Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Review - Hermione Granger Saves the World: Essays on the Feminist Heroine of Hogwarts by Christopher E. Bell (editor)


Essays included:
The Filmic Heroine by Julie Alexander
"I'm Hoping to Do Some Good in the World": Hermione Granger and Feminist Ethics by Atje Gercama
The Muggle Hunt by Elizabeth de la Torre
Unstoppable Force: Maternal Power and Feminism by Alexandra Hidalgo
Alohomora! Unlocking Hermione's Feminism by Sarah Margaret Kniesler
"Books! And Cleverness!": Hemione's Wits by Tara Foster
How to Do Things With Magic Words: The Scandal of the Spell-Casting Body by Li Cornfeld
Hermione Granger Goes to War a Feminist Reflection on Girls in Conflict by Helen Berents
Hermione Granger: Insufferable Know-It-All or Superhero? by Christine Klingbiel
From Teenage Witch to Social Activist: Hermione Granger as Female Locus by William V. Thompson
Is Hermione Granger the Real Chosen One? by Todd S. Waters

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Hermione Granger Saves the World is exactly what it says it is: A collection of essays examining the character of Hermione Granger from a feminist perspective and evaluating her place in the magical fictional world created by J.K. Rowling. The essays are grouped into four main categories, examining Hermione as a woman, a scholar, a warrior, and an activist. But the essays also reveal the truth that has been staring readers of the Harry Potter series in the face from the very first book - that the brilliant and interesting Hermione, not the clueless and obnoxious Harry, is the true hero of the books.

The first essay in the book, The Filmic Heroine by Julie Alexander, is, unlike the other essays contained in the volume, focused on Hermione as she is presented in the film series. Alexander examines Hermione's character by assessing how much agency she displays through the films, identifying a rising pattern through the first couple of films that ends in Goblet of Fire, but which resurfaces in the first Deathly Hallows movie. The essay then goes into a detailed almost scene by scene analysis of the first Deathly Hallows movie, discussing how Hermione claims the leadership role at times, and at others is supplanted by either Harry or Ron. This portion seems somewhat odd, because it seems to assert that feminism is tantamount to women leading, rather than women taking a place as equals. This quibble aside, the essay is a strong deconstruction of the film, and makes a convincing case that Hermione, despite all of the obstacles placed in her way by the filmmakers, is the key heroic figure in the story.

"I'm Hoping to Do Some Good in the World": Hermione Granger and Feminist Ethics by Atje Gercama approaches the subject by starting with the perceived ethical dichotomy between "justice" and "care", taking the position that Hermione emphasizes "care" in her interactions with others. The essay uses this lens to evaluate the somewhat disturbing inequalities found in the Potterverse, pointing out that while there appears to be widespread gender equality, the manner in which the wizarding community treats other magical creatures is decidedly unjust, and the status distinctions among wizards based upon their ancestry further exacerbate this. Gercama focuses heavily on Hermione's advocacy for the rights of house elves as an example of her acting for justice, and also caring for others, using this plot thread to illustrate the fundamental nature of Hermione's character as an active agent for change.

This theme is taken up by Elizabeth de la Torre in her essay The Muggle Hunt, which examines the pervasive issue of class and bloodline that dominates much of the conflict engendered by Voldemort and his Death Eaters in the Potterverse. After discussing the blend of fictional and actual history that Rowling used to explain the isolationism of the wizard world in her books, de la Torre delves into the stratified society that then built up in large part due to Salazar Slytherin's attitude towards those with magical talent but allegedly impure bloodlines. The essay then moves on to examining Hermione's reaction to, and interactions with the inherently unjust world, highlighting both the prejudice she faces from many of the members of the "traditional" wizard families that she encounters and the stance she and others take against the violent persecution of the muggle-born. There isn't much more to the essay than pointing out that in J.K. Rowling's world people like Hermione are persecuted because of their parentage, and Hermione and others (including, for example, both Molly Weasley and Albus Dumbledore) reject this and suffer for it while taking a stand in favor of equality.

Alexandra Hidalgo discusses Hermione in the context of the many surrogate maternal relationships Harry has throughout the books in her essay Unstoppable Force: Maternal Power and Feminism. First Hidalgo recounts the background in which Harry's birth mother Lilly sacrificed herself to save her son, but then the essay delves into a deeper examination of Lilly's character and relationships, including how she came to be married to Harry's father, her concern for the bullied teenage Snape, and her apparently strained relationship with her own sister. She then moves on to focus on the various surrogate mothers that had a role in Harry's life, most notably Minerva McGonagal and Molly Weasley, and evaluates them from a feminist perspective in general, but also how they influence the growth of Hermione, who, despite being Harry's contemporary, Hidalgo convincingly argues ends up taking a maternal role towards the titular hero of the series.

One difficulty a book that is so very focused on a single character in a single series of books is that the essays all cover much the same territory. This difficulty begins to become apparent in Alohomora! Unlocking Hermione's Feminism by Sarah Margaret Kniesler, which assesses Hermione in the context of feminist children's literature, and then proceeds to evaluate her in terms of her agency, androgyny, and the non-female friendships she maintains throughout the books. Kniesler's evaluation of Hermione creates a convincing case that rather than being the supporting character in Harry's story, she is the hero of her own story. This is, by now, a familiar refrain, and while Kniesler adds her own unique voice to the chorus and approach to the question, she ends up echoing many of the same points made in previous essays.

The essays shift focus slightly, moving on to "Hermione as Scholar" for their topic, and get directly to the point with "Books! And Cleverness!": Hemione's Wits by Tara Foster, which evaluates Hermione as a student, putting her undeniable dedication to her studies into sharp focus. But Foster's essay does more than merely recount how brilliant Hermione shows herself to be, but points out that what makes her such a compelling character is how she uses her considerable intellectual gifts, putting her book based knowledge into action in a manner that eludes several of the adult characters such as Professor Quirrell and Professor Lockhart. But Foster also points out that Hermione uses her knowledge to help others, and also makes sure to disseminate her knowledge to anyone who is interested. Hermione is, in short, not just the brains of the books, she is the intellectual catalyst that drives every aspect of the plot.

Although it is located in the "Hermione as Scholar" section, How to Do Things With Magic Words: The Scandal of the Spell-Casting Body by Li Cornfeld isn't so much about scholarship and learning as it is about the curiosity of a world in which language can be used to accomplish physical effects. Cornfeld examines the magical world using the rubric of language developed by J.L. Austin, which put forth the idea of performative speech, or speech that accomplishes real word effects. The analogy is somewhat strained, because while a marriage vow creates a legal change, it doesn't actually create the kinds of physical changes that the crucio spell does in the world of Harry Potter. Cornfeld walks though Hermione's relationship to the language of magic in the books, examining how her use of wizard-specific words falls into the categories of performative speech, locutionary acts, and illocutionary speech, giving a good overview of how a world in which the kind of magic that exists in the Harry Potter universe is real is also a word in which knowledge of language literally is power. The essay is interesting, but the framework Cornfeld uses as a structure to build it upon seems somewhat dubious.

The next section of the book is "Hermione as Warrior", and the first essay in the group is Hermione Granger Goes to War a Feminist Reflection on Girls in Conflict by Helen Berents. This essay, more than any other in the book, explicitly connects the events in the Harry Potter books to real world issues, exploring the experience of women in war, and pointing out that children, specifically girls, have become increasingly embroiled directly in the pursuit of war during the modern era. Berents then connects this reality with the story of Hermione's experience in the Harry Potter series, showing how her separation from her family is an all too common occurrence in the rel world, and how she constructs a replacement family with her battlefield comrades. To a certain extent the analogy is inapt, as there is almost no real comparison between the story of a fictional character in a young adult book and the experience of a twelve year old girl forced into combat in Angola, but on the other hand fantasy and science fiction are a means of exploring topics that are too harrowing to deal with directly, and this essay shows how J.K. Rowling does this brilliantly.

Hermione Granger: Insufferable Know-It-All or Superhero? by Christine Klingbiel explores Hermione's character in the context of fairy tale and modern superheroines. Despite the title, there is little commentary on the question of whether Hermione is an "insufferable know-it-all". Instead, the essay focuses on comparing Hermione with fairy tale characters such as Gretel from Hansel and Gretel, and the character of Beauty (also known as Belle) from both the traditional version and Disney adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. Klingbiel then turns to modern superheroic fiction, pointing out that the fairy tale is, at its heart, a child's power fantasy, and then relating Hermione to the character of Wonder Woman, Emma Peel, and Ellen Ripley. The essay then backtracks and points out that in the Harry Potter world knowledge is power, and as the "cleverest witch of her age" Hermione herself is a power fantasy, a character with self-possessed agency who drives the story. Klingbiel comments on the negative aspects of the female superhero, but quickly disposes of them when she notes how Rowling managed to neatly sidestep them when creating Hermione. The essay makes a convincing case that Hermione is, in fact a female superhero, and as a result, an example of feminist agency.

The final section of the book, titled "Hermione as Activist" kicks off with William V. Thompson's essay From Teenage Witch to Social Activist: Hermione Granger as Female Locus. In the essay which focuses upon Hermione's place in the wizarding world, Thompson almost unintentionally highlights the reason Voldemort exists: The institutionalized racism of the magical world that even the "heroic" wizards fail to notice. At least, the heroic wizards other than Hermione and those that she touches. Starting with her creation of S.P.E.W. in a clumsy effort to help the much abused House Elves, moving on to helping Harry see the inherent unfairness represented by a statue of magical creatures in the Ministry of Magic, and finally defending her own status in the world as a sometimes despised "mudblood", Thompson shows how Hermione is at the forefront of social change in the Harry Potter series.

Building upon Thompson's essay, Is Hermione Granger the Real Chosen One? by Todd S. Waters is the final piece in the book, asserting that the key to victory over Voldemort was not Harry, but rather Hermione. Waters analyzes Hermione's actions using coordination theory, pointing out that it is only her ability to organize the forces opposed to the Death Eaters that allowed the heroes to win. Waters points out that while Harry Potter is merely a mirror image of Voldemort - little more than a reflection - Hermione is Voldemort's opposite. Although the essay somewhat peters out at the end, it makes a strong case that the instrumental actor in bringing down Voldemort's organization was not the solitary heroics of Harry Potter, but rather the efforts of Hermione to build a collaborative organization capable of challenging the institutionalized power of the dark wizard.

Overall, this is a moderately uneven collection of essays. Although every essay has interesting points, some have too little substance, stretching a minor point out to the point of belaboring it. This is a minor point, however, as most of the essays are excellent from beginning to end and the sum of the essays in this work serves to paint a picture of an active and intensely interesting character, and very clearly a feminist role model. It almost goes without saying that  Harry Potter fan would find this book an interesting read, but it is also a book that any fantasy fan interested in seeing a breakdown of how to craft a fully fleshed out female character with agency would find to be an enjoyable and informative read.

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