In 1997, J.K. Rowling introduced the world to a female character who loves to learn and doesn’t care who knows it; who is proud of how smart she is; who doesn’t allow being a minority to stand between her and success; who is always true to herself.
That character is Hermione Granger.
Some Harry Potter fans think that Hermione is given short shrift in the books. That she deserves more attention, or better treatment as a character, because she is much smarter than any witch or wizard her age and often leads Harry to the solutions he needs. The thing is, she is a perfect secondary character in this story because her studiousness is a part of her. She’s not martyring herself, cultivating her intelligence just to help Harry. Whether she’d met Harry Potter or not, whether the Dark Lord returned or not, Hermione would’ve still had her nose in a book for seven years and would probably still have figured out a way to find more time in the day to take more classes. Because she thinks classes are fun.
The story of the Harry Potter books, besides the inevitable showdown between Harry and Voldemort, is Harry realizing that in order to get through this life, you need friends. “No man is an island,” as it were. If this were the story of how Hermione Granger learned to be more studious, and eventually that careful study brought about the death of the Dark Lord, then I would agree that Hermione deserves more attention, but that’s not what the story was. Both Hermione and Ron were missing pieces for Harry, and Harry is the hero because he learned how to incorporate them. That is the journey. So I don’t agree that Hermione deserves better treatment or more attention, because I think she is strong exactly where she is. I think that saying that she’s not presented “strongly enough,” because she’s helping Harry without getting appropriate recognition does her character a disservice. Hermione would be the first to tell anyone who makes that criticism that she is simply doing what she always did best. She isn’t trying to be a hero, or be better than anyone else. She’s just being her best while helping her friends in the process. That is powerful.
So, she’s not the hero of the story. What of the journey her character does make?
Hermione is not like the other girls. She enjoys studying. A lot. She comes to Hogwarts insanely prepared, having already read many of the required books as well as “extra reading.” Since studying is her priority, she doesn’t have her look together yet, and when eleven-year-old Hermione is introduced in The Sorcerer’s Stone, she’s described as having a “bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth.” She enters Harry and Ron’s train car on a mission — to help find Neville’s frog — but when Ron tells her they’ve already told Neville they haven’t seen it, she sits herself down at the sight of Ron’s wand, and asks to see what magic he can do. (When she’s older, she’ll look for a different kind of wand/magic from Ron. Oh! But seriously, he’s the first of the two she talks to and takes interest in. Foreshadowing, much?) When his spell to turn Scabbers yellow fails, she says “Are you sure that’s a real spell? Well, it’s not very good is it?” She then proceeds to spew a torrent of words about how thrilled she was to get an acceptance letter to Hogwarts, considering that no one else in her family is magical; about all the books she’s read and knows by heart; about how Harry should really know more about his place in wizard history; and about what she’s discovered about all the Hogwarts houses.
It’s the male reaction to her that makes the depiction of her geek girl-ness all too real. Ron, at the end of that first encounter says, “Whatever house I’m in, I hope she’s not in it.” Since the narrative speaks through the prism of Harry despite being in the third person, Hermione is described as having a bossy voice. Yet, when you look at what she’s actually saying, she’s not being bossy at all. She just knows things, and encourages them to know things, too. She doesn’t come from a place of superiority. She comes from a place of assuming that everyone is as interested in the things she finds fascinating as she is, and is surprised when they are not. She is also the kind of person who will go from train car to train car being her outspoken self to help a shy boy find his frog. Hermione speaks her mind, because she doesn’t yet know that she shouldn’t. Sadly, outspokenness from a girl is often considered off-putting to eleven year old boys.
Where she is an inspiration and role model to young geek girls, rather than a mere representation of one, is when she refuses to change in order to make boys (or anyone else) like her. By Goblet of Fire, Hermione has fully come into her own. First, she expands her interest in the wizarding world beyond the theoretical when she takes up the cause of the House Elf and forms S.P.E.W, the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare. She sees injustice, and does something about it. She is a voice for those who can’t speak up for themselves, whether they be House Elves, her friends, or shy kids who’ve lost their frogs on the Hogwarts Express. Hermione speaks up and speaks out even when it makes her unpopular; even when people (including her best friends) find her annoying. Her convictions don’t waver. This is likely a product of her being a constant victim of prejudice for being a “mudblood,” the derrogatory term for a witch/wizard not from a magical lineage. Hermione’s response to not coming from a magical background is to work twice as hard to be a great witch, even in the face of negative opinions perpetuated by peers like Draco Malfoy. What’s amazing is that, in addition to working hard to advance herself, she also tries to inspire others to better themselves. She doesn’t have a chip on her shoulder about her non-magical background, but it has certainly instilled in her the sense that no one should be denied access to liberty and learning based on their social status in the wizarding world.
And then there’s the Yule Ball. The point in the series where we watch Hermione begin to experience a familiar plight. She, like many geek girls, has mostly male friends, which makes sense when her interests are less stereotypically girly and more in line with interests that are typically male-dominated. Yet, rather than see these interests as an asset and be fighting over her, Harry and Ron pine after “girlier” girls — Harry for Cho Chang, and Ron for Lavender Brown later in the series. Just because Hermione isn’t a “girly-girl,” however, doesn’t mean that she isn’t a girl and doesn’t want to be seen as one, and it is for this reason that she accepts when Victor Krum, the handsome, Bulgarian quidditch player, asks her to the Yule Ball. She says as much to Ron when they fight about it later. Insulted that Ron had only asked her to the Yule Ball as a last resort, she says that that Krum can see her “like a girl” when Ron can’t.
However, her relationship with Victor is short-lived. When he asks her to go to Bulgaria with him, she politely turns him down. A big part of it has to do with her feelings about Ron, but I suspect that a bigger part has to do with the fact that Victor doesn’t really know her. Victor is attracted to her, sure, which is a novelty and why she attends the Yule Ball with him, but he doesn’t know her well enough to know how outspoken she is, or how much she loves to study, and Hermione is not the kind of person who would want to be with someone who didn’t appreciate that about her.
By the end of the series, after countless moments where Hermione’s intelligence has saved them, Ron comes to do just that. Hermione and Ron have feelings for each other the entire series, but it’s when Ron falls in love with the fact that Hermione is smarter than he is that he truly falls in love with her. Meanwhile, it is Hermione’s ability to see the strength in those who are seemingly weak that allows her to fall in love with Ron. She sees his strength of character and his loyalty, and she is smart enough to know that intelligence and wisdom don’t always have to do with books.
Yet, even as Hermione grows as a person, the core of who she is stays intact throughout the entire series. She doesn’t change so much as become more herself. Whereas Harry has to learn to be the kind of person who can ask his friends for help, and Ron has to learn to be the kind of person who values an intelligent, outspoken girl, Hermione is validated. From her very first scene on the Hogwarts Express, she is someone who is smart, outspoken, and helpful. Over the course of seven books, she becomes more smart, outspoken, and helpful.
Hermione Granger teaches us that geek girls win when they stay true to themselves. Thank you, Ms. Rowling, for allowing her to do that. This minority geek girl appreciates it.
Teresa Jusino is Hermione Granger by way of Luna Lovegood. She can be heard on the popular Doctor Who podcast, 2 Minute Time Lord, participating in a roundtable on Series 6.1. Her “feminist brown person” take on pop culture has been featured on websites like ChinaShopMag.com, PinkRaygun.com, Newsarama, and PopMatters.com. Her fiction has appeared in the sci-fi literary magazine, Crossed Genres; she is the editor of Beginning of Line, the Caprica fan fiction site; and her essay “Why Joss is More Important Than His ‘Verse” is included in Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon By the Women Who Love Them, which is on sale now wherever books are sold! 2012 will see Teresa’s work in two upcoming sci-fi anthologies. Get Twitterpated with Teresa, “like” her on Facebook, or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.