Pick Your Feminist Patronus: Channeling The Women Of The HARRY POTTER Universe

JK Rowling's universe is rich in wonderful women.

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How to pick your feminist patronus in the Harry Potter universe: begin by closing your eyes. Think women, think magic, think power. Mull over the myriad of witches available to you. How do you feel today? Which woman do you want to act as your emotional and psychological conduit? Who will be your point of entry into this enticing other realm? Once you find the right female character, begin channeling immediately.

That’s the nature of our relationship to fictional characters, isn’t it? When we spot a character we like or relate to, we align ourselves with them. There are some characters that feel drawn on our own personal traits and quirks, and it’s hard to separate from them willingly if you stay with them long enough. The idea that an imaginary person can act as a powerful totem for a living, breathing person betrays that quality of the story being told. That’s the enduring power of Harry Potter. That’s the foundation of each witch we encounter in Harry’s world. There’s no shortage of relatable characters in the Potter universe; where witchy women are concerned, author J.K. Rowling has delivered unto us a plethora of uniquely rounded characters. Each woman embodies a particular identity, yet are no more alien to us than non-magical fiction characters. These witchy women possess depths that allow female fans to dive in without bumping up against the patriarchy and, to take a concept from Harry’s world, they each can become a patronus for those female fans who are looking for a way to more deeply access and embrace the text they love so much.

It’s this strange, heady brew of magical familiarity that is so enticing when, as a woman, you are looking for a character to identify with. To be presented with a range of female characters within your fandom of choice that are so flawed yet brilliantly cut, diamond-like in the spaces they occupy, can be a bit of an overwhelming experience. When it comes to science fiction and fantasy, women are used to taking what they’re given and forcing ourselves to make the character palatable. Sometimes, the female characters are so archetypal that they’re inaccessible. They feel distant or cold. This raises the question: why get invested at all if you, as a woman, can’t relate?

So when a series like Potter landed on bookshelves, then in theaters, it felt revelatory. For many women, especially of the Millenial variety, options like these are a luxury. When was the last time a fantasy series, so immediately endeared into the respective literature and film canons, had been so considerate and concerned with the women of a story primarily focused on a young boy’s coming of age? And when was the last time we women and girls were able to revel in the beauty of the line-up of women? Each book and film presenting a new witch for us to sink our teeth into. Behind the set-up of their witchiness, it became evident that these were women who were flawed, hopeful, inquisitive, pessimistic, weird, intelligent, career-driven, home-bound and, above all, human.

In her book The Sex Which Is Not One, French feminist, philosopher and psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray once wrote that “the geography of [a woman’s] pleasure is far more diversified, more multiple in its differences, more complex, more subtle than commonly imagined -- in an imaginary rather too narrowly focused on sameness.” Irigaray’s statement that the vast psychological landscape of women’s pleasure can be tapped into from a variety of stimuli joins smoothly with the kind of inviting interaction that comes from reading or watching one of Rowling’s witchy women.

The developing interiority of a female Potter fan matched with the individually fully-realized personalities of this cadre of witches means that women on both sides of the page or screen, respectively, get to engage in fulfillment. The female fan can channel that witch they’re watching, finding themselves represented and allowed to live and breathe; similarly, the woman on the page or screen is given a space to exist and engage with their fellow fictional characters. The power to channel and be channeled is a remarkable two-way street that permanently exists in the Potter universe.

It’s easy to contend that Rowling has written her female witches as archetypes and has kept them relatively sanitized. All of the women in the Potter universe that we meet are heterosexual and cisgendered. They do not engage in any religious practices similar to their Muggle counterparts. Sure, the witches and Muggles can easily be shoe-horned into age-old character types: mothers, sage counselors, best friends, love interests, manic pixie dream girls and femme fatales. Where romantic love is available to one archetype, it is excluded for another. Where anger is expected from one archetypal character, it’s unthinkable for another. Yet in various ways, author J.K. Rowling allowed her witches to push against these tropes and expectations. So sure, it’s not all bad.

If the great luxury of the literary and cinematic canons of Potter is variety, then how can we who identify as women find a way to better align ourselves with them and, in turn, grow closer to the source material which we know and love? Participating in the Potter fandom already dictates a foundational layer of appreciation. But identification? That’s a precious Pandora’s box that women couldn’t wait to open (I know I couldn’t). It goes deeper than Hermione Granger, although she was arguably many a female fan’s entry point into this process of uncovering new witches and really looking at them. Then, you begin to notice the other women moving around her…

The mothers -- Lily Potter, Petunia Dursley and Molly Weasley -- all leave lasting imprints of the ways in which mothers greatly affect their children. The legacy of love or disconnect that a mother has becomes so entwined in the ways that their children are often fighting or accepting, much as we, the fans, accept or fight the love our mothers give us. The mother-daughter relationship is one that is especially affecting; what girl doesn’t feel the keen sting of overprotective love like Ginny Weasley felt as Molly smothered her on Platform 9 & 3/4?

The young girls -- Cho Chang, Padma Patil, Luna Lovegood, Lavender Brown, Ginny and even Moaning Myrtle -- whom we follow as they go through puberty, first loves, forged and broken friendships, betrayals, all with the special shine on magic glossed on top only added to the heightened joy of discovery. Or was I the only young female fan who appreciated growing up with the characters and watching familiar plot points mirror my own coming of age?

It’s only when you realize that the power of women like Professors McGonagall, Trelawny and Sprout are all women of academia, ostensibly devoted and to their work. They are allowed to be biologically childless single women who have the opportunity to guide their students without the patriarchal expectation of tending to a family. That’s a sincerely revolutionary statement to make to female readers and viewers.

When it became evident that girls could befriend boys and happily, that those young boys would not attempt to transgress the boundary, the message of learning to value and respect a girl in this universe became apparent. Sure, Neville Longbottom fell in love with Luna Lovegood by the end of the series; Ron and Hermione wound up together (something the fandom knew long before the fictional characters knew it themselves). There was the benefit of friendship before courtship. Whether you choose to view that as the sanitizing of Rowling’s world or a feminist-tinged statement on gender relations, the result is the same: the pressure of early sexualization does not exist in Harry Potter’s world.

Because isn’t that what women need on top of the ability to align with multiple identities in a fandom: a freedom from the tensions of their everyday lives? A fictional universe as deeply and effectively wrought as the Harry Potter universe that allows us to escape to a world where complex women exist feels, frankly, like something of a marvel. The Harry Potter texts are still unfolding their secrets to us, gathering meaning as we age. For the women of the real world, the witches of Harry Potter will continue to appear in times of joy, sorrow, uncertainty and hope -- and that’s just as it should be.