Gendered representations through speech: The case of the Harry Potter series

In this paper Dr. Eberhardt (2017) looks at the way gender is represented in the Harry Potter series (the books) by comparing the verbs used to report the speech of Harry’s two sidekicks, Hermione and Ron. She found that even though the words used to report their speech are largely the same, subtle patterns revealed negative gender stereotypes.

Background

There is a really popularly held notion that gender determines the way we speak. Luckily, sociolinguists don’t really follow this line of thinking anymore. Instead they ask how gender and identity interact with a bunch of different of aspects. Unluckily, outside of linguistics, this Men-are-from-Mars BS is so popular that it has seeped into to the subconsciouses of even writers like J.K. Rowling who are attempting to create feminist characters.

And guess what, Eberhardt points out that men and women pretty much use language the same way. Also this fun feminist-side-note, did you know about the semantic degradation of female equivalents of word pairs? And not just word pairs, but also their collocations? And maybe not just in English? It’s a thing. For example, spinster is negative, but bachelor isn’t. It’s called perjoration and it’s interesting. Look it up.

So we can say that language is used to reinforce tired stereotypes, but it’s not language alone because language is culture. So if language is continually depicting women as meek, emotional, or say, shrill (right?), it’s because we’ve all bought into it as a language community.

And as far as children’s literature goes (which btw Harry Potter is despite the number of adults who also enjoy the series), gender representation has a huge impact on how children learn gender-specific behavior. When I was a voracious young reader, I learned I should barely hold back tears, cry out desperately, stammer, and say things breathily to be a proper girl.

No shade on Rowling who wrote a beloved series, created compelling characters and story, and made a massive contribution to culture. However, she has been repeatedly criticized for her failed attempt to create a feminist character. Almost twice as many men are mentioned by name in the series than women¹, some² contend the books reinforce the patriarchy, and others³ think JK’s attempt at gender equality is superficial.

The How of it all

The entire set of seven books comprises a corpus of 1.1 million words. Eberhardt looked at all the times Hermione and Ron spoke and checked out what verbs were used to describe their speech. As it turns out, Ron has only a smidge more reporting verbs (2154) than Hermione (1937). However, only Hermione: cried, shrieked, ordered, and screamed and her neutral speech is described differently.

Unique verbs

A closer look at the verbs that were unique to Ron and Hermione revealed that all but one of Hermione’s unique verbs are stereotypes. They’re either high-pitched fear or sadness slash helplessness. Ten points if you can name three from each category (key at the end). Ron’s are either loud (bellow, roar) or emotionally distant (mumble, grumble, grunt). Ron shouts and yells, Hermione gasps and snaps. He mutters, but she whispers. So ya, they’re both super reinforcing of stereotypes.

When a character uses cry for a magical incantation, it suggests that the spell was performed in a loud,emotional, high-pitched voice. Ron only does this once. Hermione uses it 37 times for both spell casting and, more frequently, for emotion. This frequency increases throughout the series. So boys are angry and loud and girls are increasingly upset as they mature and become sexually viable.

Another way to look at the reporting verbs in the novels is to check out which verbs both Hermione and Ron share, but which, like cry, are used different amounts. Eberhardt found that both characters suggest and demand but with inverse frequencies. So he demands more than twice as much as she does and she suggests twice as much as he does. Probably because men are assertive and women are cooperative, right?

Modified speech

Apart from their unique verbs, Eberhardt also noticed a difference in the way their verbs were described. Not only is Hermione’s speech described in more detail than Ron’s, but she also has fewer neutral reporting verbs like, say or ask. Ron’s modifiers show his knowledge, but the modifiers Hermione gets show her feelings and her feelings are often negative. She gets angry, fearful and sometimes says things seriously.

For example, in a heated argument Ron’s speech is reported with said alone, but Hermione’s said is modified by her voice unusually high. Ron’s speech was also reported with loud, violent words like hurled at, and shouted while Hermione’s speech was reported with cry.

In this way we may infer Ron’s emotions from context, but they’re clearly not as important. The same goes for Hermione’s intelligence, she is ostensibly the most knowledgeable of the crew, but that is not as important as her emotions, which get described in detail. Is this in-depth description of Hermione’s emotions a part of the way we feel entitled to scrutinize and judge women’s appearances, voices, and actions? You tell me.

So?

Hermione and Ron are mostly the same, but the areas where they are different are interesting. Are the differences due to their genders or are we to believe that Hermione is just one emotional young woman independent of stereotypes? Maybe if the verbs of the other characters were also examined, we’d find that many more male characters cry and shriek and many female ones mutter, but since the results so closely align with gender stereotypes and the findings of other studies, maybe not.

Also, Eberhardt points out that this binary pattern (Hermione is emotional and Ron rational) supports the theory that women are one thing and men a different thing and presents this belief to young minds. For all the good Rowling’s does in creating a feminist icon, she undoes by instilling this stereotypical ideology in impressionable minds.

Read this article if you’re a sociolinguist bish, a language and gender bish, or a witchy bish.

Key to Hermione’s Unique Verbs

High pitch fear: 

  • scream
  • squeal
  • shriek

Sadness/helplessness: 

  • squeak
  • wail
  • whimper

 

Eberhardt, M. (2017). Gendered representations through speech: The case of the Harry Potter series. Language and Literature,26(3), 227-246. doi:10.1177/0963947017701851

²Dresang, E. (2002). Hermione Granger and the Heritage of Power. In The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon(p. 211).

¹Heilman, E., & Donaldson, T. (2009). Representations of Gender the Harry Potter Series. In Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter(p. 139).

³Yeo, M. (2004). Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Feminist Interpretations/Jungian Dreams. SIMILE: Studies In Media & Information Literacy Education,4(1), 1-10. doi:10.3138/sim.4.1.002

 

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2 Comments
  • Reply
    Tara
    March 28, 2018 at 3:36 am

    done some small work like this with picture books and fairy tales with students never thought about it in regards to Harry Potter. Thanks for sharing these studies!

    • Reply
      Kaylin Wainwright
      March 28, 2018 at 3:23 pm

      That’s great you are raising awareness with young learners about these patterns. What grade do you teach these days?

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