Sexism in Harry Potter, with spoilers for HP4

Sally Odgers sodgers at
Mon Oct 2 20:53:01 EDT 2000

Hi, Lizzie;
I have a couple of comments to make on this one, wearing both my reader's
and writer's hats.

>Shoefer makes on the third page: "Surely, it is girls' ability to mentally
>morph into boy's characters that enables them to enjoy the story.  True,
>this practice conditions our mental dexterity, perhaps even our empathic
>ability.  But boys, who are never expected to read "girls' books" (meaning
>books that feature a female protagonist) don't seem to require this kind
>of training."

It's odd, but there's always an imbalance in expectations and allowances
made for male and female in real life. Cross-dressing men are seen (still)
as unusual, weird or a joke, or objects of pity. Cross-dressing women are
seen as utterly normal.  Boys who play with dolls are still looked at a bit
sideways in some places. Girls who play with trucks are often admired.  Most
people still shudder if they see women involved in a physical fight, whereas
the reaction to two men doing likewise is much less extreme. I think
Harry-Potter-must-be-male is the other side of this coin.

Now, to put on my writing hat. It's quite easy to portray a female
adventurer in fantasy, but much, much more difficult in realism. In my
latest book (not out yet) I have a 13 y-o heroine who has to travel
cross-country to find a quest object to save herself and her world. In a
realism story, my heroine would have been taken into care!

>these books?  Why is Harry a male?

In my opinion, Harry could well have been portrayed as a girl. He's not
particularly boyish in a lot of ways. However, in myth and literature there
are few female saviours, so I'd bet the author simply followed the pack.
Look at action fantasy on TV... BUFFY and CHARMED have female leads (Xander
and Giles are played for laughs and Riley is thick). Look at ANGEL, though,
with Angel/Wesley/Cordelia and STARGATE with 3 men/one woman and even (going
way back) THE CHAMPIONS with two men/one woman and STAR TREK with lots of
men/one women. This is the more usual line-up and going against the flow
spells disaster for too many producers. The X-Files is the only programme I
can think of just now that has truly equal male/female leads.

>I might guess that a woman with a
>daughter, when writing a book, would focus on a girl.

Not necessarily. I have been asked/required sometimes to use a hero instead
of a heroine. It comes down to money. Publishers know the old saw that boys
won't read girls' books. So, they take a metaphorical 100 readers (50 of
each sex) and do their sums.  Book 1 has a heroine and a potential 55
readers. Book 2 has a hero and a potential 95 readers. I might (and am
sometimes tempted to) point out that more girls read anyway, so the usual
proportion  of boy/girl in 100 readers would be more like 40/60, which would
throw the results over a bit, but the hero would still come out on top.

>I haven't had too
>much experience with boys' reading habits, aside from my younger
>brother.  He always preferred books about boys--he read CL and LoCC, but I
>couldn't get him to read Howl's Moving Castle (which admittedly could have

My son was an atypical reader as a child. He liked/likes fantasy and sci fi
and adventure but never cared if it had a hero or heroine. On the other
hand, he seemed to be immune to peer group pressure in other ways too. He's
really more interested in things and ideas than in people, I think. I read
and still read both hero and heroine books. My daughter doesn't read much at
all, but prefers heroes. My husband isn't a great reader, but always tends
towards TV with male leads. My father, born in 1921, likes adventure novels,
but has no objection to heroines. I think he might be where my son got his
immunity to peer-group from!

On a different slant, I wonder how Dick Francis readers stack up in the
male/female lines? Most of his fans I've met seem to be women!

This isn't much help, but I don't think we can expect altruism or balance
from authors/publishers if it means they're going to lose readers and
income - do you? Would you deliberately cut your income by a third?


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