‘Some good in the world’

Years after finishing Deathly Hallows for the first time, this conversation still wends through my mind:

‘Are you planning to follow a career in Magical Law, Miss Granger?” asked Scrimgeour.

‘No, I’m not,’ retorted Hermione. ‘I’m hoping to do some good in the world!’

hermione

Before the atrocity known as The Cursed Child came out, Hermione’s plans and career was a rather emotional topic of conversation for me. I remember a particularly charged exchange with a friend, wherein I asked ‘How on earth did Hermione survive after school?’ I was going through a bit of a rough patch in ‘the real world’, having found it not as hospitable and accommodating as I might have hoped. ‘Merit’, hard work, perseverance—none of that seemed to count here. It didn’t matter that I worked well, I thought; the road to whatever I wanted was long and hard and filled with obstacles, and some people had the power to get over them more easily than I did.

‘Hermione would never have been happy outside of school,’ I remember saying. ‘She was too good at it.’

Hermione was and is my model of what kind of student, nay, the kind of person I want to be. She’s intelligent, compassionate, and incredibly intuitive. She’s able to grasp concepts, really get at the fundamentals, in a way that not many other wizards seem to; she’s loyal and not afraid to get her hands dirty, or put in the time to get a job done. As I mentioned in this post, she’s incredibly brave as well, taking on a world she knows nothing about, with no safety net in place to catch her, for the sake of her best friend, love and the ‘rightness’ of her cause.

Such a person, I was sure, would inevitably be let down by the world outside of her school. She was too smart, too fair-minded, to want to thrive in a world of nepotism and red tape, ridiculous rules and drudgery. Unlike the far more officious Percy, who seemed to worship authority almost for its own sake, Hermione was not afraid to question and call out things she found wrong. It may have begun in Divination class, when she scoffed at Trelawney’s predictions of doom, but it was certainly in full force by Order of the Phoenix, when she not only helped start the DA under Umbridge’s nose, but uttered the now-infamous line: ‘I mean, it’s sort of exciting, isn’t it? Breaking the rules.’

tumblr_mv6u29LvyC1s9q9dro4_250

So when she talked back to Scrimgeour in Deathly Hallows, and scoffed at his question of her entering the law, it made a lot of sense. Of course Hermione would have no time for wizarding law, which kept house elves in slavery and endorsed segregation between ‘beasts’ and ‘beings’. She’d seen the law misused enough in just six years of being part of the magical world: Hagrid being carted off to Azkaban as a ‘preventative’ measure, Sirius’s lack of trial, and the exoneration of Lucius Malfoy being key examples. Not to mention, she had literally rebelled against the Ministry in school. Why on earth would she ever decide to go into that hellhole, when she had the whole world open before her? Surely she’d go onto some illustrious research career, I thought, and change lives, curing dragon pox, Neville’s parents, and rehabilitating house elves and other ‘marginal’ elements of wizarding society on the side.

Among the more ridiculous elements of Cursed Child was this, I thought—the revelation of what Hermione actually did after school. We don’t know how it happened, but somehow, she ended up not only running for Minister of Magic, but winning the position. That she won was not the confusing thing; it was her deciding to do it at all.

I tried to expunge it from my memory, like most of Cursed Child. Hermione would never have sold her soul and gone into politics! I told myself. She saw how corrupt it all was. She knew, even after Voldemort was gone, that the Ministry did not change overnight. Of the trio, Hermione was always the most grounded, the least likely to proceed on feelings and idealism alone. She weighed and measured every decision, at least when she felt she had the luxury to. Defeating Voldemort, of course, was a little beyond the scope of the normal, and so she’d thrown her arms up and gone along with Harry’s lack of a plan, while furiously preparing for any eventuality that might result (see: her beaded bag).

downloadBut then, as they say, life happened. I realized it was actually totally of a piece with Hermione’s logic for her to go into the belly of the beast. Hermione was careful, yes, but she never shrunk back from a challenge. Hermione did not rush blindly forth on the strength of feelings alone, sure, but she also never agreed or submitted to anything, or anyone, she felt was wrong. Hermione was smart and capable and scornful of those who believed they were better than her, simply because they were richer or prettier or had ‘purer blood’, but she was also willing, and more than ready, to work with those she respected and cared for, and had never, ever abandoned a friend, or a person, in need.

Surely this Hermione, someone who had saved the wizarding world with her smarts and talent, who’d started a society that was the butt of her friends’ jokes and championed a cause few would support—this Hermione, when she saw the problems of the world she’d chosen to defend, would roll up her sleeves, flick out her wand, and get down to solving them. And what better place to do it from, than the heart of power?

Hermione was on my mind when I read about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the many more like her, young women who are stepping up, around the world, to take charge of a political system that’s historically worked against them. Hermione is on my mind when I read about Reese Witherspoon, or Priyanka Chopra, or other women in the film industry, who, sick of waiting for good parts to be written for them, have opened new streams down which ‘overlooked’ stories can set sail. And Hermione is definitely front and centre when I look at my own female friends, many of whom are doing and will do incredible things, whether that’s braving the courts and corporates, crafting art for a variety of media, or teaching the next generation of Hermiones and Harrys and Rons just how to go about defeating their own Voldemorts.

To them, and to Hermione, salút!

#Dragonprivilege, or Daenerys as female role model

‘I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.’

dany1

Daenerys “Stormborn” Targaryen, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoyner, and the First Men, Breaker of Chains, the Unburnt, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Mother of Dragons, ‘Mhysa’ and Queen of Meereen, has more accumulated more titles in her quick and brutal rise to power than most long-reigning lords of Westeros. She has built, lost and regained armies, won over barbarian hordes, freed thousands of slaves and killed quite a few of their masters. She has done all this without the aid of a husband, despite being propositioned every few months by a new aspirant for her hand.

Daenerys-Targaryen-Profile-HDDaenerys (I’m going to call her the much simpler-to-type ‘Dany’ henceforth) is considered remarkable.in a universe where patriarchy is near-unquestioned, where a woman’s role is basically to provide children and/or sexual pleasure. Women in Martin’s world need to be experts at manipulating others and their circumstances in order to achieve even the slightest measure of power or independence, and here I’m speaking only of those from powerful families. If you’re one of the smallfolk, life is much rougher, no matter if you’re a man or woman.

So it’s no wonder that Dany is considered to be the series, and the show’s, blazing icon of feminism. She routinely blasts apart the power structures put before her, breaking the bars of cages built to contain her and her ‘children’—structures and cages usually put down and maintained by men. In a recent episode, she literally destroys the patriarchy of the Dothraki, burning down the temple that houses the gathered khals as they insult her and threaten her with rape. Recently, again, she got astride a dragon and destroyed an army sent against her by the (you guessed it) male masters of Yunkai and Astapor. Her power is bound up in her identity as a saviour, ‘mother’ figure: her superpower is her children, the dragons, and her soft power comes from the freed slaves devotion to her, or so we are supposed to assume.

But I wonder, after so many seasons of watching her destroy things, march towards victories that no other character in the series can boast of, is Dany still an inspiring role model for women? Isn’t she a bit too, I don’t know…super powered?

“How dare you, madam!” I hear the knives being sharpened. “Are you implying that she is too powerful? Are you saying that a woman is only inspiring if she is fighting from a position of weakness, and not obvious strength?”

That’s not what I’m saying at all.

Let me put it this way: I will not deny that watching Dany storm the patriarchy and burn down things makes me, both as a fantasy fan and one who happens to be a woman, happy. I like knowing that she has made this incredible journey, from scared little girl in thrall to maxresdefaulther brother, to a powerful badass Queen who makes those epic-level statements. But maybe because I’ve seen her do it time and again (it’s been six years of burning down establishments), I’m not as ‘Woohoo Dany!’ as I was before. Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that she does these things not only because she is smart and determined, but also because she has powers that few in her world do.

Dany has dragons. No matter how she might have tried to shut them away, they are as much a part of her as her fire-proof skin. Dany didn’t triumph over the khals because she outsmarted them; she triumphed because she, unlike them, could survive blazing infernos. Dany won over the Dothraki by playing their game, proving herself unconquerable and thus earning their mingled respect and fear. Dany won over Slaver’s Bay in the same way: she paid for the Unsullied, and then unleashed her wrath via dragons. She then intimidated Yunkai into letting go their slaves, and finally, conquered Meereen thanks to her soldiers sneaking into the city, and riling up factions to assist her in her takeover. Now that her dragons are grown, it seems unlikely that anyone with a ‘normal’ army is going to be able to bring her down.

dany fire

Dany has dragons. And that places her at a power level that few people in Westeros can reach. I would say that at this point, her only worthy rival is, maybe, the Night’s King.

Since she’s at this exalted, almost superhuman status, I can’t quite see Dany as a ‘woman’ first. She’s obviously a hero. She has faced great trials, yes, but where she is now is a position of seemingly untouchable, unassailable dominance. She’s not a flesh and blood woman so much as a mythic figure, an Athena, or Mother Mary, if you will—one of those figures who is venerated and raised so far above the hoipolloi that you can’t point to them and say ‘Be like her’ unless you want to give your girl impossible standards. So while she’s an icon for feminism, in the sense that she fights for a society of equals, rich or poor, man or woman, she may not necessarily be a relatable good model for women.

But the other women of Westeros, they’re all equally, maybe even more, amazing than Dany. Arya, Melisandre, Catelyn, Margaery, Cersei, Sansa (my beloved), Gilly negotiate the brutal patriarchy of their world in varying ways, and manage to achieve their ends. Whether its using their sexuality (Melisandre, Cersei, Margaery to a certain extent), their position as mothers (Catelyn and Cersei), employing their perceived weakness to their benefit (Sansa) or just busting balls old school style by joining the boys’ games and playing them better (Brienne, Arya, Asha/Yara), these women navigate within and best the system in whatever ways they can, seeking to live the life they are given on their terms. They don’t have fire proof skin. They don’t have infallible magic, and they don’t have dragons, but that doesn’t stop them from getting what they want.

margaery-and-sansa-house-tyrell-35788280-5000-3327

Plus, they’re so fun when they scheme together.

Dany can afford to blast and burn obstacles out of her way, but these women cannot. They must negotiate them, use their wits, their skill sets to do so. Of course, due to their (by and large aristocratic) backgrounds, they have advantages that small folk women do not, and we see in both the books and the show how the latter are brutalised, their lack of power stark (Ros is a powerful example in the show). Westeros is much like our world, you see. While problems are universal, a person’s level of exposure to them varies.

Dany is so elevated above this mass of womenkind that she can no longer be said to belong to them. Once upon a time, she did. But not anymore. That’s beautiful, and hopeful, and she is definitely an icon, but she is not a relatable one. Not all of us have #dragonprivilege, but we can be plucky, and resolute and determined and smart the way so many of the other female characters are. And so I’d choose Asha, or Sansa, or Margaery as my role models. Dany, I love you, but you might just be too hot for me.

dany gif

The Importance of Being Hermione: Part II

Image

(Part I of this post can be found here)

Hermione Granger is not a prize to be won. Hermione doesn’t go to the boy who ‘deserves’ her. Hermione is Ron’s consolation gift for not being the hero. The only reason Hermione doesn’t end up with Harry is because Rowling figured out the ending way before she actually finished the series and hadn’t anticipated how much her characters might change. Hermione and Ron would never have lasted because they were the perfect example of a corny, unrealistic romcom couple. Hermione and Ron is the relationship everyone dreams of in high school but no one gets because, let’s face it, they are just way too different. It was so brave of Rowling to not dump Hermione with the hero; she broke so many conventions!

Disconnected though they are, these are statements I’ve heard being hurled during the Hermione/Ron and Hermione/Harry debates. I’ve made clear which side I am on (in the first part of this post), and in this, the second half, I’m going to try and justify this stance. Mind you, things might get a little icky and personal, so feel free to scoot out of here before they do if that makes you uncomfortable.

Recently, I discussed the Rowling Revelations (this is what I’ve taken to calling her interview with Emma Watson in Wonderland Magazine) with a fellow fantasy fan. He was quite adamant about Hermione being too good for Ron, stating that the only reason I didn’t agree with him was because I wanted Harry for myself and viewed Hermione as potentially greater competition than Ginny. I both agree and disagree with him. Yes, I might have wanted Harry, and yes, being more like Hermione than Ginny in many ways, I might have anticipated greater threat from her (if she wanted him in the first place) simply because I don’t underestimate myself when it comes to making attempts to get what I want. No because, honestly, I do think her relationship with Ron is an important part of what makes her such an appealing character and, ultimately, makes her such a shining beacon of unconventionality and hope in a genre otherwise sadly lacking in strong, relatable female protagonists.

Hermione and Ron have far from the most romantic relationship in the series. Their ‘courting’, such as it is, is limited to half-hearted flirting, some classic comedic misunderstandings and half-spoken confessions. In keeping with their less-than-central status, there are no protestations of ‘Always’ and golden afternoons by the lake or ‘we could have had months, years even’. And yet, despite this, they have long been my favourite couple.

An astute person once told me ‘I suppose that’s a human tendency, to want what we cannot have.’ In real life, I venerate crazy, intense, complicated relationships, which sap energy both emotional and physical. I suppose I have taught myself, based on whatever I’ve seen of fantasy heroes and their love lives, that to be considered ‘great’ and ‘true’, love must be passionate, it must be sacrificial, come under attack from society and, above all, it must hurt. Anakin and Padme, even Rand and Min or Arwen and Aragorn—they all go through so much emotional trauma and societal disapproval and whatnot to be with their loved ones. If I can’t emulate them in the grander aspects (i.e. saving the world), surely I can ape them when it comes to this, a much more achievable category.

But the problem is, in most of these relationships, what we are usually presented is the male perspective. When we do get the girl’s outlook, it’s (arguably) more muted than the boy’s, less loaded with Fate and Destiny and other such heroic terms. True, Arwen is the one making the big decision to give up her immortality, but since Tolkien’s book has privileged Aragorn’s story all along, the shoehorning in of her regret and loneliness comes a little too late to make much of an impact.

This is, perhaps, a casualty of being the hero or central character’s love interest. So if Hermione had gone down that road, gotten with Harry, this would probably have happened to her. She would have been forced to wane a little bit, so that Harry, the more ‘important’ of the pair, shone. Look at what happened to Ginny, if you want proof.

But I think Hermione herself as a character required someone like Ron. Hermione is a very ‘intense’ girl, as Rowling admitted. She’s smart, driven, emotional and, more importantly, she takes things very, very seriously. Hermione seems to view life as something of an exam; she must do well at every turn and those things she is not good at, she often tries to ignore or excise. In fact, Ron and Harry see this part of her and refuse to condone it, encouraging her to play chess (one of the few things she does not do very well) because they think it is good for her ‘to lose’ on occasion.

For someone like Hermione, a personality like Harry’s would have been quite a disastrous match. Harry is, like her, a very intense, focussed sort of character. He takes his quest and heroism seriously, he drives himself to crazy lengths to ensure that things get done in the ‘right’ way, often ignoring other people’s feelings in the process (his confrontation with Remus comes to mind, as well as his break-up with Ginny). Hermione, unlike Ginny, takes Harry’s moods seriously, cowering back when yelled at, leaving him to stew in silence when she does not know what exactly to say to him. Ginny, on the other hand, is capable of simply shrugging off Harry’s tantrums. Unlike Hermione, she doesn’t seem to get very fazed when things don’t go the way she planned, and for someone who is as volatile as Harry gets to be in the second half of the series, this is an ideal trait in a partner.Image

Like Harry, Hermione needs someone who can calm her down, whose ability to live in the moment offsets her own need to plan obsessively. And that, really, is Ron’s forte. Being the most grounded of the trio, in some ways, Ron has an ability to loosen the others up, to distract them from the doom and gloom that surrounds them. This is part of his role as ‘comic relief’, but it also makes his descent into metaphorical ‘darkness’ all the more hard-hitting in Deathly Hallows. Above all things, Ron is loyal and able to put others before himself with an ease born of growing up in a large family. Harry and Hermione do not have this ability to efface themselves. Ron can fade into the background and still be Ron. If Harry or Hermione did it, they would most likely be seen as selling themselves short or only accomplish it with great psychological turmoil.

Especially Hermione. Imagine her not being the best at something, or being applauded for her accomplishments. Nope, not happening.

Rowling admitted that Hermione, being an ‘uptight’ girl, needs someone ‘who takes life, or appears to take life, a little more lightheartedly’. Being such a star herself, she needs someone who can support her, be there for her without being scared of either being eclipsed or distracting her with his own emotional needs.

When I was in high school, my friends would joke that whoever I ended up with would be a glorified errand boy, fetching refills for me while I penned bestselling novels. I protested, of course, saying that I wanted someone with a little more ambition than that. I wanted a fantasy hero (well, don’t we all?), a Harry perhaps, or an Aragorn: someone who had a noble quest to fulfil. I never thought about what their love interests actually went through, and it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I realized how very difficult, if not downright impossible, it is to put myself second in a relationship, to agree that, yes, my ‘hero’s’ work is more important than anything I might want to accomplish, at least for the moment. It’s only now that I see how few women there are in fantasy who appear able to do what they want without their significant other creating a big hue and cry about it and making things difficult for them. And I think this sends a very wrong message to young readers everywhere.

You don’t understand how much your reading has affected you until you find yourself adopting those lessons in your life. Not that many people can actually see it happening, not many people realize how much of what they’ve been taught filters into their everyday. I think I was lucky enough to see it, and perhaps it’s not too late for me to shrug off those lessons. Professors have been parroting things about ‘received wisdom’ and ‘gender conventions’ in literature for ages, but honestly, it’s only now that I’m learning just how very ingrained and hard to shake those lessons are.

And that’s why I think Hermione is super important. Hermione and Ron get together in the middle of a war, rather spectacularly flinging their regard for one another in Harry’s face (despite his yelling at them to concentrate on the quest at hand). Hermione and Ron show an impressive ability to work together, combining Ron’s instinctual grasp of magic with her book-learning. Hermione and Ron balance out one another’s weaknesses and strengths. Hermione and Ron do all this without either of them losing their individuality in the process, or being told (explicitly or implicitly) that what one of them wants is not as important as what the other has to do. Both are equally heroic, both will have to work hard to make their relationship last, but both show that yes, you can be fantastical world-savers while being crazily in love and in the field together.

And never, ever forget that it was, really, Hermione who made the first move.