“The truth is that you don’t think a girl would have been clever enough!”
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
Everybody holds dear to them a character they encountered as a child who they connected with and for millions of people, the Potter generation, that character was Hermione Jean Granger and her creator, J.K. Rowling.
20 years on from the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Hermione’s influence as an unashamedly clever, forthright and loyal character can still be felt in popular culture. This influence is never stronger than when we consider the actions of the actress who portrayed Hermione, long before any of us knew what her character might achieve across all seven books (and a play), Emma Watson. I cannot believe it has been 20 years since the literary world was changed forever by a woman, her incredible imagination and the iconic world and characters she created.
On my eighth birthday I was presented with a copy of Harry Potter at the Philosopher’s Stone, a book a girl I had befriended on a family holiday recommended to me. I was dubious – up until that point most of my reading had been every single Animal Ark book. However, something about Harry, Ron and Hermione captured my imagination as a child and I was instantly desperate to live in their world. Yes there were three headed dogs; the ever-present threat of global genocide and a mean boy with blonde hair but the world of Hogwarts has never failed to appeal. Hermione’s intelligence, eagerness to learn and complete lack of fear when it came to being classed as a know-it-all was inspiring. It reassured me that girls, no matter their age, looks or magical ability, could be excited to learn and proud to know things. I’m not saying that in the 1990s young girls were encourage to be quiet, sit at the back and learn to darn socks for their future husbands, but there was, and often is, always a niggling sense that girls should be a little more dainty when it came to expressing their opinion, or a little more reticent when answering questions. Hermione didn’t feel any of these things; she carried on, proving her worth as the “brightest Witch of her age”.
There has always been more than a touch of female empowerment about the tale of J.K. Rowling herself. Being told that Harry Potter would not appeal if children saw the obviously female name, Joanne, on the cover and adopting “J.K.” by way of appearing ambiguous to potential young readers. Publishers must have had a decent amount of proof or anecdotal experience that female authors were less appealing in order to suggest this but equally it is surprising to think of the latter half of the 1990s still holding such sexist opinions.
“We do not need magic to transform our world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already. We have the power to imagine better.”
I cannot express how much of an influence Harry Potter in its various forms has had on my life, and how important J.K. Rowling has been as a guide, a teacher and a solace when need be! Our school assemblies would regularly include a reading from Harry Potter, my bedroom walls were plastered in quotes, posters, house crests, my notebooks included an entire Hogwarts school timetable for my alternate life as a Hufflepuff student. As I grew into adolescence I used these books to guide me through everything from revision to grief, and I felt part of the world. I attended midnight launch parties, film premieres and everything in-between, along with thousands, if not millions of others across the world who were all desperate to feel a tangible link, somehow, to the characters and woman who had brought them to life. There is no understating how powerful Harry Potter has been.
When it comes to the movies side of the Potter franchise, playing Hermione to a salivating audience of pre-teen girls and boys must have been a daunting prospect when one realised quite what was going on. Emma Watson had the expectation of a million imaginations on her shoulders at just ten years old. She was thrust into two roles, the bold, brainy Hermione and the confusing and intimidating position of ‘role model’.
So after over a decade playing Hermione it’s understandable that Emma Watson wanted to remove herself from the character that had bound her for better or worse and explore new areas, and new haircuts which was a surprisingly powerful move on her part! However, on 20 September 2014 she embraced the bookish, confident traits of Hermione and gave the now iconic HeForShe speech at the UN.
“I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men and, unattractive.”
Emma Watson – HeForShe Speech at the UN
It is never hard to find a man, or woman, who thinks feminism is outdated, misplaced or ignorant in the Western world today. So many things divide us, and it is very easy to dismiss Emma as being a wealthy, famous, white woman whose troubles cannot compare to those of the developing world, women in ethnic and religious minority communities, the LGBTQ+ community, poor women, women with little or no education all of these struggles that exist across every inch of our world. It’s true, how can she, or I, or the majority of people who may read this, identify or accurately empathise with each and every struggle of each, unique person on this planet? It’s not possible. However, Emma Watson, J.K. Rowling and dozens of other public figures have chosen to use their status and power to speak out, to encourage change and above all to start a conversation.
If you’ve ever read a paper, or a comments section, after J.K. Rowling has said something in defence of human rights, or Emma Watson has made a speech, a video or simply left a book on the Underground you’ll know that there is always someone ready to tear them, or anyone down. Of course they are not perfect and I’m not suggesting they are, but it has been consistently important to me, as a child dreaming of Hermione, as a teenager looking up to J.K. Rowling and now, as an adult, standing alongside Emma Watson to see these women want, need, and ask for change. They are not perfect, we are not perfect and the world is far from perfect, so why attack someone hoping to help?
“How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?”
So, 20 years since we first met these characters, and with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child now bringing us yet more insight, brilliant quotes and an even more powerful Hermione (#KeepTheSecrets) I cannot help but say an enormous and heartfelt thank you to J.K. Rowling, Hermione Granger and Emma Watson for everything they have done over the last 20 years to educate, empower and excite me and millions of others.