NOTE: Just to clear up some potential confusion that the comments on feministing pointed out – I now believe that the movie’s portrayal of Hermione is a valid one, that even serves a noble purpose (chipping away at the idea that pretty girls can’t be smart.) This post was intended to take the reader through the thought process that was sparked by my anger at Hermione’s increasingly more glamorous presentation in these films, and ended in the conclusion I just mentioned. I apologize if that has not been made clear in the original text.
That said, I still wish we had more average-looking role models in film – its undeniable that the media sets up a nearly unattainable standard of beauty for young women, a standard I deeply resent but by no means blame Watson or the Harry Potter movies for.
I’ve spent quite a few days now, since seeing the newest Harry Potter movie, in a bit of a snit over Emma Watson and her portrayal of Hermione.
Its not that Watson isn’t a talented actress, she is; nor is she unappealing in any way. Actually, Watson is perfectly qualified to act the part of Hermione and perfectly lovely as well which, in a way, was my issue. Watson is undeniably pretty, beautiful even, and for awhile now I’ve been mad that the hair-and-makeup crew, the producers of the movie, even Watson herself did nothing at all to hide that fact. Nothing at all in spite that fact that Hermione is supposed to be the smart one of the trio, the talented and ambitious one… not the pretty one. (Obviously I am aware that she can be intelligent and pretty at the same time but, over the course of these books, a major part of Hermione’s character has been her almost constant rejection of beauty rituals which is why when she did something like straighten her hair for the dance with a potion it was a notable event and caused the reader to really think about these rituals and why we do them. Movie Hermione is just sleek haired, made-up, and highly fashionable all on her own without comment. Something I still maintain is out of character.)
Then I read this:
“A number of reviewers have been particularly put off by the lovely and lithe Emma Watson, who plays brainiac Hermione, complaining that her good looks make it impossible to accept her character’s nerdy persona. It’s as though we live in a society where women aren’t supposed to be sexy and sharply intelligent at the same time–oh wait, we do live in that society. […] But both the folks crying foul and salivating over Hermione’s good looks ought to go back to the source material and feel thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
JK Rowling may not be perfect in terms of writing gender roles, but she does a great job illustrating how Hermione’s intellectual assertiveness blinds the men around her to her growing attractiveness. In the fourth book, when Hermione dresses up in a gown, the boys who are her best friends literally don’t recognize her because they’ve de-sexualized her. That’s why Hermione’s blossoming, and the other characters’ eventual acceptance of her as both brilliant and womanly, has made her into a patron saint for girl geeks around the world who want to be proud of who they are without being pigeonholed as asexual.”
I’ve been making Hermione something she was never intended to be; the heroine of my awkward and unattractive (at least in my own mind) adolescent self – someone not pretty, like me, who still had friends and had value as a person, who even found love all while not being a knockout.
In all honesty its been a long while since I’ve read the books so I can’t say, with any accuracy, what Rowling may have intended or not intended for us to think about Hermione’s looks. What I can do, however, is ask myself: why does it matter so much? Why am I so attached to my image of Hermione as a perpetually purposefully average looking, bushy-haired teenage girl?
Rowling broke major ground in terms of preteen and teenage girl’s self esteem – giving them a role-model who can be both intelligent and visually appealing. My problem with the movies exists because that specific insecurity didn’t apply to me; as a small girl who preferred books to people quite naturally for a long time it never occurred to me that hiding my intelligence was a tactic that could make me more appealing to the peers that I found myself isolated from.
I always thought my status as the outcast was about the way I looked. I hated my legs, my stomach, my hair – random parts of my slim adolescent body. I was convinced that if I just had a more curvy figure, or boobs, curly hair, knees that didn’t look so weird, the clothes everyone else had… if I just looked like them they would like me.
That’s why I identified with Hermione right away – she was always reading, obsessed with her work, she had bushy hair and big teeth… in short, she was both smart and unattractive just like me, yet somehow she also had the close relationships that I could not seem to grasp throughout middle school and Jr. High School.
Eventually I grew out of my awkwardness and found myself some close friends, some confidence… but inside, well, the old insecurities still die hard.
I’ve been ranting about this topic quite a bit in my real life lately, beginning my complaints with the absence of Hermione’s trademark bushy hair and continuing from there, becoming more and more incensed as I run out of textual inconsistencies and move into my own perceptions of Hermione. Yet, in spite of all my ranting, no one seems to share my anger, my disillusionment… and quite rightfully so; their Hermione is not necessarily the same as my Hermione, as part of the beauty of a book is that we all paint the same scenes in our own way.
I understand their reluctance to share my anger about Hermione but, at the same time, I see my anger and the makeup/wardrobe/etc. choices that caused it as symptoms of a larger problem. A problem rooted in our society’s values, rather than in my own head.
“I don’t want to watch a movie with unattractive people,” a friend of mine who is very much a feminist responded in the wake of my angry rants, just yesterday. “Even Snape is cast to look more attractive than he is,” she added quite reasonably.*These statements made me even more angry, at first, but in the end they are the statements that eventually drew me away from my irrational anger to reveal the true source of my frustration: the way we often value beauty above all else, almost universally, as a society (especially so when we are considering the value of a woman, but still true in terms of men.)
I have become very confident, perhaps even slightly cocky, as I’ve grown into a college sophomore. I’m smart, a good writer, a good friend, passionate, entertaining, compassionate… I’m a pretty awesome person, and I know it… yet the mirror remains my achilles heel. On the best of days I can stare myself straight in the eye and know I have value, both for my inside and my outside; furthermore, I have fun shopping for clothes and dressing myself in ways that make me feel both confident an attractive. On my worst of days I can spend hours staring at everything but my eyes (my protruding stomach, my frizzy hair, my substantial thighs…) before collapsing into a pile of tears, usually onto my boyfriend or a friend – people who always seems to know how to build me right back up.
Don’t get me wrong, I am endlessly grateful for the support I have from family and friends… the support that has allowed me to love myself as much as I do today. Yet at the same time I am infuriated that something so randomly assigned and unrelated to the core of my self can bring me down in the way that it does again, and again, and again. Furthermore, I am both saddened and motivated by the fact that I am not alone in this weakness.
Awhile back a commenter on my blog responded to a post I made about the beauty that everyone possesses with this:
“As for the body acceptance movement, it’s the same sort of stuff moms have been telling their kids for millennium (”You’re pretty in your special way, sweetie”). Children need this kind of unconditional praise maybe, but an adult woman who needs this kind of coddling seems like a whiny sad sack. Part of growing up is being able to come to terms with the fact that gifts aren’t distributed evenly–some of us are smarter, more talented, more athletic, richer and, yes, more beautiful than others. There is something childish and self absorbed about all this fretting over images of women who are better looking than us.“
While I would never put it as harshly as this commenter, there is some truth to be found in there. People come in varying degrees of intelligence, varying degrees of athleticism, and so on… right down to varying in terms of beauty; yet all too often we see teenage girls and boys, or even adult men and women, collapsing in the way that I all too often do – paralyzed by our dissatisfaction with what we see reflected in the mirror. Much more often, I believe, than we see people feeling similarly pained about a lack of intellectual ability, athletic ability, communication skills, and so on…
Beauty, at least in the world I’ve grown up dealing with, is a form of power almost universally accepted and desired. As one writer aptly explains:
“Studies show attractive students get more attention and higher evaluations from their teachers, good-looking patients get more personalized care from their doctors, and handsome criminals receive lighter sentences than less attractive convicts. […] Plain people earn 5 to 10 percent less than people of average looks, who in turn earn 3 to 8 percent less than those deemed good-looking. […] According to Dr. Gordon Patzer, who has spent over three decades studying and writing about physical attractiveness, human beings are hard-wired to respond more favorably to attractive people. Even studies of babies show they will look more intently and longer at prettier faces.”
I choose this article (aside from the fact that it makes use of legitimate research to make its claims) because its not all bad news; according to the author of this piece, “hiring managers say it is the appearance of confidence they find attractive, not the presence of physical beauty. And they contend that attractiveness has more to do with how you carry yourself and the energy you exude rather than having perfect features or a great physique.”
Attractiveness-boosting confidence aside, its undeniable: the sting that comes with being considered average looking, or even downright unattractive, in a world that takes beauty into account almost every step of the way.
In the end I want to live in the world that it appears Rowling tried to sculpt through her writing; a world where, pretty ugly or in between, Hermione (and everyone else) is judged on the contents of her character, rather than her reflection in any mirror.
I don’t quite yet know how I’m going to get there yet** but I know where I’m going and, for now, that’s enough.
* These arguments, incidentally, also bring to mind my boyfriend’s anger over Slughorn’s transformation from a portly mustachioed book character who quite resembled a walrus, to a trimmer and clean-faced on-screen professor. “I wanted to see a fat man with a mustache,” he had complained after the movies had ended. A valid but quickly forgotten complaint as he moved on to other issues he found in the film. (My friends all love to pick apart these movies in relation to the books for fun.)
** Just like our Trio has no idea, at the conclusion of this latest film, how they’re going to go about finding all of the Horcruxes – or even what the Horcruxes are… another movie plot hole, but that’s not something for me to tackle here :)