Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

J.K. Rowling's Ambivalence towards Feminism: House Elves-Women in Disguise-In the "Harry Potter" Books

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

J.K. Rowling's Ambivalence towards Feminism: House Elves-Women in Disguise-In the "Harry Potter" Books

Article excerpt

In April of 2006 J.K. Rowling was added to TIME Magazine's list of the most influential people in the U.K. Rowling's successful and influential books are proud successors to masterpieces such as Alice in Wonderland and The Narnia Chronicles. All of these important books have touched on sensitive subjects, through the lens of an imaginary world. Wonderland and Narnia are both close enough and far enough away, and real and unreal enough, to be fruitful grounds for an indirect discussion of sensitive subjects, such as slavery and feminism. In this essay I will argue that enslaved house elves of the "Harry Potter" series should be seen as indirect and perhaps unintentional representations of unemancipated and unempowered women of the past, and those in oppressive societies today. Through her representation of house elves as akin to stereotypical oppressed women, J.K. Rowling projects an ambivalent attitude towards feminism. Thus, despite the fact that in many ways Rowling creates a world of impressively emancipated and empowered women (two of the founders of Hogwarts were witches, not wizards; Hogwarts has had many headmistresses, not only headmasters; Hermione Granger may be book smart, but she is also a member of Gryffindor House, the house of the brave; the sports coach is a woman, not a man; other examples abound), still, in the world she creates the nuclear family structure is intensely traditional and patriarchal, and the books, of course, focus on a hero, not heroine.

As is well-known, the Harry Potter books chronicle the life of Harry Potter, a child wizard who fights a malevolent and powerful wizard named Voldemort. Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermione, are enrolled at the "Hogwarts School Witchcraft and Wizardry." Each book in the series documents one school year spent at Hogwarts. In her books Rowling creates a mini-universe, or, to be exact, a mini-imaginary community, a community of people with magical abilities, as opposed to muggles--people like you and me, who don't have magical abilities. The social order that exists in this magical community mirrors Western capitalist society, and is thus a fertile ground for social criticism. Rowling's 'house elves' are an excellent example of that social criticism and, I will argue here, also serve to express Rowling's ambivalence towards feminism.

What are house elves? They are elves that serve a magical family or a magical institution such as Hogwarts (Chamber of Secrets, 11-14). Unlike the elves of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, masterful beings of great beauty, warlike and poetic at the same time, Rowling's house elves are small in stature and purposefully described so as to appear amusing and harmless. These elves are enslaved for life, and unless they are set free, their descendants will carry on their tasks and their enslavement. The race has no apparent culture of its own and exists only to serve. Their usefulness makes them status symbols for the (usually very rich and very ancient) families to which they are attached, while their own deeply ingrained subservience guarantees their status as second-class citizens in the wizarding world. House elves are not allowed clothes and instead wear items like pillowcases and tea cozies. If their owner gives them an article of clothing, it breaks the "enslavement" and the house elf is freed. Stereotypically women are obsessed with clothing and so the use of clothing to free elves is significant. For most house elves receiving clothes would be the ultimate insult and they would be shamed forever because it means that they have failed in their work. House elves have magical abilities of their own. They can transport themselves over great distances. Dobby the house elf, for instance, bewitches Quidditch balls (a magical game played on flying brooms) and blocks the portal to the train platform 9-3/4.

Hogwarts has in its employ over a hundred house elves. They clean the castle, work in the kitchens, and tend to the fires burning in the offices and common-rooms. …

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