boys get their girls for having bravely defeated Voldemort. They can now start the nice domestic life of a heterosexual couple where mum raises kids, because those women are what they deserve. Though the question of domestic bliss leads me to the next point:
Wizards marrying Muggles is miscegenation. While the “good guys” consider Muggle born wizards and witches to be ok, it is made pretty clear that a relationship between a wizard and a Muggle is bad. There are no working Muggle-wizard couples in the Harry Potter universe. We get Voldemort’s parents (more on this later), we got Snape’s parents. Snape’s family life is described as pretty bad. His mother married a Muggle and the relationship is described as unhealthy and bad. Basically Snape’s nastiness (and no, I don’t care about his redemptive arc, he’s a nasty bully and should never have been allowed to teach kids) is explained by his home story. He is an outsider wherever he goes. The other one is Dean Thomas, whose father was probably a wizard who abandoned him and his mother. Now, how nobody in a community so small ever guessed who his father was is another question, but again we get the idea: You must not fuck a Muggle. And that’s from a book that apparently teaches that “judging people by their bloodlines is bad”. Can you think of any happy Muggle-wizard couple?
Rape is ok (if done by women). This is probably the worst of all. Rape is treated as no big deal. It is stark to see how a world where using the unforgivable “Imperius” curse to make somebody eat a worm will earn you a life sentence in a torture institution, but drugging somebody and make them have sex with you is such a minor thing that underage kids can buy those drugs in a joke store. The treatment of this reveals why Rowling’s descend into Terfdom shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Like many “gender critical” people she apparently believes that all women (only cis women are women to her, of course) are delicate creatures who need to be protected and who cannot commit rape because they don’t have a penis. The first time we encounter a love potion is when Ron eats some chocolates that were meant for Harry and now is madly in love with some girl. This is funny, haha. We’re meant to laugh at Ron, who is obviously out of his senses (and also at the girl, because isn’t the thought that somebody could be in love with that girl funny, haha). We are not supposed to be abhorred at the fact that somebody just drugged him to the point that he would do things with that girl he’d never consent to if he were sober. There are no consequences for the girl who drugged him and it’s no problem that the Weasley brothers sell their potions to whoever can pay for them (except for Ginny, cause their own sister needs to be chaste). However, if you think this is horrible, look at the most important use of love potions in the books: Voldemort’s story of origin.
I’ve hinted at this several times already, but Merope and Tom Riddle Senior are about the most fucked up story line in the whole books. When we first meet the two, it’s pretty clear with whom our sympathies are supposed to lie. Tom Riddle Senior is an arrogant ass. Some rich bastard’s son who looks down on his poor neighbours, not knowing that they are actually wizards. Merope on the other hand is the poor abused girl who has to care for her violent father and brother (somehow the wizarding world is ok with that as well). When those two get thrown into prison, Merope uses her shot at freedom by drugging and raping Tom Riddle. Of course, it’s never described like that. The way we learn about it in the books is a very sanitised version.
(Dumbledore) “Can you not think of any measure Merope could have taken to make Tom Riddle … fall in love with her…?” “The Imperius Curse?”, Harry suggested. “Or a love potion?” “Very good. Personally I am inclined to think that she used a love potion. I am sure it would have seemed more romantic to her…”
Then we learn that Riddle returned to his parents with talks of having been “hoodwinked” by Merope. The tale in his village was that he had married because he thought she was pregnant.
“But she did have have his baby.” (Harry) “Yes, but not until a year after they were married. Tom Riddle left her while she was still pregnant.” “What went wrong?”, asked Harry. “Why did the love potion stop working?”
Dumbledore speculates that Merope, whom he describes as deeply in love with Riddle, stopped giving him the potion, hoping that he’d stay for her sake and the baby’s, but:
“He left her, never saw her again, and never troubled to discover what became of his son.”
This is perhaps one of the worst passages in the whole books. A man is drugged over months, repeatedly raped, and when he finally escapes he is the bad guy for leaving his pregnant “wife”. There is no sympathy here for Tom Riddle. There is no horror conveyed. The use of the love potion gets described as “romantic”. Harry thinks that Riddle no longer being drugged is a sign that something went wrong, and Dumbledore immediately offers an explanation that paints Merope in a good light.
The next time we hear about Merope is that she sold her family heirloom after Riddle left her, or as Dumbledore calls it “when her husband abandoned her”. Now we come to Merope’s one and only crime: dying. While Dumbledore still tries to be sympathetic, finding reasons and excuses while Merope gave up, Harry is indignant.
(Dumbledore) “Of course, it is also possible that her unrequited love and the attendant despair sapped her of her powers. Merope refused to raise her wand even to save her own life.” “She wouldn’t even stay alive for her son?” Dumbledore raised his eyebrows. “Could you possibly be feeling sorry for Lord Voldemort?” “No”, said Harry quickly, “but she had a choice, didn’t she…”
Now I’d like to raise the question why we shouldn’t feel sorry for baby Tom Riddle, conceived through rape, born to a rapist mother who did not want him if she couldn’t have his father, and who was absolutely abandoned by his own community, although they absolutely knew about him, since “his name has been down for our school (Hogwarts) since birth”. But again, we’re meant to sympathise with Merope. The wizarding community only gives a fuck about Tom Riddle once he’s old enough to attend Hogwarts. Dumbledore doesn’t give a fuck before that. And Riddle is described as a bad person even from the time he was a wee baby. Again, see the point about miscegenation. We are meant to believe that Tom Riddle was bad because of his blood (and not, maybe, because he was dumped in a non magical orphanage without any loving person around), yet somehow even this isn’t meant to raise some sympathy. It is hard not to see the gendered aspect here: Merope is always the victim, always somewhat less responsible for her own actions than others, while the man she raped and the boy she birthed are to be judged. We are meant to believe that an abandoned and mistreated 11 years old boy is just inherently bad, while a mistreated 18 years old woman is just “in love” or “heartbroken”.
There are many other ethical problems in Harry Potter’s world. You can find more examples in Charly’s comment on the last post, or Andreas’ post on interspecies relationships. I’ll leave it at this for now.