- Throughout the “Harry Potter” series, the most traditionally feminine characters are villains.
- Professor Umbridge and Rita Skeeter’s hyperfeminine traits are used to further demonize them.
- Motherhood is a redemptive and powerful identity, but only when it fits within societal standards.
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Some of the most irredeemable villains in “Harry Potter” are also the series’ most feminine characters.
Almost every “Harry Potter” character that controversial author J.K. Rowling associates with traditional femininity becomes an unlikable antagonist – unless they’re a stereotypical mother.
Many of Rowling’s most unlikable characters are strongly associated with overtly feminine characteristics
Throughout the series, Rowling invites us to associate her female antagonists’ negative traits with their femininity.
In “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” she describes one of the series’ most vicious villains, Professor Dolores Umbridge, as wearing a “fluffy pink cardigan” and a “black velvet bow” that reminds Harry “of a large fly, perched unwisely on top of an even larger toad.”
This description directly associates her girlish attire with her perceived danger.
Before the notorious scene where Umbridge punishes Harry by making him write lines with his own blood, Rowling takes great care to describe the feminine decor in her office, including “lacy covers and cloths” and “ornamental plates, each decorated with a kitten wearing a different bow around its neck.”
Umbridge’s obsession with cats is constantly reinforced, which when examined in a wider context, reads as an allusion to the trope of the undesirable, childless cat lady.
The conniving Daily Prophet journalist Rita Skeeter is similarly childless and unmarried. She wears her hair in “elaborate curls” and dons bejeweled glasses, false nails, and skirt suits in bright colors.
Rowling draws our attention to Skeeter’s perceived unattractiveness just as she does with Umbridge’s “toadlike” appearance. References are frequently made to Skeeter’s “heavy jaw,” “thick fingers,” and “large, mannish hands.”
In addition to being unattractive and childless – which makes them less-than by patriarchal standards – Rowling further belittles these feminine characters by having them function as mere hurdles Harry must clear before battling the series’ true, male villains.
In Rowling’s world, traditional motherhood is a redeeming, unmatched source of power
In “Harry Potter,” the women who avoid having their femininity demonized are largely those who assume a romanticized role of mother or caretaker.
This is true even for characters who align themselves with Voldemort. During the Battle of Hogwarts, Narcissa Malfoy is vindicated through her motherly love when she helps spare Harry’s life in exchange for information about her son, Draco.
On the other side of the fight, Molly Weasley represents what is probably the most idealized version of motherhood in the series.
In a DVD extra entitled “Women of Harry Potter,” Rowling discussed Molly’s identity as a mother within the context of her duel with Bellatrix Lestrange during the Battle of Hogwarts. The author described the scene as pitting “two very different kinds of female energy” against each other, which she called “satisfying.”
There’s no doubt about Bellatrix’s evilness at any point in the series, but in her final moments, she’s reduced to a deranged woman who’s overly subservient to a powerful man, even though we know her to be a powerful dark witch in her own right. Molly is able to easily defeat her – despite not being trained for that kind of combat – because her protective motherly instincts kick in when Bellatrix goes after Ginny, Hermione, and Luna.
Similarly, Lily Potter is a prime example of the portrayal of motherly love as the “most powerful magic of all.”
The entire series hinges on her sacrificing her life to keep Harry alive, which has the magical power to protect him throughout his fight against Voldemort.
Perhaps the only mother who doesn’t get a full redemption is Petunia Dursley.
She’s described as a spiteful, gossipy woman who wears pink cocktail dresses and keeps her house spotless. Like Umbridge, these traditional, feminine traits are contrasted by descriptions of her animallike appearance – in this case, a horse.
Petunia should benefit from her motherhood status, but her submissive doting on Dudley is instead portrayed as a perversion of the “pure” motherly love that Molly and Lily possess.
But Rowling places unfortunate restrictions on what ‘traditional’ motherhood can look like
Although Molly is clearly a more loving and attentive maternal figure to Harry than Petunia ever was, in order to keep the protection that Lily gave her son through her sacrifice, Harry must return to the Dursleys’ abusive care because Lily’s “blood dwells” in her sister.
This strict biological framework further tarnishes the legitimacy of Rowling’s feminism.
The magical rules of her universe ultimately invalidate found families, even though Harry’s narrative seems to initially slot into the trope. For a mother’s love to qualify in the series, biological reproduction greatly outweighs mere affection and care.
By tying femininity to evil, the author guides readers to distrust women such as Dolores Umbridge and Rita Skeeter before they even show their true colors – because ultimately, Rowling’s portrayal of femininity villainizes childless women while idealizing biological reproduction.