On men understanding women, or, why Harry Potter’s gender mattered

Boys don’t read books written by women, said Joanne Rowling’s publisher, and they didn’t want her first name on the book, hence the “J.K.” by which we all know her. It’s good for her that she pictured Harry as a boy, because surely the publisher would have felt even more strongly about a female protagonist. Boys, so the stereotype goes, don’t read stories about girls.

This has been a perpetual problem for “girl’s literature.” As an example, let’s take Anne of Green Gables.


This enormously popular series of books went on to inspire a terrific Canadian mini-series in 1985. As one student put it, Anne is “most plausibly aimed at a female audience,” and although I don’t have data, it’s reasonable to guess that most of Anne’s readers and viewers are female.

gus_pikeFor the TV series, however, its Avonlea spinoff was probably designed to appeal across genders – although the main character was ostensibly Sara Stanley, an orphaned rich girl sent to live with her family on Prince Edward Island, the character who really captured our hearts and imaginations was Gus Pike, introduced in the second season, the earnest, poor, musically gifted son of a rascally pirate.

A Facebook post today by author Mary E. Lowd reminded me of a wonderfully illuminating study I read back in grad school. (I read so many cool things in grad school!) In this study by psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley, high school students read a story and were asked to mark an E in the margins whenever they experienced an emotion. Using the frequency of these emotional experiences as an indicator of involvement, Oatley found that girls were more “involved” in the story than boys and equally involved with male and female characters, whereas boys were emotionally responsive only to the male characters.

One interpretation would be that girls are more empathetic, but I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s that boys are culturally discouraged from taking female perspectives, and that in our society it’s been more important for girls to understand and anticipate men’s thinking than the other way around, because men are relatively powerful. This study explains why Harry Potter, as a main character, could be someone boys and girls relate to equally; it’s been harder for boys to relate to female characters. But maybe that’s changing.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Hunger Games were enormously popular franchises, but Buffy Summers and Katniss Everdeen were both physically tough. Boys culturally caught up in what passes for masculinity need feel no shame in following their stories.

Recent developments in anime, the Japanese medium for animated film and television, may be more promising. Two of the main genres in anime are Shōnen (stereotypically intended for teenage boys) and Shōjo (targeting teenage girls). Many anime series are popular in the United States, especially Shōnen, which often include lots of action and protagonists working to improve their skills so they can help make the world a better place. Naturally, over the years, most Shōnen have been about boys and young men. Whereas shows like Dragon Ball Z and Naruto did have valued and impressive female characters, they were exceptions; most people were male. I doubt either show often passed the “Bechdel Test,” which simply requires that two female characters exist and talk about something other than a male character.

More recently, shows like Fairy Tail (about a wizards’ guild in a fantasy world) and Boruto (the sequel to the Naruto series, Boruto being Naruto’s son) have ensemble casts where the girls’ storylines are given perhaps equal weight. On Fairy Tail, both Erza and Lucy are powerful and equal (in Erza’s case, probably superior) members of their social groups, with ample screen time. On Boruto, certainly the most interesting character is Sarada Uchiha, the daughter (Naruto spoiler here, sorry) of Sakura and Sasuke, Naruto’s original shinobi teammates.

misaka_railgunAnd then there’s A Certain Scientific Railgun, in which students in a fantasy Academy City use their special powers to battle evil (especially scientists conducting experiments on students). The number of times Railgun passes a *reverse* Bechdel Test can probably be counted on one hand.

For Rowling, Harry Potter’s gender mattered financially – without the explosive popularity of her franchise, it’s doubtful she’d have become richer than the queen of England. The stakes are higher for the rest of us, however. As the philosopher Richard Rorty points out, it’s not possible to argue someone into caring about the well-being of others.

Stories, on the other hand, do offer that possibility (as Rorty agrees). And I don’t mean only written fiction, but any story about feeling beings, real or imagined. A well-told story gives others, who may be altogether different, a key to understanding. Through stories, the lives and experiences of others – males AND females AND those who don’t identify as either – can become real to the rest of us.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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2 Responses to On men understanding women, or, why Harry Potter’s gender mattered

  1. Robin Turner says:

    Maybe that’s why the Potter books became best sellers and The Worst Witch didn’t.

    One thing I liked about the Narnia books was that not only were a large number of characters female but in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Lucy is the real hero of the story. Yet they weren’t presented as “girls’ stories”, and I know as many men as women who loved them as children (and often still do). That’s not to say Lewis’s attitude to gender was always wonderful (Susan not getting into Aslan’s kingdom because she liked make-up and parties??!), just that I admire the way he almost tricked make readers into identifying with female characters.

  2. Ah, that is such a good point, and I never realized it before. Thank you! I enjoyed the books quite a bit when I was young, but when I got to his decision about Susan I was annoyed, and even more so that he decided to kill our friends in a train crash (if I’m remembering correctly) so that they could live forever in Narnia. Too heavy handed! I’d rather they’d lived out their lives and gone off in their golden years, like Sam Gamgee.

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