Mined from the notebooks, Friday, April 22, 2016. Posted Sunday morning, December 18.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story hit the theaters this weekend. You might have heard a little about that. Our plan was to see it yesterday but the weather outside and weather inside under which Mrs M was under kept us home. Next week. But Rogue One with its female hero Jyn Erso reminded me I’ve had a post kicking around in the notebooks about the female heroes in the Star Wars saga and the Harry Potter adventures…
One heroic witch.
Gave this Vox article---Every semi-competent male hero has a more talented female sidekick. Why isn’t she the hero instead?----to my Wired Critics class to read today. They all grew up Harry Potter fans so they spotted the category error right away and objected.
Alice and Julia and Quentin [in The Magicians] are the type of hero-and-sidekicks team that appears to be endlessly popular in pop culture, composed of at least one brilliant, hyper-competent woman who for some unclear reason is a sidekick instead of the hero, and a hapless, semi-competent guy who for some unclear reason is the hero instead of a sidekick. Think of Hermione Granger and Harry Potter, Wyldstyle and Emmet in The Lego Movie, Gamora and Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy. Pop culture is filled with brilliant female characters who know everything and can do anything — except save the day. They require their less-accomplished male friends to do that…
And so we have Hermione and her Mary Poppins bag singlehandedly keeping Harry and Ron alive all through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. She wards their invisible tent, brews Polyjuice Potion, and hexes Harry into unrecognizability when they’re captured — but it’s Harry who kills Voldemort, of course.”
Hermione is not Harry’s sidekick.
She’s one of the series two second leads.
It’s also the case that Harry and Luke aren’t semi-competent or hapless. They’re super-competent. Whatever seeming incompetencies they exhibit are simply mistakes they make on their way to learning to be the heroes and saviors they’re destined to be. Both the original Star Wars trilogy and the Potter books are stories of a hero’s apprenticeship. Luke and Harry goof up (Harry far more often than Luke) not because they’re incompetent but because they’re young and inexperienced. As it happens, Harry needs Hermione to save him from his own mistakes and prevent him from making others. That doesn’t make her the more competent. She just has talents and skills and knowledge he doesn’t. But it works the other way just as often, and ultimately, he proves to be what everyone’s been saying he is since The Sorcerer’s Stone, the only wizard powerful enough to defeat Voldemort.
Meanwhile, Luke hardly needs Leia at all.
Nor she him.
Luke and Leia spend very little time at each other’s sides. Mostly it’s in the middle third of the Episode IV and in that time she’s the damsel in distress not his sidekick. They spend even less time together over the course of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. They may be in the same set of movies, but they’re not on the same adventure. Luke’s adventure---his quest---it to become a Jedi, redeem his father, and restore balance to the force. He manages that with very little help from Leia. In fact, almost entirely without her even being on screen with him. Leia’s adventure is to help lead the Rebellion to defeat the Empire and restore the Republic. She manages that without much help from Luke. After he blows up the first Death Star, his contributions to her story are in the role of strong right arm. He does things for her that any good lieutenant or pilot could have done, and George Lucas made it clear from the beginning that the Rebels have many of those in their ranks. Hence, we’re getting Rogue One. It’s important to Lucas that the Republic isn’t saved by one superhero. Leia does share her adventure with Han but she’s hardly his sidekick. They’re partners. If either of them can be said to save the day, it’s Leia, who saves Han’s life twice in Return of the Jedi. And if Han seems to dominate their mutual story, it’s only because he’s played by Harrison Ford.
When Luke joins them on an adventure, rescuing Han from Jabba’s palace, he saves the three of them pretty much all on his own. They help out as best they can, which, their being Leia and Han, is heroically. But Luke does most of the derring-do and succeeds because he’s a Jedi, which is the definition of super-competent. But again Leia isn’t his sidekick. That’s R2’s role.
Hermione doesn’t get her own adventure. She has couple of subplots to herself, but for most of the books and movies she’s along for the ride on Harry’s dragon, so to speak. But Harry does need her and in a more urgent way than heroes usually need their sidekicks. She is, as the Vox writers say of all the “sidekicks” they describe, “brilliant” and she does know a lot, although not “everything”. She can’t do anything, however, and she isn’t “hyper-competent”. Partly for the same reasons as Harry can’t do anything and isn’t hyper-competent (to begin with). She’s young and inexperienced and still learning. But she is brilliant enough and more than competent enough to make up for Harry’s mistakes and failings, his personal and moral failings as well as his wizardly ones. He does need her for that. He wouldn’t succeed without her. But that doesn’t make him “semi-competent” or her potentially a hero denied hero status by the trope the Vox writers describe. There’s a reason she’s not the hero who saves the day and wouldn’t be even in an alternative storytelling world.
The reason is that Harry has her and she doesn’t have Harry.
Give me a minute.
The source of Harry’s power, what gives him the strength to defeat Voldemort, is that he has friends like Hermione. The key words there are friends, plural, and like Hermione. Hermione has few friends beside Harry and Ron and Ginny and Ron and Ginny are basically gifts from Harry and they are Harry’s friends before they’re hers, at least until Ron comes to his senses about his feelings for her. Harry has a literal army of friends. The powers, skill, and knowledge Hermione uses to save Harry and Ron in The Deathly Hallows are her own, but the only reason she’s in a position to use them to save them is Harry put her there. Without Harry, Hermione would have been one lonely witch and not very useful to anyone but herself and definitely not a major figure in the adventure of defeating Voldemort. Without Hermione, Harry would have been without a key source of his strength, but he’d have probably found someone else among his collection of orphans and strays to take her place. Dumbledore would have seen to that, if his own charisma, charm, and basic decency and kindness didn’t take care of it quickly enough.
In this, Hermione isn’t the victim of a sexist trope. She may be a victim of J.K. Rowling’s self-criticism. Hermione does seem to be a bit of a self-parody. Hermione has some pronounced flaws that I think come from Rowling’s having stared for a long time into a mental mirror. She is overly-intellectual, puts too much faith in what she reads, is rule-bound when it comes to the practice of magic and to the act of learning, and she’s vain about her knowledge and more than a little prone to self-importance. She can also be a humorless pill and a scold. Sometimes Rowling doesn’t seem to like her very much. But what she really is is a victim of Rowling’s ideas about the nature of heroism and leadership and the nature of good versus evil.
Brilliant and brave as she is, Hermione doesn’t have what it takes to defeat Voldemort. Harry does, and like I said one of things it takes is having friends like Hermione. Harry’s ability to make and keep friends and keep them close is a virtue and it makes his popularity different and more heroic than his father’s. James used his popularity to command and bully. Harry uses his to inspire.
She’s also a victim of her creator’s skill and integrity as a novelist. Magic aside, Rowling was trying to realistically portray what it’s like to grow from child to adolescent to young adult, and the process is the same and yet different for everyone. Hermione grows up in the seven year’s long course of the adventure and she grows up to be who she is which is, as it is for most people, who she was going to be all along. It’s Harry whose final character is in doubt because he’s the one we see presented with the temptation to be somebody else. That’s why he’s the protagonist as well as the hero. He might change, and for the worse. It’s the same temptation Luke faces. That’s Harry’s real triumph. He defeats his own inner villain. Hermione couldn’t do that for him, no matter how brilliant and hyper-competent she might be. Similarly, Leia can’t do it for Luke. They give the heroes reasons to resist, but the heroes must finally do it on their own.
By the way, although Hermione doesn’t face any such temptation---not that we see, at any rate---she does have temptations and maybe one day I’ll write about a major one: Harry himself. She’s tempted to throw over Ron for Harry which would be not just a betrayal of Ron but of herself because in order to be with Harry she’d have to become like Ginny, willing to subordinate her ego and her talents to his. She’d have to make herself a...sidekick. That’s why the whole camping in the woods sequence is there in The Deathly Hallows. It’s the completion of one of Hermione’s subplots.
Like I said, someday. Meanwhile…
Whatever self-criticism Rowling might have intended with Hermione, she was aware that there were a great many Hermiones, male and female, among her fans, and with Hermione she was telling them that it was not just all right but kind of wonderful to be a nerd. But...she was also reminding them that being a smartypants isn’t enough or a virtue in its own right and they shouldn’t get too full of themselves because they “know everything”.
I gave the article to my class because I thought they’d get a kick out of debunking it, which they did. But also because it coincided with another internet tempest in a teapot argument started by fanboys throwing a hissy fit over the fact that Rogue One is the second Star Wars movie in a row that features an icky old girl as its main character. If a female hero comes as a surprise to you or strikes you as a sign the Force is truly out of balance, then you missed what Lucas was doing with Leia and think of her as a sidekick or a damsel in distress. And despite the ways he failed her---the character and Natalie Portman---Padme isn’t either of those either. She’s what Rey in The Force Awakens is a reiteration of, a hero in her own right who hasn’t grown up enough yet to take over. (In this, Han is to Rey as Qui-Gon is to Padme and also what Obi-wan should have been to her if Lucas had been thinking more clearly when he wrote Revenge of the Sith.) Presumably, Rey gets the chance Padme didn’t, simply because Padme is a tragic hero and Rey a comic one.
Keep in mind I think she’s Sir Percival and Percival is the comic hero of the King Arthur legends.
All that aside, I don’t know what Jyn Erso in Rogue One will be like, but I’m happy she’s being played by Felicity Jones who impressed the hell out of me as Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Wev McEwan, on the other hand, would be more excited about it if Jyn didn't appear to be yet another restatement of what’s apparently a rule in Hollywood: There can be only one girl at a time. Here's Wev's Storified Tweetstorm (with contributions from her sidekick Mr Deeky), All the Girls, Please!