Harry is the hero.
He’s the guy the story is all about, after all. He’s the Boy Who Lived. He has the scar and the prophecy. He has the sidekicks and the invisibility cloak. He has the mentor. He has the tragic backstory. He faces down the villain.
Harry is the hero. It’s his face on the covers of the books. They’re called Harry Potter and the… for a reason.
Ron is a sidekick. You can’t deny it. He can’t even deny it. He trips over things and he makes faces and he provides Harry with a Normal Friend. He explains things but doesn’t always get them right. He supports. He humanizes. He gripes sometimes but other times, he’s there. He’s there when Harry needs him, mostly. He holds the team together until he goes off in a snit to explore his options, and when he does, Harry spirals for a while until he comes back.
Ron is a symbiote. He doesn’t get his own story that’s separate from Harry, not really. And sometimes he hates it, but also, he knows that it’s all there is for him. When he’s not with Harry or near Harry, his edges start to fade and people start calling him by the wrong name and he finds himself in a state of hibernation, not-quite-frozen but unable to really move until Harry comes back.
We aren’t discussing Ron right now. He’ll wait. He’ll be there when it’s time for us to get to him. He’ll be there once he’s needed.
He always is.
What are you, Hermione?
Are you a heroine? Or are you a sidekick?
Here’s the thing with Hermione: she’s always there. She’s always performing the ceaseless emotional labor that Harry and Ron require. She does the heavy emotional lifting so that Harry can continue to Hero all over the place and Ron can continue to sidekick. She is always there, even when she’s angry, even when she’s being horribly mistreated. She’s loyal to a fault, unwavering, unflinching. She’s patient.
That’s sidekick behavior.
When Harry’s not there, Hermione is busy. She’s not waiting for him. She decided at some point that it wasn’t Harry’s story, it was everyone’s story, and she acts accordingly. She’s not along for the ride.
This is something that the Harry Potter fan community has been discussing for years: Hermione drives the story because she has her own story. No one in their right mind would trust 13-year-old Harry Potter with a Time Turner, but Hermione gets one and she deserves it. She dates a celebrity, and she outsmarts Rita Skeeter, and she does those things in the background of Harry’s story. She convinces Harry to be a figurehead in the fight against Voldemort, and she creates Dumbledore’s Army. She schedules the DA meetings, she creates the consequences for DA defectors, she creates the galleons that allow the DA to communicate in code. She researches horcruxes and how to destroy them. She rereads all of Hogwarts: A History. She shows up with the tools and the knowledge and prevents Harry and Ron from standing around looking perplexed while the world ends around them. She saves everyone’s bacon all the time by being smarter and better-prepared than anyone else. Those two boys would be dead a thousand times over without her intervention.
She gets her own story, if you know how to look for it. She has her own narrative that’s completely separate from Harry’s. But does that make her a hero?
Harry is the hero, right? He stands in opposition to Voldemort. He’s suffered loss at the hands of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Unimaginable loss.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Hermione does too. She makes the same sacrifice that Harry did—losing her parents—but instead of losing them to the Avada Kedavra curse, she loses them to her own wand. She erases their memories of her. She hides them in Australia, tucks them away to make sure that they aren’t tortured for information. To make sure they aren’t tortured the same way she’s tortured later in the book.
But everyone has lost people. Everyone has missing relatives, dead brothers, inaccessible parents.
That doesn’t make someone into The Hero. Everyone’s the hero of their own story, but not everyone gets to be the hero of this story. Too many people have died in the Harry Potter universe for loss alone to bestow heroism. Too many people have lost everything. Have sacrificed everything.
Sidekicks can suffer, too.
So, what are you, Hermione?
Does anyone in the Harry Potter universe stand in more direct opposition to Voldemort than Hermione Granger does?
Voldemort stands for oppression. He stands for the fundamental superiority of blood-purity. He stands for status, not achievement. He stands for alignment, not friendship. He stands for fealty, not loyalty. He stands for a wizard’s foot on the neck of a house-elf. He stands for the sacrifice of one’s humanity in pursuit of one’s ambition.
Hermione Granger is his antithesis. She’s a muggle-born witch who arrives at Hogwarts prepared to dominate magic. She’s enormously ambitious, but consistently seeks to elevate others when she could easily let them fail. She walks beside Harry even when doing so means putting up with relentless scorn from the people who waver between hating him and worshiping him—even when that scorn is piled on top of the blood-status slurs she weathers continuously throughout the series. She stands up against a centuries-long institution of interspecies slavery, even when doing so means that everyone she cares about will laugh at her. She skips her final year of school in order to help Harry and Ron find the horcruxes, even though it could mean losing every opportunity she’s spent the previous six years working for. She chooses her causes over her ambitions every time, and she swallows the consequences because they’re worth it to her.
What is Hermione?
She’s relatable. She’s an overachiever who consistently stands in the shadow of The Hero. She pursues victory without ever receiving credit. She accomplishes and innovates constantly without recognition. She is expected to have the answers, and to provide emotional support, and to weather the foibles of others with maturity and grace. She is shouted at for daring to have her own pursuits and interests. She is shouted down for disagreeing with the person who has designated himself In Charge. She is never allowed to be tired or sad because everyone always needs something from her. She must be the best at all times, and she must never demand a reward for her efforts. She is a cypher for every ass-busting girl who has been shunted to the side of the stage while a man who yells at everyone receives a medal from the mentor who’s never seen fit to so much as meet with her.
Hermione is where women and people of color and especially, too often, women of color so frequently find themselves: pushed to the side and asked for patience.
To Harry, she is a sidekick.
To us, she is a heroine.
Top image by Frida Lundqvist.
Sarah Gailey’s fiction has appeared in Mothership Zeta and Fireside Fiction; her nonfiction has been published by Mashable and Fantasy Literature Magazine. You can see pictures of her puppy and get updates on her work by clicking here. She tweets @gaileyfrey. Watch for her debut novella, River of Teeth, from Tor.com in 2017.