Tag Archives: literature

That Girl is a Goddamn Problem: Girl Hate and Beyond in Harry Potter

J.K. Rowling has said that Pansy did not end up marrying Draco because Rowling always hated her: “I loathe Pansy Parkinson. I don’t love Draco but I really dislike her. She’s every girl who ever teased me at school. She’s the Anti-Hermione. I loathe her.”

The more I think about this the more furious I get. If I had to sum up most of my problems with the J.K. Rowling’s approach to writing, I would start with this quote.  This is at the bottom of the Harry Potter wiki page about Pansy Parkinson, a page that is literally nothing more than a list of all the mean things Pansy ever did. Because that’s all she did. That’s all she existed to do.

There’s a very overt thread of girl hate woven throughout the Harry Potter series. It becomes most noticeable in Half-Blood Prince, where teen girls in love become crazy, jealous and dangerous. But from Sorcerer’s Stone it’s there: we know right off the bat who are the nice girls and the mean girls, and we know who we’re supposed to root for. J.K. Rowling is often praised for her “strong female characters” and I would be lying if I said that Hermione Granger isn’t one of the most pansyparkinsonimportant characters that ever happened to me.

But as I reread and reevaluated the books over the years with a more critical, feminist lens I began to recognize clear patterns of sexism, gender essentialism and, yes, girl hate. I was shocked when I realized that, in these books that I’ve read countless times, there are no strong relationships between any of the women characters. (The fact that it took so long for me to realize it speaks to how normal the absence of women-centered relationships is in media but that’s for another time.)

It’s not even just that there are no strong woman-to-woman relationships: most of the women, especially the secondary characters, exist to act as a  foils for one another. Hermione in particular has two distinct foils. Pansy Parkinson, her enemy from the start and then, come Half-Blood Prince, Lavender Brown, who commits the crime of being a teen in puppy love. Cho Chang is a foil of Ginny Weasley (who is praised as “rarely weepy”); Fleur Delacour and Tonks (who are explicitly compared in-text by Molly and Ginny); even Molly Weasley and Bellatrix Lestrange. What a disservice these books do to these women. They could be characters who live and breathe instead of existing to be compared to one another.

But I find myself particularly offended at her use of Pansy Parkinson, which is a place I never thought I would be. It may be petty or silly but I find myself wondering: why Draco and not Pansy? Why couldn’t Harry’s schoolyard nemesis be a girl, why not Pansy? Why does Draco get the redemption arc?  The back story? The capacity for sympathy from the audience? Why, in a magical world, must J.K. Rowling cling to the “realism” of teenage girl cattiness? Simple: revenge.  J. K. Rowling writes teenage girls based on real teenagers who hurt her solely to exact some sort of literary revenge. She creates a caricature of teenage girl meanness that is then read by real, live teenage girls. And it’s not just that mean teen girls exist in these books: they deserve lifelong punishment for their meanness or badness.

The fate of Marietta Edgecombe is an especially sadistic example of this. Marietta Edgecombe, who at 16 or 17 made a poor decision in a school that was under tyrannical rule from a powerful political interloper. We’re meant to interpret the embarrassing pustules as something she deserves and Hermione as clever for having the foresight to put that vicious curse in place. What happened in the long term? According to J.K. Rowling, while the pustules faded Marietta had lifelong scars because she “loathes a traitor.” What a horrifying implication: girls who make mistakes as teenagers deserve punishments that expand into their adult lives. The same with Pansy: she is deprived of a hypothetical relationship with Draco simply because J.K. Rowling hates her, because she is the “anti-Hermione.” There is no room for sympathy. There is no chance at redemption. These girls are not significant enough for that.

And maybe I could be more forgiving if it weren’t for the fact that the seeds of girl and woman hating bullshit J.K. Rowling plants come to full, forceful bloom when fandom steps in. Fandoms are notorious for their hatred of women characters, even ones that aren’t set up in-text for hatred. Pansy is a literary punching bag in many fanfictions: she’s typically a slut, a home wrecker, a bitch that no one likes. Including Draco. He’ll fuck her, cheat on someone (better and nicer) with her, date her, maybe even marry and have children with her but rarely like or love her. Draco, who committed actual war crimes beyond “being mean” and “being so afraid of Voldemort that she suggested they should give Harry over to him in an attempt to protect herself and her housemates.”

But Pansy doesn’t get that kind of nuanced motivation. Her yelling “There he is, get him!” is just another way to show the reader how awful she is. Complicated back stories and motivations are typically reserved for evil and morally ambiguous male characters (I say typically because Narcissa Malfoy exists). Draco, Snape, Voldemort–we spend a lot of time with their histories and emotions. But hey, these are mostly secondary characters. No author should be expected to flesh out all of their secondary characters. Archetypes and foils serve a very real literary purpose.

But I take issue with so many of the secondary characters in the Harry Potter series being women who fall into insidious, damaging stereotypes. Obviously J. K. Rowling is not the first or the last writer to do this. And it’s unfair to expect her to fix it or be perfect in this regard. But my resentment is not just because J. K. Rowling never intend for these characters to be more than vicious bullies, weepy depressives or annoying girlfriends. It comes from a deeper, more internal place. An ugly place that understands her desire to hate and punish literary proxies of real life girls. I remember being that kind of woman, full of hate and resentment for other women even as I claimed to be a advocate for them. And it scares me to think of young minds (like my own young self’s) being further shaped by that kind of mentality.

Ultimately, I’m tired of the long, harmful tradition of normalizing girl hate. Of making it common place. Of reminding us that it’s typical and expected. I want YA writers to shake up these shitty, false ideas of girlhood and girl friendships. I want a world, literary and otherwise, that teaches women how to be friends, how to support each other, how to critically engage one another. Where mean girls don’t begin and end at their meanness. I want stories about how wonderful we can be to and for each other. We shouldn’t have to unlearn how we’ve been taught to hate each other. Imagine if girl hate tropes disappeared from young adult novels. That would be real fucking magic.

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After Midnight

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris as one of my “Most Disappointing Movies of 2011.” Then, as the year came to an end, I kept seeing it pop up on best-of-the-year lists, always praised as “witty” and “magical.” And now it’s right on course to Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay, with good odds of winning the latter. So, from the depths of my confusion and curiosity, I have to ask again: what is so great (or even good) about this movie?

Hell, I’ve been so earnestly curious that I rewatched it. Maybe I’d somehow missed the magic that first time around! But no, it actually got worse. I still love the wall-to-wall jazz soundtrack and the amber-tinted Parisian scenery; it’s certainly a pleasant movie to look at. (Although a tourist brochure does not a great movie make.) And it has a handful of supporting performances that make me smile: Marion Cotillard as “art groupie” Adriana, Adrien Brody’s rhinoceros-obsessed Dalí, and Corey Stoll as a hilarious, swaggering Hemingway.

But the whole movie’s premised on one long joke. It’s just Owen Wilson’s Gil being introduced to one Lost Generation luminary after another, then stammering in disbelief, “Hemingway? The Ernest Hemingway? Tom Eliot? You mean T.S. Eliot? Picasso? As in Pablo Picasso?” At first, it’s endearing; an hour later, it’s tiresome. The 1920s scenes are affable and sometimes funny, but they never go beyond facile wish fulfillment. They lie somewhere between a costume party and a wax museum, depicting their era as a time when everyone was a genius, went to parties, and fell in love with strangers from the future.

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Link Dump: #28

One of my favorite parts about the fun-but-forgettable Go, aside from the guts and raw energy of Sarah Polley, was this kitty. Look at it! It’s so cute and it’s terrifyingly telepathic! This is why you don’t pop tons of Ecstasy. Because that’s when cats start messing with you. In other news, the Internet has been happening for the past two weeks. Here’s the best of it:

  • I love my minimal movie posters, and these Stanley Kubrick pictogram posters are both well-made and dryly funny. (Also, spoiler warning on Full Metal Jacket!)
  • This Total Film article about inserting Doc Brown into every other time travel movie is pretty hilarious, and very British.
  • Pajiba has a list of “The 50 Most Expensive Movies of All Time,” with their budgets and grosses listed, plus some fun/informative trivia.
  • Badass Digest inducts Pauline Kael into its “Badass Hall of Fame,” which is a very appropriate place for her. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that Ms. Kael is a personal hero of mine, and the piece is thoughtfully written; give it a quick read!
  • The two things I never get tired of, Black Swan and Rebecca Black’s memetastic “Friday,” have finally been combined into one horrifying/funny video. (Huge spoiler alert for Black Swan.)
  • Few directors are as eloquent or congenial as David Cronenberg, and interviews with him are always a pleasure to read. This Q&A from Macleans.ca is no exception, as he dishes out yummy details about A Dangerous Method. (SO EXCITED!!)
  • Jonathan Coe in The Guardian digs into the hazards of the literary adaptation, with special emphasis on Barney’s Version and John Huston’s The Dead.
  • The YouTube channel MisterSharp has a series of hilarious pseudo-educational videos, including “The Bizarre World of the Bisexual,” which made me laugh out loud several times and is highly worth a view.
  • For The New Yorker, Tad Friend talks about the comic genius of Anna Faris, a woman we love around these parts. (This is also probably the most praise you’ll ever hear for The House Bunny.)

We had some weeeeeird search terms! I like the rhyming and biological inaccuracy of “zit on my clit,” and of course I adore the utterly inexplicable “george w bush sex in bed.” I was kind of creeped out, not gonna lie, by “female dead hand,” but the best two were definitely “молчание ягнят,” which is Russian for Silence of the Lambs (yay international readers!) and “i dont know why they dont explodes.” I don’t know why either. Maybe someday we’ll all find out.

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We’re not hitchhiking anymore! We’re riding!

So I’m feeling really good tonight, and only slightly tired, and “hosted” a “party” in my living space, making this the first weekend I’d intentionally done anything social in a long, long time. I’m not sure what to write a blog about. I don’t really believe in using a blog as a diary – “Dear blog, today was the best day ever…” – no, fuck that. If some random person is going to search for “pussy fuckers” on Google and find me, I want to give them something worth reading. Maybe subtly alter their worldview in some way. Maybe turn them on to something new and awesome. I feel like I’ve been overusing the word “awesome” lately. But fuck it. I can overuse whichever adjectives I want.

Earlier, Ashley and I were discussing how “stealing” factors into the creative process and the whole history of fiction. It factors in heavily. Everyone steals from someone else at one point or another – that’s where artistic influence comes in. And, as we concluded, the line between influence and thievery is a thin one, but it’s there. And after all, the whole history of progress in the arts has been a matter of one person stealing from another who stole that from someone else in the first place. It doesn’t mean there wasn’t talent involved. It just means that, well, the idea or storyline or what have you was good. Beside that, consider the disconnect between content and form: you can take the same story, but one writer might make it suck, and a writer a century later might turn it into a classic.

Also in film: The Maltese Falcon was the 3rd adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel, and the best. Dracula has been filmed innumerable times – did Murnau, Browning, Terence Fisher, Werner Herzog, Francis Ford Coppola, Guy Maddin, and more just not have better ideas and have to steal from Bram Stoker in order to make a good movie? Of course not. But the story is a damn good one. Similarly, everyone loves to make their own version of Hamlet. Is it because there aren’t any other ideas? No, but this idea works really, really well. I’d elaborate on this but I’m getting slightly sleepy and the deeper thoughts are just not coming.

Watch this first, or the following analysis will make little sense:

"Space Madness"

In case you’re unfamiliar with it, this is the “Space Madness” episode of the cartoon Ren & Stimpy, first broadcast in 1991. Recently, for whatever reason, it popped into my head that I consider “Space Madness” to be a genuinely important, meaningful, and well-made piece of cartoon art, and I want to talk about it for a little while. This is what I was thinking: certainly, everyone acknowledges that paintings, music, books, and even film can be great art. So why not a 10-minute episode of an animated television series? In his interesting book Planet Simpson, cultural critic Chris Turner describes how he considers The Simpsons at its peak to be the equal of just about any comedy produced in the 20th century. So, I figured, why not Ren & Stimpy? I feel like I could watch this episode again and again without any decline in enjoyment. It does so much in a medium that is expected (by idiots) to do nothing more than keep kids distracted, one half-hour and fuzzy animal at a time. Ren & Stimpy has the fuzzy animals, but everything after that obliterates expectations: the chihuahua Ren is, as I was saying to Ashley, as neurotic as Porky Pig and as sociopathic as Daffy Duck.

(Chuck Jones cartoons are, in fact, one of Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi‘s great influences; others include Tex Avery, the Three Stooges, and Kirk Douglas – this makes more sense when you consider Ren’s breakdowns in light of Douglas’s acting style. It’s a peculiar quirk of pop culture that should lead this great but often scenery-chewing actor to have such a hold on Kricfalusi, who probably grew up seeing his movies in the ’50s and ’60s.)

Ren Höek, the asthma-hound chihuahua

Ren is a compellingly irrational, violent character, usually on the brink of madness, as likely to give Stimpy a kiss as a smack across the face. Ren has some deep emotional problems, especially for a dog in a “children’s cartoon.” He’s also hilarious. I just love the writing for this show; it’s always so right on. The non sequiturs don’t seem forced or unoriginal, but often have a strange power of their own. Consider: “I’ve had this ice cream bar since I was a child!” This bizarre dialogue inserts vague hints of pseudo-Freudian trauma into Ren’s disturbing madness. This episode really is the blackest of comedy – it’s funny, yeah, but it jokes about a horrifyingly rendered descent into insanity, as well as the erasure of all existence. It’s simultaneously very scary and very funny.

Stimpson J. Cat

Then we’ve got Stimpy – innocent, trusting, and voiced by Billy West who I’m sure you know as Fry in Futurama. Stimpy is the Curly to Ren’s Moe, the Elmer Fudd to his Bugs (if Bugs were more deranged and less self-aware). While Ren upsets every single fucking paradigm in the cartoon – both the fuzzy animal imagery and the space opera setting – Stimpy buys in completely. He’s the unsuspecting dupe (although he often casually reveals that he suspects everything). I just love how this cartoon undermines everything. Looking for animals bonking each other on the head? Yeah, you’ve got it. Except that the violence is the product of an often sad, even abusive relationship. The interpersonal dynamic here is completely unexpected – maybe I’d compare it to Laurel & Hardy, but with a darker, meaner edge. On the other hand, “Space Madness” also subverts its sci-fi setting: we get superficial suggestions of exploring the cosmos, but during the course of the episode, the cosmos only form a surreal backdrop to Ren’s declining mental state, a space to get lost in. Instead of finding a menagerie of extraterrestrial life, they find themselves crushed by the depressing emptiness of it all. It’s like Treasure of the Sierra Madre in space. The depths of the universe turn out to be just as boring and ennui-ridden as anything Ren and Stimpy encounter here on earth.

And if you want existential crises, we’ve got the scarcely believable final segment, in which Ren puts Stimpy (to distract him) in charge of the “History Eraser Button,” whose only purpose is to compel Stimpy to press it (with some prodding from a not-exactly-objective narrator, of course). It’s Pandora’s Box all over again, but instead of releasing evils into the world, it erases all of history. And Stimpy presses it. There’s no happy ending or rational resolution. No positive outcome of any kind. In 90 seconds the cartoon goes from Sisyphean futility to hopeless annihilation. The last words are “Tune in next week as…” and then, well, everyone disappears. Including the pictures of Ren and Stimpy in the show’s logo. It’s a total reversal of the typical serial (space opera or otherwise), since now there is no next week, and never will be. Everything has been undone with the press of a single button. It’s startlingly grim, and I think it’s probably a major reason why I think this cartoon is so great. I think the ending’s absurd bleakness is comparable maybe to Dr. Strangelove, but few “funny” works of fiction dare to go down the path of ultimate destruction. Maybe there’s comedy in the ending’s sheer audacity and in its upsetting of the standard “last minute rescue” we’ve come to expect, but mainly I think it just leaves a funny feeling, an emotional void. What happened? Why did it happen? Is all of history even erased? Hell, this may just be a fictional universe (with pretty anarchic sensibilities to begin with), but nonetheless, the prospect of history being erased – and in a universe into which we’ve invested part of ourselves by enjoying the show – is pretty daunting.

"We'll meet again"?

I could probably go on like this for quite some time, but it is half past 4 am on a Saturday morning (which, in my opinion, is a great time to watch “Space Madness”). I could discuss the cartoon’s unique visual style, with regard to the grotesque close-ups, the spaceship (which seems to be a Rube Goldbergian hodgepodge of gizmos and thingamajigs), and space itself. The more I think about and watch “Space Madness,” the more I love it. It reveals new artistry and ideas with every viewing.

“The only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad.” – Salvador Dalí

“It is not I who am crazy! It is I who am mad!” – Ren Höek

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