The forgotten rape in Harry Potter
The Feminist Wetlbanket is a weekly column where Liz looks at popular culture from a feminist point of view... and then beats it down with her sharp words. This week, she gives you a closer look inside something near and dear to her: Harry Potter.
I should probably preface this by explaining the background of this project. When I was a Women's Studies student, I wrote a topic for an advanced upper division core course doing a feminist analysis of Harry Potter. While only 6 books were out at the time (and I only had a quarter - 10 weeks - to work on the project), I pursued it with full force. I'm actually in the process of applying to graduate school in the hopes of turning this small (it was 25 pages, so not that small) paper into a thesis or dissertation. With that said, please know that this project involved mass amounts of research and is still an unfinished work.
When I began this investigation/obsession, the last things I thought I would find were rape and gay bashing (among others) ... but I did. Because this project was (is!) so intense, I have broken this up into several articles. This week? The rape of Dolores Umbridge.
It has been fairly well document in various interviews that J.K. Rowling heavily researches almost everything - from names to creatures - that go into the series. Nicolas Flamel, from Sorcerer’s Stone, is a real person and the story she used draws greatly from his legend. Many of Rowling’s mythical creatures, names, and spells have a root in some legend, fairy tale, or story that she has borrowed from (something her critics are quick to point out). Knowing this about Rowling, the way she utilized the mythical half-man half-horse centaurs in Order of the Phoenix came as quite a shock.
According to centaur legend, they are not the docile, kind, and all-knowing creatures that Rowling chose to portray them as. The first centaur was a production of rape, and this beginning defines the remainder of centaur legend (1, p59). When invited to a wedding, the centaurs “attempted to rape and abduct the bride and other women” (1, p63). Centaurs were considered dangerous because they had “exaggerated masculinity” due to their “human male element being combined with the sexual potency of stallions, and thus they were characterized by violent lust” (1, p63). There were very few female/women centaurs to use as companions, and this was also blamed for their voracious sexual appetite.
In Order of the Phoenix, Rowling creates Dolores Umbridge: the amazingly unlikable Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who works for the Minister of Magic. Umbridge searches unwaveringly for ways to discredit Dumbledore and expel Harry. When she threatens to perform an illegal curse on one of Harry’s friends in order to get information about Dumbledore’s whereabouts, Hermione comes up with a plan to save them all: she’ll lead Umbridge into the forest and let the centaurs take care of her. It is worth noting that Hermione, a female character who is extremely intelligent and known for her book-ish tendencies, is most likely sending Umbridge to this punishment knowingly. Rowling has made a point of using Hermione to provide the readers with information because she is considered to be very knowledgeable. It is worth arguing, then, that Hermione would know the violent history of centaurs and took Umbrdige into the forest knowing that she would suffer rape at the hands of a very violent group of half-men half-horses.
It is surprising that Rowling, known for the intense research of things she puts into her books, would use centaurs to “punish” Umbridge. Some evidence provided by Rowling helps to point us in the direction of discovering Umbridge’s true punishment. Umbridge’s usually neat appearance is changed in her hospital bed: her “mousy hair was very untidy and there were bits of twig and leaf in it, but otherwise she seemed to be quite unscathed” (2, p849). Despite lack of physical evidence, the students know something terrible has happened to her because of her physical and apparent mental states. When Ron jokingly makes the sound of hoof beats, Umbridge frantically sits up in her bed and looks for the source of the noise. Her reaction to this sound and her shock like state are symptoms commonly experienced by rape victims (RAINN). Why Rowling chose to punish Umbridge this way when she could have used many other means is unknown. The rape of Professor Umbridge is perhaps one of the most horrifying instances of violence against women in the entire series.
Next week? The stereotypes Rowling uses, and how they can be blamed for the gay bashing of several not-so-masculine characters.
Please note that this is a feminist reading of a text. It does not mean that I believe Rowling intended for these things to happen. When a work is published, it becomes something that is up for interpretation by many different disciplines. A feminist reading of a text finds hidden meanings and reads against the grain - it does not say anything about the author's intentions.
(1) Lawrence, Elizabeth A. "The Centaur: Its History and Meaning in Human Culture." Journal of Popular Culture 27.4 (1994): 57-68.
(2) Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.
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