Defying Stereotypes, Defining a Role
Most consider it common knowledge that the world would not function well if it was made only of men. The same idea exists for a world made entirely of women. In the real world, a constant need for both strong men and women exists. Still, this need often fails to carry over to literature. Damsels in distress plague books as male characters act to save the day. Other times the female character plays the role of an object placed in the plot with the sole purpose of satisfying the man’s desires. Yet, J.K. Rowling breaks those stereotypes in her novel Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. She understands the need for strong characters and finds the time to establish diverse characters – both males and females. They each carry a pivotal role in the book and the outcome regarding the plot might differ without them.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban follows the story of Harry Potter, along with his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, during their third year at Hogwarts, a school for wizards. The year begins with the news that an accused mass murderer, Sirius Black, broke out of Azkaban (the prison for wizards) and is hunting down Harry. The entire plot focuses on Harry learning more about his family’s past while trying to figure out how to deal with evil in the present day. The book contains a variety of characters each with their own unique personality. These characters build the plot and allow for the defeat of potential evil.
Harry Potter lives in a world slightly overwhelmed by men. A majority of the characters that Harry befriends or interacts with are male. It’s not a female who finds herself as his best friend but rather Ron. Male teachers including Hagrid, Dumbledore, and Lupus prevail as Harry’s favorite teachers. Even his main enemies – Malfoy, Black, and Voldemort – are all males. In fact, the entire story revolves around a male main character.
Despite the fact that males rule the story, the plot refuses a definition by only male characters. Rather, characters like Harry and Ron remain far from stereotypical. They accept their differences and use their weaknesses to defeat evil. Still, some male characters succumb to stereotypes in multiple ways. The Weasley twins – who act as some of Harry’s closest companions – rarely fail to fill the role of comic relief. Even their defining line, “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good”, shows how they constantly find themselves in trouble after sneaking out of the castle or pulling another prank. The reader enjoys following their miniature storylines because they’re stereotypical, funny, teenage boys. Unfortunately, other characters fail to act as funny. Malfoy rather fits into the stereotypical school bully role. He constantly taunts and ridicules Harry and Ron, especially after Harry faints on the train because he is frightened by a dementor (a dark and scary guard from Azkaban). One time he pokes fun at them by saying, “did the scary old Dementors frighten you, too, Weasley?” (Rowling 88). This scene exists uniquely to show two unique characteristics of this novel. One, that Harry and Ron act not as stereotypical strong main characters but rather as young, average boys. They find themselves frightened and weak sometimes, even to the point of fainting. This quote also shows that the male characters occasionally fall into the overused role of a playground bully.
While the male characters of this novel tend to slip into their stereotypical roles, the female characters contrast this by breaking through the norms of society to play an important role in the novel. Female characters exist in a critical role, offering advice and help whenever needed. They’re not the damsels in distress but rather heroes. For example, Professor McGonagall serves as one of the smartest teachers at Hogwarts. She stands up for her students but also pushes them to succeed. Likewise, Mrs. Weasley acts as more that just a mother to her children. She works to protect Harry from evil while raising a herd of her own kids plus more that drop by occasionally like Harry.
To add more to the depth of female characters, Hermione prevails as the character that breaks the most stereotypes. Described as intelligent, brave, and caring, Hermione defies expectations. In most pieces of literature, female characters find themselves forced into a secondary role with the sole purpose of satisfying the male. Yet Hermione stands on her own and rarely relies on a man. She finds her own success to the point of reaching the top of her class. This success allows Hermione to perform as the only student able to take more classes than the schedule allows, something only possible with a time turner – a device that allows one to travel back in time. Everyone around her agrees that “[she’s] good, but no one’s that good. How [is she] supposed to be in three classes at once?” (Rowling 98). Yet Hermione breaks stereotypes and proves that she deserves this chance. Professors allow her to take on all of these classes because they trust her more than other characters, including male students. Hermione finds herself beyond the role of a dumb girl. She portrays brilliance, showing her ability to make her own place in the plot.
Even with the unique characteristics of the female characters, some similarities remain that they share with male characters as both genders play defining parts in the plot. Characters of all genders possess the opportunity to prove themselves at Hogwarts. Girls and boys alike act as House Prefects, Quidditch players, and stellar students. Despite these similarities, a few differences remain easily distinguishable between male and female characters. One of the major contrasts is found emotionally. Hermione falls into a more easily upset role by the outcome of events than the boys. They fail to understand where she is coming from and she rarely understands their point of view. After an argument with Hermione about her cat, Ron finds himself in a dreadful situation where he is nearly attacked by Sirius Black. Following this near-attack, the boys only show anger towards Hermione, still bitter over the previous argument. But Hermione finds herself “really upset, she was, when Black nearly stabbed [Ron].” Sometimes it seems unreasonable but “[Hermione’s] got her heart in the right place” (Rowling 274). To the boys it looks like an overreaction on Hermione’s part but in her opinion, she is concerned for their well-being. Rowling works in a common difference between males and females (the way they react emotionally) to build a strong and compelling plot that the reader connects to.
The individual characteristics that every character, both males and females, possess consequently affects how they treat other characters. In turn, this treatment of others plays a major role in the forming of the plot. Malfoy, a stereotypical bully, treats Hermione and the professors with a large amount of disrespect. When he complains about Hagrid’s teaching style, Hermione – a strong and diverse character – “got there first – SMACK! She had slapped Malfoy across the face with all the strength she could muster” (Rowling 293). Normally boys stop Malfoy but Hermione proves them wrong by acting as the only one brave enough to stand up to him.
Not all of the interactions between the male and female characters happen as poorly as the one between Hermione and Malfoy. In fact, multiple times the two genders work together to achieve a common goal. Ron often watches Hermione’s back and when she obtains an overwhelming workload, he volunteers to help so she “won’t have to do all the work alone this time.” Many characters like Ron and Harry treat girls with respect and realize that girls bear the same capabilities as males. Ron understands Hermione’s ability to complete all the work but wants to help her anyways because he knows it remains the right action. Hermione shows her acceptance of the help when she “flung her arms around Ron’s neck and broke down completely” (Rowling 292). The male and female characters share a need for one another and this realization dictates how they treat one another.
While the effects of how characters treat one another add detail to the story, the plot makes the book complete. To break stereotypes once again, female characters ultimately help save the day. Obviously Harry Potter remains the true and intended hero of the story but the female characters play a vital role. Dumbledore knew Hermione acted as a necessary component in the saving of Buckbeak (a magical creature sentenced to death after being falsely accused of attacking a student) and eventually Black as he instructed knowing that “if all goes well, [Hermione] will be able to save more than one innocent life tonight.” She “know[s] what is at stake” and lives up to the challenge (Rowling 393). Hermione receives the time turner and the instructions to work it. Without her, the chances of traveling back in time and saving Black and Buckbeak halt.
Each character – both male and female – plays a necessary role in the plot. Without a character, the story potentially ends completely different. Harry lives as a vital player in the fighting of Voldemort. Ron and his rat act as a necessary connection to the discovery of the past. Buckbeak, the creature needed in order to save Black, ceases to exist without his owner Hagrid. Even seemingly useless characters like the bus driver play an important role. Without a bus driver, Diagon Alley and Hogwarts remain only a dream destination for Harry. Female characters like McGonagall and Hermione make traveling back in time an option for saving the day. Rowling proves that every character, whether large or small, stereotypical or unique, male or female, plays a crucial role. Without them, the entire plot potentially collapses.
In the wizard-filled world Rowling created, every character holds the chance to break stereotypes. Each individual acquires unique characteristics that define them and how they interact with other characters. Everyone plays a critical role in shaping the plot and in the end, not only stereotypical boys save the day. Rather, the characters that defy society’s norms – including females – defeat evil and resolve the conflict. Each character plays a pivotal role in the book and the outcome regarding the plot chances change without them. If only the characters could jump of the page and break stereotypes in the real world. Maybe then people would realize that everyone plays a defining role in constructing a story and saving the day.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Scholastic Press, 1999.